Saturday, December 10, 2005

My trip to Japan, October 2005

My brother had been living and working in Japan as an English teacher since April of 2004. In October of 2005, I was finally able to visit him. Here is a recap of my trip, with some pictures. (Good thing I went when I did; he returned to Houston in December.)

Getting there and back was possible because I had accumulated enough Continental OnePass miles (although it took me a dozen years to do so, since I don’t fly nearly as frequently as I would like) to fly for free; all I needed to pay out-of-pocket were about $60 in various fees and taxes. Most of the flights were on Continental’s codeshare partner, Northwest. This meant that, in order to get to and from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (which sits on a man-made island out in the bay), I had to fly through Northwest’s hub in Detroit.  I left Houston the morning of Thursday October 21st and, after transferring in Detroit and crossing the international date line, arrived in Japan the following evening.

I thought that flying on a 747 for the first time would be a fun experience. It was not. The plane was cramped and I was stuck in a middle seat between two other people for fourteen hours straight. I could not get any sleep because it was simply too uncomfortable to do so, given the cramped conditions and intermittent turbulence. None of the channels on the plane’s audio system worked, either, making the headphones they passed out to everyone essentially useless unless we wanted to watch the crappy in-flight movies they were showing.

Eventually, the flight landed and I wearily made my way through Kansai International Airport.  The woman at passport control got upset with me because I didn’t fill in the line on the immigration document stating what my address and telephone number in Japan were going to be. None of the books or websites I read about traveling to Japan said that this information was required, so I didn’t bother to get David’s address or telephone before I left. I was about to tell her to go outside and ask him where he lived, because he was out in the terminal lobby waiting for me, but she finally let me through. I collected my suitcase, passed through customs, met my brother and we took a bus back to his apartment in Nishinomiya.

Nishinomiya is a municipality located roughly halfway between Osaka and Kobe on the north side of Osaka Bay. To be sure, the north and west sides of Osaka Bay essentially constitute one large urban area, and there isn't any physical distinction between individual municipalities. However, Nishinomiya's relatively central location did make for easy day trips to other cities in the Kansai region, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara. This made it easy for David to plan out an extensive itinerary for me.

Thus, the next several days were a whirlwind of traveling, sightseeing, eating and drinking. The first full day I was there, Saturday October 22, David, his girlfriend and I went to the ancient capital of Kyoto, about an hour and a half from Nishinomiya. Once we reached Kyoto we made our way to the imperial palace grounds so we could watch the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) parade. It was an interesting parade which depicted different eras and personalities in Japan’s history with ornate costumes, musicians, horses and palanquins (portable shrines). Afterwards we made our way across the river to eastern Kyoto where most of the famous shrines and temples are located.  We visited the Kyomizu temple, which is famous for its hillside view overlooking Kyoto, and afterwards strolled through the streets of the nearby Gion district, walking through parks, looking at other temples and shrines, and stopping for ridiculously overpriced coffee. We then made our way back across the river and dined at a restaurant along Kyoto’s waterfront. (David has more detail about this particular excursion on his blog).

Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto is one of many historic temples and shrines located along the city's eastern hillsides.

A view of Kyoto from the Terrace at Kiyomizu Temple. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868, and remains and remains one of the country's most historically-significant cities. 
 On Sunday the three of us went to Osaka. We toured the Osaka Castle and Museum, went to a crab sushi restaurant in the central Nanba district, and then went to the Floating Garden observatory atop the Umeda Sky Tower to see an amazing nighttime view of the city. That evening, David's girlfriend drove us over the mountains to the town of Sanda, where we ate dinner at a friends' house. Japanese homes are a mix of the modern and the traditional, with fully-automated kitchens just steps away from traditional washitsu with tatami mats. 

A busy pedestrian mall in the Nanba district of Osaka. Osaka is the main city of the Kansai region and is Japan's second-largest city.

