Japan: The Home Stretch

Things often don’t turn out as planned, and this includes our stay in Japan. At the end of April we’ll be moving back to Singapore.

The month of April will be a busy one filled with traveling and being a tourist. This weekend my parents and sister are coming to Tokyo for a visit. We’ll be exploring all of Tokyo and also heading to Kyoto for a couple nights. It looks like they’ll arrive just as the cherries are blossoming in Tokyo. Here’s a couple pictures taken yesterday:

Sakura in Ichigaya

Sakura in Ichigaya

The last weekend in March was also quite busy. On Saturday we checked out the 36th annual Tokyo Motorcycle Show, and happened to visit Roppongi at night where Roppongi Art Night was happening. It was a busy day. On Sunday we joined some friends from my office and their friends for hanami at a park in Asagaya. It was our first hanami, a very pleasant afternoon. Pictures are here, here, and here.

Spring Snowboarding at Nakazato

A weekend well spent in the sun, working on our mountain carving skills.

This past weekend some people from Shux’s work went on their annual ski/snowboard trip, and we tagged along. This year the destination was mount Nakazato, near the skiing mecca of Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture.

Unlike last year, we had extremely warm weather. Too warm, perhaps; the snow was wet and sticky and heavy. Not the greatest.

It was surprisingly not busy (particularly for Japan), I think I waited in a short queue for the lift about twice the whole weekend. Maybe the weather put most people off? The ski resort also celebrated their 50th anniversary that Saturday night with a pretty fireworks display.

Both of us worked on our snowboarding over the weekend, and we’ve made some progress. I can turn most of the time, and Shux is excellent on her heel edge.

Check out some pictures in the usual place. Was a lot of fun! If all goes well, I’ll head out another time or two this spring.

Summer 2008 Roundup

Yep, it’s been a while. In this post, we round up events from the summer and fall of 2008. Lots of pictures!

So the summer has come and gone, and boy was it a hot one in Tokyo. Now winter’s upon us, and it’s still pretty warm. Quite unseasonably warm, the locals say.

Let’s have a look at what’s happened since June, shall we?

In July we checked out Kawagoe, a little town north of Tokyo. We began with a visit to an American-style diner that served great burgers. Unfortunately, these burgers made me miss two days of work. But they were delicious.

In the evening we went to the BayStars/Giants game at the Tokyo dome. This was actually our first baseball game in Japan, and our first exposure to the baseball “spirit” the fans show game in, game out.

Pictures from Kawagoe and the Giants game are online.

A couple weekends later we headed to Yokohama for one of the first fireworks displays of the season. In Japan, fireworks displays are held regularly throughout the summer, and lots of people come out to watch. Everyone brings a blanket or tarp and picnic food and beer. Many are dressed in the traditional yukata. The fireworks are great too, lasting about an hour. It was probably an ad for the summertime fireworks that Shux saw in late 2007 that led us to Yokohama for New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Pictures from the fireworks display are also online.

August came and went, and in September we took some time off work and headed west to check out western Honshu. We stopped by Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima island. Along the way we ate excellent food, saw tons of cool temples, old Japan in Kyoto, and more Japanese baseball. Great time.

Pictures from the trip are — you guessed it — online.

After that we’ve just been working and otherwise spending time exploring Tokyo and area. One Sunday we headed to Yoyogi Park to hang with the rockabillies. We met up with Yuki, Shux’s friend from long ago. We also caught the last regular season game the Yakult Swallows played, after which three guys retired in a teary ceremony.

We had plans to do paragliding close to Mount Fuji. The rain looked threatening, but we still started our trip early on to make it to the paragliding place on time for our flights. On the way, we received a call that, due to the heavy rain at the site, all flights were off. Our thirst for adventure was not to be thwarted, though, as we changed our plans to drive down the Izu Peninsula to Shimoda instead. It was a long drive, and after eating some of the freshest sushi ever we didn’t get much time to visit the town, but it turned out to be a fun trip nonetheless.

