Italy Day 3: In which we escape from Venice to Florence…

I awoke around 4am, which would have been perfect for getting to the station on time for the 5:40am train. Except that, to save my life, I couldn’t get Jamie to get up out of bed. The Autoespresso wasn’t exactly the most comfortable hotel, but getting lost in Venice the day prior was exhausting. So I laid awake in bed for another two hours, and our opportunity to catch the earliest train faded.

We did gorge ourselves (somewhat) on breakfast that morning, to make up for it. However, despite the fact that trains seem to run every 30 minutes or so between Venice and Florence, every train after the 5:40 was packed up until about 2pm. A kind ticket clerk found us a complicated route where we transferred at both Bologna and Prato to arrive, finally, in Florence at about 1:47…approximately 4 hours later than I had planned.

The Florence main train station is loud and cold, because it is enclosed above but open. Many homeless and questionable people wander around, but at least the station is cleaner than some. The station is Firenze S.M.N. (Santa Maria Novella), and the bus station outside is called “Abside S.M.N.” but also by several other names, to complicate things a bit. Within an easy walk we found the tourist information center, and they gave us a local walking map and advised us to try the Ufizzi Gallery, since we only had time for one now that the trains had stolen 4 hours of our day.

We decided to walk with the suitcase and backpack, rather than go all the way to the hotel and back first. It was finally gloriously warm in Florence! I think it was only 54F, but we started shedding coat layers in the sun. The roads are uneven, you must play chicken with the cars, and sidewalks almost don’t exist. But many of the side roads were at least partially pedestrian-only, so we made our way through streets lined with old reliefs and brilliant giant wood doors with huge knockers molded like lions and angels.

The view along the river was glorious, and we were happy that we saw considerably less defacing of old buildings in Florence. People were still difficult–many stared us down rather than go around the women lugging a suitcase and young child. But the air was less thick, some of the time.

The walk from the tourist center to the gallery was straightforward enough. However, when we arrived at the gallery, we saw that they were completely packed and would be inaccessible until the next day. Fortunately, they had many beautiful statues nearby, so we were able to enjoy some of the splendor of Florence even if the holidays had them overrun with tourists. We also discovered the best gelato we’ve had so far, just around the corner from the gallery.

The walk across the Golden Bridge and down that long winding road past the large Piazza was charming enough, though Aubri was getting very tired and whiny. We took note of a book/game shop and a tea shop for perusal later. Our hotel was a converted 14th century convent known as the Convitto della Calza. The bed was dreadful, and the room was understandably small. But the shower was amazing and the location was fabulous (36/37 bus stop immediately outside the door, easy walk to Boboli Gardens). We can’t speak for the breakfast because we had to leave far too early the next morning to catch the train to Rome.

After dropping off our bags, finally, we headed out for tea and dinner. The tea shop we’d seen before was also a chocolatiare. We spent some time perusing their wares before leaving with several truffles and a cup of delicious green and fruit tea. Aubri charmed them all, of course, including the Korean exchange student learning Italian while we were there.

Afterward we wandered the street looking for dinner. We settled for a place with some pasta dishes that sounded alright. Their food was overly salty and clearly more for tourists. By the time we got out of there only an hour or so later, it was getting to be after 7 and we were exhausted from all the walking. So we returned to our room, watched a few episodes of Legend of Korra, and collapsed with the alarm set for 4am…

And the next morning we are off to Rome!

Italia! Day 1: Entering Milan and Escaping to Venice…

Sorry for the long silence, but we’re back to adventure blogging with a young child–this time to Italy!

Apparently I’ve absorbed all my WordPress storage space, so I’ll have to put the photos in later.

We’re operating at a much greater handicap this trip because neither of us speaks Italian (though I know enough Spanish and other Latin variants to stab my way through most signs and menus). We had a prediction at the beginning that Aubri would steal the show, as she always does.
We also knew that depending on the system in question, most transportation and museums etc are free to under 4 or under 6. So that was a plus, at least. The exchange rate when we started out was around 1.22 usd : 1 euro.

I’m probably going to use metric and military time throughout the Italy posts so I don’t have to screw my own head back on in the actual travel.