A view of Osaka at night from the observatory atop the Umeda Sky Building. The city stretches for miles, ending only when it meets the mountains. The scale and density of Japanese cities is amazing and is unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.
On Monday, we took a trip to Kobe, the port city that had to be largely rebuilt after a devastating 1995 earthquake. There we rode the ropeway up a mountain overlooking the city and later went on a boat cruise of the busy Kobe harbor, which allowed us a great view of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in the world.
The busy port city of Kobe is located to the west of Osaka. It suffered a devastating earthquake in 1995.
On Tuesday October 25th, my brother and I embarked on the "big" excursion, a two-day journey to Tokyo and the highlands around Mt. Fuji. David was looking forward to the trip as much as I was because, in spite of being in Japan for a year and a half, he had never ridden the Shinkansen (bullet train) or visited Tokyo. Neither failed to impress either of us. 

Once we arrived in Tokyo, we took a bus tour of the city's main sites including the Tokyo Tower, the grounds in front of the Imperial Palace, and the Asakusa Temple. We later checked into our hotel in the Shinagawa district, and dined at a yakitori restaurant in the city's upscale Roppongi district. In the process of traveling around town, we familiarized ourselves with Tokyo's impressive subway system.

A view of Tokyo from the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower, looking westward. The cluster of buildings in the distance is Shinjuku-ju, a major commercial, shopping, administrative and entertainment district. Like most Japanese cities, Tokyo is multi-nodal; it lacks a single, clearly-defined "downtown" and is comprised of multiple major commercial and office centers.

Tokyo at night. This view is looking northward from our hotel. To the left is the brightly-lit Tokyo Tower, where the previous picture was taken.
The following day, David and I took a leisurely walking tour of some of central Tokyo's major districts, including Nihonbashi, with its famous zero-milestone bridge, the upscale Ginza district, and the riverfront Tsukiji district. We then took the subway to across town to see the Meiji Shrine and the trendy Harajuku district. Finally, we made our way to Shinjuku station and boarded a highway bus which took us out of Tokyo and into the highlands. We spent the night in a ryokan on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi.  

The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. It was constructed in 1920 (and rebuilt after World War II) to commemorate Emperor Meiji, who became the first emperor of "modern" Japan in 1868. It is located adjacent to Yoyogi Park on the city's near west side and is close to Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district. Unfortunately, the rain kept all the teenagers in outlandish fashions - the "Harajuku Girls" - from coming out that day.
Here I am standing at the Tenjo Ropeway overlooking Lake Kawaguchi. We came to the scenic highlands surrounding Mt. Fuji hoping to see the great mountain itself. However, clouds spoiled our view.
Well, they say it rolls downhill! This sign, which we found at the Tenjo Ropeway, is an excellent example of "Engrish." As an English teacher in Japan, David quickly discovered that he had his work cut out for him.
On Thursday the 27th, David and I spent time in around Lake Kawaguchi, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, we had no such luck; clouds obscured our view of the majestic mountain all day long. Dejected, we took a bus from Kawaguchi to Mishima early that afternoon so that we could catch the bullet train back to Osaka (and, from there, a local train to Nishinomiya). However, the ride was slow and circuitous and my eventual need to find a restroom caused the two of us to get off the bus at Subashiri, a village outside the town of Gotenba. There we found the necessary sanitary facilities as well as a delightful shine which led to an overlook that, on an clear day, would have afforded a great view of Mt. Fuji. 

Since we had time to kill until the next bus to Mishima arrived, David and I went to a small cafe near the overlook for a cup of tea. While we were there, David explained to the cafe's owner that we had come to see Mt. Fuji, but were frustrated by the clouds and therefore were on our way back to Nishinomiya.  

We had finished our tea, paid our bill and started walking back towards the bus stop when the cafe's owner ran behind us, calling for us. Had we forgotten something? No. She had felt so bad about the fact that we were unable to see Mt. Fuji that she wanted us to have two snapshots - from her own, personal, photo album - of the mountain.

Although the woman need not have given us her own pictures of the mountain, David and I gratefully accepted the photos; it would have been rude, in the Japanese cultural context, to do otherwise. Besides, it was a wonderful gesture on the cafe owner's part and it is a unique little memory of Japan that my brother and I will always have. In retrospect, I'm glad that my need to use the restroom caused us to stop at that village! 

We caught the next bus to Mishima, grabbed a bite to eat once we arrived there, and then took the next Shinkansen back to Osaka.

Friday October 28th David and I returned to Kyoto, this time to see the Ginka-kuji (Silver Pavilion) temple and its beautiful and serene Japanese gardens. We also took a stroll down the “Philosopher’s Path." The following day, we took a day trip to Nara, one of Japan's oldest cities, to see more temples and shrines as well as the deer that roam freely about the city.

