Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Japan - April 2014

This April I went to Japan for the first time with my family. It was a very intensive trip. 9 nights, 3 hotels, 6 cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya. We had Japanese Railways passes for 7 days.

We met many friendly Japanese who came up to us and gave us sightseeing tips: in Nagoya, in Nara, in Tokyo. We met volunteer guides in Ueno Park and in Tokyo Edo Museum. Thank you!

We flew with a budget airline for the first time - JetStar - and it was quite a pleasant experience compared to a full-service airline. People who wanted airline food, bought airline food, people who needed to check-in many bags paid per bag and per weight, people who wanted extra in-flight entertainment leased iPads loaded with movies and games. People who wanted a window seat - like me, paid for the privilege. I especially liked the food part - in full service airlines the serving of the food is a logistical nightmare for the crew and passengers - it takes long, corridors are blocked, you are woken up just when you have managed to fall asleep, it is very uncomfortable to eat with your elbows in your belly, the trays with rubbish block your exit for a long time after the meal. In a budget airline the whole thing is a breeze. The few passengers who ordered meals get served, and we are done.

The only unpleasant surprise was that the window seat that I picked online didn't have a good view - the wings of the plane were in the way - I thought the wings were in a different place when I was booking the seats on the website. Next time, I will look more carefully and maybe check seatguru.com to confirm the layout of the plane.

Nara - the biggest wooden temple in the world. 
Reminds me of a helmet with horns.

Nara - old ladies and little girls, beware of the deer! 
The deer in Nara used to be sacred - 400 years ago there was a death penalty for killing them.

Kyoto - looking pretty in kimonos.
Kyoto - the temple behind the big gate.
Buy and pray. The proceeds go to the temple.
"Trees" of unwanted horoscopes. 
The rain and wind are supposed to dispose of them. It works like this: you go to a buddhist temple, leave a small coin, shake a hexagonal box and pull a stick from it, the stick has a number, you find a horoscope with that number, if you like the horoscope you keep it, if you don't like it, you attach it to this white "tree" outside.

Huge blocks of flats near Tokyo.

Between Nagoya and Osaka - a grim block of flats. Brrr.
Obviously there is no law that regulates distances between buildings in Japan. Or if there is, it specifies them in millimetres.

What I did on the train.
I was learning to read Kanji characters. I could read all characters in "eating and drinking forbidden" by the end of the trip (4 characters: to eat: rice cooked over fire, under a roof; to drink: to eat + person with mouth wide open; prohibited: you will end up on a sacrificial altar if you enter King's forest; stop: a foot). Len Walsh's "Read Japanese Today" is great.

A big rubbish bin.
Modern art in front of the Toyoko-Inn in Shinagawa. You will find almost no normal rubbish bins in Tokyo. No rubbish either. When you buy an ice-cream, unwrap it right away at the store, there should be a rubbish bin there. Sometimes you can find them next to vending machines too. That's it. 

Legoland Discovery Center 
Legoland Discovery Center in Tokyo is located in the Decks Mall. It's a small place, but our 7 year old liked it. What I did not like was that they sold us a Lego set for a price about 50% higher than in a department store we visited the next day.

A piece of art - a manhole in Tokyo with a fire-turtle.

Tokyo Ueno Zoo - otter exhibit.

A view towards Mt Fuji from the Tokyo Government Building.
On a very clear day (read: no rain, few cars, windy) we would be able to see Mt Fuji easily.

Tokyo Edo Museum
The Kanji sign above the word STOP originated from a drawing of a foot. 

The document of surrender of Japan in WW II.
The funny thing is that the Canadian representative signed it in a wrong place: under, instead of above the line, and all following labels had to be corrected. 

Modern and green Tokyo city scape near Shinagawa station.

Gundam robot statue (I hope) in Tokyo. 

There are many types of high speed trains in Japan - the Shinkansen.

Shinkansen Series 0
First Shinkansen travelled the Tokyo Osaka route in 3 hours. Its maximum speed was 220 km/h. An interesting fact about Shinkansen seats: do you know why you are always seating towards the direction of travel? The same reason why you have so much space for your knees and the folding table: because when the 400m long train arrives at its destination, it does not turn around in a loop, but instead somebody turns every set of seats 180 degrees with one flick of a hand. A team of two prepares a carriage for another journey in about a minute. In addition to turning all seats, they dust all seats and the floor, replace head rest cloths (antimacassars), open window blinds, and put seats in up-right position.

