Day 1 - Tokyo, Japan
|Monday, March 24: Our adventure actually started at 6:00 AM on Saturday morning, with flights to Chicago, San Francisco, and Osaka, arriving at Kansai International Airport in Osaka on Sunday evening. We picked up our Japan Rail Passes, made our train seat reservations, and checked into the Nikko Kansai Airport Hotel and got a good night's sleep. We were wide awake and ready for the first train of the morning into the city at 6:34 AM.
|Can it be? Vending as far as the eye can see! We had exchanged money when we got in the night before, so we happily dove into this buying opportunity.
|So much to choose from! We chose a coffee drink and a Royal Milk Tea.
|We were the first ones in the Green Car's Reserved Seats that morning. We had purchased our Japan Rail Passes in advance (they're only available for purchase by tourists prior to their arrival in Japan), and had paid a little extra for the first class (Green Car) pass. It just took a few minutes at the station to make a reservation for a reserved seat as well, so we traveled in remarkable comfort for several days.
|We hadn't noticed on the vending machines that the blue and red backdrops to the prices indicated whether the beverage was warm or cold, so we were pleasantly surprised to find the Royal Milk Tea was warm. It turned out to be the first of at least a dozen that we enjoyed during our Asian vacation.
|We were on the Haruka, also known as the Kansai Airport Express. Our seats had tiny fold-out trays which held our tickets and beverages nicely.
|The scenery on the one-hour trip from Kansai Airport to Shin-Osaka rail station was classic Japan. We saw gardens and parks and homes with extremely cool tile roofs.
|As we neared downtown Osaka, we saw this building that had been featured on "The Amazing Race" a few months earlier. Our schedule didn't allow us to visit it, but we made up for it with visits to the top of four other towers during our trip. We came back to see it in February 2010.
|We had read about bento boxes prior to our trip, so we were excited to try them. The language barrier was easily broken by pointing at what we wanted and paying the price on the calculator offered to us containing the total price.
|The second phase of our trip to Tokyo was on the Shinkansen, more commonly known in the US as the bullet trains. There are three different types of trains, and this was the newest -- the Nozomi. The Japan Rail Pass doesn't cover travel on the Nozomi ...
|... but that's no problem, because the Hikari is nearly as fast, taking about 20 minutes longer to get to Tokyo, in just under three hours.
|All signs in the Japan rail stations were in both Kanji and English, so we had no problem getting around. Electronic signs alternated between Kanji ...
|... and English. This sign shows us that this is the place to stand for Car 9, which is a non-smoking Green Car. The next train is Hikari 362, the one we'll be taking, and the Nozomi will be leaving from the same place shortly afterward.
|The Hikari car was just as roomy and comfortable as the Haruka was.
|Once settled in, it was time to open our bento boxes. We had also purchased some new mystery drinks from the vending machines on the tracks. The trains also have a vending machine in every other car.
|This display of mystery foods was Debbie's selection. It was the tentacles in the bottom center of this box that proved irresistible. Other goodies included rice, sushi, egg thingies, veggies, beans, and a variety of things we couldn't identify.
|Tom's bento box was smaller and contained a different variety of items, mostly delicious and only partially identifiable.
|The Shinkansen glides along smoothly and swiftly. We caught a glimpse of Kyoto and looked forward to our visit the next day.
|The Japanese countryside was beautiful, with misty clouds clinging to the hills as the sky attempted to clear overhead.
|We caught nearly a full sky of sunshine but it was fleeting, ...
|... since it was raining when we got to Tokyo.
|The rain changed from light mist to an actual downpour as we walked toward the Ginza district. Our waterproof anoraks kept us relatively dry, but our feet and legs were soaked, so we spent $10 on two cheap clear umbrellas, which improved our visit immeasurably.
|It was clear that we were the only people who hadn't been carrying umbrellas up to that point. We reached the main street in the Ginza district, which is lined with expensive boutiques.
