Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunny after Sunday

The rain has stopped
the sun is out;
some autumn leaves,
not many.
the rate of exchange here is 77.

your turn

Money Rates

We arrived in Tokyo on a Friday arround dinner time and barely made it to bed; no banks open then or Saturday. Soooo we were forced to change money in hotels automatic changer machine created to piss off Benjamin Franklin with huge insults (69.3) Yuck-- but we had no other choices.
Arrive hotel in Kyoto on Sunday, had to use their rate too, but yippee, they are sane people here and we got 77. That is a huge difference, as these things so.

Moral of the story, do not change money at 60 if you can get 75.

Even transaction fees on bank cards have to be better than the spread used at the InterConti!

Now we head off into the rain to wet our money on taxi fares. The average taxi price is $15 to a nearby location and $25 to something more elaborate--

Bullet Train to Kyoto

Perhaps I am jaded after ten years of living in France, but the famous Shinkansen, bullet train of Japan, seems no different from the TGV. I must admit that the getting the tickets and onto the train business was shockingly easy.

Things can go wrong any where, of course. I am reminded of a wonderful story about Calvin Klein getting on a train in Germany for Monte Carlo and taking the one marked Monaco which is Munich, or something like that--

Anyway, the taxi took us from the InterConti ANA straight away to Tokyo Station which is under reconstruction and therefore less than charming. We went in via the East (Yaesu) Central Entrance, followed the sign in English for tickets, bought them on the spot from someone who spoke perfect English ($150 per person each way)and allowed ourselves 50 minutes to poke around the station and explore what they call First Avenue, the basement level shopping and easting district.

While there is much going on in and around Tokyo Station, it is too much for any one brain to contemplate--especially on a Sunday. Travellers swarmed around us, so we dove underground to the delightful arcade with shops and munchies, vending machines and wonderful smells of fresh cooked something or another. (Don't ask, don't tell.)

Since gift giving is part of the Japanese culture, there were many gift shops with the usual beautiful boxes of cookies and candies as well as much Hello Kitty merchandise. I found some very cute mice cookies (honest) that I will buy for the man who set the mousetraps at my home in Paso, but for now-- I didn't want the burden of extra weight. Still, it was all great fun, although schlepping even a single rolly was a pain. I had a Harajuku Lovers back-pack as carry-on and Sarah wished she too had a back-pack, I wished I'd had a mule train, but that's just me. The station was incredibly hot, so we also had to carry our coats. And shortly after arrival, I was carrying extra shopping bags.

We went to Gate 14 about 15 minutes before our train and sat the the Cafe du Gare which made us gleeful, then took the escalator up to the platform and saw that we were exactly at the spot to line up for Car 6. Everything was well-marked and easy as pie. In France, you have to know to use the train chart and must also know the alphabet in order to find where to stand. In Tokyo, it was forthright and easy.

The tickets were printed in English & Japanese therefore easy to read. We took our seats and pulled out our Kindles. Midway, I dared to try the toilet-- quite relieved to be relieved on discovering it was indeed western style, though not from Toto and not heated.

We passed through beautiful countryside and mountains and paddies and even saw the sea once past Yokohama. We got out at Kyoto Station and immediately fell into one of the retail stores in the station -- it was so cute and so crammed with attractive merchandise that we needed and gained a quick fix.

There was no line for a taxi, so we hoped into a cab and I told the driver our hotel in Japanese. He had no idea what I was saying, but understood Sarah's English just fine.

We drove through beautiful downtown Kyoto -- not a Starbucks in sight-- and ended up at the Okura Hotel, in prme location for shopping --although a little too far from the Gion district for walking...especially when it's pissing rain and you are half crippled. Then we saw the bride in her white kimono and peaked headress and knew it was an auspicious day indeed.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dawn in Tokyo

Typhoon blows
winter rain flows
warm toilet seat beckons
bladder quickens
wet is dry

your turn

Friday, October 29, 2010

Something Fishy

I have suffered through my share of life's problems and insults, but today we were arrested by the Fish Police and it's hard to stop laughing. I am reminded of my son, then age five, asking the librarian, if fish fart. I should have asked the officer, just to test his language skills.

We got up at 4AM (thanks to jetlag) and pulled on jeans and down jackets, brought umbrellas (is this a typhoon???) and took a taxi to the market-- although I have been here before, nothing looked familar. There was a long line of people anxious to get tix for the tuna auction, but I knew those were limited...and all I wnated was breakfast.

We wandered around, took some fishy pix and were arrested for fish explotation and being in a forbidden fish zone. I am serious.

We said the only thing we knew how to say in our defense: sushi? We found a working man's diner and grabbed chopped sticks off the wall (Sarah to Suzy: "is that a urinal over there?") and ordered a bowl of rice with something or another -- pretty boring until Sarah discovered the giant pot of pickled ginger...then it was fab. Our idea was to stave off starvation with rich, which would hopefully cut down on how much we spent on sushi once we found the sushi.

Still searching for sushi and totally lost in translation, we evetually found the right alley and marched past the lines of tourists waiting for their turn at some place or another-- who relaly knew? We found an empty and very charming dump and had amazingly fresh and yum sushi. Total price for the two of us, with a total of nine pieces of food, was about $55. No tipping. Amen.

