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.

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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.

Japan Day Four: Matsuyama

This post is a day delayed because our hotel in Matsuyama was gorgeous and wonderful…but only had internet in the lobby and I don’t know how to say “Your wifi is connecting but not passing through an IP, you need to reset your router” in Japanese…

We had delicious breakfast at the Hotel Gastoff before heading out.

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So today we moved on from Kagoshima to Matsuyama. And while I liked our experiences in both places, I would never recommend actually traveling via JR rail between the two. There isn’t a direct way, so instead you must first take the Mizuho 602 from Kagoshima to Okayama (which takes you back through Fukuoka and Hiroshima), and then take a local Shizuho 9 train for over two hours along the coast all the way around the island until you get to Matsuyama.

This results in lots of sulking and sleeping from Aubri.

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Though we did play games until our batteries died…

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And there were some nice views until Aubri refused to let me see out the window anymore. Alas, the two year old.

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When we finally made it to Matsuyama it was raining, though not too hard yet. We asked a gentleman with a sign for directions, and he took us on an impromptu English tour of the area while catching the streetcar we needed in order to get to Dogo Onsen. Our hotel, Funaya, is right around the corner from Dogo Onsen, which was the bathhouse that inspired Spirited Away.

Fortunately, Aubri made so many friends on that ride that she didn’t complain about being on yet another train—even though she’d been a bit of a terror in the last 3 of the 5.5 hours we traveled up until that point.

So we walked up the hill and a different elderly gentleman insisted on taking our bag and getting us all the way to Funaya. He’d been on the train with us. Our suitcase is very heavy so I was worried about all of these retired guys lugging it around… But they insisted.

We expected this to be the hotel, since we were staying at a ryokan.

Instead we found the outside of the hotel looks more like a chain western style, though the inside is gorgeous. A few shots of our room:

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Once we dropped the bags and got everything we could figured out, we headed for Dogo Onsen. It was still raining.

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Unfortunately, the higher tiers (including a tour of the private baths etc) were sold out, so we had to do the regular bath with snack option for 800jpy/ea (400jpy for Aubri).

View from the window out.

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Aubri in her bathing yukata.

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The Japanese style bath (I’m not sure that Dogo still has actual spring water) involves a public shower split by women and men, and then a large soaking tub or spring that everyone shares. No clothing allowed of course, though culturally that’s usually not a big deal. Aubri did make friends with a woman probably around our age from Korea, but she made her extra uncomfortable because she had a tattoo of words around her breast and Aubri was trying to read them… “Words! Words! Right there!” Awkward laughter ensues. She spoke a little English so we had a cute conversation. In fact, Aubri made friends with a lot of women in the bath. The younger girls were all at least 5 or 6 and experiencing body shyness though, so they didn’t want to talk to her. There were several people with very very young babies, despite the heat of the tub.

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We stayed until Aubri looked like a lobster (she’s obsessed with water and bathing), and then moved on to the hotel to drop some things off. We turned back around to go find dinner and wander the arcade (outdoor shopping mall) that is right beside Dogo Onsen.

A large clock at the beginning of the arcade.

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First we had some dinner at the ramen restaurant because it was cold and we were hungry.

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We accidentally ordered three entire bowls of ramen, apparently? Usually we share with Aubri. But her bowl went from this:

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To this:

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To this:

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Jamie ate the pork and I ate two chopstick-bites of noodles. That was it. Aubri devoured the rest.

Then it was time to wander the arcade. We saw a lot of crazy things there.

They have a Ghibli shop with lots of neat items (we picked up Aubri’s charm from here, a Noface with a bath token). We also picked up some other cool items but since they will be gifts I won’t mention them.

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They have a store dedicated to nothing but sesame, which had amazingly delicious toasted sesame ice cream (our new favorite flavor).

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They had this store with what I can only identify as giant golden poops.

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This person making the “soy sauce mochi” the region is famous for.

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A sandwich shop with a dragon (they are very fierce sandwiches):

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And the only lesbian art we’ve seen so far. 😉

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Finally we went back to Funaya, and it was raining very hard at this point. We decided once we got here that we would take another bath. Funaya has a beautiful granite bathing area, so we had another brief soak before getting ready for bed.

Aubri in the whole yukata/jacket.

