Part I – The journey begins – Okinawa!
Eighteen years of nurturing, guiding and cajoling finally paid off as Kristen Valaika graduated this month from Gwynedd Mercy High School. To celebrate this great event, she and dad are heading on a fly & drive & dive adventure to the Far East. Our itinerary will find us visiting Okinawa, Tokyo, and Honolulu before we eventually head home. We’ve got an agenda filled with places to visit that I can’t even start to pronounce, food to eat that I can’t describe, and more culture shock than I could ever envision!
We kicked it off at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, heading down to the Philadelphia airport for leg #1 of this epic adventure. We flew Delta down to Atlanta, giving us a little breathing room for Dave to fire up the laptop, crank out about 50 emails, and grab breakfast, before we boarded another Delta jet for our 14 hour flight to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Seating was excellent with about ten feet of legroom in our exit aisle, so we suffered through in relative style, being awakened to be fed or given something to drink every 2 hours or so! We ended up arriving about a half hour early, and breezed through Japanese immigration and customs, while being scanned for body temperature, filling out all sorts of swine flu-ish questionaires, and answering all the key questions correctly. With nothing to declare we cleared customs and had time to stroll about the very nice Narita airport for almost 3 hours, waiting for our continuation flight to Naha, Okinawa, We finally boarded the All Nippon for the last leg of today’s adventure. All Nippon Airways is a japanese domestic airline, and let’s say it compares to Comair back in the states. Never the less, the efficiency and work ethics of all the employees shined through and we boarded and left for the island of Okinawa.
We finally arrived, and had our first (and hopefully only) disappointment of the trip. Our car rental agency was closed! So here we were, in a strange land, 30 miles (or 48.2 kilometers for our Canadian readers) from our hotel, and no transportation. Add a wee bit of exhaustion from thirty hours of traveling, and you have the recipe for a not-so-pretty scene! Never-the-less, Kristen got a chance to witness Tijuana-style bargaining first-hand, as we attempted to negotiate with the taxi drivers to get a good deal. We finally settled on $100 to drive us to our resort and we set off, beat but happy to be here. Upon arrival at the very nice Marriott Okinawa Resort & Spa the staff greeted us and made us feel very welcome. Of course, the taxi ordeal was not quite over, and suddenly he seemed to recall the negotiation was in Yen, not dollars, and of course I still owed him more when I handed him the previously-agreed upon $100 bill. Wrong guy to try to play this game with, “homey”, so we exchanged heated words in various languages until the light of reality finally dawned for him, and he got in his cab and headed off into the night. Geeesh! Now finally we get a chance to sleep in real beds and recharge the batteries for an exciting day tomorrow!
Our first full day in Okinawa started off with a beautiful sunrise, blue skies, and great views from our 11th floor room with a view of the South China Sea. That lasted all of about a half hour, when the skies darkened and then opened up with a mother of a monsoon, pouring Chinese delicacies (cats & dogs) all morning! An amazing amount of rain fell this morning, but it’s OK, we’re on vacation! While dad took the time to answer some emails, Kristen headed down early to the Japanese-style breakfast buffet. She came back up and told me she had a great breakfast, although she had no idea of what she ate! That’s just my dining style, for sure! I headed down and took the safer route, opting for the gringo-ish style buffet, which proved to be an interesting combination of salads, lunchmeats, eggs, and some very foreign vegetables. Oh well.
