Friday, March 30, 2007

They're cooooooming....

Well, a mere matter of days after my family leaves Japan, the cherry trees in Ueno Park at 100% and those in Utsunomiya are on their way. Too bad folks! But do keep an eye on the blog and you'll see what you missed.

Yoshiko and I hopped on our bikes this morning and did a bit of Sakura scouting around central Utsunomiya. Our first stop was Shoun-ji, where the trees are in fact well on their way.

The grounds of this temple also have this large tree, which was planted in the early Edo period, some 350 years ago. This old feller has survived many years and even a direct lightning strike. I missed seeing it in full bloom last year, won't make the same mistake this year.

Next, we crossed over into Hachimanyama Park to check out the progress there, and most of the trees were still very early in their blooming cycle. Nonetheless, we will be back here on Sunday for a bit of a Cherry Blossom Party... looking forward to it!

After having lunch at Yarra, near the Tochigi Prefectural Office, we continued on to Jikou-ji, where the city's earliest blossoming tree is located. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in for a bit and I couldn't get a decent shot... a nice tree for sure.

We then made our way up to Futaarayama Shrine where a few of the trees have started up. Unfortunately, the construction of a nearby building has totally messed up the central approach to the shrine, which is quite lovely this time of year. Just in the last few weeks, they've erected a metal fence and ripped up the road right at the base of the stairs to the shrine... and just before the big cherry blossom viewing crowds come in.... bad planning desu ne? Stupid construction. At least the future views from this area promise to be better. After the demolition of two building which crowded in to the main access to the shrine, they will keep a wider avenue once the new buildings go up.

A few of the azalea trees up there were blooming quite nicely though.

There was also a man feeding pigeons, which is always amusing to watch. These birds would come right up onto his arm to get their soy beans...

Over the last few days of moving around downtown, I've noticed some additions in the form of signage and maps on the streets, in Japanese and English, which is nice.

I guess this may be part of the tourist plan with the newly built Utsunomiya "Castle" opening recently. I guess they expect an influx of visitors? Good luck with that, we happened to bike by the other day and it's nothing too too spectacular. Then again, I have seen 2 of the best castles in Japan, Matsumoto and Himeji, which are both originals... a fero-concrete reproduction just doesn't float my boat I guess.

So, with less than three weeks in Japan left, and less than two weeks left before we move in with Yoshiko's parents in Imaichi, we've started getting ready. A recycling company is dropping by tomorrow to give us a price for Yoshiko's appliances and some of the furniture she'll be getting rid of. We've also boxed up some things and are now waiting for the move date to get closer before packing in earnest. I don't really have anything left here since my folks took 5 bags of mine home, including my skis. So that's that!

Oh, and I will be needing a job when I get back in Canada... Something around the Vice-Presidential level of a company would be nice... but I'm willing to accept lower... lol Do keep your ears open for me won't you? Don't wanna go back into tech support, unless it's a Team Lead position, going to be trying to get in to the government I believe... we shall see.

Monday, March 26, 2007

And that's a wrap

Well, as I've gotten a good night's rest and my family is about to land in Ottawa, I think it's time to get the final blog of this great trip sorted out and out there. Quite the busy two weeks we've had, and I am glad to report that the trip was a resounding success. Everyone had a great time and I'm sure we will all look back fondly on our time together running around Japan. It was really great for Yoshiko to get to meet and spend time with my father and brothers, and they got along swimmingly.

Before moving on to our final two days in Tokyo, I'd like to make an addendum to my previous post. While in Harajuku, we met and spoke with an interesting gentleman who was writing poems about the dancing dude. He struck up a conversation with me and Christian and moved on to my parents. I guess he could be characterized as upper class homeless, with printing resources and an email address. After looking up his name online, I now understand why he gave me a book of his writings about Afghanistan. It seems he's spent a good chunk of his life abroad, actually living in Afghanistan during the Soviet War. Very interesting fellow and I gladly bought one of his little books of Haiku. His name is Hideo Asano and it seems like many bloggers have run in to him in various parts of Tokyo and written about their encounter. Do take the time to listen to him if you have the luck of running in to him.

So, on to the final 2 days. On Sunday morning, we awoke to a relatively strong rain falling outside. Seeing as this had been forecast, it was not a surprise and merely put off our plans for an hour or so as we waited for it to slow down a bit. We ended up making a run out to a 100Yen shop for umbrellas, grabbing some breakfast at a bakery and eating on the platform at Okachimachi station. After watching a series of Yamanote line trains run by, which supplied an audience to our breakfast, we hopped on one and headed to Akihabara, the Electronics Mecca of Tokyo, and I guess the world. After bumming around a few of the stores and enjoying some geeky conversation amongst ourselves, we decided to check out the massive new Yodobashi Camera store East of the station.

