Nagoya

I have not been a faithful blogger, despite still having half of our Japan trip to post about.  For that I apologize, and instead of excuses I present you pretty pictures.

 Our next stop in Japan was Nagoya.  Situated pretty much in the middle of the Big Island, Nagoya was only on our radar for one thing, and one thing only: Sumo. 

Japan has 6 big sumo tournaments a year.  A tournament lasts 14 long days, and tickets can be hard to come by, especially to foreigners.  The July tournament was in Nagoya.  I did a lot of research online to figure out the best way to get tickets, and stumbled upon a service that will buy tickets on your behalf and ship them to the US.

I highly recommend them, but be prepared for a bit of sticker shock on the ticket prices.  Seeing a Sumo match, let alone a tournament, was on my bucket-list so it was a no-brainer.

The Sumo tournament almost fell through when accusations of illegal betting started hitting the news leading up to the month of the tournement.  Sumo is serious business.  Thankfully the powers-at-be convened and decided to go ahead with the tournament.

When we arrived in Nagoya by train, in the late morning, we had a mission: get cash, get to the hotel, and get to the tournement!

The tournament day lasts from 8am to about 8pm, and as the day goes on the matches get more and more important, with better and better wrestlers.  We wanted to get there by 2pm or so.

When we got to the Nagoya station we were tired and sweaty.  We needed cash for the Hotel (in Japan you usually pay cash at check in).  We looked for the red 〒 symbol which means Post Office, which means international cash machine.

Not finding one near the station that we could walk to, and really not feeling like risking it on the subway, we decided to go to the street and hail a cab.  We learned that day that Cab Drivers are not nearly as good with English or foreigners as the shop keepers or hotel staff.  We did find an ATM, and we did find our hotel, while I nervously watched the map on my iPhone to make sure we were going the right direction.

 

After checking in we navigated the labrynthian Mall/Subway station (a huge underground mall spanning subway station after subway station) and found a train that would take us to Nagoya Castle and the Prefectural Gym where they were hosting the Sumo Tournament.

Grateful for some air conditioning and some lunch, we were escorted to our 2-person boxed seat and given a box lunch and a cold green tea.  Our seats were closer than the above photo implies.

Sumo is a sport of mental intimidation as much as physical power.  After the referee/announcer literally sings the names of the contestants, and while fans randomly shout cheers for their favorite team or wrestler, the Sumo wrestlers pose and posture on either side of the center of the ring.  They raise their legs and pound them on the ground like hammers. 

Many times, a wrestler will interrupt the posturing, get up and grab a handful of salt to throw on the ground.  This is the first half of the match - the mental intimidation.  The goal is to psyche out the other wrestler.  Eventually, usually with little warning - the huge behemoths rocket toward each other and collide like two fleshy planets.

The goal, if you don't know, is to get the other wreslter out of the circle or on the ground.  It doesn't take long.  Usually less than 10 seconds.  We watched and marveled at the spectacle.  We watched geisha tend to old (and apparently) rich patrons, and watched middle aged men who had had too many sapporos stumble down the stadium steps.

At about 6pm we wanted to sneak out and go to the nearby castle, which was on our agenda.  However, they were closing by the time we made it to the entrance.

It was no matter, since we were ready for dinner at this point.  This was the first restaurant I had actually researched from home ahead of time, and I was ready.  The restaurant was called "Layers", and they specialize in hamburgers.  I had read stellar reviews.

We took another cab there because it was a bit of a hike from a subway station.  I really regret not taking my camera to this place.  I mean, extreme regret.  Take my word, this place was one of the smallest restaurants ever.  A brightly lit beacon on a dark Nagoya street not far from downtown, this place had about 4 tables total, and 2 extremely friendly staff.  One the cook, one the waiter.

Christina got a hot dog, I got an avocado cheeseburger and we shared a plate of fries.  I am not exaggerating when I say it was the best hamburger I had ever had.  I'm not just saying that because I had been used to rice and fish or chicken.  It was the perfect size, perfect doneness, perfect balance of toppings.

We soaked in the kitschiness of the small restaurant while we savored our dinners.  We were the only ones in the place, and the waiter stood at attention to let us know he was at our disposal, but he never felt like he was breathing down our necks.

When we left the restaurant, I turned and said, in broken Japanese: "Totemo Oishii Desu!"  (That is very delicious!")  They both grinned and said thank you very much as we left to stroll through downtown back to our hotel.