We worked out the details of our next two days with the very helpful concierge staff, and bought our tickets for the bus down to Naha, the capital city and commerce center of the Okinawa prefecture. We enjoyed a scenic shoreline drive all the way down, and as we approached the city, the rain stopped and the sun came out – perfect! We disembarked at the Naha city bus terminal, and needed to head over to the monorail which we could see was obviously right across the street. So we started that way, only to be met with a cavalcade of whistles and waving batons from the local traffic cops, who evidently don’t look too favorably on jaywalkers! Yikes…two minutes in town and we’re already admonished by the local authorities! So we headed back into the bus terminal, took the stairs up, crossed the street on the pedestrian walkway (how boring) and entered the monorail station. Of course, the very modern and efficient self service ticketing system is great, however, you need to have some idea of where you are going and then how to translate that into the menu options on the screen, written completely in, you guessed it, Japanese! Well there were two friendly young ladies there buying tickets, and they walked us through the details and we were off! To the platform, the monorail arrived moments later, and just that fast, we were at Kencho-Mau station, the start of our walking tour through the Kokusai Dori shopping district. This 1.6 km long street is absolutely packed with every type of store and market you can imagine, and every food vendor was offfering free samples of their wares. Let’s just say I committed to a very open mind on this trip, so within the first hundred yards or so I had eaten smoked fish of some origin, seaweed of some sort, sweet red beans, several varieties of cakes and sweets. I did score on a cool little fugu (that’s puffer fish to us caucasians) charm for my cell phone, so look for me to be sporting that when I get home!
It was interesting to note – this place is waaaaay Japanese! How much, you say? How about Kristen and I being the only non-asians we saw all day long? Amazing! With over 60 years of U.S. military presence on the island, there was no english spoken or understood by about 99% of the people we met in the shops, on the streets, and elsewhere. This side of Okinawa is definately still “old country” Japan.
Our shopping adventure took us to Heina Dori, sort of a Las Vegas Fremont Street experience with a slant (pun intended), a covered shopping street with probably a thousand shops, ranging from high-end art & jewelry to the Japanese version of the Dollar Store, the 100 Yen Store! I strolled into one shop that had some nice Hawaiian-ish shirts on display, and the two older sales ladies, who did not speak a lick of english, and I, equally handicapped in my command of Japanese, managed to spend the next half hour bickering over prices, finally arriving at a mutually acceptable conclusion – I left with some cool shirts, they ended up with a fistful of Yen, and we were all smiling. I think my poor daughter was a bit shocked & embarrased that her old man would take on these savvy business owners in a game of price haggling, but hey, that’s an international event that has no borders! We left, no closer to communicating but clearly with a better understanding of each other! We ended up at the Tsubaya pottery district, and picked up some nice trinkets to add to the growing collection of “must-haves”.
Heading back, to the monorail we decided to try a little local cuisine, so we darted down a side alley and stepped into a dark little taproom that specialized in local Saki. The bar area is lined with a few hundred bottles of Saki, and huge pottery crocks are lined up on the floor behind the bar for them to ladle some of the local brew into your cup – very different indeed! As might be expected, no one inside speaks any english but we communicate our desire for food and drink and they rise to the challenge. The menu is offered, and once again, I cannot tell you what food group anything on it belongs to, nor what part of what animal may be involved in the meal! Kristen orders Udon (ew-don) soup, and it arrives along with a pair of chopsticks. OK,…..you tell me….soup & chopsticks? I take a look at the soup and I am not sure of the animal/vegetable/mineral composition of the meal, but K pours some into a small bowl for me, and I go ahead and eat it…yes, amazing…..eating something I could not identify once again! And I get a handle on eating noodle soup with chopsticks, improving my ratio of dropped-food to food-that-makes-it-to-my-mouth as the meal goes on.
Finally it’s time to walk & monorail ourselves back to the bus terminal, and this time we don’t even attempt to get away with jaywalking; we’re quick learners! Well that, and some inane fear Kristen has about rotting away in an Okinawan traffic prison! I also learn that you need to start off most conversations with “Wah….!” which means, roughly, “the subject matter is”. However, the cool part is how you get to say it – think Jackie Chan in Shanghai Nights! In any case, we get back to the bus terminal and there are about 150 buses there for us to choose from, with the odds being approximately 1 in 150 of getting on the bus that will take us home! So we step into the office, K is able to communicate to some extent with the helpful clerk, and she shows her our schedule, at which point the young lady jumps out from behind the counter, races out the door, beckoning us to follow, runs down the street around the corner, and halfway up the block to wave our departing bus down, allowing us to make it! Talk about service plus! You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when you see this level of customer service evident with every single person we’ve met here! It is amazing how truly far into Japan we are here. If you are going to visit the country, this should be a top destination for you to really see life as it is lived with a minimal amount of western influence.
