Tokyo

The first stop of our trip was Tokyo. I have always been interested in Tokyo. For reasons that are hard to explain, the city fascinated me. From various stories, images, and videos, Tokyo in many ways has to me seemed like a look into the future. And the people seemed to have such a passion for everything they do. I wanted to see some of this technology– bullet trains, LED stairs, flat screen TVs projecting information and advertisements on every wall and this passion, and the crazy quirkiness of the city that one hears about.

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

Our first evening was spent figuring out how to get internet in our room, which, do to a surprising lack of wireless required not fewer than three cables and an adapter, and getting Udon noodles for dinner followed by a sip of Japanese whiskey at a standing bar. The first real stop on our itinerary was Tsukiji fish market the following morning. It was really interesting to see the largest fish market in the world. I have never really gotten into raw fish sushi. I have enjoyed veggie sushi, tempura sushi, egg, etc… but have I generally steered clear of fish. Trying it every once in awhile to see if my tastes had gotten ‘sopisticated’ enough for real sushi. For years, I had claimed that I would give it another good shot when I can try the very best in Tokyo [NOTE from Erin — Dan wouldn’t actually let us get the very best sushi in Tokyo (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi) something about money and trees.] It became a mantra to the point that it was a bucket list item, to go to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and push my boundries trying a bunch of sushi. We walked the area enjoying some free samples and conversation in the restaurant square across from the market, before heading in to see the whole sellers and avoid getting hit by various people on weird moving devices. After exploring the market, it was time to go back to the restaurant area and dig in. I got a creative sampler with 6 or so fish pieces.

I learned:

  • Tuna is the best;) Fatty tuna is the very best (you will see that this is accurately reflected in the price).
  • I am not a fan of Squid, too chewy. Although the best places in JP claim to have not chewy squid. (We later had sliced squid at Zipangu, which was much better, so maybe really high end is OK)
  • I still don’t really like Salmon, but will keep trying
  • I really like egg sushi
  • I like prosciutto sushi
  • I really like soy crepe sushi, which I saw for the first time in Tokyo
  • I don’t like Roe

After our first stop we walked around a bit more and needed to try another place. Our second sushi-bar definitely was better than our first, here we just ordered single items and I really enjoyed my lightly grilled semi-fatty tuna. It is kind of as close to bacon mixed with good steak as one could get. I am sure we will pick up some more sushi for snacks the rest of our time in Tokyo and hopefully I will be happy to add a few fish pieces to my normal eating repertoire back home.

Tokyo Station

A maze of people, shops, foods, and trains. One could explore the sprawling station alone for a week. It was a place to explore and feast at Ramen Alley, where we visited Rokurinsha, a top ramen shop, and recommended by several friends. Making various connections through the station we definitely got lost a little bit, but never too bad. From this launch point we visited:

The station was our jumping off point to explore the city:

  • Shibuya, Meiji Shrine and neighborhoods.
  • Akihabara, electric city
  • Akasaka, Zipangu restaurant and neighborhoods.
  • Shinjuku, (Robot Restaurant) and bars
  • Yurakucho, Tsukiji fish market
  • and finally to leave the city and head to Osaka

Trains

One of the reasons I was really excited to visit Japan was to see their train system. Hearing stories of it being the best in the world and how fast the bullet trains were, had always made me want to visit. We bought a 7 day JR Rails pass, and have a Pasmo card to ride the subway. Overall, I have been super impressed. A city with so many people and we hardly see traffic and cars around the city. Many places we visited had major streets shut down allowing only foot traffic making for amazing pedestrian malls. The signs and directions inside the transit system are well done and clear. The staff and security are extremely helpful. It made me wish the US had done a better job with subway systems. The circle around Tokyo city with spokes of major stations connecting through many routes makes it far easier to get from point to point here than in Manhattan where everything is in a straight line constantly blocking one another. It was fun to take the long route to some destinations so we could complete the full Yamanote loop around Tokyo. Really, the system is so clear that without GPS or our phone’s internet initially working we got from Narita airport to Tokyo station on the Narita Express (N’EX) and made our transfer over the subway to our hotel without any problems. The level of detail they have put into making the experience good is simply amazing and awe inspiring.

