Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 1, 2010: Tokyo to Victoria Via Air Canada

Today we started the day with Bill feeling sick and April continuing to feel the effects of the food poisoning and/or Cipro antibiotics. It is time to go home. We had breakfast at the hotel in their buffet format. We are not going to miss all the buffets. We feel ready to come home. We packed and reserved our seats on the “Friendly Airport Limousine” which is actually the bus we caught into Tokyo from Narita Airport. You can reserve and purchase the tickets at our hotel’s front desk and the bus will come right there. They have baggage tags and everything , very convenient. On the buses that go longer distances in Japan they are equipped with seat belts. Why don’t we have this in Canada? It would not take much money to install them and it would most certainly cut down on injuries and liability claims…

As a result of a police check on the way to the airport, traffic was backed up and it took us two hours to get to Narita rather than one hour and twenty minutes. Thankfully, we booked in a bunch of leeway time in case we were delayed (we went with the be at the airport three hours before for international travel which we have always thought is an excessive estimate, but read on).

When we arrived at the airport we tried to get in line for Air Canada check-in. However we were told we had to do the kiosk with self-printing our own boarding passes first. Then we waited in a line for one hour. We were told that one of our two checked in bags, was three kilograms over the per bag limit (even though the aggregate weight of them together was within the range). They must have really weak baggage handlers in Japan, because it was all right in Canada and all they did was put a “heavy” tag on the handle.

Our choice was to pay $100 CDN or we could re-jig our bags. We opted to rejig our bags, open our suitcases on the floor, and be asked to move while our underwear is hanging out, rather than any human sympathy or assistance granted. It is odd how airlines apply rules and regulations differently in different situations. There is no consistency. A new friend Bill met at the conference calls this the influence of the “petty sovereign.” There’s a lot of pettiness going on in the world of officious airline officials. One more reason not to fly ANA (all the check in clerks were wearing ANA uniforms). ANA is an awful airline that does not focus on customer service and extorts money out of passengers at every opportunity. I expect that from RyanAir, but not a national-level carrier. We especially thought that they would not be idiots with baggage weight when we were travelling internationally and had been gone from Canada for one month or five and half weeks as we had (and were so close to the weight! Sticklers!). We then waited for the clerk to be free again and gave her back the bags and she accepted them this time. Sheesh.

We were finally able to go to the bathroom. Then, as we were heading towards security before we made it to the entry, we were subjected to a “random” police security check (we know it was “random” because they said “don’t worry this is a random security check”). They took down our passport and phone numbers. It really sucks to be a minority and constantly harassed by the state and other officials. They had some other Gaijin held up on the other end of the corridor. When I was trying to put our passports back into my bag before we moved on they kept harassing us to move like we were too stupid to get the concept that the “random check” was over. We were just trying to make sure we didn’t lose our passports so we’d be able to enjoy future security checks.!

After checking our bags and going through security, we thought we were done with line-ups, but in Japan they have you stand in an immigration line-up before you leave, in addition to surrendering customs forms for our tax-exempt purchases to a separate customs booth before the immigration line up (which took about 30 minutes). The Japanese sure like their line-ups. I think it’s a chicken or the egg thing because they like overstaffing as well. It makes for a very inefficient way of going about life. Red tape seems to be the sinew that binds Japanese society together.

When we passed security, we had our last sushi lunch, filled up our water bottles, and grabbed a couple of soft ice cream cones. To our delight, they did not have cornflakes stuffed into the bottom of the cone—what is with the Japanese obsession with tainting ice-creamy treats into a dry cereal breakfast surprise?

