Italia Day 4 – Rome The First!

In which we leave before dawn to get to Rome before the Romans.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hotel door dumped us out right by the bus stop for 36:37, whose first holiday-time stop was at 5:34 in the morning and took only 10 minutes to get back to Firenze SMN. Our train for Rome, leaving from SMN, would be at something like 7:35. However, since we’d experienced trouble getting on the train the day before, we decided to be as early as possible to make sure we got tickets.

So we shivered outside for a few minutes (skipping breakfast at the hotel, alas) before jumping on the bus. Like most busses in Italy, these tickets were cheap (1.2euro ea) but had to be purchased in advance. We bought them while wandering Florence the day before.

Unfortunately, Aubri wasn’t much interested in eating (other than one case of the most delicious gelato ever) while we were in Florence, and so while I was buying the train tickets she promptly tossed up water and stomach acid all over the floor. We did our best to clean it up with napkins but couldn’t find an attendant to help clean the mess. Ugh.

Finally we gave up and hit McDonalds (the only thing open this early inside the station) to get some food and cappuccino. It was about what you’d expect from them, but Aubri ate almost one whole pancake. She was feeling a little better, briefly, but it was clear she was coming down with something.

We made it on the train without further incident and found ourselves in Rome Termini at around 8:22. While on the train we realized that Aubri was starting to develop a fever, so we decided to look for a pharmacy (Farmacea) for some baby tylenol before heading out to our first Air B&B stay. With a little extra pantomiming, they got the idea and hooked us up with a dropper liquid style tylenol alternative. They told us “three drops per kilo” and we were on our way.
Needless to say, counting out something like 42 drops for the kid was not going to happen, so I just gave her two droppers full and left it at that for the moment.

Our Air B&B stay had given good directions, so we were staying over near the San Giovanni exit and within a 15 minute walk of the Coliseum.  We were an hour early thanks to catching the better (cheaper) train, but our host G was there and we chatted for a while before leaving our bags in the room and heading out for our first day of exploring Rome.  It was expected to be around 54 degrees F as a high, so we felt prepared to have a good day. G hooked us up with a nice Ancient Rome area map and directions to some of the cooler spots, and we were on our way.

Looking back, I really should have pulled out the full paper directions (which I could read because I know enough Spanish/Latin to get by) and dosed Aubri with a lot more tylenol before we left. It turns out she should’ve been getting 7.5-10ml (a third of the bottle) every 6 hours because of her age and weight. Oops.

Anyway, we headed out for the Coliseum, and on the way we found a handful of pizza shops, one of which had thick handheld pizzas for only 2.50 ea. Jamie got one with olives and I got one with chicory leaves. They were delicious. We had to coerce Aubri into eating about 10 bites. We were amused to find several LGBT bars in the area immediately surrounding the Coliseum, well-denoted by rainbow lights. Lots of attractive people wandering around them at night, too. Good place to mingle probably, if you don’t have a small child tagging along.

The line at the Coliseum was absolutely crazy, and we suddenly remembered that it was Saturday. We settled for some cool pictures of ourselves outside it, and then moved on toward the Forum.
The Forum’s line was lighter, but since I thought we couldn’t actually get close to the ruins I didn’t really want to pay 12 euro each to go in there either. A Roma pass would have been a good choice, but we’d skipped on that. Note for next time.

Just past the Forum is the Piazza Venezia, which is dominated by a large and beautiful marble palace filled with cool statues. And let me add that I am pretty good at reading maps (even horrible tourist maps). But for some reason, I didn’t realize that huge marble structure was right by the Piazza, and we got turned around at this point. But I’m still not sure exactly where or how, because we didn’t realize that we were no longer walking in the same direction until we found the Pyramid, and the Pyramid was not on the map. Anywhere. This was an hour or so into our meandering walk, so we were displaced by a decent distance. Naturally, we kept walking and finally found ourselves at the Pyramid metro station, which was in an awful neighborhood with lots of loitering teenagers leering at people (namely, females, including us) as they walked past. We hopped on the metro to get back to the Circo Massimo stop.

By now Aubri was getting really whiny from walking, so of course she passed out on that short train hop, and we wound up stopping at a little tea shop to have a cup of black tea while Aubri slept on Jamie’s lap.