This place has pretty much anything and everything one might want, though my brothers were a bit dismayed at the prices on things. I guess things here tend to stay cutting edge, with only the newest models available. I imagine that protectionist policies also stop many items from being imported from Taiwan and Korea and such, leaving prices high and limiting competition to retailers and not manufacturers so much. Prices back home at Future Shop are much better. For example, I saw my camera, which I bought not long after it came out selling at a significantly higher price than I paid 8 months ago. Anywho, an interesting place to visit nonetheless and I did purchase a quick release head for my tripod.

Finding that the rain had stopped, we headed out to the music instrument area around Ochanomizu station and the kids enjoyed poking around the multi-floor displays of guitars and other music related products. The most expensive thing we saw was a guitar going for about 100,000$! Amazing! We then decided to walk back to the station and explore the neighbourhoods on the way. Spotted this old brick wall and grabbed a shot of it.

Right by our hotel, we discovered this temple which was surrounded by stands of ema, wooden slats used to write your wishes on and hang at temples.

I have never seen so many of these in one place... anyone have any idea what's up with that?

After a quick rest at the hotel, which allowed me to research a place for dinner, we left again and dropped in to Kurofunetei where we enjoyed their amazing Hayashi Rice, the sauce of which is simmered for a week... yum! A quick peek at their web site just now reveals that John Lennon ate there some time ago, cool! With plans to wake up early to visit Tsukiji Fish Market the next morning, we turned in early, though 5:30 came up pretty quickly nonetheless.

Despite this early morning expedition occurring at the end of a very long and tiring trip, I do not regret making it. Tsukiji is an AMAZING place to visit. The sheer scale and chaos of the whole thing had us standing around in awe as carts zoomed by in every direction carrying all sorts of critters from 10,000$ Tuna to eel and shellfish I'd never even heard of. For me, this was definitely a highlight of this trip, and I may try to make it back there some time before I leave Japan. We took the Hibiya line, where I went into tour guide mode once more and rattled off some of the facts from the Tokyo Gas Attack back in 1995. The Hibiya line was one of the ones targeted, and our little track between Ueno and Tsukiji turned out to be one of the deadliest with 8 deaths.

After exiting Tsukiji station and getting our bearing, we waded into the huge market and were immediately engulfed in workers doing their thing. Some were on motorized carts, others were pulling hand carts.

The market is a wonder of organisation with over 2000 tons of seafood passing through every day with over 60,000 workers keeping things rolling from the early hours of the morning into early afternoon. Of course, ice is a hugely popular commodity here, and we saw many ice supply stations around.

The most interesting part of the market for me was the tuna operations. Early on in the morning, an auction is held for the tuna on hand some going as high as 10,000$ and being shipped everywhere in the world. Tuna which is meant for the outer market then makes it's way through where it is prepared and packaged accordingly. At any given time, you are likely to see trolleys of frozen tuna being zoomed around in any part of the market. Very cool. Here is my favourite part of the tuna, its chin, on sale for a wholesale price of a whopping 200Yen (2$)...

Here is a worker checking his paperwork while surrounded by solid tunas.

The size of the market is hard to convey in photos, unless you were to rent a helicopter and take an aerial shot. It is just huge.

Here are some halved tunas, still in the central area, which was recently made off-limits to marauding tourists, waiting to be shipped out.

Not everything here is frozen, and thanks to the freshness and cleaning that goes on here, there is no nasty funky smell floating around. Here are some fresh tuna, waiting to be sashimied no doubt.

Of course, not everything here involves tuna. There are over 400 different kinds of seafood which are sold here, including these huge scallops. Mmmmm, scallops...

Back to the tuna though... while the frozen tuna are sectioned by electric saw, the fresh ones are done by hand. Here is a video of a team working at quartering frozen tuna.

Here is a team working on quartering this big boy by hand.

After making the initial cut, they pull out this long sword and pull out a quarter of the meat.

The frozen ones are handled a little less delicately. Here a worker is hacking away at a carcass with an axe... notice how the fish is bigger than the guy holding it up... and that's without the head and tail!

I guess these guys will stay frozen for a while longer, the worker was putting blocks of dry ice on them.

Things both inside and outside of the building were quite frenzied and I must tip my hat off to the drivers of these trolleys for their driving skills. They somehow manage to skirt their way through groups of people, vehicles, carts, fish piles, boxes and other assorted obstacles and we didn't see one collision or anything close to it. They do quite well working their way around dumb tourists and photographers like us too... lol

There are traffic jams on occasion though, as we witnessed when a car needed some assistance parking.

To cap off our Tsukiji experience, we opted for a sushi breakfast at one of the on-site eateries which serve THE freshest fish anywhere.

We opted for a custom order, with Luc finally getting to try the Awabi he had his heart set on. Here are our sushi chefs doing their thing.

Here is our platter. Shrimp and Salmon on top, Tuna and Awabi in the middle and Eel along the bottom.