Then the odyssey of the flight from Tokyo to Vancouver began. We were only at the gate just before boarding started but were able to enjoy a leisurely ice cream while the Japanese enjoyed the line-up for boarding instead.  The flight was pretty smooth but also mostly sleepless for April (Bill got quite a few hours of sleep). Then we arrived in Vancouver at 10:30 a.m. PST on September 1, 2010 (after travelling back in time 17 hours and repeating September the 1st). We had to go to a kiosk to hand over our customs declaration. The machine spat out a sheet. Then we had to go to a cashier to pay some duty. Then we had to get into a customs line up with our bags. Then we had to pass off our bags to the next leg of the journey to Victoria. Then we had to go through security again. Airport security regulations make travelling an unpleasant experience. Then we had to wait three hours for our flight to Victoria.

We were picked up by Julia when we arrived in Victoria. It was so nice to see a familiar face. After we deposited our bags at home we did a quick grocery shop and picked up the cat. We then did our best to stay awake until bedtime by unpacking and watching television. We both had periods of time where we were wide away in the middle of the night, but we both managed to eventually get back to sleep. It is harder travelling West to East than East to West. 

At Narita International Airport: Tired, but happy to be on our way home. 

August 4th to 5th, 2010: April’s Trip from Victoria to Sapporo

I left on August 4th with a 10:00 am flight from Victoria to Vancouver. As usual I had problems going through security, this time in Victoria. I was frisked and my bag was searched and it turned out I accidentally packed my small scissors in my carry on; these were confiscated and I was rebuked for my error. I then had 3.5 hours to wait in the Vancouver airport where I had lunch and admired the large fish tank and stream they have in the middle of the international departures area. There are also some boutiques to look in. All in all I’m glad I left myself extra time because my flight from Victoria to Vancouver was late leaving and arriving. It turned out though that my flight from Vancouver to Tokyo was late leaving too. It is about nine hours from Vancouver to Tokyo and I have never flown that far alone. I took sleeping pills and tried to sleep but only managed ten minutes of sleep, which is better than usual for me. I watched some TV shows and a Canadian Film Board film on vagrants with carts in North Vancouver called “Carts of Darkness.” It was quite interesting and well done. The selection of movies, TV shows, and music has really improved on international travel. The emergency row seats cost more to book on Air Canada now but they are so worth it. I will never fly without them again. Leg room.
On arriving in Tokyo I had to fill out a landing/immigration card and had to stand in line to go through immigration. There are separate lines for foreigners. There were really long line-ups but they were pretty efficiently at moving people through. I thought that they wanted to scan my eyes after my fingers on their fancy machine (something was lost in translation) so I put my eyes up really close to the screen much to the amazement of the immigration fellow. He looked at me with disbelief and motioned for me to move back (turns out it was a picture of my whole face that they were taking). As I moved me face back I noticed the webcam picture of me go from being must eyes to my whole face and felt like an idiot. This was just the beginning of my feelings of being a yokel in Japan.

I then went to collect my suitcase that made it. I stood in line for ANA only to be ushered to another place by a helpful staff person where I could actually check in. They have plenty of staff for everything in Japan and you are never left for long wondering if you are in the right/wrong place. I checked into my ANA flight and had a while to wait after I found my gate which was in the same Terminal that I landed in. Bill flew JAL so he had to change terminals for his flight from Tokyo to Sapporo. I marvelled at the fancy Japanese toilets with all of their buttons and the diagram that they had translated into English of how to use it. They had something called a “flushing noise” that I assumed was to flush the toilet (and just a bad translation). When I pressed it instead of the toilet flushing a strange canned flushing sound emitted from the toilet and nothing happened. This would be only the first of several manufactured flushing noises I would hear on my travels in Japan. Turns out that Japanese women are very shy about anyone hearing any noise they might make in the bathroom so they have this “flushing sound” to cover it. I guess maybe they used to actually flush the toilet so now they have this noise instead because it saves water (this was the sort of explanation in one of the translations in one bathroom I was in- I say sort of because often when Japanese is translated into English something is lost and it sounds like beat poetry).