We also visited Mount Takao, not too far from Tokyo. The summit became very popular in the last year or so after it was mentioned in the Michelin guide for some reason. From the summit, which is easy to get to, we were treated with a nice vew of Mount Fuji:

Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao

Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao

When Shux’s coworker was in Tokyo for a business trip, we went to Hakone for a day. It was a long weekend, and a hugely popular destination for many Tokyoites. We spent lots of time waiting in line for the bus, for the train, for the cablecar, and just barely caught our train back into the city. It was all worth it, though, for some nice sunset views:

Sunset in Hakone

Sunset in Hakone with Mt. Fuji

Sunset in Hakone with Mt. Fuji

Since then we’ve been doing shopping, getting ready for Christmas in Canada. Can’t wait!

Heading Home for a Visit

Looking forward to a week in Singapore.

My home-in-law, that is. We’ll be arriving in Singapore a few minutes before midnight tonight.

Tomorrow is a friend’s wedding and we’ll be staying the rest of the week. I’m particularly looking forward to all the food that will get eaten! Often we reminisce about those delicious dishes we left behind.

I’ll also have a good opportunity to catch up with my fellow Kusu developers. Hopefully I’ll be able to wrap up some unfinished work while there.

I was looking forward to skipping a week of Tokyo’s rainy season, but the gorgeous 27 degree sunshine today and the rainy week forecast for Singapore indicates the exact opposite of that. Rats.

Nature & Temples in Nikko

Shux & Mike visit Nikko. Come take a look at pictures!

On Friday morning we set out for Nikko. The weather was nice, so we hiked around the area first, along the river spotting smooth rocks formed from lava, then 2km uphill to a waterfall. We stayed in a Japanese-style room in a bed and breakfast, enjoying their onsen in the evening.

Smooth Rocks

The next day was a bit rainy while we wandered from temple to shrine. The grandiose temples set amidst tall green trees, the air crisp and clear, inspired feelings of awe and serenity. That is, until later on in the morning, when the crowds and noise swelled enough to burst the bubble.

Nikko Temple

The train route led through the countryside where rice is grown. I snapped a few pictures through the train window on the way back.

Rice Fields

See all the pictures here.

More Everything!

Mike tells of more BMWs, more protests, more earthquakes, more paperwork and more traveling!

In this post we cover more BMWs, more protests, more earthquakes, more paperwork and more traveling!

Beijing Olympics Protest

Shux and I finally made our way to check out Alexander Calder’s BMW Art Car on Tuesday. As we walked through Tokyo Station toward Yaesu and the BMW Group Studio, we heard some sort of noise in the distance. Soon we saw a parade walking down the street.

At its head was a black van with loudspeakers (a common sight in Japan; these trawl the city spewing some sort of propaganda regularly, often on Sunday mornings in residential areas). This time an angry Japanese man was manning the mic, each of his chants repeated by those marching. The group consisted mainly of men in some sort of uniform, pseudo-police or military or something. They carried flags, one large rising sun, a Tibetan flag, an upside-down Chinese flag with a turd drawn on it and other banners with slogans. We figured out pretty quickly they were supporting Tibet and wanted the Beijing Olympics boycotted by Japan.

Olympic Boycott Protest

The whole protest was rather small. The police presence was not. Cops walked along either side of the march, every few meters. Cops on motorcycles were there blocking off traffic, cop vans helping out, and so on. But that wasn’t all. A few minutes after we first started watching, there seemed to be a disagreement brewing between some of the protesters and an officer or two. Before we knew it, there were more cops there than protesters. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Fortified buses that transport riot police were there, cops with those big shields showed up… things looked just a little tense for a moment.

Olympic Boycott Protest

Soon we found ourselves in front of the BMW Group Studio, our destination, so we let the protesters march on.

The First BMW Art Car

On display at BMW’s location next to Tokyo Station was Alexander Calder’s 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL (there was also a new BMW M3 Coupe). Here we were allowed to take some photos.

