Nippon Express – 80 Days in Tokyo

happenings and experiences during my stay at RICOH Software R&D, Tokyo

Pachinko Madness And Artificial Islands February 17, 2008

No post within one week, I’m sorry for that. However, you can take my word for it: This one will be as good as two! This weekend was one of the most exciting and funniest so far, so let me tell what happened.

First things first: We did not travel across Japan this time, actually we all feel that we have travelled enough for now. Instead, we will focus on the Tokyo area in the remaining weekends, because there is so much to see here, why travel thousands of kilometers? That being said, this weekend was as follows:

On Friday evening, we went to Akihabara. It was actually my third or fourth time to Akihabara, and since this special area of Tokyo is so famous and well-known, I actually wanted to dedicate an own post to it, but what gives. So let me tell you about Akihabara a bit. Akiba (that’s what most people here call it) is also known as the “Electric City”, because it is one of the biggest sites for all sorts of consumer electronics and related articles in the entire world. There are Apple stores, SEGA stores, SONY stores, and of course Yodobashi Akiba, an electronics mega-store expanding over nine floors — BIG floors. You can buy literally everything here which needs power to operate, and more. Akiba is also known as THE site to go for anything related to Manga (Japanese comics) and Anime (Japanese animation films), which is why it attracts a lot of nerds. Often you find them being dressed up like Manga characters doing crazy things on the streets (I think this is called “cosplay”, which is short for “costume play”). Weird.Blossoms in a park near Odaiba

Actually we went to Akiba this time to visit some Maiden Cafes — cafes and restaurants where the waiters are all female and dress up like Maidens… We visited two, but it wasn’t as cool as we thought. Instead of visiting more cafes, we thought it was about time to check out one of the Pachinko parlors. And then the fun really started! For your info, Pachinko is some form of gambling game similar to slot machines and is so popular in Japan that you find these parlors almost everywhere. So we went into one of the bigger parlors (“Big Apple”), and boy, I thought my ears were about to collapse. It is so freaking loud inside these things, you can hardly hear your own voice. I wonder how anyone can stay there longer than 30 minutes without getting some nervous breakdown or something?! So we sat down at one of the machines and being the completely clueless “Gaijins” we are, just randomly pressed buttons because noone had a clue how Pachinko worked… We only knew that you have to get as many metal balls as possible, and we got more balls… and more… and more… It seemed that Martin (who operated the machine) was on a winning streak! He filled like four canisters with metal balls until we just couldn’t cope with the terrible noise and left to trade in the balls for our prize. We received two packs of potato chips and a stack of gold. YES, GOLD! Now you think I’m crazy or something, but no. Gambling is in fact illegal in Japan, therefore the Pachinko parlors bend the rules by not paying out money if you win, but instead you get gold in various sizes (e.g. 1 gram) sealed in small plastic cards and have to visit special stores to trade them in for money. That way it stays legal…Statue of Liberty... NOT!

Okay, now we had a couple of gold stacks in our hands and had not only NO clue whatsoever where to trade them in, but also how much we actually won, because of course none of us had an idea what 1 gram of gold is actually worth. So we step outside the parlor, walk ten meters and suddenly some suspicious looking guy in a suit comes over and starts making us offers for our gold stacks! He had a LOT of money in his wallet but we had NO clue what it was actually worth, but Martin somehow managed to look not as clueless as we actually were and sold the gold to that guy for 16000 Yen — that’s almost 100 €! So let me summarize: We paid 6€ to play Pachinko, had NO idea how it works, and won 100€ at the first try. Now how cool is that! Of course we expected the guy completely ripped us off, but back at the apartment we checked the current gold price and it was only 10€ above what he paid us, so it was still a very good deal for us.

Rainbow Bridge

The next day we went to Odaiba, an artifical island in the Tokyo Bay. It is connected with the landside by the Rainbow Bridge but we used a “Water Bus” to get there. Odaiba has a lot of attractions and we didn’t have enough time to see them all, but the more notable ones we saw were the artificial beach, the Statue of Liberty (copied from the one you know from New York — Japanese love copying things), the Fuji TV building, and my personal favorite: Miraikan, the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. It covers various topics such as robotics, space travel technology, micro electronics, but also biology and Earth’s eco systems. My three highlights in the museum were: First, a gigantic globe made of displays, where the Museum staff can show overlays of Earth’s climate development and global warming. Second, a small aquarium which was a completely autonomous eco system of its own. The water is never changed by the staff, instead millions of microbes keep the water clean. The fish in it are never fed; instead, they live off the plants which grow in the water. The third attraction, maybe my favorite, didn’t look very exciting at first: It was a small stage where two rather uninteresting spider-like robots could walk around by controlling them with PlayStation-controllers. But, if you stand in line, you will eventually enter a room with a huge display in front of you. You will get 3D-glasses and are being “beamed” into one of these robots on the stage! It works by projecting the image the eye-camera of the robot is recording to the display. The room will shake with every step you make with the controls and with the 3D effect, you really think you are sitting in this robot and are walking around! The staff (which is still outside) will meanwhile do funny things like putting small obstacles in the robot’s (your!) way, which of course look huge on the display. What’s even funnier is that you need two people to control the robot: One for the left legs, and one for the right. So you have to coordinate yourself. So much fun!