While waiting for my ANA flight I had something to eat at the airport which was called a “Naan Pizza”. It was like a thin crust pizza with cheese, tomato sauce, and some mystery meat that I removed. I also had a Coca Cola. Their formula in Japan is better than ours at home, less sugar, but still not as good as the stuff in French Polynesia. The flight from Tokyo to Sapporo was delayed as well but after an hour and a half flight I made it there. I was very tired on the flight and doing the nod a bit. They gave us a tea to drink. At the Chitose airport I collected my suitcase and had to figure out how to buy a train ticket from there to Sapporo, which I eventually did. A nice fellow who worked there told me which platform and the train came in about twenty minutes or so and I crawled on exhausted for the half hour trip. I accidentally got on a green/reserved car so I was eventually asked to move by a train person even though the car was virtually empty. When I made it to the Sapporo train station Bill had told me to go out the west exit so I looked for this and when I emerged Bill was standing there waiting to usher me to the Chisun Inn (even though I was about an hour late from all the flight delays- lucky I built in a lot of extra time between my flights), which was only a five minute walk from the station. It was hot and humid even though it was 10:00 pm when I arrived. I felt ill when I arrived likely from exhaustion and the excitement but it was so nice to see Bill again.

The room was shockingly small, closet sized, but I had the best sleep that night that I had had in weeks. The other rooms we had were not quite as small but the rooms we had at the Chisun was very cheap and was a business room so they are apparently smaller than other hotel rooms (and therefore cheaper). In general though things are just a lot smaller in Japan. They provide pajamas to you to wear at almost every hotel in Japan as well as toothbrushes, razors, shampoo, conditioner, soap, and other items. The bathroom was so small that I could touch the walls with my arms spanned. A combination of melatonin to cure jet lag and help me adjust and sleeping pills to help me get a good sleep produced a strange hallucinogenic effect on me (or maybe it was exhaustion) and Bill had a time settling me down to sleep but when I did I slept like a log (and had no memory really of my hallucinations the next day). I also figured out how to call internationally from my hotel room to let my parents know that I made it. I don’t; really remember any of my conversation. What a trip! I think Bill had it better staying over in Tokyo and tackling the Tokyo to Sapporo trip fresh the next day. The way I did it though got me onto Japan time really fast I was up the next day fresh and ready to go and suffered very little jet lag though I went 17 hours into the future.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 31, 2010: Shinjukumania

Today we spent a leisurely morning in the Sunroute Hotel in Shinjuku where we are staying. We had breakfast buffet at the hotel and blogged. We left the hotel and went to the Odakyu shopping centre where we went up to the restaurant floor and found an excellent Japanese restaurant. We had a bento box that included prawn tempura, miso soup, rice, pickled things, some strange crab pudding type thing, and sashimi. We left and walked around some of the stores in the centre and walked around the viewing platform. Next we walked around Shinjuku more and admired the modern architecture. Our favourite building is called the Cocoon Building and it looks like a cocoon or sarcophagus. We tried to go up in it but only made it to floor two the rest were locked down for people who actually worked in the building.

We walked through the sweltering city heat to the Tokyo Municipal Building #1 where we went up in the North Tower. They are offices for the municipality, government, some schools, and other offices. There is a viewing platform free and open to the public taking an elevator up to the 45th floor. There are vistas all around Tokyo on top. There are maps that point out the noteworthy buildings and mountains that you cannot see because of the haze or smog. We had a dessert in the Italian café up there and admired the view, especially of the Cocoon Building.

We walked around Shinjuku some more and looked for some dinner. The flashing lights reminded us of Las Vegas but not quite the same. We had dinner at a deli place that actually was more like a trans continental cuisine place. We shared a Caesar Salad, Nachos, and a Margharita Pizza.