Tokyo Osaka route
In 2014 Shinkansen travels Tokyo Osaka route usually in 2 hours 30 minutes with maximum speed of 270 km/h. It can go a bit faster: 285 km/h but it doesn't on this line. Using a JR pass you cannot take the fastest non-stop Nozomi services. The fastest you can take - Hikari - needs 3 hours for this trip. Beware of Kodoma trains - they stop at every station and your journey will very likely take twice as long.

A few thoughts about JR passes: they are very good value: a return trip between Tokyo and Osaka costs as much as a 7 day pass, but they are quite inconvenient to obtain and use: usually you fill a form and order them online, then vouchers are mailed to you (you can buy vouchers at some airports - Cairns for example), then you need to go to a JR office when you arrive in Japan, where you need to fill another form, wait in line - up to an hour when there are 4 people in front of you, present the voucher, and your passport, and get the pass. The pass does not fit in a wallet - it is a size of a booklet. You need to present it to a railway official every time you enter and leave a station - you cannot use automatic gates. The pass is not valid for Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which are the most common at peak times. You may need to wait for a Hikari train up to 1 hour. Still, JR pass is a bargain. Use hyperdia.com or maps.google.com to check train times and prices.

JR recommends getting seat reservations for Shinkansen trips: the problem is that when you arrive at a station 15 minutes before departure there may not be enough time to get it, or you may be told that there are no more seats available. Don't despair, go to the platform, find the section where cars with unreserved seats stop and get in line. There is a very good chance that you will have a seat.

Current frequency in Japan
Funny fact: western Japan uses 60Hz current, eastern Japan uses 50Hz current. Both use 100V and North American style plugs.

Line up of JR Central Shinkansen - Railway Museum in Nagoya.

Evolution of EMUs.

Shinkansen, like many other Japanese products, was an evolution of earlier designs, which can be seen in this picture.

Funny thing - locks for umbrellas.
Nagoya port
All these Toyota pick-ups will probably be shipped to America. There are two Toyota museums in Nagoya and also there is a Toyota factory tour. Did not book the factory tour - not enough time.

Nagoya - a newly re-created part of the castle. Beautiful.

Mt Fuji captured from Shinkansen 
Look at the angle of the closest pole - is it leaning because the view was changing faster than my camera's rate of reading pixels? If so, then knowing the time needed to read one pixel, the resolution of this picture, the height of the pole, and the distance to it from my camera, I could calculate the speed of the train.

In Gold Coast we have quiet cars, in Osaka they have Women Only cars.
Hello snake. 
Different kinds of paint, same body part.
We visited Mazda Museum in Hiroshima and took the factory tour. No pictures allowed. The factory was not fully automated. It had very few robots in the section for visitors. It was very packed and loud. You wouldn't want to work there. Since the assembly is manual, mistakes happen. I saw a worker dropping a nut somewhere into a half-assembled car. He found it and screwed it in. Good for the owner of that Mazda. My Australian made Toyota has a part lost somewhere under the floor. I can hear it rolling every time I take a turn, but only when it is warm outside. Why?

Re-built Hiroshima Castle. 
The original was destroyed by the A-bomb in 1945.

Did you know about dummy A-bombs? I did not.
Before the A-bomb.
After the A-bomb.
A-dome history
A piece of trivia - the notorious Hiroshima A-dome building was designed by a Czech architect Jan Letzel.

An old tram in Hiroshima. 
Beware of people with bicycles in Hiroshima! Why is this guy chasing me?
A block of flats with a parking lot under and around it. 
In Europe these buildings are usually surrounded by green spaces. In Japan a green flat area is a luxury. On the other hand, the land seems to be either flat and completely built up or used for agriculture, or hilly/mountainous and left alone for the trees to grow in peace.

A Korean bronze shoe from the 6th century AD - Tokyo National Museum.
Buddha triad - 12th-13th century, Cambodia. 
It turns out many religions have triads or trinities.