Alexander Calder's BMW Art Car

One of the attendants was pretty informative, talking about the car a little and about the other 5 on display at the Mori Art Gallery. She also showed us the 16th BMW Art Car by Olafur Eliasson in a magazine. Given that you can’t even tell that it’s a car, I give this a thumbs down. I totally don’t get it.

New Visa

I have found work and this partly meant I need to change my visa. My previous visa allowed me to work but only for my previous employer. I submitted all the paperwork a little over 3 weeks ago, and Wednesday was the day to go pick it up.

I decided to get an early start and arrived at the immigration office by 8:15am. The building wasn’t open yet, so there was a queue of about 50 people in front of the door. Another 50 or so were just hanging around here and there. At 8:30 the doors opened and everyone stormed in. What’s the point of the queue? I guess all the newbies (like me) line up! The scene was amusing, like a flood of little children rushing in the opening gates of Disneyland.

(When I came to submit my papers in April it was raining. As I was walking up to the entrance, a bus pulled up and some women went sprinting from the bus. One of them had a wicked wipe-out on the slick floor inside! It was amusing.)

After waiting in a couple more queues and watching live coverage of the Chinese President’s visit to Tokyo for an hour, I became the proud owner of a brand new 3-year Engineering work visa. Sweet! This also means I will start work on Monday. That’s good news!

Driver’s License

I thought I’d take advantage of my day out and about settling paperwork to get a Japanese driver’s license. The process for those holding a Canadian issued license is pretty straightforward: get your license translated at JAF (the local version of the AMA or CAA), then take that to the driver’s license center and hang out there a while.

Everything went smooth until I got to the driver’s license center and discovered the window I needed to go to was closed from 11:00-13:00. I got a number, then got my lunch and a solid siesta, at which point it was time to produce all the documents they needed. Turns out I was short a letter from the registry stating when my license was first issued.

I was a bit miffed at this; nowhere had I read that I needed such a document… but I guess that’s my own fault. The fact that all these places I visited were a 30+ minute commute away from each other, and I live an hour away made it seem like a waste.

Anyway, that night I asked my parents to drop by the registry and get these letters, which they scanned and emailed me right away. Today, with printed letters in hand I headed back, and after 90 minutes was holding my new Japanese driver’s license. I can drive a car or ride a motorcycle up to 400cc.

Earthquake!

We had a bunch of earthquakes last night right around 2am (there were more later in the night). The biggest struck at 1:54am, it was around magnitude 3 where we live. Shux woke up to lots of rattling outside, the bed shaking, noise… she gives me a shove and I wake up.

“There’s an earthquake!” she says. I remember noticing it myself, the bed was definitely not still. But I must have been tired ’cause I just said something like “uh-huh” and went back to sleep. I only remember that snippet. Meanwhile, Shux is laying in bed terrified, until all of a sudden everything stops and there’s this eerie silence. She found it difficult to fall back asleep.

It’s kind of strange, I wonder why I just fell right back asleep? It’s not like I’ve experienced earthquakes all my life or anything. And I guess this one was about the strongest that I have experienced (though I can’t confirm that as I wasn’t really awake!). Poor Shux, lay there in terror waiting for sleep to come, getting no rest for the coming day.

This Weekend: Nikko

We’ll have a good chance to relax this weekend though, as we’re heading to Nikko. We’re leaving Friday morning and staying until Saturday night. Nikko is famous for its temples and shrines and cool weather, but there’s also a lake and mountains, so we’ll have some nature to experience. At any rate, it will be nice and relaxing — hopefully the earthquakes will let Shux sleep 😀

Fast & Award-winning Art & the City from on High

What do amazing city views, racing cars and controversial award-winning art have in common? They’re all in one building and we were there!

Yesterday Shux and I headed to the to check out the BMW Art Car exhibit. In line for tickets we discovered there’s also a Turner Prize exhibit, as well as an open-air observation deck on top of the building, so we decided to see it all.