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Futons. I keep trying them but I don’t think my back will ever give up the memory foam mattress. Aubri was very excited about having her own, though.

We also had another soak in the morning before heading out, since the bath opened at 5:30AM and breakfast wasn’t until 7AM.

Since we didn’t get to see any of the town except Dogo Onsen, I think we’d like to come back and see more of the castles and so on. We had a delicious feast at Funaya for breakfast (and of course I left the camera at the counter and forgot to take pictures), and then it’s on to Takamatsu and Naruto!

Japan Day Three: Kagoshima

Today was a day for adventures, but mostly because the time adjustment is taking its toll on Aubri (who is only 2 and 9 months). She also hasn’t been eating as well as usual, so last night we force-fed her half of a sandwich and this morning (again at the terrible hour of 4:30ish) we made her eat the other half. And then she had a donut. And an onigiri. So she’s back to eating, fortunately.

Aubri also had unfortunate timing for her spot-naps, so we have way fewer pictures today.

The train combination from Nagasaki to Kagoshima involves going most of the way back to Fukuoka via the Limited Express, and then traveling by Sakura Superexpress (either the 451 or 551) for another two hours to get down to Kagoshima. The ride is very long, and during that combination of rides Aubri melted down in the most noisy way possible.

Fortunately we did finally make it here. Kagoshima is a beautiful city, and so far the most accessible city we’ve found in the south. There are elevators everywhere and the sidewalks are much smoother. Except for our hotel, of course. Hotel Gastoff reminds me of a weird cross between Edwardian and 70s decor, with only an old staircase to get to the flight of rooms. And we use normal keys and leave them at the desk… It’s a bit of a neat experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it with children young enough to need a stroller.

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Also apparently they are freemasons?

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We got here early enough to leave our bags, and head for the most important part of our excursion. Food! The takoyaki and bento we got were actually so delicious we forgot to document them with photos. We also picked up some karukan because we’d heard it was famous. It looks like a rice ball but is made from sweet yams! Here’s the wiki link because mine is in a pretty box.

So then we headed to the real reason for our Kagoshima stop: The volcano, Sakurajima. It’s a short bus ride for 160jpy/ea to the ferry stop, and another 160jpy/ea to get to the island.

Sakurajima is an active volcano (you can see some smoke puffing out of it in my pictures) and it has a shrine at the top. It’s 36km around, so way too far to walk. There are beaches, hot springs, etc all around it because of the volcanic activity bringing up wonderful hot water. The volcano actively explodes in very small scale many times per year, so I wanted to walk on its base (of course).

Here’s the view:

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The island is beautiful and warm, but we’re headed for the public foot baths. It’s only a 600m walk up the hill and around the corner to a foot bath 100m long.

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The water is crazy hot but Aubri is a trooper… until suddenly she has her first accident this whole weekend. Jamie has to rush to the bathroom and clean her up. Of course we don’t have spare clothes (poor kid even made it through the plane trip with great results), so she has to hide her naked bum and shiver with her feet in the warm water while her rinsed-out clothes air dry.

But the view was really gorgeous and some cats came to visit.

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And I took this and was going to ask someone to take one of all three of us. Then Aubri melted down…

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We headed back toward the ferry, but made a quick pit stop for the unique ice cream flavor on the island–it’s based off of the tangerines that grow there. Aubri passed out basically the second we were in line to order.

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We also grabbed some 17! Muscat and Sour Vanilla ice cream…which tasted like a melon soda float and was frankly delicious.
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So then we went back to the station and found a little handmade fair set up. And a Steampunk vendor! 😉 You can’t see them but she has lots of little charms like a complete set of antique keys on a key ring (to .5 cm scale)

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Then we hung out for about three and a half minutes at the hotel…

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We went back to the station to make sure we had everything we needed, and wound up going to this big conglomerate of tiny food shops for dinner. There were 26 shops in this place, each of them slightly different. We chose one of the two ramen shops, and the food wasn’t bad. The kitchen was really creepy though, and Aubri and I are both feeling a little unhappy this morning. The worst part was that Aubri had her second accident there so we had to leave early before Jamie could finish her broth…

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I did discover a really happy combination of garlic, black sesame oil, chili oil and chili paste that makes a pretty intense spicy broth.