After poring over the map for a while, I finally realized we’d walked right off of it, but in the opposite direction I thought we’d been walking in. So we finished our tea, scooped up the monkey, and spent the next two hours slowly looping around the back side of the large triangle that includes the forum and Coliseum, as well as a bunch of cool old churches and such. We got a few neat pictures of ruins, and Aubri cried. A lot. It was getting a little more cloudy and grey, and she kept complaining about being cold.

Finally we made it back around to where the Coliseum was. We were still struggling to keep Aubri awake. We stopped in at a tasty smelling restaurant and just barely beat their rush. They were delicious and quite popular (though one of our pasta dishes was unexpectedly cold). The matron of the place coddled Aubri and even tucked her in with a tablecloth when she fell asleep. They gave us a to-go tin to make sure Aubri got some to eat because they didn’t want us to wake her up.

For dinner we ordered canneloni, ravioli, and that salmon penne again. Everything was good (especially the ravioli), but the penne was a little overly salty. I also notice that salt and other condiments almost never exist on the table in these restaurants–and maybe you can get your hands on pepper.

After dinner (which took some time because they were so very crowded), we scooped Aubri up and dragged ourselves back to our hosts’ home. Aubri’s fever was feeling much too high. Once we got to the house, we shoveled a few ravioli down her throat and then I resolved to give her two droppers of tylenol every two hours until her fever broke. These were the directions we got from her doctor when she had a high fever in November right after Thanksgiving. So we started watching Legend of Korra and dosing her. She was so hot by this time that her cheeks and hands were flushed totally pink. Yikes! It took like 4 hours, but her fever went down and she broke a heavy sweat. Finally instead of forcing her to drink water, she asked us for it. We were in the clear…and exhausted ourselves.

The bed at this host, hands down the comfiest bed we’ve ever had in a hotel or homestay arrangement. Nice down pillows too,  totally wonderful. Breakfast is a bit of a serve-yourself arrangement, but we’ll make it work.

And tomorrow, we have some choices to make on where to go.

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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!

Italy Day Two: Venice! Again!

There are several conclusions we’ve reached while traveling, even this short period of time:
1. Graffiti is a national pastime, and the older the wall the better. (It’s true, see this link).
2. Every third person in Italy smokes. Maybe not quite, but it sure seems like it when they are all carrying lit cigarettes at the height of Aubri’s face. (Another research point here).
3. All the signs are in both Italian and English but few people actually speak English. For someone who can read Italian decently well but not understand fast speakers, that presents a problem.
4. No one looks down in this city. Ever. So they aren’t looking for a walking little person.
5. No one apologizes for slamming into you either.
6. Clearly we shouldn’t have visited Japan first.
7. Every hotel charges a separate 2euro/person/night tax payable only in person (adults, littles under 4 don’t count). This vaguely complicates super early checkout. This was a “known but forgotten” factor, so just prepare for it.
8. People don’t make eye contact and are really confused if you do.
9. I sometimes can’t be sure if someone is speaking French or Italian and I’m sure that’s insulting to someone. But maybe there are some French tourists around.
10. Conditioner? No one uses or sells conditioner? Only shampoo? My hair weeps.

Those things being said, we started our second day in Venice off with a well stocked (mostly cold) breakfast from Autoespresso. Eggs, various breads and sweet treats, ham and baby swiss (The best swiss we’ve ever had), boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of decent strong coffee with steamed milk, Delicious. We ate our fill and headed out to Venice proper.

I realized a little late that our hotel is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. There were lots of broken bottles and trash etc all over the place after the night’s revelry. Also when we tried to find the hotel originally, we noticed the other side of the station was much nicer. Typical. We had a similar experience in Kyoto with the hotel gem we found back in April–great breakfast, horrible beds, nice price, awful location. For two nights in Venice only a 12-15 minute bus ride from Venice Proper, including breakfast, with a spacious room, it was only about $108/night during New Year’s. Other times of year would likely be much less expensive.

So after our bus ride, we took a look at the only free local map (at the waterbus station) and headed off in the general direction of the Doge Palace. And promptly spent the next 6 hours wandering aimlessly through the small alleys of the center of Venice, where we saw lots of random graffiti (Our favorites were unsavory, of course) and ruined houses. We noticed little restoration process, but lots of layered building that was interesting.

We had intended to actually go into San Marco Basilica and the Doge Palace, but the lines were obscene. This was also the first place I felt uncomfortable leaving my tripod standing to get group photos, because we expected someone might just knock into the camera and send it crashing down.