We returned to Kyoto to see another famous temple, the Ginkakuji. This Zen Buddhist temple features a beautiful and serene garden. One could spend days upon days in Kyoto and still not see everything.
Deer roam freely about the ancient city of Nara. They are said to be messengers of the gods and are considered sacred. They are not afraid of humans; in fact, they come up to people expecting to be fed.
One of Japan's most famous temples is the Todaiji in Nara. This massive wooden structure, built at the end of the 1600s, is actually smaller than the structure which preceded it.
Inside the Todaiji is a gigantic Buddha. It is six stories tall; pictures just can't do it justice. Many Japanese are syncretic in regards to religion: they might practice both Shinto as well as Buddhist rituals. It's common to find a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine on the same property.
On October 30th, I took the Skinkansen to Hiroshima. David was unable to make the trip with me, so I was "on my own" for the day. Despite not speaking any Japanese, I was able to find my way from the main train station to Hiroshima's Peace Park and back without trouble. Hiroshima is a vibrant, bustling city. Other than the serene Peace Park, there really is no visible indication that the city was obliterated by an atomic bomb in August 1945.

The Memorial Centotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima commemorates the estimated 80,000 people who died as a result of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on the city on August 6, 1945 from the Enola Gay. In the distance is the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was the prefecture's industrial exhibition hall before World War II. It is the only surviving ruin of the atomic bombing and is a symbol of the destructiveness of atomic warfare.
I returned home on Halloween Day, Monday October 31st. The return trip was slightly better. This time, I had an aisle seat, so I had a bit more room to stretch out. The flight was also a bit quicker because the eastbound plane was flying with the jet stream instead of against it. One audio channel was working, which meant that I could at least listen to the same songs over and over again. However, I couldn’t get the audio for any of the in-flight movies they were showing (and they were actually showing something I wanted to see on the flight back!), and the overhead reading light didn’t work, either. Northwest Airlines, having declared bankruptcy, is clearly deferring nonessential maintenance of their aircraft.

My original itinerary back to Houston required me to land in Detroit, go through customs, languish at the Detroit airport for a couple of hours, take a short flight across Lake Erie to Cleveland, languish at the Cleveland airport for a couple more hours, and then fly to Houston. However, I was able to avoid the extra layover by convincing a very nice Northwest gate agent to put me on a direct flight from Detroit to Houston. My bags were already checked through Cleveland, however, and so even after I arrived in Houston my father and I had to languish in the baggage claim area for a couple of hours, waiting for the plane from Cleveland to arrive so I could collect my luggage. Oh, well. At least I made it home safely, in spite of all the languishing.

If I ever fly to Japan again, I think I’m going to go with Continental’s non-stop service from Houston to Toyko and then take the Shinkansen to my final destination. Having to transfer to and from long international flights is no fun; I prefer getting through customs and going home. Besides, the spacious, comfortable environment of the Shinkansen is a welcome relief from the cramped quarters of the plane, and with a 7-day Japan Rail Pass currently costing about $250, it pays for itself even if you only ride the Shinkansen a couple of times. 

Being in the transportation planning profession, I obviously found Japan’s extensive network of trains fascinating. From the sleek Shinkansen to the rickety streetcars of Hiroshima, from the extensive JR (Japan Railways) system to the various private railways (including the Hankyu system, which David and I used the most), from the relatively young and small subway system in Kobe to the bewilderingly extensive subway in Tokyo, Japan is a veritable rail nation. With an overall population density that is an order of magnitude higher than that of the United States, high-capacity transportation is not an option. As a result, the entire country is crisscrossed by every conceivable type of rail system. Most of it is electrically-powered, but I did see at least one diesel multiple unit (DMU) consist at JR’s Osaka Station. Japan’s main railway stations double as shopping centers; in many cases, in order to connect from one line to another you have to literally walk through underground malls. 