Let me also add that it is much cheaper to buy train tickets 4-6 weeks in advance (potentially up to 30% cheaper), but I opted not to do so because it can be hard to guarantee an exact time for trains with Jamie’s deep love of sleep. As a rule, new readers will note that we pride ourselves in packing only one suitcase for the three of us, plus a backpack for electronics such as the camera and laptop. This means our luggage may be heavy, but we each have an arm free to catch the kid at all times. Said kid is 3.5 as of this trip.

First, let me say that the flight from Denver to Milan (MXP) is totally awful. Not because the individual legs are totally unbearable (3 hours and then 7.5), but because the layover (Newark) was long (4.5 hours) and that airport is dreadful. It’s loud, full 0f people not paying attention to little ones, and it took us half an hour to get from gate C92 to gate C102 because they are on opposite ends of the airport. Someone failed at counting, I’m thinking.
And we had to be at DIA by 6:30am, and it was -4F when we left the house.
But the Newark airport also had staff and employees of various kiosks who were far more polite than the Detroit airport, so that’s something. Though the Starbucks made Jamie’s coffee so hot it melted her cup and burned her hand pretty good. Aubri did befriend someone at dinner though, and Jamie got to chat four hours with a woman from China who was also headed to Milan and had more experience in Italy than we do.

That start aside, we finally made it into Milan and discovered it is also not the best airport–though several hundred dollars cheaper per person than, say, Rome or Venice (Literally about 350/ea cheaper to fly in the 31st and out the 9th). The airport is super long and you have to keep walking for ages to make it anywhere. The customs were quick though, in and out in under 15 minutes. The guy checking our passports flirted with the overly sleepy Aubri, thus already affirming our suspicions of her future as the princess of another country (See all my Japan posts ever).

We discovered our first major issue here in the airport. Apparently, train kiosks, some registers and most automated devices won’t accept a credit card (or debit card) that doesn’t have one of those new chips embedded in it. ATMs will, however, and this is still my preferred method for exchange. I use a bank that charges no exchange fees and refunds ATM fees from other banks, so I get dangerously close to the full bank to bank exchange rate with no painful overhead.

Unfortunately, there seems to be only one actual ATM in the entirety of the MXP airport, so we did a bit of hunting. Once we found cash, it was a $10/ea ticket to catch the 45-minute bus directly to the Milano Central station, where we picked up tickets for a total of 75 euro to get to Venice Mestre, where we were staying for two nights at the Autoespresso Hotel.

The station was cold because it was only about 32 degrees outside (Dec 31st) and the station acts like a giant, beautiful wind tunnel. I also noticed a disturbing number of creepy people looming, staring over other peoples’ shoulders as they bought tickets, or just getting way too close for no apparent reason. There were a lot of people in this station with a wild-eyed look and lots more carrying all their possessions with them.

 

 

Finally the train. And then there was much dozing in the next 2.5 hours. The trains are neat because even economy class is arranged around tables, so there’s a surface you can use if you need it. The luggage rack is really high up, though.

 

We chose to stay in Venice Mestre instead of Venice Proper because it’s considerably less expensive. We did not anticipate it being much harder to find the hotel (which appeared to be right outside the station, if Google Maps was to be believed). So while we got to Venice at about 13:30, we spent another hour and a half ish trying to find the place. If only we’d gone a half block further…

When we finally made it to the hotel, one part facepalming and one part wondering how Google thought it was close (it’s like a half kilometer from the station), check-in was painless. The front lady (she might be the owner?) “forced” Aubri to accept like three pieces of candy. Check two on her list. Unfortunately, their elevator seems to be an outdoor service elevator and we had to cart our heavy luggage up three full flights of stairs. Apparently they start counting floors at number zero here? They don’t do that in Japan.

The room is a bit eccentric, and has a concrete floor rather than wood or carpet.

 

After we change out of our now-two-days-old clothes, it was time to go find a way to Venice proper. By sheer luck, around the corner from the hotel is a bus stop for Route 6, which goes almost straight to the Venice station and bus hub. This stop doesn’t sell bus tickets, though, so the bus driver grouchily let us on because he was having a hard time explaining what we’d done wrong. Normally each ride is 1.3euro/person, and each adult has to have a swipe card with the charge. The ticket is validated on each ride to deduct the total from the balance on the card. These cards are sold from machines at most, but not all, stops. But we made it to Venizia after a 15 minute bus ride!