In the evening we went to Roppongi to see the Tokyo Tower, an ugly replica of the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t actually enter Tokyo Tower, because it’s rip-off, you get much better sights from other buildings. So we went to the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills to the 52nd floor — that is so much better! You can also see Tokyo Tower from there (see picture). Plus, included in the entrance fee is a ticket for an art museum which is on the same floor and very worthwhile to see.

After that, we went to a bar and finally could rest our sore feet and have a drink. Three, actually.

Visit my Akihabara picture gallery
Visit my Odaiba picture gallery
Visit my Roppongi picture gallery

 

The Long Weekend: Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara February 11, 2008

Today (Monday) is a holiday in Japan, so we (Martin and me) took the opportunity and used the long weekend for our biggest trip so far: We visited Hiroshima, Kyoto and Nara. I’ll try to recap what we experienced on these days, but we have seen so much, it’s hard to remember everything. I am here for only a month now, but I am already getting this weird sightseeing overdose where you can’t really remember anymore what you have seen where. But I’ll do my best.

On Friday evening (after work), we took a night bus to Hiroshima. In case you haven’t currently memorized the geography of Japan (how dare you!), Hiroshima is waaaaaay over to the south-west from Tokyo (I think it’s like 800 or 900 kilometers). Going by bus therefore means going by nightfall, because it takes you like 11 hours or something and you don’t want to waste a day for that. Luckily, we booked the “stylish bus” (no kidding). It had stylish seats which gave me the worst pain in the back ever (I really mean my back here). But they were stylish!! Anyway, arriving in Hiroshima, the weather was so bad, I think my mood couldn’t have been any worse after that night with much pain and few sleep. Luckily, the sky cleared out after a while. Anyway, our first target was to visit the island of Miyajima, according to my travel guide one of the three most beautiful places in all of Japan. I forgot what the other two are, but Miyajima is beautiful. We travelled there by Speed Boat from Hiroshima Port (takes about 50-something minutes). Our mood quickly got much better, and the sun finally started shining, giving us some impressive views of the island’s sightseeing spots. Its most famous one is o-torii, a very popular Torii which is actually built off-shore! Usually, Torii mark the entrance to Shinto shrines, which means they’re on solid ground. Another very remarkable thing about Miyajima is that it’s full of tame deer, and they roam the streets completely freely. I mean completely freely, you run into them at literally every corner. (See the Wikipedia article on Miyajima for more background info.) The island has a somewhat mediterranean flair, almost like the Greek islands, just that it has temples, shrines, … and deer.

After leaving Miyajima we went back to Hiroshima City for the rest of the day, to do some sightseeing of a completely different kind: See the A-Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Museum. This was tough. I don’t know, but actually standing in front of the dome made my blood freeze. It really lets you realize how terribly unhuman humans actually are. The museum is very good at providing the related historical and political background information surrounding this horrible event. If you actually see with your own eyes the tattered clothes of a child that has been killed by the atomic bomb attack, it becomes more than just something you read in a history book.

In the evening, we left for Kyoto with the Shinkansen.

We stayed at “Kyoto Cheapest Inn”, the cheapest hostel in Kyoto, or at least they claim it to be. It was really cool, we met a guy from Chile — his name is Juan — who was currently touring Japan. Because Juan also wanted to visit Nara the next day, we went together. I don’t know, there is not much to tell about Nara, it is really over-hyped in my opinion. It is a city near Kyoto (like 30 minutes by train) and is famous for its temples, but I think Kyoto delivers much more in that regard. Nara on the other hand has this temple with the biggest Buddha statue in all of Japan, which is really impressive, but that’s about it. The surrounding park area wasn’t particularly interesting either. Maybe, I even suspect some form of “conditioning” here. I have seen so many temples, shrines and pagodas here, it’s hard to get impressed anymore. In the evening, Juans and our ways parted (but we already plan to meet him again in Tokyo next week) because he hadn’t seen Miyajima yet and so he left for Hiroshima that evening (where we had already been).

The third and last day (today) we dedicated completely to Kyoto. Like Nara, Kyoto itself isn’t particularly interesting, let alone beautiful, but it has some very remarkable temples and shrines. I think Kyoto is like THE city in Japan for visiting shrines and temples. It actually has over 2000 of them! One of the more remarkable ones is a golden temple, which is a really beautiful sight, especially when hit by run rays. Another highlight is Kiyomizu-dera which is actually a really huge temple site located on the slopes of a small mountain. You have a very nice sight over Kyoto from there. In the evening, we left for Tokyo, again with Shinkansen. It’s so fast, it only took like 2.5 hours.