My brother made sure that I got to experience many different types of Japanese food while I was there. The evening I arrived, for example, I managed to shake off my exhaustion long enough to go out with him and his girlfriend to eat okonomiaki, which could be described as a combination of a pancake, an omelet and a pizza. It was actually pretty good. I also liked the yakitori (grilled skewers), chabu chabu (which could best be described as a Japanese fondue), and izakaya, which is similar to Spanish tapas in that you generally order a variety of small dishes and share them. We also went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant: 

Here's my brother David at a kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi restaurant, in Nishinomiya. Just sit at a table and grab what you want to eat as it comes by. A sensor counts the number of plates consumed and totals your bill. This is actually one of the less-expensive dining options in Japan, and it's very family-oriented.
I think my favorite dining experience was the kushikatsu restaurant in Kobe, however. This type of dining featured a deep-fryer in the middle of the table and a nearby buffet stocked with meats, shrimp and vegetables on skewers. We chose what we wanted to eat, brought the skewers back to the table, dipped them into a batter provided at the table, stuck them in the deep fryer and then ate them. The buffet also featured a salad bar and a self-service udon soup bar, just in case anyone got tired of deep-fried skewers. It was very good, and it was all you could eat - and drink - as well… but only for two hours. After our two hours were up, the waiter came to our table and politely told us to get lost.

The food and drink weren’t cheap, however. As I quickly discovered, everything one hears about Japan being an expensive place to visit are true. Although most of the lunches we ate were reasonable, oftentimes the dinner tab for the three of us (myself, David and his girlfriend) would approach $100 US. One night the three of us managed to run up an $80 bar tab after only a couple of drinks apiece.

I brought back several items, ranging from exquisite lacquered wooden bowls from Kyoto to tea and sake from the supermarket near David's apartment. One of my purchases was a battery-operated Fortune Cat with a moving left paw. Lori says I got the wrong type of Fortune Cat; we need one with a raised right paw, which attracts money. A Fortune Cat with a raised left paw only attracts visitors...

I wish I could have stayed a few days longer, but considering all that I got to do and see while I was there I think ten days were sufficient. I came, I had a good time, I saw a lot of interesting stuff and ate a lot of interesting food, I took lots of pictures and video, and, most importantly, got to finally travel to a country I’ve always wanted to visit.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl: 2005 Edition

Several years ago, I began doing the Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl as a way to recognize the handful of deserving college football teams that, in spite of their good seasons, were left spending the holidays at home. Last year, there was fortunately no need for either the Enron Screw Bowl nor the Astroglide Shaft Bowl, as only three teams within winning records (all of whom ended the season at 6-5) stayed home, and two of those teams - South Carolina and Clemson - brought their misfortune upon themselves by engaging in an embarrassing brawl following their annual rivalry game.

However, in spite of the fact that 56 teams made it to bowls following the 2005 season, no less than eight teams with winning records were forced to stay home for the holidays. All eight of them are from non-BCS conferences; five are from the Mid-American Conference alone. Here are the 2005 Screw Bowl and Shaft Bowl matchups:

The AstroGlide Shaft Bowl: for two deserving teams that got shafted by the postseason bowl selection process, Northern Illinois vs New Mexico.

The Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5) make their third consecutive Shaft Bowl appearance. They came up on the short end of an exciting MAC Championship game, losing in the final seconds to Akron. The loss, combined with the MAC's lack of bowl berths, meant that the Huskies must spend the holidays at home, even though their season included wins over bowl-bound Toledo as well as Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio, all of whom ended the season with winning records. The Huskies' offensive attack features explosive RB Garrett Wolfe as well as reliable WR Sam Hurd.

The New Mexico Lobos (6-5) started the season strong, defeating their first three opponents including BCS school Missouri. The Lobos, however, lost their next three games and never quite regained momentum (although they did beat bowl-bound Utah). The NIU defense will have to watch out for RB Dontrell Moore, who led the MWC witth almost 1,300 rushing yards.

The 2005 Astroglide Shaft Bowl will be played Monday, December 26, 2005 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

The Enron Screw Bowl:
for two worthy teams that are no strangers to being screwed over by bowl selection committees, we present a rematch of the 1997 Shaft Bowl: Miami of Ohio vs Louisiana Tech.

The Miami of Ohio Redhawks (7-4) ended the season in a three-way tie for the MAC East but, along with Bowling Green State, lost the tiebreaker to Akron despite beating the Zips on the field. The RedHawks also beat rival (and new BCS school) Cincinnati. Miami's senior-laden team includes WR Martin Nance, who could be playing on Sundays next year.

