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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Disney Sea Pics....

Some pictures from Tokyo Sea...

The Raging Spirit Roller Coaster

The Japanese Version of Tower of Terror.

The Mediterranean Village

Outside Aquatopia

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tokyo Disney Day 1

Having growing up in Orange County, I would venture to say I have probably been to Disneyland well over 100 times. I am used to the best routes to get from point A to point B and consider myself somewhat of an expert on the rides of yesteryear no longer in existence and what Disneyland was back in late 70s until now. So it was with great exuberance I was once again able to attend both Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recently and this time take some notes about both parks and some of the differences and subtle nuances that distinguish both parks and more importantly, the entire experience itself.

 Located about 30 minutes away via a train ride from Tokyo Station, one of the world's busiest train depots, the Tokyo Disney resort is officially located in the city of Maihama in the Chiba Prefecture. What marks the Japanese Disney Experience from the one more accustomed to by visitors to our local park is the complete user friendly set up and lay out of the complex. Immediately leaving the train, you check in at the official Vacation Welcome Center where you can not only purchase your tickets for the parks, but also check into your hotel room provided you booked at one of the 6 on site hotels. The welcome center handled it all giving us our entry passes for the parks, the keys to our room, passes for the Disney Train line, and best of all allowing us to check in all of our luggage.

 Located directly at the same train stop lies the sprawling shopping complex Ikspiari. Think of this as the Japanese version of Downtown Disney but truth be told it is much more akin to South Coast Plaza given the mall like atmosphere and upscale architecture. Ikspiari is loaded with shops and restaurants to the point where one could probably spend a day taking it all in and proved later to be a wonderful respite.
The entire Tokyo Disney Complex has its own Train Line not too different then the Monorail but serving 4 stops along its route with Tokyo Disney, Disney Sea, the Hotels, and once again back to the Ikspiari and Train Connections. What differs here is that the Disney Train does require the purchase of a ticket to board, so it is not like the Monorail which is free inside the park or getting into the park via the Monorail entrance at Downtown Disney. For all intensive purposes, this train is no different then any other train in Japan other then being totally overhauled into the Disney Theme with Mickey Mouse Shaped Windows, Handles, and on this trip a Toy Story Mania motif that coincided with the ride opening at Disney Sea.

 Departing the train, we made our way into Tokyo Disneyland, and while they have their own version of Main Street, the entire street is covered offering guest a dry experience given the frequent rain of the area. Main Street is also layed out in a cross street type pattern as well that allows for more shops as well as guests having the option to short cut to Tomorrowland or Westernland. Yes, Tokyo Disney simply combines Frontierland and Adventureland into one all encompassing land known as Westernland. The rides themselves each have a few minor differences that were interesting to this longtime Disneyland fan. The Pirates of the Caribbean features only one drop instead of the two we are used to in OC. The Jack Sparrow character in the “Well Dunking” scene is much bigger as well, and while I am not an expert of Johnny Depp would not be surprised if this was actual size. Some other notables come from the Jail scene with additional prisoners in the jail as well as unique dialogue as well as a blast from the past in the Pirates Plunder scene where the Pirates still chase the women and none of them are holding food, just as I remembered the original back in OC before political correctness set in.

The Strawberry and Custard Mickey Waffle....was 400 Yen.

 The Haunted House has some differences as well in the House itself is far larger as the ride itself takes place in the house as opposed to our OC offering that takes place largely underground. Once through the entrance you board your Doom Mobile immediately which means the walk through section with the changing pictures and the moving statues actually takes place as part of the ride. The staring statues also feature some other characters not seen in our version. The jungle cruise is different as well in that there is a cave section with large snakes, a tiger with glowing eyes, and a monkey idol inside. Very reminiscent of the architecture used in the Indiana Jones ride which begs to mention Indiana Jones is located in Disney Sea.
A Disney Themed Japanese Lantern 

There is no Matterhorn ride as well which to some extent robs the park of a Central Location to get your bearings straight. Big Thunder Mountain in Japan is far faster and far better in my opinion, actually having the feel of a legitimate thrill ride as opposed to the relatively tame offering of our park.