Tokyo City View & Sky Deck

The observation deck on the 52nd floor of Mori Tower offers great views of almost all around (some parts are blocked by a restaurant). The weather wasn’t bad, but overcast with rain threatening, so some pictures look a little gloomy. In fact, the open-air Sky Deck was closed for the day due to inclement weather — it was re-opened though once we got upstairs.

The view was pretty impressive. On one hand everything seemed so close, but on the other you begin to understand how large and sprawling Tokyo is. Past Haneda Airport is a large building seemingly sitting alone on the water. I didn’t know what it was, but I managed to get a picture of it (with the terrible 16x digital zoom on my camera).

Umi Hotaru

I tried asking what it was, but one person didn’t know and the other spoke Japanese which I couldn’t understand. I looked it up on Google Maps where I learned it’s called 颚の塔 (Kaze no tō). It’s the mid-point of the 9.6km tunnel portion of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line.

The towers blow fresh air into the tunnel. They are built on an artificial island which is also home to a rest stop with restaurants, shops & amusement facilities. I need to go check it out sometime!

See more pictures of Tokyo from the top of Mori Tower.

Transparent Speed: BMW Art Cars

I had heard about the BMW Art Cars some time ago. I only remembered that some old 70s BMWs were painted by some famous artists, Andy Warhol among them. Anyway, I was looking forward to looking at these unique cars.

There seems to be a total of 15 of these cars, however only 5 were on display:

A little disappointed that not all 15 were there to view. There’s still Alexander Calder’s 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL, the car that started it all, on display at the BMW Group Studio in Marunouchi. We’ll be taking it in today.

History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize

Turner Prize Poster

I’m not much into art, but once in a while I can appreciate it. Some of the stuff on display was rather interesting. I guess the Turner Prize tends to evoke lots of controversy over the art nominated. For example, Damien Hirst‘s cow and calf, each split in half and put in separate boxes so one can view the inners of each beast (shown in the Turner Prize poster). Also refreshing was that the items on display weren’t only paintings and sculptures, but also photography, video and performance (of which video was displayed).

Today is Monday but it’s Children’s Day in Japan, part of Golden Week, so no work today. Instead, we slept in and we’ll be exploring more today and tomorrow!

Busy Few Weeks

In the past few weeks, Mike:
-did lots of sakura watching
-visited many touristy places in Tokyo
-left the city for a couple day trips
-and more!

…plus, there are lots of new pictures!

Yes, it has been. Last you heard from me the sakura had just bloomed and the city was turning pink and the family was on their way to visit. Today we’ll just gloss over the highlights and I’ll point you to some pictures I recently uploaded.

The day before our visitors arrived, Shux and I went for a walk to admire the cherry blossoms. We ended up at the Yasukuni Shrine. Pictures here.

Once the family was here, we did a bunch of sightseeing: the Meiji Shrine, sakura at Kitanomaru Park, Asakusa, Ueno, Yokohama, Hakone and more. Lots of shopping, too! Pictures here.

One of the places we missed was Odaiba. Neither Shux nor I had been there before, and we didn’t realize how interesting it’d be for visitors. We checked it out a few days after our guests left; pictures here.

Finally, tomorrow is Shux’s birthday. In honor of this wonderful event in our calendar, I arranged for a surprise weekend at Tokyo Disneyland. I booked a hotel room for Friday night and told Shux we’d go out for dinner. We met at her office when she was done with work, and headed to “a good seafood restaurant I read about.” After walking a few minutes to our hotel “looking for the restaurant,” Shux finally caught on when I started checking in at the front desk.

The next morning we were up early to make the most of Tokyo Disneyland. We hit up Space Mountain first thing, and also enjoyed a bunch of other rides and lots of popcorn (which we waited a long time for) and other junk food. Tokyo Disneyland is smaller than the one in Anaheim, but it was pretty fun nonetheless. Many rides were identical, like Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion. The latter was entirely in Japanese though, which probably contributed to our lack of fear. It was too cold for Splash Mountain. Pictures here.