I had used the cash changing machine in the hotel at 4AM although the rate of exchange was posted at 69.7 (ouch) so before dawn, I had spent $100 on a taxi and breakfast. But god, it was fun.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Sooooo, here we are in Tokyo and ready for bed since we didn't sleep on the plane and sheesh, this is exhausting. But since I filled my little notebook with four pagesof notes just while driving on the Friendly Bus from Narita, I figured I might as well share. Sarah is already showered and snuggled down...

Our plane (UA 853)was a half hour late leaving SFO due to a mechanical problem, so we arrived on time a half hour late (huh?) and the lovely geisha with the wheelchair was right there waiting for me. This is, without doubt, the only way to travel long-haul and if I did not have spinal injury, I would invent one or be smart enough to call ahead on a trip and order the service, which gets you and those accompanying you through the lines and check-points in a breeze. And you don't even tip in Japan!

We did not go through the regular enter here line because of the wheelchair, but were delighted with our no-line entry and the cute machine that took a photo of the face and gobbled up your fingerprints all at the same time. There was a video showing how to do it, in case your Japanese isn't fluent. It's a little NEC computer that has a Mt. Fuji screen saver and says things like 'look here' and 'thank you' in animation formats. This is even better than the fancy toilets we have come to expect.

We got to the Friendly bus counter and were told there was a bus to our hotel, the ANA InterConti in Akasaka, in five minutes, so we rolled outta there in a hurry and didn't get to check out the arrivals area of Narita that much. I paid for both our tix with a credit card-- 3,000 yen each, or about $36 to $50 depending on who is giving you the exchange rate. Jean Chatsky says Capital One doesn't charge a transaction fee on international charges, so I wanted to test it out-- I seem to remember that they have changed policy and now charge the same 3% upcharge that everyone else adds to your bill. Stay tuned.

At the bus counter, everything is as up to date as in Kansas City-- in English and digitally arranged and color coded. You get the times of the next two buses and the departure slot on the pavement written in a little circle. Ours was #11, right outside the door. The luggage was on-loaded and we got baggage claims then clamored onboard. Seamless and easy; so far, so good.

A local gentleman in a Friendly jumpsuit paraded down the aisle with a big yellow sign in Japanese and English telling us to fasten our seat belts and off we went, past the airport Hilton and past the First Wood Hotel, which made me wonder if it was one of those Love Hotels you read about in guidebooks. Despite the fact that the Japanese drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, everything was so normal and simple that there was a reassuring air of possibility.

Yes, there are bathrooms on the bus.

If you think this is a horribly foreign place where you cannot adapt, consider these facts:
* you read left to right, like Hebrew;
* you drive on the left side of the road, like London;
* you speak the translitered ts sound in Japanese, like in Russian;
* you can spot the exit signs because the kanji are the same as in Chinese;
* you can tell you are near Akasaka when you spot the Tokyo Tower, a copy of the Eiffel Tower, just like in Paris.

See? It's all very simple if you travel enough.

Disney is to your left as you drive into town; you can't miss it. The traffic didn't build up until we hit our exit, marked toward Ginza, passed the rear of the hotel, saw a view to what looked like the George Washington Bridge and endured a mass of sphaghetti like overlfies of highway and white cars (mostly Toyotas). The ANA InterConti is the first stop; most people got off the bus. I was quietly singing one of the songs from Pacific Overtures -- 'Welcome to Kanagawa'. Although we were not really in Kanagawa; It's still the only welcome to Japan song I know.

At the InterConti ANA, you take the interior escalator up to the 2F to the lobby; you have to bring your own luggage or ask someone to help you-- there were no trolleys or dollies. Yet a non-porter person (a Friendly guy!) was cheerful and willing to help. Check in went smoothoy, although if you think the French are rude, get a load of this team. And don't even look at the hotel's posted rate of exchange at 70 to 1...we will find a bank first thing in the morning and hope for better news. Since the bank rate is beter than 80 to one, this seems criminal.

Our room is on a lounge floor and is lovely, but small --as are most hotel rooms in Tokyo-- the bathroom at least has a heated toilet with self-flush trick, amen. The Club Lounge is stunning and we hope to make dinner out of their snacks in the near future, but we were 15 minutes too late tonight. We tried to find a cute neighborhoody place for a bite, but walked into something so local that no one spoke English and I forgot the Japanese word for water.

In fact, I could only think of it in Swahili, which is not too helpful here. We found Starbucks (across the street) and the subway (next door) as well as Seven-11 and Family Mart(you cannot buy a family there) ...but were unable to buy a SIM card for my unlocked phone. Another task for tomorrow.

We have two deliscious looking double beds in the room and soft down pillows and duvet as well as a buckwheat pillow. There's tons of hot water in the shower and the toilet is always a pleasure.

The best news of the evening was the word that the General Manager of the hotel is a Scotsman. We plan to kidnap him tomorrow and have our way with him. At the very least, perhaps he can make Tokyo seem less foreign. And to think, I've been here many times before and do not intimidate easily. You are surprised I speak your language? Tomorrow will be better, Sarah is mumbling. Right.