This Jungle Cruise Cast Member was Happy To post for us. 
One item of note, the shooting gallery in Japan offers a special prize for those who score a 10 of 10. Score Sheets are printed out after every round and showing the attendant a perfect score card meant getting a Donald Duck Sheriff Badge of which I fortunately was able to win, much to delight of my kids and a round of high fives.
One of the many popcorn stands with assorted flavors.

These are actually vending machines located in tomorrowland.
 One other item me and my family loved were the multiple flavors of Popcorn at the Park. Curry, Milk Tea, Soy Sauce, Chocolate, and Strawberry were just a few of the offerings for unique flavors and at 300 yen it was easy on the pocket book to try them all given 300 yen is close to $3.50 in US money. Japanese Disney also has no tax. As a matter of fact almost all of the single snack items were either 300 or 400 yen. The wife and I commented on how the quality and the price made it far more reasonable then our local park.

The Castle at Night.

After our busy day we made it to the Ikspiari center for our dinner and while I was really wanting a glass of wine and a pizza we thought we would keep it simple and go to the TGI Fridays with the assumption there would be more Kid friendly food. We ordered a few beers, 3 appetizers, 2 kids meals, and split a cobb salad with the bill coming to 80 bucks. They do not tip in Japan so given the amount of food and drink we ordered 80 bucks isn't really that unreasonable. Was cute as well that all the waitresses had American names...our server was Bunny, but we also saw Mary and April working there as well.
If you were the one last guy wondering whether or not the Stones have sold out....this should answer your question as the TGI Fridays in Tokyo was hawking all sorts of Stones menu items.

 All in all a fun day at Tokyo Disney!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Japan Days 3&4

After the whirlwind tour of the long plane flight, the long train, and the non stop touring of my first couple of days in Japan I was anxious to settle down a little bit....but that wasn't going to happen and Im not one to complain so the trip continued via a 3 plus hour drive to what is known as a Hot Spring Resort and a few stops along the way.

The first stop was a close to 100 year old hotel called the Tokai-Kan that overlooked the Matsukawa River.....the hotel at one point was the largest and tallest building in the Ito village and closed back in 1997 only to reopen a few years later as a museum. Was fascinating A)seeing the architecture and B) thinking how this was one of the premier hotels in the area back in day. Each room featured unique artistry with traditional japanese art carved into tables as well as etched into the walls. I opened up one of the windows overlooking the river and wondered how many people stayed in this room through the ages and what life must have been back in the day. They had a hot spring in the hotel and it was amusing to see the elaborate and much larger mens spring as compared to relative paltry offerings for the women spring. I should mention as well that much effort went into using a local tree that while it featured strong wood also bent in unpredictable ways so every effort was made to utilize the randomness of the branched worked into the architecture.

The View of the Tokai-Kan from across the River.

This was actually the entrance to the restroom.  In the land of the small the 5'8" white guy is King.
The hand carved at painted woodwork...each room was unique in theme.

Back in route to our destination I marveled at some of the scenic views offered by the coastal drive that was presented before us. Think the drive through Laguna Beach times pi to get an idea. Some areas were strictly reachable via boot as there were no public access and some of the small islands in the middle of the ocean only added to the semi tropical appeal.

Finally we reached our destination that was the Suiko Hot Spring Inn and it was certainly an experience. While it had all the modern amenities(wifi, Satellite TV, etc etc) it was a traditional hot springs resort that meant once you checked in, men were issued a Yukata and the Women the Kimono.
You basically stayed the entire time in the inn dressed in your issued Garb. To further elaborate, once you made it to your room, you had no more need for shoes as there sandals you would wear to walk to the grounds from Point A to Point B and what not.

Alex and me sporting our Yutakas.