We walked all over Shinjuku getting lost in the side streets, marvelling over all the shops and looking in some of the department stores and strange pawn shops that actually seemed to be counterfeit goods, and eventually had a Baskin Robbins ice cream. We then headed out to a Pachinko parlour to play Pachinko. For those of you unacquainted with Pachinko it is a Japanese game like slot machines but you get a bunch of little silver balls that you then play like a pin ball machine that is vertical. It is loudy, smokey, and confusing in the place. We had a hard time figuring out how to start. It turns out you put your money directly into the machine and it spits out balls then you feed them into the machine and if you are Bill and April lose them all. The guy beside April tried to explain the strategy but no matter what we tried we lost the balls eventually and left empty handed. Apparently you cannot win money in exchange for the balls so people end up getting cigarettes, candy, or other items like cans of tuna in exchange. We have heard that there are people in alleyways willing to buy these items for money and that is how people end up getting money for them but it may be different nowadays. The book April was reading about Pachinko was written in 1975 and I have not played Pachinko since I was 3 in 1983 when it was all over candy so it’s tough to say. We walked back to our hotel around 10:00 p.m. exhausted. The temperature outside at that time was 30 degrees Celcius! It is hot.

The aptly named Cocoon Tower
Municipal Building #1: South Tower on the left, North Tower on the right.
April atop of the municipal tower
View from the municipal tower
Cocoon Tower
Cocoon Tower

Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30, 2010: Typhoon Evacuation/ A Day Unexpectedly Gained

Today is August 30—not 31st. We discovered this when we arrived at the Ishigaki airport and the clerk informed us of this fact. However, the clerk also informed us that there was a typhoon that was approaching the island and going to hit tomorrow, the actual day of our flight. She stated that if we did not change our flight that we would not make it out. As we had our return Air Canada flight on the 1st, we went with ANA’s advice and were promptly placed on the next flight to Tokyo, connecting through Okinawa.  The flight from Ishigaki to Okinawa takes one hour. The flight from Okinawa to Tokyo takes 2.5 hours and the plane has a video camera on it so you can see take off and landing which is pretty cool.
The fact that a typhoon was approaching explained the poor weather we had been having. When we woke up, it was pouring rain, and yesterday as we were snorkelling, it was pouring, windy, and very overcast. The day before that we were swimming on Taketomi island watching a thunder and lightning storm in the distance, and it also explains why as soon as we did our laundry the day before that, a mini monsoon soaked our clothes as they were hung to dry . From the plane we finally saw Mt. Fuji though it was mostly shrouded by clouds.

When we arrived in Tokyo and watched CNN we learned that there were three typhoons in the East China Sea, one of which covered Taiwan and our little island of Ishigaki, and another that was ready to hit Okinawa the next day (the CNN weatherman said that Okinawa would bear the brunt of the storm for days).

Although we did not have a hotel room booked, we decided to risk it and go to the same hotel we were to be staying at on the real 31st. Luckily, the Sunroute Shinjuku had a room, and we were given a room. We went of for Indian food and for desert tried out Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the first time.

Awesome beach weather. Ahh is that a Typhoon brewing? Oh wait maybe it's actually three typhoons colliding onto our island....

August ??, 2010: Yonehara Beach/ Kabira Bay Day Trip

Today we resolved to go to Yonehara beach which is renowned for its marvellous snorkelling. We woke up early, caught a taxi into the bus station to ensure that we caught the infrequent bus up to Kabira Bay. We took a bus ride up to Kabira Bay to check out the pearl farm.
This area was where the first black pearl farm in the world was established, before Tahiti/French Polynesia became the preeminent black pearl farming locale in the world. We were not wowed by the lustre or quality of the pearls, even the strand that cost over $100,000. Our bank accounts escaped unscathed.

After a quick lunch where we tried out some traditional Okinawan fare including Yoneyama noodles, sea grass with broth, sashimi, and strange bitter green vegetables,  we hopped another bus and took the 20 minute ride to Yonehara beach. We were there about five minutes early at the bus stop and that’s when the bus came and left. You can’t miss the beach location. Along the side of the road are a collection of psychedelically painted Shiisa (traditional lion guardian) sculptures—some eight to ten feet tall.   We looked in the store at these and marvelled at their variety and the creativity of the artist(s).  There was a workshop right there.