This city is mostly a great place for children because there are lots of parks and things to do (as long as they enjoy the outdoors). But I would like to come back when it is warmer so we can enjoy the beach.

Now we managed to get to sleep at a slightly better hour (8, and Aubri didn’t take a 4 hour nap first), so we’ve woken up at 4:30…. And off to Matsuyama!

Japan Day Two: Nagasaki

As promised, our family didn’t visit Nagasaki for the war memorials. We spent some time in Hiroshima last time we visited, and found the Japanese view of the tragedy both forgiving and heart-wrenching. One dose of that painful experience is enough.

So instead, we were in Nagasaki for penguins and our first Steampunk adventure in Japan. Cute alert, this post is VERY photo-heavy.

First, this morning we packed up at the horrifyingly early hour of about 4:30 and were in the station by 6 o’clock. The bed at the Hotel Centraza was pretty uncomfortable, but we are all struggling to switch time zones because Aubri is passing out at about 7pm and sleeping until 3am or 4am.

But that meant we got to hit Trandor (a chain bakery) for breakfast. We got a custard-filled bread thing, a green tea flake pastry, a sugar coated donut (Aubri wanted it) and a curry donut with fried onions on the outside.
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All I can say is yum.

We jumped on the Limited Express and found ourselves in Nagasaki about two hours later. As long as you sit on the left side of the train you get to see some spectacular ocean views. There’s even an antique steam train engine on display at one of the stops along the way.

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And this thing that looks like Minnie and Goofy had a love child and she went into the Sailor Moon business:

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Once in Nagasaki we dropped our bags off at our hotel, the Hotel Chisun Grand. It’s a short jog from the station, but not terribly far. The beds are not uncomfortable (though the pillows are weird), but this is another cramped room. The bathroom, shower, and sink are all in different little closets. It was too early for them to let us in the room, so we just left our bags (that’s a cool thing they do in Japan) and moved on to our adventures.

Let me preface this by saying two things. The first is that Nagasaki is NOT very stroller friendly. All of the sidewalks are cobblestone, there are many severe hills, and almost no elevators.

Second, we noticed a ton of pachinko houses around (Japanese gambling houses)–so I did a little digging and found the economy of Nagasaki is in decline. I suppose the parallel–that poorer areas of the US often have more gambling/lotto available–is also true here. This did not mean people were less kind, just that there were more broken down houses around.

 

At the front counter they gave us directions to get to the bus stop that would take us to the penguin museum. We were actually basically right next to the stop when a very kind Japanese gentleman who was 75 (he made sure to tell us) saw that we were looking for something and determined to help. He took us to the bus terminal. They told us where to go and explained the bus fare. Then he took us back to the bus stop and talked our ears off for half an hour or so, until probably fourteen of the bus we were looking for had gone by… In the end, though, he was quite the character. The bus ride was about half an hour each way and cost 280jpy/person (kids under 3 are free).

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The penguin aquarium was not large, but Aubri had fun there for a little while. It had lots of people with young children, so she chatted them up for a bit. It was 610jpy/adult and under 3 are free. We probably only spent about 45 minutes there before we moved on, but we got a few pictures:

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(Pair of male penguins nesting together):

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We rode the bus back and found out that we needed to take the rail car to get to our other destination of the day, Glover Garden. There are lots of steeply inclining roads through this area, interesting shops, and delicious smells. We picked up a ninja umbrella. Because.

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Once we made it to Glover Garden (and it started raining, of course), it was 610jpy/adult to wander through and enjoy the preserved Victorian-era mansions throughout the beautiful garden. Glover was from Scotland, so the piped music was a Scottish tune. Somewhat weirdly out of place. The Steampunk of this place is the interesting combination of Victorian/Western and Japanese architecture. The houses were beautiful, and there were statues and tributes to Madame Butterfly all around.

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After we got tired enough to move on from the garden, we picked up some of the famous cake in the area. There were samples out and it is delicious. I’m glad we did, because 600jpy for the big loaf we got is half what the station was charging for a little loaf.

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We caught a street car back toward the main station and saw a standing sushi bar, so we stopped. It wasn’t open yet, but we found a little ramen shop on the way that said its broth was “crafted by noddle master of Japan.” So we stopped in for two bowls of spicy pork ramen.