Perhaps in the future I will write more details about the past few weeks… but somehow that’s doubtful 😀

The Cherry Trees are Blooming

Ah, yes, spring is here! And it sure looks pretty.

Spring is here and it’s no more obvious than the sakura making an appearance around the city. Today I snapped the first photos of my first sakura experience.

These line the street connecting our place to the closest train station, planted inside the secure concrete fence of the Jietai base:

Sakura

Sakura

Also on my excursion today (to pick up new curtains for our apartment) I came by what must be one of the few Krispy Kreme establishments in Japan. Here’s what the Shinjuku location looks like:

Krispy Kreme

You can tell it’s popular by the queue, which continues at the top of the stairs near the right edge of the picture. Whenever I walk by there, I think “maybe today the queue will be short enough for me to justify waiting for some donuts”, but this hasn’t come true yet. Maybe someday.

My mother-, brother- and sister-in-law are coming to visit on Monday. Just in time for the sakura season. We wanted to go to Kyoto next weekend but accommodations are very tough to come by. I think we may be doing a series of day-trips instead.

At any rate, stay tuned for more pictures in the coming days 🙂

Snowboarding, But Not Really

In this episode our heroes have a go at snowboarding. Plenty of exciting chairlift rides await!

Pictures are here.

Last weekend (a week ago now) we traveled to Mt. Naeba in Niigata prefecture for a weekend of snowboarding. We caught a shinkansen out of Tokyo just before 8:30am. A quick 90 minutes later we arrived at Echigo Yuzawa, where a bus took us from the station to our hotel/ski resort.

We quickly got changed, threw our stuff in a coin locker and rented some snowboarding gear. Shux tried skiing once years ago and didn’t have too much fun, and I figured I’d give boarding another try. Besides, it should be more fun if we’re both beginners. All set, we set of for the bunny hill.

First we learned how to strap the board on, try to stand up and slide down the hill in a controlled manner. There was a strong crosswind and it was snowing, making it difficult to see sometimes. The sides of your face, or any other exposed skin, grew cold really quick in these conditions. Nevertheless, it was pretty fun!

Shux snowboarding

It’s too bad I cut the snowboard off in the picture…

After lunch the plan was to take a chairlift up and slowly work our way down the green run. We strapped into our boards, slowly made our way in line toward the chairlift. Shux and I were ahead of our three companions, and all of a sudden the resort employees started shouting something in Japanese, stringing a chain in front of the chairlift indicating it was closing. Shux and I happen to be the last two to be allowed to go up. I figured “We’ll take our time, work our way down, and meet up with the rest eventually.”

The weather had gotten much worse since our bunny hill session though. Once at the top, visibility was down to nothing. We literally couldn’t see people sitting 10 meters away. At first I thought “OK, this will take some time…” but after getting snow in my eyes (I didn’t have goggles) continuously for some 15 seconds I realized it was not a good idea to head down a run I’m completely unfamiliar with in these conditions. We caught the chairlift back down with the crew.

The weather stayed this way for the remainder of the weekend. From the pictures you can see we didn’t do any more snowboarding. But we did have a good, relaxing time hanging out around the resort’s shops, restaurants and pachinko parlor.

On Sunday we left the resort at 4pm. Our train was scheduled to leave at 5:35pm, so we had some time at the station to hang out. We grabbed some yakitori for dinner and saw a sake tasting room and food tasting buffet at an overcrowded store. When we got to the platform the earlier scheduled trains hadn’t left yet.

Mike with a shinkansen

The inclement weather caused major delays. We eventually arrived back home a couple hours late. Because Japan’s trains are usually right on time, such a delay is regarded as an immense inconvenience. For any delays longer than 2 hours, the tickets are always refunded in full. That’s awesome! It’d be great if airlines did something similar…

All in all a somewhat disappointing weekend since we didn’t snowboard much, but still a relaxing and enjoyable break. We’ll have to go again when the weather is more hospitable.