We quickly made our way to the hot springs with my father in law and my sons off to the side for males and the wife and her mom for the females. My sons were a bit apprehensive at first but they realized it was like a big jacuzzi sans swimwear were alright with it. The water was blazing hot as really had to try hard to get used to it and I couldnt imagine anyone could stay longer the 20 minutes or so. Japanese Hot Springs are as such that most comes with showers and prebathing before taking a dip is standard fair. In true japanese fashion though they provide every toiletry imaginable including razors, aftershave, lotions, as well as complimentary ice cold genmai cha tea and spring water infused with lemon. The whole effect largely stems from the view though as this mountain resort overlooked the city and offered a wonderful view. For me, and this may be from the “too much info” file but after soaking in piping hot spring water, standing naked on a bluff of a huge mountain with the ocean breeze blowing on the nether regions certainly offers a feeling of satisfaction.

The next surprise came with the revelation that Hot Spring Resorts are not only know for Hot Springs, but Ping Pong/Table Tennis. Not making this up. After soaking in the spring the family goes into a special ping pong room and enjoy some recreation. Was funny in that we are still wearing our Yutaka and Kimonos while playing the game.

Next event came with the serving of a Traditional Japanese Dinner. And this was about as traditional as it got and while I wasnt so sure of the pageantry and the tradition of the meal, I simply copied my father in law and did everything he did. Will say that the Sashimi was arguably the best I ever had and the roasting of a live abalone over a small sterno cell is something that is probably not offered at a lot of american seafood places. We also dined on a lobster tail....that was cut up and prepared tempura style. Some other meal accompaniments I had absolutely no clue what they were. We enjoyed some beer as well as some cold sake with our meal. Was quite the experience to say the least seeing us all decked in our robes and treated like royalty.

Japanese Combo Meal #5 Supersized

We headed back to the spring for a final dip for the night and almost made quite the foopah failing to realize that they occasionally switch the mens spring from the womens spring as there are some difference in the hot spring and they want all to enjoy the variables. Fortunately, being there on a weeknight meant minimum occupancy so my transgression was minor and my oldest son Alex was smart enough to realize and alert me to the circumstance. After one final dip and a fresh shave, I was ready for bed.

One item of Japanese life has not set well with me is the sleeping on the futon. That is not to say that aren't comfortable.....but all in all-they aren't comfortable. I have heard that they are very good for your back and posture but that is a revelation that I have yet to verify. Good fortune was smiling on me however when my youngest son decided to share a futon with my Wife which meant I simply put his futon on my futon and at least then marginally better as far as the comfort factor.

The next day we once again went to out private dining room for what was to be the traditional Japanese breakfast. Not knocking it per se but the Denny's Grand Slam never sounded so appealing. We made one more dip in the spring and this time was lucky enough to go it alone with no kids nor father in law. The Solace offered by the dip with the sound of the birds and the crash of the ocean certainly was some karmic bliss for my soul as I sat and pondered life.

Morning View from the Spring

We made one pass at the gift shop before heading out and I bought an Item I can almost certainly assume can not be had in the States with a package of Wasabi Flavored Kit Kat Candy Bars. At first I assumed it was green tea but it was indeed Wasabi and on that note I could not pass up the opporunity.

Next item on the agenda was a combination Zoo, Amusement Park, and Sports Park in the area. The zoo was not quite the Scale of San Diego but did have some nice offerings and much like my visit to the Singapore Zoo over 10 years ago I marvel how asian zoos are so affordable. You could feed the animals for 100 yen, or roughly 1 buck, and all of the food was built on the honor system. Put you yen into the can, grab a cup, and go to town. I opted to feed the giraffe as well as the baboons. Have to say that never were a more violent, yet talented animal ever created. On one hand you could throw the cracker to them and they would one handed catch the treat while better throws they could simply catch the snack in their mouths. On the downside, a bad throw meant a feeding frenzy and some of the smaller animals being attacked trying to get the snack. Mildly disturbing.

The Cutest Zoo Bus Ever Created

Nothing quenches thirst on a hot day like a bottle of "Latin Biorhythm Mate"
One from the What the heck file....this is the official spokesmen for a Japanese Cheese Company. I guess maybe they figured the cute teen asian female in pigtails thing had been overused so the mildly retared fat guy with glasses was the next logical step in the advertising progression for asian dairy products.