Our Impressions of the People and the Culture

I don’t know if it was because we watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi on our flight to Tokyo, but I swear that, particularly in the city, you could feel the desire people had to do one thing really well – devoting their lives to perfecting a single task. Combined with the dispersion of technology, this type of culture leads to a cult-like restaurant scene — you can always pick out THE BEST ramen restaurant and THE BEST sushi restaurant by the crowds gathered out front, even when there is another roman restaurant next door, sitting empty. Only one can be the best. It also seems to lead to an intense work culture. We saw people (men, mainly) walking out of their office buildings at 9 and 10 o’clock at night. It’s also possible to understand how that type of  work culture could make it difficult to balance a family and a career (and could lead to the low percentage of women and mothers in the Japanese workforce), and could lead also to Japan’s relatively high suicide rate. Though we saw only the public, service-oriented types of work, it was possible to see how it could be hard to sit behind the counter at an empty restaurant, next to one stuffed with young, working, chatting, eating people.

On the positive side, it does seem to lead to people taking great pride in their work, which we noticed particularly in using the transportation systems. Workers would literally run down passageways, and if we arrived at a counter when someone else was already asking a question, another person would appear, eager to help us figure out how to get where we were going.

Japan has Things Figured Out

Japan seems to have got almost everything figured out. There is no tipping, people just help you and serve you cheerfully because it is their job to do so. And things I had always wondered about were answered with a solution. For example:
Is it gross to sit on a toilet seat that someone else just sat on?
Yes, it is. That is why, in public restrooms, you are helpfully provided with either a “Japanese squat toilet” (no need to sit on anything) or a western-style toilet, appointed with toilet seat sanitizer, either in form of wipes or as a sanitizing spray to spray on “50 cm of toilet paper” and wipe the seat.
Is it gross to put my bag down on the floor?
Yes, that is why even restaurants with no more than 6 seats around a counter provide you with a basket in which to place you bag.

Speaking of Toilets

The toilets in Japan are amazing. Even the squat variety is easy to use with minimal mess, always accompanied by a flushing mechanism, and often accompanied by a frequently-cleaned bar to use for balance. But, the toilets in the hotels (even our budget hotels) were simply incredible. They came with heated seats, a heated shower (back and front) and a stop button (helpfully labeled in English). The toilets at fancier establishments in Tokyo also had these types of toilets, but with only the panic/help button labeled in English (all of the other buttons, often has many as 8, were labeled in Japanese only), which made me too intimated to actually try any of the functionality.
Our first Japanese Toilet
Our first Japanese Toilet

An Exception — The Gomi Strategy

Dan and I spent days wondering around Tokyo, trash in our hands, pockets, and bags, looking for trashcans. And then, we had dinner with our friends who have been living in Tokyo for a month. They told us that to live in Tokyo, you must have a gomi strategy. Almost no one litters in Japan, but public trashcans are few and far between, and difficult for tourists to find. So, you have to have a strategy. Carry a plastic bag to collect your trash, or, if you buy a can of iced coffee or other good from a vending machine or convenience store, slam it, and dispose of it in the cans located directly outside the store. This explains why you will see business people, sometime after 10 pm, all standing outside of a 7-11, slamming their beers.

Tokyo Quirkiness

I have read, seen, and heard about wild and bizarre things in Tokyo. I just wanted to experience and see some of the lovely weirdness of the city. We hit up some neighborhoods known to be more quirky, a show that is known to be amusing and non-nonsensical, and explored alleys searching for the perfect tiny hidden bar.

Robot Restaurant is a quirky show of song, dance, and ‘acting’. In theory it is a dinner show, but the food can cost extra and most give it horrible reviews. We chose to eat elsewhere and just enjoy beer and sake with the show. The show doesn’t seem to make much sense but generally has the theme of evil robots fighting the good humans. It was a great way to see some oddball Japanese humor. While it does target tourists locals enjoy the show as well, I believe there were 3 people celebrating their birthday’s at our show. Really the photos and various videos can’t do justice to the spectacle you are immersed in (and if your in the front row occasionally dodging).

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Piss Alley Bars, not kidding this is what a collection of back alley bars is known as. Even with the amazingly inviting name we decided to check it out. We wandered through crazy alleys with tiny bars that could fit 4 to 6 people. Many dark with stairwells disappearing into the unknown. Eventually we picked a stairwell to find a happy well dressed gentlemen ready to make us cocktails. It wasn’t our favorite as we were hoping to find a place with some more locals chatting. The bar tender didn’t know English and we don’t know enough Japanese, but we all had a good time.