So, given the lines, we resolved to search for reasonably priced Venetian masks and other interesting things. We came across a DaVinci exhibit, likely identical to the one in Denver (similar pricing, 8 euro vs $12/person). We went in to give Aubri something to do, as she was getting mopey about being forced to march all over. We also discovered some Steampunk influence to masks, as some artists had taken to gluing plastic machinations all over mask forms and then painting the whole thing.

And then we had Dulce du Leche gelato and the whole world was made right. Until poor Aubri started shivering from the cold.

Ultimately, we spent the entire day just wandering, and then found ourselves back across the way from our first restaurant experience, ordering food. This whole restaurant was so charmed by Aubri that they were offering to let her keep the Christmas tree she liked (what?? No!). But their ravioli with spinach/Gorgonzola/walnuts were delicious, as was the brie/Gorgonzola/mozzarella cheese pizza. And their service was extremely fast, so I think the other restaurant was just odd. The pizza chef came out to flirt with Aubri because his daughter’s name is Arianna and the staff thought that’s what we were saying.

And then we went back to the hotel and passed out because we really needed to be at the train station early.

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…

Japan Day 16: Kimonos and Shinjuku

We stay with a host family while in Tokyo, and mentioned to them that we were interested in getting (at the very least) an Aubri-sized kimono, but didn’t want to spend too much on it.

So our host, Hiro-san, made some calls around and found a wholesaler with a sale happening the next day. We made the plans and he said he would take us.

It turns out that we only got into this place because the shop owner thought Hiro-san was a kimono dealer. The place was crazy, and we got our own personal sales person to fetch, carry, and put things on us.

So we started with Aubri’s kimono, which was actually a brand new 3rd Birthday style kimono priced at 8,000jpy ($80) as opposed to its usually 30,000jpy.

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I can’t even describe the words.

So then we moved on because Jamie wanted to get me a hakama. It took a minute or two to explain to the confused sales guy that I wanted a men’s hakama and to wear it in the men’s style.

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We also picked out a haori (long jacket, explanation here) for me. Total for mine was about 10,500jpy ($105) after we explained that we wanted used rather than brand new.

So then we moved on to Jamie, and of course the women’s kimonos are all sixty times as expensive.

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We actually wound up with a yukata (summer kimono) and several “slightly stained” inexpensive 900jpy/ea kimonos for Jamie because they only had 30,000jpy+ or “slightly stained.” But we’re confident in our ability to fix that problem since they are just little tea spots. Also I don’t have any more pictures because Aubri started acting up and we ran around the store/warehouse.

All told we spent 21,600jpy and about 2 hours in the place. So Aubri was starving and we were exhausted from the madness.

So we headed for Shinjuku because our next goal was some shopping in Shinjuku, but also because some of the best mid-priced tempura available is there. If you head for the South Terrace shopping area, cross the big bridge and find Takushimaya Times Square, you will also find Tokyo Hands and, on the 14th floor, Tsunahatchi, the delicious food. Its prices are best at lunch time, but the food is delicious.

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Alternatively, if you want tempura udon, there’s a place nearby that is crazy delicious. If you exit the same exit but on the main level (instead of using the South Terrace bridge), and turn right to follow the major street you’re on for about 4 stoplights, you will see a recessed courtyard area with several restaurants. CoCo’s will be the sign you can see from the street, but across from CoCo’s is this udon restaurant:

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Basically you pick your initial udon (which runs about 390 for a normal or 490 for a large portion of broth/noodles, even for curry udon) and then you pick your own tempura selections from a huge range. The prices are very good. For all this food I only paid 1490jpy (about $15). The food was delicious. Aubri ate four helpings of noodles and a whole tempura pumpkin slice.

Moving on, we were in Shinjuku for that giant department store across the Southern Terrace, with its 8-floor Tokyu Hands (mostly).

Tokyu Hands is like the DIY store of kings in Tokyo.

The 8th floor is dedicated to dayplanners/calendars/stationery/drawing supplies/writing supplies. We spent an hour playing with pens before selecting a few.

The 7th floor is dedicated to cell phone supplies, other techy gadgets, toys and pet supplies.

Pet me! (They even had a lint remover intended to use on cats).

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Barnes and Noble’s puzzle selection is more limited.