Our plan was to see the fireworks at the San Marco Basilica Plaza on the 31st, and enjoy the outdoor concert in the meantime. However, as I mentioned, it was cold. The high was about 32, and around the water it felt much colder. It was about 16:30 by the time we finally made it to Venizia, and we snapped a few pictures and browsed a few kiosks. Aubri was feeling photogenic.

 

We decided to try some dinner on for size, and a persuasive woman outside a place called Trattoria Bella Venezi (I think) convinced us to come in and try their set plate menus.

Aubri approved of their penne with salmon, and their lasagna with meat sauce was delicious. I’m pretty sure I can replicate the penne easily enough. This is why I come to other countries, to learn their culinary secrets.

 

The chicken was chewy, but tasty. Ultimately we enjoyed it immensely, but we did discover that water only comes in expensive bottled form here. 3.50 euros for ordering water, 4 euros each for cappuccinos. All told, the meal was 42 euros. I expect other parts of Italy will be a little less expensive for “cheap” menu items. The portions were also not really sufficient for sharing, so it’s fortunate that we had more than one item each. For some reason this restaurant was very slow. We were unsure at the time whether it was their style, or the style around town.
Aubri adored their whole staff and enjoyed tons of chatting with the waiters. Of course.

Also it seems like you don’t tip waiters and the like. Here’s a list of other tips I probably should have known ahead of time (mainly the coffee note).

After dinner we wandered for a while longer and tried some cheap 2 euro hot wine. We also picked up some meringues because seriously. Everyone was saying the fireworks were cancelled because of the cold, and we were exhausted. So we headed back on the same bus (which had to loop all the way around before hitting our stop), and then crashed at about 20:00. After consuming cappuccinos and the delicious meringues.
…And promptly woke up at exactly 10 minutes to midnight, thanks to jetlag and the sound of bombs (fireworks) bursting in air. For two and a half more hours…The inability to get back to sleep might have been partially due to the sugar and caffeine.
We did go down to the lobby to watch a few of the fireworks, but we could only see some of them. They were being set off very low in the sky compared to what we’re used to, and so weren’t really visible over the buildings.

So, Happy New Year! And on to Venice, Day Two…

The Process of Perception

Welcome to those of you headed this direction via the writing blog tour! Also Happy Memorial Day!

Thanks to Jennifer Kincheloe at http://jenniferkincheloe.com/ for sending folks my way.

I’m working on some cool projects right now, including a series of Business Principles for Geeks (starting with How to Run a Convention), a series about Cole Harris, the super hero psychologist, and a set of short stories retelling fairy tales as LGBT Steampunk fiction.

Speaking of LGBT Steampunk fiction, I do have a lot of Steampunk elements creeping into my writing. My best quality is definitely all the great female characters of impact. Not to brag, but I work (type) hard to develop characters with power over their own destinies, without turning them into the tomboy-man-with-boobs concept so prevalent in modern fiction. If you’re tired of the tropes, dig into one of my stories.

And why wouldn’t I write science fiction with real characters in it? Who doesn’t want to read about real people? I write to give life to the amazing people around me.

Now, let’s talk about process. Some of you may know that I write a lot of female characters–and QUILTBAG characters, and characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. My process of character development and writing comes from observation, and from perception. I hope my worlds will reflect the world I live in, if only by the characters that exist within them.

So first a crazy idea comes to me in a dream (maybe), and then I sit down and outline it. A short story under 1500 words will probably not be outlined, but anything longer than that needs to have a solid beginning->middle->climax->resolution->ending sort of pattern. So I write up an outline.

That outline usually looks a little bit like this:

Chapter 1: Kip wakes from a bad dream, realizes her roommate is missing. She leaves without saying goodbye and takes the maps with her.

Chapter 2: Kip runs into trouble with the local gangs while searching a library for clues to the past. She escapes on her bike only to be surrounded.

Chapter 3: Kip gets knocked out and wakes up in a strange place. She meets a man who claims to be part of an underground resistance. He wants her to help him.

…and you get the idea. Each step of my outline gets a little mini two-to-three-sentence rundown of what I expect to happen in that chapter. That way I can connect the dots and push through roadblocks if I get stuck.

 

Unfortunately, this long blog tour is slightly dead-ended on my side because I got on the train after all the bloggers I know were already on.

But! I hope you check out a few good reads:

There’s Josh Vogt, who has lots to say on writing and publishing process.