Akihabara’s Electric City is just wild to me. I like electronics and computers. This place has a lot of those, all trying to beat out each others prices. Although that is what the area was originally known for now that while interesting takes second seat to the manga and video games. The area is full of comic, comic fans in outfits, video game arcades. Giant Sega signs and buildings seem to be around every corned. People waiting in line to see and play the latest and greatest game. It also has a large number of maid cafes, which is pretty funny. We didn’t drop by any but saw plenty of people in costumes trying to get visitors into their shops. The coolest part of this area was that all the streets were completely shut down. So people could wander down the middle of the road and all over the place. It made for great views of the cityscape and pleasant walking as you didn’t have to use all your energy avoiding people.

Mildly Air Conditioned  In a series of campaigns beginning in 2005, the Japanese government has set thermostats in all government and public buildings to 28 degrees Celsius (82.5 degrees Fahrenheit) and encouraged business to do the same, encouraging business people to dress down for work, with open, short-sleeved shirts. And, while, I think it is fair to say that the most common business outfit we saw was dark pants with a long-sleeved white shirt, we saw very few ties on businessmen, and a few white, short-sleeved shirts in the crowds. I hate the over-air-conditioned feel of so much of the US in the summer (especially around DC), and I hate that I, and half of my co-workers, had to use space-heaters at our work spaces to stay comfortable in the summer, and so, I am quite a fan of the Cool Biz campaign. I will admit that schlepping luggage through 85 degree subway tunnels can make one rather sweaty and somewhat smelly. But I loved not having to bring a sweater when I went out to dinner.
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When I Close My Eyes and Think of Japan

I see masses of people all moving in choreographed crowds, always on the left (except in some passageways and stairways where signs indicate that you should stay on the right — this was confusing), feel my neck craning up to see directional signs pointing to trains and metro lines, and hear smiling people saying, “arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you very much). There are about 128 million people in Japan, an area smaller than California (population 38 million).

Final Notes

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Not enough photos? See Dan’s full Tokyo photo gallery and Erin’s full Tokyo photo gallery (we were trying to merge them, but Google got upset about it).

Helpful Tokyo travel posts passed on by @abatalion:

I found the Rough Pocket Guide to Tokyo pretty useful and fun to read on the trains as we approached destinations.

We used the JR 7 day rail pass and thought it worked great for the type of traveling we did. You still need to pay for some subway and buses, but we did a lot of day trips to nearby cities like Kyoto and Nara as well as using the local JR loop line in towns when it made sense. Really just the cost of the Tokyo-Osaka round trip covered the cost.

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Road Trip

Springfield, IL

After moving out, we started our drive in my 1999 Subaru outback, which some doubted could make the journey. First stop was Springfield, IL to drop off Spot with my Mom. We had a day or two to relax and spend time with family before beginning to drive again. I decided with the good weather and some time to burn it was a good idea to introduce Erin to the IL State Fair. It is kind of a big deal around Springfield. Erin was excited to eat some fair food, and short of an amusement park ride didn’t seem to impressed, but it did help us get 20,000 steps in after not moving much from a day in the car.

I think we covered fair food pretty well, obviously there was far to much to eat in a couple hour visit.

State Fair Food and Drinks:

Brazilian street nachos
Cajun Shrimp on a stick
Lemon Shake ups
Chocolate covered bacon on a stick
Red Velvet Funnel Cake
Home made Root Beer
Hand made Ice Cream
(Erin combined the hand made ice cream into a cup of the home made root beer for a delicious Root beer float)
Chocolate Milk Shake
Salt water taffy
Various Beers

Erin saw the butter cow, which I think she enjoyed mostly because she liked the movie butter which is on Netflix.

The famous butter cow
The famous butter cow

We topped off the food with a trip to Magic Kitchen, which is the best Thai food I’ve had. We even got in a short hike with Spot.