The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-4) ended the 2005 season on a high note, beating a ranked Fresno State team on the road. Unfortunately, their winning record - the Bulldogs' first since 2001 - wasn't good enough as losses to Nevada and Boise State hurt and no bowl seemed willing to recognize or reward the generousity and hospitality Louisiana Tech showed by allowing the Tulane Green Wave football team - rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina - to seek refuge in Ruston and use their facilities for the season. Bulldog linebackers Barry Robertson and Byron Santiago might make NFL rosters.

The 2005 Enron Screw Bowl will be played Saturday, January 7, 2006 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri.

Other schools that managed winning records in 2005 but were passed over by the bowl system include Central Michigan (6-5), Western Michigan (6-5), Bowling Green (6-5) and Louisiana-Lafayette (6-5). Better luck to all these teams next year!

The Astroglide Shaft Bowl*
Year                                            Stadium          City             Date
1996  Wyoming (10-2)     East Carolina (8-3)    TWA Dome         St. Louis, MO    Jan 4 97
1997  LA Tech (9-2)      Miami, OH (8-3)        Vanderbilt       Nashville, TN    Jan 3 98
1998  Wyoming (8-3)      Miami, OH (10-1)       Arrowhead        Kansas City, MO  Jan 3 99
1999  W. Michigan (7-5)  Houston (7-4)          War Memorial     Little Rock, AR  Dec 23 99
2000  W. Michigan (9-3)  UA-Birmingham (7-4)    Papa John’s      Louisville, KY   Dec 26 00
2001  Ole Miss (7-4)     Hawai’i (9-3)          Estadio Azteca   Mexico City      Dec 26 01
2002  N. Illinois (8-4)  South Florida (9-2)    Neyland          Knoxville. TN    Jan 4 03
2003  N. Illinois (10-2) Connecticut (9-3)      Browns Stadium   Cleveland, OH    Dec 17 03
2005  N. Illinois (7-5)  New Mexico (6-5)       Arrowhead        Kansas City, MO  Dec 26 05


The Screw Bowl presented by Enron*
Year                                            Stadium          City             Date
1996     Rice (7-4)      Southern Miss (8-3)    Tiger Stadium    Baton Rouge, LA  Dec 28 96
1997     Rice (7-4)      Toledo (9-3)           RCA Dome         Indianapolis, IN Dec 24 97
1998     UCF (9-2)       Colorado St (8-4)      Skelly Stadium   Tulsa, OK        Dec 24 98
1999     LA Tech (8-3)   Akron (7-4)            Legion Field     Birmingham, AL   Dec 21 99
2000     Toledo (10-1)   San Jose State (7-5)   TWA Dome         St. Louis, MO    Dec 22 00
2001     Boise St (8-4)  Bowling Green (8-3)    Invesco Field    Denver, CO       Dec 28 01
2002     NM State (7-5)  Bowling Green (9-3)    Owen Field       Norman, OK       Dec 24 02
2003     Toledo (8-4)    Air Force (7-5)        Memorial Stadium Lincoln, NE      Jan 3 04
2005     Miami, OH (7-4) LA Tech (7-4)          Edward Jones DomeSt. Louis, MO    Jan 7 06

*The Screw Bowl was "sponsored" by Stanley Tools from 1996 to 1998 and by Ace Hardware in 1999 and 2000. DISCLAIMER FOR DUMBASSES: The Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl aren't really sponsored by Enron, Astroglide, Stanley Tools or Ace Hardware. In fact, the Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl don't really exist! I just used these names because they seemed like fitting "title sponsors" for the fictitious Screw Bowl and Shaft Bowl (especially Enron, since they did such a good job of screwing their employees, their investors, the entire City of Houston, etc.). I do not endorse any of these companies or products (okay, that's not really true; I like to shop at Ace Hardware because I hate Home Depot for their lousy customer service and their predatory corporate tactics, and some of my Aggie friends tell me that Astroglide is the best lubricant for their shee... Oops, I better not go there. Anyway, you get the idea.). 

(Retroblogged August 23, 2015. The number of actual bowl games has continued to grow since 2005, meaning that virctually every team with a winning record [and even a handful of teams without one] get to go go bowling these days, so I don't do this tongue-in-cheek commemoration anymore.)