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Healing Time puzzles.

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These are cell phone cases that look like gun handles.

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The 6th floor is dedicated to being the Tokyo Home Depot but with leather design tools too.

The 5th floor is interior decoration/design.

The 4th floor is the cooking and eating floor.

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Walls of bento boxes, tea pots, pans, chopsticks, and more. There are better places (for pricing) to acquire bento boxes (such as 100 yen shops) and chopsticks (the same), but for looking and admiring, this is the place. Also the quality of them is probably a bit better. Foreign shoppers get 5% off with their passport!

The 3rd floor is health/beauty (mostly diet and cosmetics), and the 2nd floor is an extensive travel luggage and personal bags floor. Very nice stuff, but not inexpensive.

This Takayashima place can absorb your soul for an entire day if you let it.

We’re almost out of time in Tokyo, but my next post will be about our Yabusame experience (Japanese horseback archery) and Don Qijote and hanging out with Jamie’s friend Hazuki.

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.

Japan Day 13: Tokyo Disney Sea

So we decided to go to Tokyo Disney Sea on Monday rather than the weekend. The weather predicted a small chance of rain and partly cloudy, so I had to coax Jamie to go on this day. Aubri also didn’t want to wake up.

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After much coaxing and repeated reminders that she would get to see mermaids, she was finally ready to go.

It’s about a 20 minute train ride from Tokyo station to the park station at Maihama station. Then it’s another about 10 minute walk to the gates. The entire walk is neatly trimmed and beautiful, though, so we suffered willingly.

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Once at the gate, it was 6400jpy/ea for the adults (about $64 right now) and anyone 4 and under is free. Before you choke at that price, realize that as of this writing Disneyland in California is $86/ea for ages 3-9 and $92/ea for ages 10+. Yikes! Now, Disneyland/Disney Sea is technically licensed to the company who runs them, but not actively run by Disney themselves. I’m not sure about the Disneyland side, but I imagine that’s why only older characters are present on the Disney Sea side.

But on to the park.

From the moment we stepped foot inside, the wonder for Aubri began.

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This place has a big map with lots of zones, so we just folded up the map and started walking. If you take a right from the entrance, you’ll walk through a big open walkway and step into the Shipwreck and Castle area (Noted as Fortress Explorations on the map).

I should note that even right here, everything has both ramp and elevator access. The entire park is super easy for both strollers and wheelchairs.

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So we let Aubri go and explore…

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These canons really fired with a little blast of smoke (after a long loading noise) when you tugged the fuse.

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Heading up to the castle portion…

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And then she found this…

 

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This awesome tucked-away play area has a contained weather system with ships. For 100jpy/play (which lasts several minutes) you can steer boats through rain, storms, whirlpools, dangerous straits, and other hazards. It’s super fun and I had to drag Jamie and Aubri both away from it…

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The inside of this castle is done up as though it belonged to a secret society of explorers.

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It has a whole scavenger/clue finding game you can play throughout the castle to “Crack DaVinci’s Code,” but we felt that Aubri wouldn’t have the attention span for that. So we reluctantly moved on from the fortress and found ourselves in the Mysterious Island area. This is about the time we started realizing just how great the attention to detail is here. Every inch of the entire place is not only themed but segmented by zone, down to the lamps totally changing styles. And every single ride has its own style of costume, in addition to each zone having different costumes.

We’ve been to Disneyland California several times, and this totally takes the cake.

So in Mysterious Island we had our first batch of Sea Salt ice cream. We were a little disappointed that it didn’t come in blue on sticks, but it was very tasty (310jpy for ice cream, so around $3).

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Then Jamie and I grabbed Fastpasses for Journey to the Center of the Earth, and we moved on to occupy Aubri for a while.

Now, something we didn’t realize about until later (but would be very handy to use) is the fact that they have “Baby Ride Cards.” Basically, you both fast pass and then ask for the ride card. The first person gives the card to the second person when they come out, and that second person gets to go up the exit line and ride basically immediately. No second fastpass wait. Pretty cool.

We grabbed a sausage bun (basically gyoza meat inside a fluffy steamed bun, 430jpy ea):

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And then moved on to the Mermaid Lagoon area.

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Now, the Mermaid Lagoon has an outdoor area with several rides (all kid themed, but one is a mini-roller coaster which only ages 3 and up can ride), and then it has an additional area “Triton’s Kingdom” that has more rides inside, is dark like the deep sea, and has a giant play area and a stage.