Now I’m kinda tired, and I think I’ll go to bed, if you excuse me. For all pictures, see below.

Hiroshima and Nara picture gallery
Miyajima picture gallery
Kyoto picture gallery

 

Mount Fuji And The Five Lakes District February 4, 2008

Volker, Martin, Rene and me spent the last weekend at Kawaguchiko Lake District, an area surrounding Mount Fuji, the famous volcano. Unfortunately, the weather (again!) turned somewhat against us. While we still got some impressive views of Fuji-san on Saturday, it started snowing on Sunday and the temperature dropped below zero. The sight on Fuji-san was therefore also dropping to zero. Moreover, we actually planned to ride the rollercoasters in the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park on Sunday, but due to the extreme weather conditions the rides were closed. Bugger!

Anyway, we tried to make the best of it and turned the weekend into a wellness weekend by visiting two Onsens, both located around Fuji Kawaguchiko. Onsens are Japanese bath areas of hot source water, often as hot as 60°! They can be best compared to our “Thermen” in Germany, just that everyone is naked! Therefore, no pictures, sorry 😉

The Retro Bus, yay! The boat we took

Besides hanging out in Onsens, we spent Saturday touring around the lakes in a cool sightseeing bus called the “Retro Bus”. Using the bus, we visited Blueberry Village, where you can buy everything related to blueberries! Cookies, jam, tea, pictures, T-Shirts, you name it. They even had blueberry Kit Kat for crying out loud! (In fact I meanwhile looked at a picture of it and realized that it was Grape KitKat, not Blueberry KitKat.) After that, we took a boat trip across Lake Kawaguchiko, but after a while it got so cold, we had to go inside. We also enjoyed some very nice fireworks on Saturday evening, but I couldn’t really manage to capture its beauty in pictures, so at some point I stopped trying and let me just tell you it was great. We spent the night in a very nice Japanese hotel. Everything was the way how you would expect it from a Japanese room: Tatami on the floor, Futons for beds, a low table with pillows for sitting/kneeling down, and of course the obligatory vending machine (okay, it was not in our room, but I wouldn’t have been surprised).

On Sunday we didn’t do much because of the terrible weather, except the second Onsen and a trip to the most unspectacular cave I have ever seen. It was called Wind Cave, I have no idea why. It took you roughly five minutes to see the entire cave, and its biggest attraction was some kind of ice formation, which actually looked suspiciously artificial. Oh well.

For seeing Fuji-san alone the trip was worth it, and the Onsens were also awesome. Too bad that I caught myself a nasty cold. Had to go for a drug store today and buy some cold medicine. I hope I’ll get rid of it until Friday, when we leave for Hiroshima and Kyoto.

All pictures from the trip — as always — on my Picasa account. UPDATE: Uploaded a couple more fotos where I am NOT behind the camera 😉

 

Matsumoto – Crow Castle And Snow Festival January 21, 2008

Filed under: traveling & sightseeing — Matthias @ 10:34 pm
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Yesterday Volker and me went for a one-day-trip to Matsumoto in the Nagano prefecture. The city itself wouldn’t be particularly interesting if it wouldn’t house Japan’s oldest castle that is still in its original state (most castles in Japan today are reconstructions). The castle is also known as “Crow Castle”, according to Wikipedia due to its dark appearance, but having seen it myself I’d rather say it’s because of the droves of crows that constantly fly in circles around its roof (see picture).

Because Matsumoto hasn’t really much else to offer, we were even more pleased to be informed that this very weekend, a snow festival was taking place in Matsumoto. It was basically an exhibition of sculptures hand-crafted out of pure ice. I was amazed at what complex creations the artists had been able to realize. You should really go check out the complete picture gallery, it’s awe-inspiring.

We also visited a nearby museum, which was free once you paid the fee for the castle visit, but it didn’t really have anything of interest to offer (from my humble point of view at least). Yet, the castle and the ice sculptures were more than worth the 4 hour ride to Matsumoto.

 

A Short Trip To Asakusa And Tokyo’s Oldest Temple January 19, 2008

Today the weather was great, still pretty cold but very sunny. We took the opportunity and visited the Asakusa district of Tokyo’s Taito ward which houses Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji. Until now, it was the most tourist heavy area I have been to in my (few) days in Japan, but the ancient temple building and its pretty garden area are really worth a bath in the masses.

Nearby is Sumida River, which flows into Tokyo Bay. You can see all pictures of this trip in my Asakusa picture gallery.