And then there’s Quincy Allen, who spends a lot of time honing his craft and writing about Wild West Steampunk.

And Guy Anthony De Marco, who is published all over the place.

Enjoy your travels, friends.

Women are Not Androids

This morning, as it is Revenge of the 5th, directly following May the Fourth (be with you), I was intending to post a long con recap of Starfest. But as I was getting my second cup of tea in the breakroom, I saw a ticket scroll by and tell a story that stirred something sad deep inside me, and reminded me of some conversations that arose throughout my panels this year.

Trigger warnings for rape possible in this post.

The story that clicked across on CNN was that of a rapist who pled guilty to raping a girl and got a 45-day sentence because she’d had sex before.

Let’s break this down into a totally different analogy for you. I own a home. I have grass, trees, a fence, windows. The house was built a few years ago. Let’s say someone throws a rock and breaks my window, not only shattering the glass but also clonking my 2-year-old-daughter on the head, causing her extreme pain, emotional trauma and possibly brain damage. And then the person who does that admits to a court that he did it, and the judge gives him a slap on the wrist because there was a time (during construction) when my house did not have windows. Without even taking the violence of the act into consideration.

During my panel discussions at Starfest this weekend, we covered Overcoming Barriers in Science Fiction, and Female Role Models in Science Fiction.

A very important part of this conversation revolved around female sexuality. People asked questions about whether a character who was sexualized could be considered a role model. I want to call to mind characters like Bo from Lost Girl, Inara from Firefly. This is very important. In those worlds, those women are portrayed as powerful partly because they maintain control of their bodies and the right to enjoy themselves and others sexually without being persecuted for that right. Bo is a succubus whose powers come from her ability to be a sexual creature. Kinda like a lot of women, actually, even if they don’t realize it.

Women are sexual creatures. Men are sexual creatures. Weirdly enough, human beings still like to enjoy one of our basest instincts: sex. So why are women punished even by other women for admitting to or giving into those desires, so much so that having ever had sex before is enough of a “pass” to ignore the violence and hatred involved in rape?

 Before anyone jumps in with any uneducated rants on how I’m clearly anti-life because rapists make babies, let me turn you toward this amazing article by an ex-pro-lifer, who points out that the so-called “pro life” movement is really brainwashing people to give up a really important part of themselves: the part that identifies as a sexual creature. 

I recently read a comment from a cosplayer in the community who was complaining that skirt length varied depending on who was making the costume. This (female) cosplayer seemed to imply that the length of the skirt showed the personal values of the woman wearing the costume. As though if a woman didn’t cover up enough of herself, she was unworthy of the stipulation that Cosplay is Not Consent. If the idea were true, even a little bit, that covering up stops the power-hungry Other from devouring the bodies of women and getting away with it, then there wouldn’t be rape in countries where women are forced to cover it all.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop telling our girls that it’s OK to judge each other for the sex they want to have. Am I advocating teen sexual activity? Nope. Am I advocating slut-shaming them and telling them they deserved to be raped because they’d had sex before? What kind of twisted crazy is that?

Here’s a thought. This kid is getting beat up in school. Do you tell the kid that they deserved to be beat up because they’d been hit once before?

I want to be able to talk about other big issues, but this keeps coming back. Every day there’s something new about another rape case gone awry because the victim isn’t heard. There was even this wild explosion over anti-harassment policies, new to Steampunk World Fair. Most of those explosions were by men allegedly afraid of being considered “guilty before proven innocent.” Like SPWF is taking away their personal rights by telling them they can’t rape people.

Stop telling girls they deserve to be raped like it’s your privilege to punish people with your penis.

Fastforward a bit. Guys. You should be outraged, because this is just one more case of the world relegating you to the sum parts of raping meat popsicle. Obviously you can’t control yourselves so you get a freebie. Especially if the girl is underaged and sexually active.

Now let’s talk about how to overcome this barrier. Because this barrier starts with you.

Don’t assume that because you’ve never been raped, this doesn’t apply to you.

Don’t assume that because you’re in a good relationship others are exaggerating their problems.

Don’t blame the victim. That only happens in hate crimes. No one blames the victim when their own car gets jacked. Or their house gets burglarized. Why would you blame the victim when their body gets violated, whether it’s rape or racist/homophobic violence?

Do understand that having your very core freedom–the freedom to be able to own your body and be safe within your own skin–violently ripped from you is damaging and terrifying, and that people may not be able to talk about it.