The next morning we had a few hours to kill before we had to catch a train to Tokyo, so we went back to Nagoya castle.  The park was beautiful and lush, and we had some awesome ice cream before touring the (reconstructed) castle. 

Part museum, part reconstruction, the castle was one of the best sight seeing spots we went to in Japan.  It showed a slice of life in Feudal Japan and the mythology of Nagoya.  It also highlighted the culture of war that ruled Japan during much of this time.  Kingdoms that rose and fell in the mountains and shorelines of medieval Japan.

Our only thought while heading to the train station and eventually Tokyo was that we should have spent one more day in Nagoya.  For all the Nagoya photos, click here!

Next, Tokyo in 2 or 3 parts!

 

Japan Trip: Iwakuni

Christina's Step-brother checking out the Iwakuni Castle map

We've been back in the States a full week, and I still haven't gone through my photos.  I've decided to dump the best pictures as I process them to my flickr stream, so please check that out for all the photos.  I will post a slideshow of each day as I complete them to this blog, as well as facebook.

The first leg of our trip - Iwakuni

After a 4 hour flight, a 2 hour layover, and a 12 hour flight (all of which took place over 33 hours on the clock -- we left Chicago 6am on Friday, and didn't arrive in Osaka until 3pm Saturday), we arrived in Osaka excited and a little anxious.

Our final destination will still 3 hours by train away, where Christina's step-brother and his family were waiting for us.  We got a JR Pass in anticipation of our trip, and I can't recommend them emphatically enough, if you're doing any kind of serious travelling within Japan.  They must be bought in the US from a travel agent, and you turn them in to have free access to all but the fastest JR trains and metro lines in the major cities.

After going through immigration and customs, we turned in our vouchers for our Rail Passes, and we got tickets to our final destination, Iwakuni.

The train ride from Osaka to Hiroshima (about 2 hours) was magical.  We got 1st class JR Passes (which I recommend if you have the extra budget), which gave us reserved seats on 1st class cars.  We were literally the only people in the train car on the way to Hiroshima, so we just soaked in the countryside.  Everything was so green and lush.  It was overcast and beautiful from the air-conditioned train.  We found out later how hot and humid it really was outside!

At Hiroshima, we had to transfer to a local line that took us to Iwakuni (about a 40 minute ride).  The local train was more akin to a subway, we had to stand and straddle our bags while surrounded by commuters.

I don't have pictures from the day of our arrival at all.  I'll blame jet lag and just be preocuppied by it all.  John and Brenda met us at the Iwakuni station and walked us to our hotel, then took us to dinner at a Teppanyaki restaurant, where you cook your own meat over a small charcoal hibachi in your table.

Christina made the first faux-pas of the trip and barged into the dining room with her shoes on!  Luckily the waiter got her attention before she got too far.  Christina was in for another culture shock when she pointed at some good-looking meat on the Menu and found out it was actually Horse meat prepared "shabu shabu" (sliced extremely thin and boiled quickly in broth at the table).  Needless to say we weren't interested in any horse meat.

After dinner Jet-lag started to sink in (it was about 10pm), so we went back to our hotel, watched some TV, and crashed.  We stayed at the Green Rich hotel, which was quite nice and very modern, but our room was tiny.

 Christina posing with her umbrella in Iwakuni.

The next day we both woke up dead awake at 6am and couldn't go back to sleep, so we decided to go explore the area around our Hotel, even though it was a little drizzly.  I shot some pictures and was absolutely struck by how clean and tidy and safe it all felt, considering how small and rural the town was.  Dozens of bikes without locks, people opening their shops and sweeping the sidewalks.

After a couple of hours, we met John and he took us on base for breakfast/lunch with his Family.  After that, we made a trip to the Kintai Bridge and Iwakuni Castle.

Christina and I in front of Kintai Bridge

It was very warm and humid that day, so needless to say we were sweating most of the afternoon.  Kintai bridge was pretty amazing, even though I was disappointed to learn they rebuild it every 40 years (I thought it was original).  After crossing the bridge (which cost about $3), we explored a pretty large park with gardens, koi ponds, shrines and other cool things.

There was a tram that went up to the top of a steep hill where Iwakuni Castle waited.  While Iwakuni Castle was a "small" castle by Japan standards, it was very cool to see, and the inside was decked out with old Samurai armor, swords, and scrolls and paintings.  At the top was an observatory where you got a breathtaking view of the whole city, looking south all the way to the ocean.