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This right here is the broth I need to figure out how to emulate. Pure magic.

Aubri passed out just before we got there, so unfortunately we had to wake her up an hour and a half later and force-feed her a sandwich because she was too tired to eat.

We went back to the station and wandered for a while until we were too tired to continue. There was a boba shop inside! And they had delicious tea crafted from the hearts of their owners. Also these are a black tea ice cream float and a sakura blossom with sakura jelly, respectively. Yum.

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We picked up our charm from the penguin museum.. a sparkly glass penguin. I forgot to snap a picture of it, though…

We went to bed really early again, so I expect tomorrow will be another early morning… And we move on to Kagoshima!

 

 

Japan Day One: Osaka and Fukuoka

OK, first thing’s first. The next ~3 weeks of posts will be all about this wild and awesome trip we’re taking as we follow the sakura blossoms through the southern part of Japan and up into Tokyo.

A few things this guide will be good for: Food, travel with young (under 3) children, really fast city travel, Steampunk destinations, interesting random things, and traveling with not that much Japanese. My wife speaks well enough to keep us out of trouble, but Aubri and I are both about four words of understanding.

A few random tips: I always keep a record of each day’s purchases in a small notebook so I can keep track of exactly what I spent each day. Japan is a mostly cash-only country so this is really important unless you have an unlimited budget.

First of all, Denver has a direct flight to Tokyo. We weren’t supposed to be flying direct, but United had a HUGE delay on our Denver to San Fran flight, so we bargained to get put on the direct flight (~12 hours).

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We then hopped on a short flight from Tokyo to Osaka to get to our southern starting point. So we arrived at Shin-Osaka very VERY late (8pm), and checked in to Remm Shin Osaka.

Remm Shin Osaka is right in the heart of the Shin-Osaka station, and it’s a really nice hotel with a giant teleporter pad entrance. Unfortunately it’s a super tight space, so we only were comfortable because Aubri had basically passed out hours before we made it there.

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We technically left Osaka as soon as we could get our JR rail passes exchanged and get on the train, but since we also woke up at 4am we spent about 4 hours roaming the station. Shin-Osaka station has lots of delicious restaurants. We didn’t get to try takoyaki though, and that’s what the city is famous for. Most importantly, there’s a 7-11 nearby and that’s where we withdraw money from the ATM in order to make our money exchange. 7-11 ATMs (if you have a bank card that doesn’t charge an exchange fee) pay VERY close to the actual exchange rate (in this case they paid me 103.4 yen to the dollar versus the 103.8 yen to the dollar actual rate). Also the 7-11 had a new magical ice cream that was green tea surrounding chocolate fudge with crushed almonds on the outside. Yum.

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Aubri pigged out on onigiri:

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We saw our first batch of blossoms there.

We hopped on the Sakura 551 (JR) to get from Shin-Osaka to Hakata station, which is at the heart of Fukuoka. The ride took about 2.5 hours, but the train was comfortable enough. Aubri made friends with the nervous little boy behind us, and his mother bribed her with candy. She’s already figured out that making friends results in sweet treats here…

In Fukuoka we were able to check into Hotel Centraza Hakata several hours early (at 12:45), so we could ditch the bags and walk to a couple of places. The tourist maps around this area are super blown up, so almost everything is within a kilometer of the Hakata station. We visited Tochoji temple, home to a 16.9 meter tall wooden Buddha, as well as lots of cherry trees and just a beautiful area.


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We also stopped by Wakahachimangu shrine (small and not particularly interesting), and got waylaid by a tea shop owner on the way. She didn’t realize we spoke some Japanese, and she was so happy that she gave Aubri tons of green tea cookie snacks and gave us a deep discount on some matcha and cookies. (We asked her which matcha would be best for cooking).
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We also visited Canal City, which is basically just a giant super mall but does house a Raumen Stadium filled with 9-10 of the “best raumen houses” in Japan. Our favorite was the one whose specialty is the spicy pork broth–the pork cutlets melted in our mouths, and didn’t give me any of the digestive issues American pork usually does. Fukuoka is a foodie city, and we could tell! There were more international restaurants (especially Korean, Mexican, Chinese, French and Italian) than we usually see anywhere else. And most importantly everything smelled amazing!