 

Oklahoma

Then it was time to get back in the car and drive to Oklahoma City. We wanted to see Erin’s family that is in OK, before making our way to Denver. It was nice to have a bit more down time between the driving and get in some swimming with the hot weather. We also had some nice home cooked meals which we both are pretty sure we will start to miss once we get traveling, making a dinner with family a special treat. We skipped riding horses in OK as the temperature was reaching 100 degrees, but we still got to spend some time with the chickens. Including the farm famous hunger game chicken which was the sole survivor of last year’s coyote chicken raid.

Denver

Then we back on the road for the final leg of our road trip. A long and boring drive to Denver goes off without a hitch. Some people questioned if the Subarua would make it, but the proof is in the arrival. We also just fell short of having the car reach 80K miles, which is pretty funny for a car from 1999. Sadly after arriving in Denver it had some minor issues, so I can’t brag about the car too much.

We spent time in Denver visiting with Erin’s family and seeing my Brother. We also ran a bunch of final errands and checked of remaining to-do items before leaving the country. After visiting 3 DMVs we managed to get CO licenses and change our residency. Lots of time was spent on the phone with banks, insurance, and others to get various accounts in line. Each night in CO, we were treated to home cooked meals by our family which was wonderful.

We did manage to melt some records I was trying to bring to Shawn for his birthday. I guess a true moment of it is the thought that counts as we put on each record to quickly see it was unplayable as it had warped in the car, life lessons.

 

Thanks goes out to everyone who put us up or met up with us along the way. The road trip while a bit stressful as we tried to finish preparing for our trip, but it went very well and it was wonderful to get to see so many friends and family along the way.

Farewell DC

As our trip begins it is time to say goodbye to DC. My loving wife Erin bought tickets for a visit to the top of the Washington monument the day before we left. We had always wanted to see that view and after the earthquake, we were worried it wouldn’t re-open before we left, so it seemed to be a very appropriate way to say goodbye to the city.

The last few days of packing put us in a pretty good place in terms of our travel bags and being packed up to move to CO. We said  our goodbyes to many friends and stacked our boxes high.

We put up our no parking signs for our moving Pod to arrive. We have placed no parking signs to move in DC three times. All three times they were ignored by locals who really just want to park. This has required us to hunt out neighbors and strangers on the street to please move the cars and to fill all the spots with trash bins and people, and to manually monitor the curb so the Pod can be placed. We had two no parking signs ripped down,  and we caught one neighbor in the act. Why does DC hate people who attempt to move in and out so much? I may never know.

So with the Pod safely at the curb, and boxes ready to go we had one last little problem, rain!

DC was set for a storm that would cause record flooding the day we were scheduled to have movers help us load our pod. Luckily, there were some nice breaks in the weather that allowed us to load without all our stuff getting soaked. Also, Bookstore movers did an awesome job helping us load things and keep them as dry as possible. They brought extra people and would stack boxes and things by the door when it was raining hard and run everything out when we had gaps in the weather. I really appreciated their work and give them the highest recommendation.

Bookstore movers, rocking it!
Bookstore movers, rocking it!

With the goodbyes said, our stuff loaded up, the car packed full. We took a moment to celebrate with a last pot pie dinner accompanied by the last of our garden tomatoes. Then we hopped in the car with a very confused dog to start our journey.

Thanks, DC, you have been good to us. We will miss so many people who were a part of our lives in the city and will always recall our time here with fond memories.

To ease the sadness, I took Erin to the IL state fair in Springfield, but that story will have to be saved for another post.

Books, Pie Pans, Don’t Ask Why

Books, Pie Pans, Don't Ask Why
Books, Pie Pans, Don’t Ask Why

Moving completely overwhelms me. I look around the house and cannot even begin to think about where to start.

My husband handles things much better. He is an engineer and he packs like an engineer.  He picks up the things and puts them into the boxes and then picks up more things, and puts them into the boxes, in an effort to perfectly fill every available space in a box, like tetris. And so our boxes are not categorized by type of item or room in the house, but by items that fit, perfectly, together. The rocks from our outdoor heater are not packed with the gardening supplies, but with picture frames. Thankfully, he also uses very specific labeling, so that we will know to look for the vacuum bags in the box with the winter clothes.

Books and coffee mugs
Books and coffee mugs
Random
Random

Dan also had a couple of extra days to pack, while I was still finishing up the week at work, and so, consequently, he has done more than his fair share, and our conversations go like this:

“Where is the spatula?”

“Oh, you mean the long-skinny? It’s packed.”

This is what our house looks like now.