Do be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Do find someone to speak for you, if you are a victim who is afraid of speaking out.

Do realize that the victims don’t need forgiveness, they need understanding.

Do understand that the victims don’t know that they don’t need forgiveness.

Don’t give up on the people you know who have been damaged. A $20 bill is still good even when crumpled.

Don’t ever, EVER say “but he’s such a nice guy…”

Do be aware. Keep your eyes open. Look around you. You can prevent so many bad situations by just saying “Hello” when someone looks uncomfortable around the person they are with. This goes quadruple for science fiction/comic conventions.

Oh and hey, don’t be THIS GUY. If a person is concerned for their own safety, they might have a good reason.

Japan Day 17 (ish!): Yabusame and More Kimonos!

I had heard of the Japanese traditional horseback archery, called Yabusame, when we were in Japan the last time in 2012. According to all the good information it’s best seen in Kamakura, but I heard about a demonstration being done in Asakusa on April 19th this year following a parade. I talked to our host, Hiro-san, about the festival and ceremony. He warned me that I might not find it as interesting as I thought if we watched the Asakusa festival, because the tradition there was only five years old and that wasn’t long enough to get very good.

But I was stubborn, since Jamie was so interested in seeing horseback archery and our friend Hazuki-san from the northern part of Japan was meeting us to go see it. Kim-san, our Korean friend also staying with Hiro-san, decided to come along and keep us from getting lost in Asakusa.

We arrived in the vicinity of the performance at just the right time to see the entire parade marching from their starting point to the beginning gate. This was the best view we got for the entire affair.

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The samurai armored people are not archers but attendants.

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One of the archers preparing in line.

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So we shoved our way around until we found a spot where we could see the beginning of the track, at least. And then we stood for a while waiting.

The general description I see about the archery is that they should be shooting 3 arrows each, but as far as we could tell (from the sounds) they were only shooting one. So each archer (8 total I think) shot once after a big ceremony to start them off.

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This was the only female participant (and she hit her mark).

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6 out of 8 hit the one target we know they shot for…but we’re still fairly sure based on the rate at which they were riding and the way they wore their arrows that they were only shooting once.

So after that everybody pretty much left. Big crowd, lots of waiting, for just a few shots. Crazy.

On our way out for lunch we did see this guy:

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Then we went to Akihabara with our friend from up north and hit the Doujinshi stacks a little hard. We really should’ve gone to Ikebukuro instead, but at least we got some good pictures.

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And fast-forward to the Sunday night (our last night) and Hide-san dressed us up for some pictures:

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And tomorrow: Our last day in Japan, so Ueno Park of course.

Japan Day 15: Akihabara, Ikebukuro, and Nakano Broadway

Tokyo is a mecca of shopping districts, divided by subway and train lines, thrown up around major stations and sprawling like monstrous octopod extensions of the skyscrapers that house them. In an effort to find everything you seek, you may tromp back and forth, up stairs and down escelators, through the metro and across the Chuo and Yamanote lines…

So here I will give you a comparison of the super-meccas of anime/video games, because everyone has heard of Akihabara, but perhaps you have not seen or heard of Ikebukuro or Nakano Broadway–and both of those may prove more interesting and fruitful in your search.

We shall start with Akihabara, which I have covered in part on a previous post, but I’ll touch on it briefly here.

Akihabara is a major stop on the Yamanote line. It is home to Electric Town, and if you walk out of the JR Station from the Gundam Cafe side, you will see before you staggering towers with Sega, Apple, Sony etc on them. If you walk out past the Gundam Cafe you’ll find the seedy electric flea market area off a distance to your right. The area is filled with bins and shelves crammed with electric devices that might be of value to someone. Many older computer parts and lots of shops with $100 laptops that probably weren’t more than $250 new. Buyer beware, because even the cheap stuff will garner a profit. If you want cheap cables, I advise trying Amazon (if you have a Prime subscription) rather than surfing through these bins. But you might find rare camera parts, and patience will net you some interesting treasures.