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We decided on this trip to get Aubri a charm from each city we stop in. Here are the ones we have so far:

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The Hello Kitty is in front of a temple from Osaka and the little ghost thing is delivering a ramen bowl–appropriate for Fukuoka, we thought.

Our next stop is Nagasaki, but not for the usual reasons…

Wednesday: Steampunk World And Anime

I could’ve sworn I had covered this topic before, but since I can’t find the post in my archives, we’ll revisit. Since it’s September 11 and the country is likely to be rife with mournful posts about something that happened many years ago, I’ll revisit even older times–the world that Never Was.

Since Hayao Miyazaki has finally chosen to retire, and Nan Desu Kan (Denver’s major anime convention) starts here on Thursday, I’ve been spending time contemplating how I went from an anime enthusiast to a Steampunk enthusiast. The leap is easier than you might think, especially inj Miyazaki’s realm of “what ifs.”

Take Princess Mononoke, one of Miyazaki’s premier works. The biggest message from this film is the battle between advancing technology and the magic and simplicity of the forest. The message pervades in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind as well, and where the former focuses on interesting weapons, the latter surrounds forms of transportation as well.  In both of these films (although I am listing them in reverse chronological order), the most important thing is for people to flex their ingenuity and discover new and better ways to make their lives work through technology–but they most also learn how to live with the world they have, and not destroy the earth with their hunger for progress.

If we move on, Miyazaki’s film Porco Rosso came sandwiched between the other two, and is really more Dieselpunk than Steampunk–but with an anime about goggles, flying machines and battles in the sky, who can argue the appeal? His film Castle in the Sky came right after Nausicaa, and is really a legendary search for ancient advanced technology–a Steampunk Atlantis (speaking of which, the Disney movie Atlantis is certainly Steampunk as well). Howl’s Moving Castle is also technology-laden and anti-war, but with the idea that technology and magic are inexplicably intertwined. I love this take on things because the Victorians were weirdly obsessed with the unexplained–and for them, science WAS magic.

Miyazaki had this to say:
“To be born means being compelled to choose an era, a place, a life. To exist here, now, means to lost the possibility of being countless other potential selves.. Yet once being born there is no turning back. And I think that’s exactly why the fantasy worlds of cartoon movies so strongly represent our hopes and yearnings. They illustrate a world of lost possibilities for us.”
― Hayao MiyazakiStarting Point: 1979-1996

But Miyazaki isn’t the only anime director to obsess over concepts embodied by much of Steampunk. Another great series to look into is called Last Exile. It is best characterized by the fact that warfare in this series involves two propeller-driven airships lining up side by side, the hatches being opened, and men in 19th century uniforms firing at each other from steam-powered rifles. As if that’s not enough, almost the entire series occurs in the air.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is another great tale, based very loosely off of the Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. VERY loosely. The premise is that a girl born of Atlanteans–who were really aliens with superior technology–is running from villains who want to capture her and her blue water pendant, which allows her to enter Atlantis–assuming she could remember why she was being chased, of course. She is accompanied by a young French lad who is bound and determined to invent a real flying machine, and his ingenuity often gets them into trouble.  The costumes are great, some of the series is very entertaining, and it’s a fresh perspective on 20,000 Leagues.

No list of Steampunk animes is complete without Steamboy, although it’s not my favorite film. The movie was basically Steampunk encapsulated, but I felt the plot was stiff and anticlimactic until the very end. However, the animation is beautiful, and certainly worth watching once.

Lastly, Fullmetal Alchemist has robots, alchemists, the personification of the 7 Deadly Sins, and a fine line between science and magic that makes it a great choice–not to mention awesome costumes and a few episodes that conveniently slip into the “alternate dimension” of Victorian Earth. Yes, this is a Steampunk series worth watching from start to finish.

With so many series personifying Steampunk, I’m surprised the obsession in Japan has not been more complete. Groups like Strange Artifact and the Tokyo Inventors Society are looking to change that.

If you are planning to attend NDK, remember that the Colorado Steampunks have a Steampunk Photo Shoot scheduled at 1pm at the flagpole. They’ll also be playing Emma: A Victorian Romance and it looks like an interesting series. Don’t miss it!