So we rode some rides, all with virtually no wait because the park wasn’t that crowded:

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And then we went inside.

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We rode the Jellyfish ride and then I sent Jamie to go ride on the first Fastpass while I rode with Aubri.

We rode this Blowfish ride…

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And then the “Kelp cups (Teacups)”

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Then played with some lights on the floor…

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And then we found Ariel’s Playground.

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In Ariel’s Grotto

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Climbing through a dark tunnel of evil squids

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And then Jamie found us in the play area and I tapped out to go ride. The Journey to the Center of the Earth is fun, and the detail even in all the displays leading up to the ride is pretty cool. Alas, I left the camera with Jamie. It took me about 20 minutes to get out to the ride, get through the Fastpass line, ride and get back.

Then we rode the blowfish again.

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And it was time for lunch. We ordered the chicken and salsa set lunch for 1080jpy and the scallop sandwich set plate for 960jpy.

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While I found the apple tea soda weird, the sandwiches weren’t bad. The scallop sandwich is mashed scallop fried into breading. Overall filling enough for roughly $20.

There was a show coming up at 2 that we wanted to see, so we packed Aubri into the stroller and headed out to grab a fast pass first. We grabbed a Stormrider Fastpass from Port Discovery since it’s a quick walk from the Mermaid Lagoon. Naturally Aubri passed out just before the show started, and slept through the entire show:

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They had dragon-styled jet skis and they were flying kites from them…

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So we watched the show and she slept on. Then we headed back toward Port Discovery and Lost River Delta. In Port Discovery we stumbled across a Japanese Steampunk Brass Band. Seriously:

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They were really fun to watch, but they woke Aubri up (of course). So we took her grumpy self over to take a picture with the Goofy Inventor.

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And then it was time to go see the show at the Hangar Stage in Lost Delta. Along the way we saw some plane wrecks:

I love that this plane is called C-3PO.

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The stage was too dark to take pictures, but the show is basically this story of the various element spirits. Lots of cool special effects and great acrobatics, definitely a great surprise. We felt like we’d just watched a small segment of a Cirque du Soleil show.

Afterwards we left to go ride Storm Rider, which is a virtual reality storm chaser ride. It’s fun, but Aubri had to sit in her own seat so she got a little nervous (we also had to tell them she was 3 *koffkoff* because she is over 90cm tall and thus tall enough to ride).

But then we grabbed a Fastpass for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. We moved on to the Arabian Coast, and the Flying Carpets, to kill time.

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We also had time to run through Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage, which is exactly the same ride as Pirates of the Caribbean, but set in the desert with camels. Aubri enjoyed it. The paint jobs are a little newer, for sure…

So we headed to go ride the Indiana Jones ride, and found out about the baby ride cards. So Jamie rode first while I entertained Aubri by the sales carts. So far she’d been a totally awesome well-behaved kid. Naturally I was about to change that.

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The Indiana Jones ride was exactly like the one in California too, except that the model did look older (Harrison Ford ages!).

We caught sight of the full moon rising over Jasmine’s Palace:

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And decided we had time to ride the carousel before we needed to head back toward the front of the park (to catch the big show, Fantasmic).

So we jumped onto an elephant and a purple genie…

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Snapped a picture under the watchful eye of another Genie…

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Ran off to the front of the park (Mediterranean Harbor) to find Aubri a souvenir and grab a snack before the show. It was only about 6:40pm and people were already laying claim to real estate, so we tried to hurry. We did find Aubri a cool hoodie as her souvenir, and then grabbed a Mickey snack:

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And then we found ourselves a patch of the side street on the bridge to watch the show. Our view was pretty good. The show was similar to Fantasmagoria in Disneyland, but with some character variation and a lot of extra frill dancing.

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After the show (for which Aubri was enthralled), we joined the throngs of people rushing back. It was a little after 8:30, and with the walk and the trains we didn’t get back to our host family’s house until just after 10pm. But I would say the trip to Disney Sea was totally worth it, and probably the best experience I’ve had at a theme park. There was stroller parking available at every ride, the only line frustration we had was the swarming of characters (ignoring lines etc), and Aubri was even a little rockstar. High five, Japan Disney.

Tomorrow’s post… Matsumodo Castle in Nagano Prefecture.