Aside from this, Akihabara houses at least a dozen shops at ground level (and more higher up) that are exclusively dedicated to figures and “character goods” and cards. In Akihabara you can find a lot of the most current and popular animes and games. And that’s just about it. If it’s not One Piece or Gundam you aren’t likely to find anything older than the last couple of years. Even Sailor Moon is only around because of the reboot they’re releasing, and you can’t find much Final Fantasy or anything else around. Lots of Jpop stuff, though. The shops are fairly well split into appealing to “girls” and appealing to “boys.” And maid cafes are everywhere. Almost every building has two or three. I reviewed Queen Dolce in my last post about Akihabara, but most of the cafes target guys and involve girls in costumes serving drinks. A large and popular cafe is inside the building right in front of the station.

Akihabara is the place to spot lolitas, the place to wander around and be ignored by the cool kids. It’s the popular anime destination, but also a madhouse of teenagers, especially on the weekends.

Move on to Ikebukuro, a major stop on the Yamanote line.

Most people don’t realize that Ikebukuro hosts any anime shops at all. It has lots of big shopping right outside the station, and is also home to Sunshine City, a big shopping mall with absolutely zero geek merchandise. But it does have a large Tokyu Hands (DIY for geeks of all types, really). And if you walk straight out from the station and past the Sega sign for a crane game arcade, you’ll find the largest An!mate store in Japan (and arguably the largest anime store in the world). THIS location has a floor dedicated to each kind of interesting shopping, from the bottom floor with series snacks, to the 4th floor with doujinshi, to floor 5 with figures and keychains and everything else series related (and Kingdom Hearts/Ghibli/Final Fantasy goods galore) all the way up to the 8th floor. If that wasn’t enough, the “old” An!mate store around the corner and down a couple of blocks now houses 5 stories of cosplay goods. They only have full costumes from newer series, but loads of wigs, makeup, accessories, etc.

Dispersed between An!mate the new and An!mate the old are a series of KBooks satellite stores. Rather than renting 9 stories of a building, they have 9 main-floor shops that split out each category including CDs/DVDs, figures, character goods (like pillows,   folders, etc), manga, doujinshi, etc. And right next to the old An!mate is a store called Mandarake, with its largest Doujinshi supply (and some CDs/DVDs in the back). This place buys/sells doujinshi new and used, and loads of their titles are available for only 200jpy/ea. They are by far the cheapest supplier we’ve found.

Now, move on to Nakano Broadway, which is a very quick jump from Shinjuku Station if you grab the red Chuo Rapid toward Nakano. Walk straight out from the exit (south side I believe, turn right from the JR platforms) and you will see an arcade archway. Just walk to the end of that archway (passing a used game store on your left) and you’ll find Nakano Broadway. There are anime stores on every floor, but the best stores are on floors 2 and 3. Be careful, though, because the escalator in front of you will take you right to the third floor.

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Now there are also some cheap clothing stores and other things around here, so it’s a good place for bargain shopping. The stores tend to be a little dusty, and there are antique shops studded throughout. In the very center of this mostly-geek mall is a super high end watch shop. Weird.

If you’re looking for the new stuff, this isn’t the place to search. But inside you will find a vintage movie poster shop, something like 8 Mandarake satellites catering to doujinshi, figures, games, DVDs/CDs, character goods etc. Loads of Mario and Disney goods (some made in Japan, lots of Disney imported back from the U.S.). Lots and LOTS of toys. You have to search the whole place to find the right bargain, but there are also several suppliers of antique robots and things of that nature. An entire store dedicated to Kaiju (Godzilla).

The storefront of the branch of Mandarake that is filled with expensive antique robots–it might as well be a museum.

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And an awesome ice cream shop.

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But it’s not all innocent, because this vending machine next to the ice cream shop vends *coughcough* panties and vagina-shaped sheaths. Yes, really.

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But then all the doujinshi…

 

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There is a super cool game store on the third floor filled with games older than my parents maybe, and gold copies of everything. They have more reasonably priced vintage games in the back, but everything in the front case is at least $60, and more likely $250.

There’s also a big cell and drawing auction store up on the 4th floor, with some neat stuff from Full Metal Alchemist among others.

Nakano Broadway does have a few downfalls–aside from the fact that most of what it carries is not totally new, some of the shop owners are not overly fond of foreigners. But even in the late afternoon it was much less crowded than Akihabara or Ikebukuro, so we could mostly shop in peace. That’s definitely an improvement.

Oh, and there’s this place called Uogashi Nihonichi down in the arcade (it’s a chain). It’s a standing sushi bar, and one of the best sushi experiences I’ve ever had–the prices are really good too. Give it a try.