We headed for the beach and stopped at the change rooms on the way down. We headed straight into the water as the weather went from spitting and cloudy to full winds, dark grey, pouring rain, thunder, and choppy waves. It was okay though, the water is warm and it was warmer in the water than it was outside in the howling  wind and rain.

We initially spent about one and half hours snorkelling then we took a break. Bill built a sand Shiisa with rock eyes that was fantastic. April looked for shells and found a new area to snorkel in where a sandbank fell into a shelf with coral. Bill and April went in together. We diverged at one piece of coral. Bill was looking at a large fish. April was swimming in the other direction until a large black and white striped undulating animal caught her attention about ten feet away. It looked like a snake mixed with an eel and was about six feet long. April realized it was probably dangerous whatever it was and swam at top speed towards Bill. Bill saw her coming and realized something was wrong and headed for shore which was fortunately near by. April shoved Bill out to emphasize that we should definitely be out of the water. April described the sea creature wherein Bill responded nonchalantly that he had been reading the Ishigaki website the day before and that sea snakes were not uncommon and were apparently not that venomous on this island (this was like Bizarro world as the person who likes snakes, April, was unnerved and Bill the person who can’t stand snakes calmly recounted their antics). They  look like snakes mixed with an eel due to their flat tail. They regularly get two meters or six feet long.

After this we went to retrieve our underwater digital Olympus camera again and started snorkelling again this time in a slightly different area from the Leviathan. We saw so many types of fish and coral including the flowing blue coral, brain shaped coral, coral that looked like honeycomb, anemone, clam, sea urchin, and fish that were from electric blue, bright yellow, bright orange, maroon, rainbow, zebra, and green. It was a different world underwater. The snorkelling at this beach was as good as the best places in French Polynesia. We tried the trick we learned in Taha’a in French Polynesia and brought some banana in the water with us; we were immediately surrounded by swarms of rainbow coloured fish all wanting a bite of banana. April felt some nips at her fingertips while hairy Bill got nips even on his legs. In total we spent about four hours snorkelling with it only seeming like about 45 minutes or an hour. Bill’s swimming lessons have really paid off and he was so at home in the water even going so far as to imitate the undulations of the sea snake.  April will confess that she was looking over her shoulder for the sea snake the rest of the day almost hoping to see it again but worried at the same time. Bill did not get to see the sea snake though as it did not return. The weather turned more nasty and brutish and as we sat on the shore for a few minutes having a banana before getting changed and showering we had the whistling wind and sheet rain to remind us that typhoon season was approaching.

We started to realize only then, too late, that we were somewhat pink. How was a sunburn possible when it had been dark gray all day? We learned that the experts are right. You can get a bad burn even on a very cloudy day. This is one of the worst and only burns I have had in my adult life. Oww. Note to self: wear sunscreen when you snorkel in the rain and thunderstorms!

We went up to the road after changing and the bus came about five to ten minutes early and left with just us on it. For all their avoidance of weather and love of umbrellas the Japanese on the beach sure made the most of even rainy weather to swim and snorkel. (perhaps the umbrella rule is suspended if you are in a bath suit though we did see Mary Poppins by the water with her umbrella today . The bus was empty and it was like a private tour of Ishigaki without the benefit of commentary. We stopped five minutes later for 15 minutes at a stop and were allowed to get off the bus and look at the tourist stands where we met a very nice black cat. We also found a blended mango, ice, pastry, dough ball, cherry ice cream strange dessert to share which we had to wolf down to join the bus again. The black cat followed us in there and meowed loudly at the shop owner. Perhaps he was trying or order a mango ice too.