|This was our main destination -- the Four Corners intersection. We've seen this intersection in movies and on television before, and it was worth the cold, wet walk to get here. This view had changed a bit when we came back two years later.
|We headed back to the Tokyo train station, which was conveniently adjacent to an underground mall. It was here that we had our first McDonald's meal, Japan-style. Ordering was easy; we just pointed at what we wanted on a laminated picture menu at the counter.
|Debbie had an incredibly delicious Filet-O-Ebi, which is a burger featuring a deep-fried patty made entirely of shrimp. It tastes like a New Orleans po-boy in an extremely efficient form. Tom picked something that turned out to be a sausage patty and egg on a bun. We also enjoyed hot, golden fries that tasted like pure American heaven, and the world's smallest cups of Coca-Cola Light, the first we had found on our trip.
|After Debbie bought some socks to replace her soaked ones at Smart Life Market, a store where everything was 315 Yen (~$3), Tom bought a replacement camera for the one that stopped working when it got soaked by the rain. How did we get this photo, you might be asking. We always carry a spare when we travel, so we used our spare camera when our main one died, and then needed to buy another spare. We never risk not having a camera when we are traveling, and after a small scare in Turkey last year, we never risk not having spare batteries as well.
|We exchanged our 4:30 reserved tickets for a 2:30 train instead, because we were soaked and tired. We didn't get to see as much of Tokyo as we had hoped, but the train ride alone had been worth the trip. At least we had seen more of the city than we had on previous layovers at Tokyo's Narita airport.
|When our train arrived, a team of cleaners entered every car of the train to clean it, so we waited patiently outside.
|Buh-bye, Tokyo! We'll miss you!
|We love your electronics!
|As we headed back south, the sun came out and reminded us again what a beautiful country Japan is.
|We have no idea what these fields of hedges are for, but they were all over the place and we admired their neat appearance. Well, mostly Debbie the gardener did.
|Japan has some beautiful bridges. Here's one. We'll show you some more later, we promise.
|Chek out this cool building!
|And this one! This is called the Solar Ark, and it is made up completely of solar panels. Those clever Japanese.
|A few of the hills were tall enough to still have patches of snow on them. As we were looking out the window, another Shinkansen would pass us on the right side of the train every 10 minutes or so. Since both trains are extremely fast, the sudden passage is unexpected, slightly jolting, and over in seconds. If it happened while trying to line up the perfect photograph, we called it "getting bullet-trained." We adopted this phrase for permanent use, and now apply it to having other vehicles block your view and having another tourist step into your shot at the last second.
|As we passed Kyoto again, we saw the Kyoto Tower, and thought, "Hey, let's go there tomorrow!"
|Changing trains at Shin-Osaka again, we were excited to get more bento boxes for dinner. This time, there were so many selections in the case that we just took pictures of what we wanted on our camera, then showed the camera to the clerk, who smiled with recognition both times. This was Debbie's selection ...
|... and this was Tom's. Without fail, the Japanese people we met were friendly and more than willing to communicate with us using whatever method we could come up with.
|We also picked up some tea in the ubiquitous vending machines and some mystery buns that turned out to contain a sweet cream filling.
|The sun was setting as we transferred back to the Kansai Airport Express/Haruka, so we watched the sky go dark during our hour-long trip back to our hotel.
|After we got off the train, we took this photo for you, dear reader. This is the office where you will exchange your Japan Rail Pass order for your actual rail pass. It's located right outside of the hotel entrance (see photo below) and across the hall from the entrance to the rail station (see top photo). Just get in line here and the nice JR folks will get you set up with your pass and your reserved tickets.
|Ahhh, the sweet sight of the entrance to our beloved airport hotel. It is here that Debbie spent the rest of the evening fighting a cold that lasted our entire vacation. Tom was lucky enough not to catch it until the day we returned.
We paused once more to get a shot of the hotel itself, which featured comfortable beds and the most incredibly soundproof rooms we've ever experienced. We never once heard an airplace take off even though we were on the actual airport grounds.
Copyright © Deborah Schilling/Thomas Bundy