We went on a few amusement park rides as well and since the mid day visit meant the park was virtually empty we had our pick of the litter. I am semi sure our 2 days at Disney will probably not offer that luxury.

More to come....

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Touring Japan; Days 1 and 2

As promised, I bring you the first entry for my multi-part blog series about the wonderous splendor that is traveling Japan. My trip started at my favorite mexican restaurant in huntington beach where I felt that perhaps a belly fully of food and a few margaritas may get the trip started on the right foot and maybe, just maybe, help me get some sleep for the 11 or so hour flight departing LAX at 1am. I am unfortunately a very light sleeper so sleeping in cars, trains, and planes does not come easily and generally can not be counted on. To no avail, my plan didn't work as I probably nodded off a few times for maybe 10 or so minutes. I would imagine all in all I probably got about an hour or so of sleep scattered through the entire flight and matters were made more difficult when A)the passenger in front of placed a carry on item under the seat hence preventing me from fully extending my left leg and B)the group of high school students behind me and in particular the 2 girls who felt the darkened plane with a number of people trying to rest meant the perfect opportunity to watch a comedy and laugh as loudly and sharply as possible. Good times.

Plane landed at 5am or so Japanese time and made it through customs and got my luggage in quick time. For the record, in Japan use of the luggage cart is complimentary. The Japanese are very efficient and I guess somewhere along the way decided getting people in and out of the airport as quickly and easily as possible trumped the motivation to make an extra buck or two on cart rental.

I found my wife and her father and soon was carbound for Hayama Japan, my wifes hometown and the place I generally call home when I visit the area. I was lucky enough to fly into Haneda airport as opposed to the larger and more commonly used Tokyo Narita which meant getting back to Hayama was a 45 minute or so car ride as opposed to a 2 ½ hour train ride which was nice.

I made it back and exchanged some pleasantries with the wifes family and was quite pleased to hear that my mother in law had actually filled a tub with hot water which meant after the long day and the long flight I could relax if not for a bit in a soothing japanese bath. I lounged for a bit and couldnt decide on whether or not I would have a green tea to start the day or a cold beer. It actually ended up being coffee but I digress as time was not on my side and a few hours later found myself aboard a train in Zushi Japan headed north for the Japanese Countryside of Yamasaki where would be spending the night with a friend of my wifes and her American Husband for some sightseeing. Its always nice to find someone in Japan who speaks English as at times you can very easily get a claustrophobic feel when visiting.

The train ride itself was fine, it was about a 3 hour trip and we had reserved special seating that meant we had a smaller car with bigger seats that swiveled so 4 people could play a game of poker if they wanted to. Also nice that some Japanese trains for longer trips feature stewards who routinely walk the train selling drinks and snacks. Alcohol is among the offerings so one could buy a cold beer to enjoy on a long trip if one was so inclined.

We met her friend at the station and next thing I know we are visiting our first of many Japanese shrines in the Kannonyama Shrine. It's a 5 story tall statue that looks over the city weather permitting and more importantly offers the opportunity to walk inside up the top for a wonderful view of the area, not unlike the Statue of Liberty in that regard. Temperature wise it was very warm and very humid that meant the inside of the facility and the hundred or so steps to the top was a sticky affair.

Out of the statue we continued the walk around the shrine and were looking forward to what Todd, the American husband of my wifes friend referred to as the spooky bridge of death. How could the kids pass that up? Making the walk to the bridge the fog started rolling and given the already tropical vibe of the far east locale meant the indiana jones vibe was in full force. Meandering down a foggy mountain trail in central Japan to cross the legendary bridge of death? What could possible be better? That is until we actually got there to find it was closed for renovation in a real Clark Griswold moment.

Good times but that I was walking the grounds of a revered Buddhist shrine in central japan how unhappy could I really be? And sure I was disappointed not to have been able to take a picture of my children holding our miniature stanley cup while crossing the legendary japanese bridge known for its ghostly apparitions and high suicide rate but hey, I'm on vacation and can learn to simply roll with it.