This wasn't just any tuna, it was Otoro... fatty tuna which simply melts in your mouth. Quite nice.

And having never tried eel, I opted to go the sushi route and it was REALLY good!

Here is Luc enjoying his Awabi, one of his stated goals for this trip.

And an unshaven Micheru gobbling down a chunk of tuna.

While Sebastien had a few and Christian tried pieces of sushi, I don't think they've quite developed a taste for raw fish yet... lol We left the fish behind and went back to the hotel to pack our bags and check out. After meeting up again with the whole original crew, with Yoshiko back in Tokyo for the final sendoff, we headed for a final walk into Ueno park to see how the cherry trees had progressed. While they weren't quite at their prime, everyone was glad to get to see some of the trees blooming.

A lovely end to a great trip.

We finally made our way to Narita with the group where we picked up my extra bags which I was sending along and said our goodbyes. This one will be a short one though, as Yoshiko and I will be in Canada in just a little over 3 weeks! Will go by very quickly!

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Wow, time certainly does fly. Here we are in Tokyo, with only a little more than 24 hours left before the end of this little cross Japan voyage of ours. And it looks like our last day in Tokyo will be a pretty mellow one judging by the rain falling outside. I had planned to take the crew out to Akihabara and the Imperial Palace, but we will have to wait and see what the weather does. Regardless, we should be departing the hotel for breakfast and our first stop of the day (a 100 yen shop for umbrellas) around 10:30.

In the meantime, here is a quick run through the last 2 days in Tokyo. After arriving and dropping our bags off at the hotel, we headed right into nearby Ueno park to see how the cherry trees were doing. Of course, Ueno Park is one of the hubs of the homeless community here in Tokyo and there are always some colourful characters about.

As far as the cherry trees go, they were right on the verge of popping. With any luck, they'll be bloomed on Monday when we will take our final walk through the park.

In fact, a few trees did have blossoms out, but nothing as spectacular as what is still to come.

After grabbing a bite to eat at the fantastic kebab stands in Ameyayokocho, we checked in to our hotel and hopped back on the trains, bound for Shibuya. As I expected, everyone was quite impressed with Shibuya crossing and the number of people flowing through the intersection every few minutes.

As usual, there are people hanging around outside of Starbucks right in front of the crossing. This following picture is a shout out to the Japan Window photo blog I have linked on the right. He has taken quite a few pictures of people here.

After bumming around for a bit, we moved on to Shinjuku where we arrived at the Observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in time to see a nice sunset.

And of course, after the sun went down, we were treated to a good night view.

Having brought my tripod along and doing my best to cover reflections with my coat, I managed to get a couple of good shots from up here. Here is a shot of Shinjuku station from the top.

After circling the station a bit and finding things either busy or expensive, we opted to head back to Ueno for dinner where Yoshiko headed back to Utsunomiya for a bit of a break and to write the TOEIC test today. After a tonkatsu dinner, we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning, we had a quick breakfast at a nearby bakery\cafe and took the Ginza line to Asakusa to visit Senso-ji and its shopping street.

At one of the shops, this master was putting together some red bean delicacies by hand.

Many pigeons flutter around on the grounds of the temple, and there are of course the requisite signs warning against feeding them. This one was cute with the pigeon having his own message for would-be feeders.

Outside of the temple is of course the large incense urn where people congregate to rub some of the health-inducing smoke into their bodies.

Along the yatai stands to the left of the temple, I caught this little artisan doing his thing.

As the morning progressed, the crowds grew thicker and our walk back towards the station was significantly more difficult. Here is my uncle fighting the crowds.

We then moved on to Harajuku where I was dismayed to find that the cos-play folks were not putting in an appearance. We did see this guy, rocking out on the side of the street next to his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, the reason for the sparse crowds here became obvious when a police car stopped in front with lights flashing and an officer came by and had the dancing guy and a small band who was playing move along.

He even ticketed the band.

I also managed to get a look at the Free Hug people I'd read about a while back. They just stand there with a sign and hug away, trying to bring a little warmth, in contrast with the police officer who took it away.

And here is an aerial shot of the now nearly deserted area where one of Tokyo's sub-cultures once had a place to hang out. Too bad.

We walked from there down to Omotesando, where I wanted to show the folks the crowds again. It being a Saturday and with nice weather, the people certainly turned out for the occasion.

Still lots of construction going on in the area too.

Since the cos play thing turned into a bit of a bust, we decided to see how Shibuya Crossing was on the weekend... and the answer? BUSY Here is the crew crossing for themselves in the sea of people.

And that was that, after heading back to Ueno and grabbing some grub, we were done for the night.

I got a couple of good night shots of the crossing, a place I had never visited at night.

Got a got shot of our three photographers here...

As I sit here, the rain actually seems to be getting harder, so not sure what's in store for today yet. We shall see.