The bus ride into downtown Ishigaki took about one hour and 20 minutes and we ended at the bus terminal. We walked around looking for somewhere to eat and gave up and ate at A&W. It was interesting. They had nice toilet paper compared to the rest of Japan which seems to favour one ply toilet paper.  We walked around the tourist shops and Bill found an Ishigaki made shirt with the traditional weaving  paper on it. We admired the glass work and pottery made on the island and wondered how people would ever transport it home. We got caught in the rain again and of course had to have an ice cream since it was raining. This ice cream was another one of the cornflake surprise ones (they put dry cornflakes at the bottom of the cone for you to run into after you’ve finished your ice cream).  We walked back to the bus station and took the bus home. We showered and packed since we had to leave the next day or so we thought….

Bill got creative and made a sand Shiisa

Sea Snake Video Link:

August 29, 2010: Taketomi Island Day Trip and Tour

As April was beginning to feel better today, we went on a tour to Taketomi Island. It is a small island that highlights traditional Okinawan life and is a 10 minute ferry ride away from Ishigaki harbour.

We took a cab to the ferry terminal and took the tour company that was suggested to us by one of Bill’s Sapporo professors. We chose the full Taketomi Island that was supposed to take about three hours. The first part was the ferry ride to the island, followed directly by a glass bottom boat tour of the coral of the island. The glowing blue coral was especially cool and we got to see clown fish in anemone and other gloriously coloured fish and corals.

Next we were led to a museum type place where we awaited a bus tour of the island (actually a mini-van). April struggled with nauseau from the Cipro antibiotics. It was very hot. The tour of the island showed us some graveyard, one of the “star sand” beaches (we were expecting something larger than the microscopic sand they put in our hands (these star pieces were few and far between probably because they sell vats of it around the island and at the airport). We then were taken past the best beach for swimming on the island, Kondoi, so we could see it. Then onto a place where we would have a Water Buffalo Cart tour.

We waited for about half an hour and then were led out to a cart pulled by a water buffalo. We felt kind of sorry for the water buffalo who had a hibiscus attached to his horn and had to drag all of us around (not to mention having to defecate and urinate in front of us into a bucket held up by the driver- provoking some fellow at the front to dry heave much to Bill’s delight). The driver could sign and play the traditional Okinawan guitar- Shinsa. Then we were dropped off back at the place where we had caught the ride. We had  to quickly grab some Yoneyama noodles before being picked up by a “bus” going to the beach we decided to go to for swimming instead of taking in another museum.

The bus dropped us off at Kondoi beach where the sun promptly left replaced by grey storm clouds, whistling wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. We swam until it seemed to dangerous with the storm approaching fast. Then we showered and changed. Bill sat and enjoyed the grey clouds while April looked for shells and got soaked in a torrential downpour. Then we waited for a bit and pet a black and white bobtail cat before venturing over to a waiting bus to ask if he was the one that was there to pick us up (we had to pre-schedule a pick up but of course we had no watch or clock and the weather was only getting worse). He did not confirm or deny that he was there for us but instead took us to the harbour where we caught the next ferry back enjoying the stormy weather back on the short ride. We walked to the bus station and caught the bus back to our hotel where we could actually have a warm shower and some dinner. We had a good sleep.

August 28, 2010

We wanted to go to a beach today but April was too sick still. It became apparent that it was serious food poisoning (it either returned or was a new batch- it’s unclear). She started Cipro antibiotics again today (thank God for Cipro! Don’t leave home without it!) and in the late afternoon felt well enough for us to walk over to the ANA resort again for some canned Shinsa music (traditional Okinawan guitar that they blast over the beach just so you’re not frightened by sounds of nature or silence) and nature free swimming. As we started swimming the clouds and wind picked up and we were treated to not just rain but also thunder. The lifeguard told everyone to come in and we sat in the rain and had a banana as we watched the storm gather. We walked back to our hotel and had dinner across the street and an early  night. We bought some what we thought was pain medication for the back at the drug store. Bill googled it and found out that it was actually a muscle relaxant used sometimes by anaesthesiologists in Canada when they operate and is what April is allergic to (pseudocholinesterase deficiency- google it- it’s rare) so Bill ended up taking this for his stiff  back. Too much swimming.