Later we ended up at one of the local Japanese BBQ restaurants(known as Yakiniku) for some cold beers and some fantastic food. In japanese restaurants they have a series of rooms known as “family rooms” which are basically a separate area where diners can let their kids run around without bothering other diners. They typically have some type of view of a bonzai garden and/or a waterfall and this one was no different. I am accustomed to Yakiniku from back in OC, so in a strange way it almost serves as comfort food and I really enjoyed it knowing that at some point the options would almost certainly be limited to some type of asian noodle or sashimi bowl along the way. Not to say I dont enjoy those foods but at some point a burger or sandwich seems Ideal. I will mention, the newest burger crazy in Japan comes from a chain called “Freshness Burger” as to which I hope to try and write about in upcoming blog entrys.

The next day I woke up and decided to take an early AM walk down to the river that went through the town. It was still moist and humid and reminded me a bit of Hawaii or some other Mid-West Local known for the humidity. My goal was to get to the banks of the river, throw a stone or two, see if I could visually spot any fish and was told from the previous night the river was 10 minute walk from their home.

Making my way up the street I stumbled across an old, but still functional beer vending machine on the side of the road which always is a treat. Walking in front of some homes there were a few that had Koi ponds so I stopped and looked a bit and took in the whole vibe. Crossing the street and across a series of Rice Paddies I made my way to an overlook where I could clearly see the flowing river. Only problem- it was incredibly wet, there was no footpath I could find, and the few steps I did take meant my shoes were instantly soaked. I opted for viewing the river from a nearby bridge.

In America, teens would buy beer here while others would simply steal the entire machine.

Later, back at the house, I enjoyed Japanese breakfast which consisted of fish, another kind of fish, some green beans, some more fish, some little hot dogs, some other type of steamed yam, some assorted fish cakes, and buttermilk blueberry waffles served with powdered sugar and vermont maple syrup. And yes, I made up the last part.

After breakfast we made our way to a couple of other shrines and places of note in the area. The first shrine was very cool in there were a ton of things to see and do. For 100 Yen you could purchase a bundle of incense, light them in a coal stove, and place them in front of the Buddhist god of your choice. Not this next part is pure speculation but Im guessing the series of statues all represented one facet of life and the statue of which you choose to place the incense would mean fortune in business, love, money, family, etc etc etc. Since I didnt know which statue was which I went with a gut feel...

This shrine was very user friendly and hands on. They hand a merry go round type attraction as well as a series of different large bells that could be ring and other various type of noise makers. The Kids loved it and Todd amused us all after ringing a huge bell with as much force as he could muster did a cartoonish vibrating type dance akin to a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I later rang the bell as well but passed on any attempts at humor as I didn't think I could trump Todd's comedic antics.

Spring Water poured from the Turtles Mouth...some drank from it.
Afterwards we made our way to one of the natural hot springs in a town known for its 1000 steps. Actually I guessed it was called 1000 steps but trust me there were more then 100. Majestic views abound and spring water that was piped from the top and made its way down the hill to a series of areas where you could sit and soak your feet, it was uniquely japanese.

Getting higher to the source of the spring I looked to the side to see the spring water running down and turning everything in its path to a sort of bronzish color due to the sulfur in the water. At the top of the hill we decided to go ahead and sit in the hot springs. The men and women going to their respective springs and me and my sons all dropping trow to sit the water. They didn't quite know what to think at first but later realized it was no different then a jacuzzi minus the chlorine. There is something about the refreshing and healing powers of a hot spring. Getting dressed I felt revitalized and once again basked in the moment as I was in central japan with my sons and our close friends taking part in a traditional hot springs soak.

We left the mountain and everyone but myself and the mother of our friends who was driving were napping as the car made its way down the mountain. Yeah....being a light sleeper has no relatively few benefits when traveling.

We made the train station that ran through Yamasaki just in time to catch our train back to Hayama.....and another 3 hours later we finally it made it back. Was a whirlwind couple of days. Very excited to keep on moving forward with plenty more adventures ahead.