 

So It Has Come To This – My First Few Days In Japan January 14, 2008

Wow. Only four days and yet so much to tell already. First of all, my excuses for being a little late with my first post, I didn’t have internet access in my apartment for the first couple of days and I spent the first weekend on a trip (more on that in a minute) and of course I also didn’t want to blog while being at work, so, this will be rather lengthy.

I have much to cover already, so I’ll get right on topic. I’ll keep things short on my arrival and all that and like to focus more on my first tour to the west coast of Japan. Both Martin (a fellow student) and me arrived on Wednesday morning at Narita Airport (that’s the big one, right), after traveling for almost 22 hours (including hours of waiting for continuation flights and buses at Helsinki airport and Narita airport). We left at 10:45 AM in Frankfurt, Germany and arrived at 10:00 AM in Narita, which means we sort of skipped one day ahead. Talk about having the worst jet lag you can imagine. The airport was amazingly empty, but still, my first impression was: Wow, we’re in another world. We took a shuttle from Terminal 2 which ran fully automated – no driver. It sort of felt like the introductory sequence of the Half-Life computer game where a similar shuttle takes you to Black Mesa. After claiming our baggage we had to wait 3 or 4 more hours for a bus which took us to the RICOH R&D office building. We were heartily welcomed by Ms. Hirano who works for RICOH and were introduced to the rest of the staff. After that, Ms. Hirano took us to our apartments in Soka (that’s a city north of Tokyo which belongs to the Saitama prefecture). I will dedicate an own blog post to the Leopalace apartments, because I think they are amazing, so at this point let me just say that they are really, really, good. The first two actual work days at RICOH were just fine, the people are great, but I was still suffering from severe jet lag and had problems keeping attention when I was being explained something. Luckily, there wasn’t really that much work to do (yet). Okay, I will just skip ahead to Friday now and talk about our first trip we took from Friday to Sunday!

The first trip we already planned when we were still in Germany. Actually, I have to give all the credits to Volker Hudlet here, because he did all the planning and organization, mostly because he is really good at it and because he has already been in Japan for two months. The idea was to first visit Kanazawa, which (according to japan-guide.com) has one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens of all Japan, the Kenrokuen. Without needing to see other gardens, I can agree on that.

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan

We took a night bus on Friday evening, which was a 7-8 hours ride over night from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa. The ride was — literally — a pain in the back. The bus was not very comfortable so I didn’t get any sleep, but actually I didn’t mind much. I sort of got used to sleep much less here than in Germany. There is simply too much to see and too few time to sleep much… Anyway, we arrived at Kanazawa station in the morning and immediately took off to see the city and the Kenrokuen. Kanazawa StationUnfortunately, the weather played bad on us, it was cold and rainy. No problem though, the Japanese convenience stores (which you find almost at every corner) also sell umbrellas. On our way to the gardens, we came by the market area where all sorts of sea food was being advertised. Trust me, looking at that sea food, the word ‘fresh’ really deserves a new definition here, as some of the “food” was still alive and breathing… For all pictures of Kanazawa, go here.

In the afternoon, we were already heading back for the station and took a train to our next destination: The beautiful mountain city of Takayama. Because we arrived in the evening and were pretty tired from the Kanazawa tour (and the bus ride without much sleep), we only took a short trip through the town to get some of the best Chinese food we had ever experienced. At this point I have to say how well you can eat in Japan. For only 700 YEN (that’s roughly 4,20 Euro) we got a cup of rice plus some dish you could choose (I took the meat balls), a cup of soup and as much White Tea (I think it was Jasmin flavored) as we would want. After dinner we headed back to get some sleep at Zenkoji Temple Inn. Zenkoji Temple Inn, Takayama, JapanYes, you heard me, we booked a room at a real Buddhist temple! Some temples do that for a small “donation” (that’s what they call their fees) in order to collect money for maintaining the old buildings. It was really, really great. We got to know some other people stopping by from Australia, a family with their kids and a woman who seemingly was on a trip through a couple of countries.

The next day, that’s Sunday, we took off to visit the city of Takayama in more detail (the evening before we were too tired and didn’t see much because it was dark already). We decided to take a Sake (that’s Japanese rice wine) brewery tour first, and we weren’t disappointed. I have to say, Sake is a really tasty beverage. The tour guide didn’t speak English (actually, you won’t find many people in Japan who do) but did a pretty good job at reading the English descriptions of the tour spots from her cheat sheet. At this point I have to mention how great the people in Japan are. Everyone is so helpful and gentle. If you stop somewhere to check your map, someone will finally come over and try to help you without you even asking him or her! I also have the impression that most Japanese people like Germany (and Germans) a lot. After the Sake tour, we went on a walking course to get some really beautiful impressions of the landsight. Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps and can get pretty snowy (and cold!) though. We left for Tokyo again in the afternoon.

Takayama Old House District

The next night, back in my apartment in Soka, I slept like a stone.

View Kanazawa picture gallery

View Takayama picture gallery