 All in all it was a good first full day in Japan.  Getting to spend it with family made the transition a lot easier, and it made us excited for the days to come.  I'm very glad we saw the Bridge and Castle in Iwakuni. 

Up next, I will talk about our trip to Kyoto, where our vacation took a bit of a turn for the worse (but don't worry it gets better).

Trekking To Tokyo

Map of the Central Tokyo Wards, courtesy www.japaneselifestyle.com.au

Christina and I are less than a month away from our trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.  Before, I talked about our trip through the country which will take most of our 10 days.  However, our last part of the trip will be 4 days in Tokyo.

Tokyo is not a city so much as a metropolis.  IN Japan, Tokyo is one of the 47 prefectures or geographical and political "zones" throughout the country (kind of like States, I guess?).  Within the Tokyo Prefecture is the metropolis commonly called "Tokyo", even though it technically is 23 seperate Wards which are cities with their own governments, as well as 39 municipalities -- all with a combined population of 35 million people.  That's the population of the LA and New York metropolises combined.

... so, you can understand it's a little intimidating trying to plan 4 days there.

More about where we plan to stay and what we are doing later.

The Vanns Land in Japan

Next Month, Christina and I are taking by far the biggest trip we have in our 5 year marriage (and our lives).  We're going to Japan.

We had originally planned to go on a Japanese tour with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew, but they had to bail for financial reasons.  Christina and I had already commited to saving for the trip, so we figured, "what the hell?" and planned to take the plunge on our own.

I have always wanted to go to Japan, and even studied Japanese in college.  I wish I had kept up with my Japanese, because 95% of it is gone.  I know some basic sentence structures and can fumble my way around Katakana and Hiragana, but I've been trying to play catch up these past few months with audio books, iPhone apps, anything to try and get some key phrases to stick.

We are planning a 10 day trip, and will be hitting just about the breadth of the southern portion of Honshu (the big crescent shaped island in the middle).  Another very good reason for our trip is to visit Christina's step-brother and his family, who are stationed at the Iwakuni Marine base on the very western edge of Honshu.

 

Christina is a planner and we're both worriers, so we put our computer science and project management hats on to plan out a nation-spanning trip over 10 days.  We knew we wanted to go to Kyoto, to see a Sumo match, and of course Tokyo and Iwakuni.

The best and cheapest flight for us will have us leaving early morning Friday and arriving in Osaka late afternoon Saturday.  Unfortunately there aren't any big commercial airports west of Osaka, so that is the closest we can land before heading to Iwakuni.  Flying into Hiroshima would have cost an extra $1000 or more, and we are sticking to a budget!

So, we'll hit the ground and immediately hop on a train for Iwakuni, arriving about 8:30pm local time.  Christina's step-brother John has graciously agreed to meet us at the train station in Iwakuni and take us to dinner.  It'll be great to see a friendly face in such a foreign land.

Iwakuni is the first leg in our trep from West to East across Japan.  It is a long distance, but the shinkansen and Japan Rail (JR) trains are very efficient.  The above map gives you some idea of the distance we'll be traveling.  From end to end it'll be like going from Champaign, IL to Pittsburgh, PA.

Iwakuni is a great city to visit, turns out.  It is "in the country" and doesn't get a lot of tourists, and it has the feel of "old Japan", so I'm excited, even though it'll be much harder to find people who can speak English.

Two days later we will take the train to Kyoto, where we will spend the next two nights in a nice, romantic Ryokan, which is a Japanese style Inn, usually with hot springs, communal baths, and tea ceremonies.  We're going on a Geisha tour and checking out a tea ceremony and of course taking lots of pictures of the Temples.

Next, we take a one-day excursion to Nagoya to see the Sumo Tournament!  Sumo Tournaments are serious business in Japan, and every other month a different city hosts a 2 week tournament.  In July, it is Nagoya, which happens to be smack-in-the-middle of our trek East.  Tickets are pricey, but it'll be worth it.

The next day we head out to Tokyo, the biggest Metropolis in the world.  I used to think of Tokyo as a large city, but it's actually 13 wards, 24 cities and several villages all tangled into a giant web of concrete and neon lights.

We are spending 4 nights in Tokyo, and planning for Tokyo has been just as complicated as planning the whole other half of the trip.  Mapping out subway routes, finding a hotel and finding the best restaurants.  Tokyo literally has some of the best shopping, best food, best museums and entertainment in the world, so we want to make sure we don't miss out.

Since Tokyo is such a big part of our trip, I'll be making a separate blog post just about it.