Tomorrow I’ll cover Shinjuku in its entirety, as well as our experiences in a wholesale kimono shop.

Japan Day 14: Matsumoto Castle

Our host family brought out a book with beautiful pictures of an ancient Japanese castle that is still standing and in good shape. Matsumoto Castle is a National Treasure of Japan, and located in the Nagano prefecture. Since this was our last day for our JR passes, we decided to go.

The direct line train between Shinjuku Station and the Matsumoto station only leaves once an hour, on the hour, from (currently) track 9. The train takes just over 2.5 hours and is the most direct route.

A long ride…

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So that means it took us about 3 hours to get there, and since we missed the 10am direct, we had to catch the 11am. Around 1:40PM we finally pull into Matsumoto station.

The walk from Matsumoto station isn’t far. It’s about ten minutes, and very well marked with big signs and arrows. There are a few nice things along the way, like this clock:

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These carp over the river:

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A frog samurai riding a frog mount:

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Another clock:

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And my favorite, an old temple that has been converted to an antique book shop.

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We finally reached the castle and turned over 610jpy/ea to get inside. And what a splendid sight it cast with a sprawling moat and stony foundation lifting it high above the water.

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We walked through the grounds, snapping photos of the sakura blossoms along with the throngs of other tourists–many of them speaking German, French, or other Western European languages.

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Aubri’s only behaving for about the next two minutes.

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We got stamps on the backs of our tickets…

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The castle with sakura.

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And then we went on to the castle itself. Matsumoto Castle is darker than most castles in Japan, and so is nicknamed the “Crow Castle.” The castle was built and then expanded upon from 1504-1590ish. Because of the time period it was built in, it has both archer openings and rifle marksman openings in the walls.

As we entered, we had to put our shoes in bags that we carried with us.

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Rifle holes are more square.

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Arrow holes are longer rectangles. Either way the holes are smaller on the outside and have thin wires spanning them, also to discourage outside objects from coming in.

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A little about that you can’t read because it’s a tiny photo…

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An old painting of the grounds.

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Building materials.

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The view from the second floor arrow holes.

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Pulling Aubri up the stairs.

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The next flight up. The bamboo hand rails are a new addition, but basically as the stairs climb they get more steep and narrow, to discourage intruders.

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Aubri as an archer.

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Climbing the stairs to the third level.

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There are dozens of firearms from the 16th, 17th and 18th century on display throughout the castle. Some of them are really beautiful and would make great reference for a non-Western Steampunk.

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Also body armor.

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I love the six-revolver in the top right, so big.

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At the top of the tower the windows face East, West, North and South. The castle is six levels high but only five can be seen from outside.

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A view from the North window.

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And the East window.

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Tired and ready to head down.

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Running around at the top causing trouble.

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Another view from the arrow holes.

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So we hauled Aubri down all the stairs, trying not to bowl anyone else over in the process.

An adorable kimono on the way back to the station!

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We grabbed more sakura ice cream and a sakura sweet roll that had sweetened potato in the middle. Yum.

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They can’t speak English but try it!

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The view from Matsumoto station. I got to see this like four times…

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We got back to the station at about 4:30 and caught the train at 4:58 after buying a few quick snacks from the Newdays shop in the station (large convenience/souvenir shop chain in some stations). About 25 minutes into the ride, Jamie realized that she had left her glasses at the station when she changed into contacts. So we hopped off at the next stop, waited 15 minutes for a return train back, rode 25 minutes back to the station, spent another 20 minutes locating the lost and found and getting her glasses, and discovered that the next train back wasn’t for another 35 minutes (now at 6:35pm).

Fortunately they had a coloring book and colored pencils at a book shop in the station, to occupy Aubri (whose ipod battery was dead). Unfortunately we didn’t buy her any more snacks. So the 2.5 hour ride back to Shinjuku was probably the most miserable train ride yet. And since it was so late, everyone else was trying to sleep…

We caved and got her a cheeseburger at McDonalds at Shinjuku station before stacking on the last two rides back to get home.

So, that was our entire day. And we missed the good dinner, alas. But the castle was very cool and its weapons collection is worth a visit for the firearms enthusiast. They have English guides too, but they were out when we were there.

Tomorrow: Ikebukuro (yes, again), Nakana Broadway and Shibuya.