Friday morning and the same teaser weather greeted us, with sunny skies at 7:00 a.m., followed by amazing amounts or rain pouring down from then on. Today’s plan was to go diving, so that we did. Of course, we were diving in a place that had more hazards to human life than can be imagined, but hey, what’s the odds of something biting / stinging / swallowing us, eh? Our resort limo picked us up at 8:40, and we shot down the road all of about 4 minutes to the resort area, where we signed in for the diving. C-cards necessary? Not really, but hey, it’s only a guideline, eh? We jumped in a shuttle with our english speaking dive guide & captain Takesha, and boogied down the road to his boat at the local marina. Since this was primarily a touring trip, we had opted to not pack any dive gear; perhaps not the wisest move, but we suffered through. Besides, who needs an octopus on a regulator anyway? It’s only another guideline, I think! So K and I reviewed real Buddy Breathing skills, just in case. All morning long the rain varied, from heavy to torrential to insane, but the consistent thing was that it just kept raining! The weather kept the others away, so it was just Kristen & I on board today. We motored out to our first reef location, in the East China Sea, just outside of Nago Bay. We moored in about 20 feet of water, geared up, and dropped down to explore. Upon hitting the bottom we saw our first Lion or Zebra Fish (cousins that are too close to call for this amateur). Immediately after that a small moray eel, of an unknown variety. From there we encountered a few sea cucumbers as we swam out to the reef line, dotted still with craters as silent reminders of the battles that took place in this area just 65 years ago. And then we encountered our first sea snake, coiled up on the bottom, watching us warily. Very deadly, but the good news is his mouth is too small to effectively bite us, so the “bigger is better” policy worked well here. From there we were on the reef, and the sightings of marine life were very cool indeed. All the usual critters and many more variants typical of this area, including various butterfly fish, sharpnose puffers, sea stars, burrfish puffers, goatfish, damsels, lobsters, trumpet fish, parrot fish, and others that we were familiar enough with to ID as cousins of ones we knew well. On top of that we saw some other less familiar faces, including more sea snakes, Crown of Thorns starfish, Lizard Fish, Dartfish, Anemone Fish (i.e. Nemo), Clown Triggerfish, many multi-colored starfish, colorful nudibranch’s, and more. One of the notable finds was a mantis shrimp, said to have the ability to strike with it’s claws so hard it has the impact of a .22 caliber bullet! Very, very cool diving, and I am truly kicking myself for not bringing the underwater camera to capture some of the images. Oh well, one of many reasons to return!
We got back to the hotel, and enjoyed a liesurely afternoon reading and Kristen took a short walk (in the still-pouring rain), while I stayed in, working on some emails (no surprises), and actually started to edit the pictures from the Australia trip (major surprise here!) so we can load them up to the soon-to-be-released IVS photo gallery site! We spent the rest of the afternoon kicking back, while Kristen pondered tonights dinner options. Since this is her trip, I defered the final selection to her, and figured “how bad can it be?”
Well talk about venturing far outside my ‘box’, K’s choice was Ryu-Bin-Ka, a Korean/Japanese restaurant. We were ushered in and seated in a most beautiful dining roon, completely filled with a very loud and raucaus crowd (and my family yells at me for embarassing them with being loud!) laughing, joking and really enjoying themselves. When the waitress brought the Saki menu over it was apparent why everyone was so loud – the average alcohol content of the wines was 25% and up! Now that’s some kick-ass rice wine! I passed, choosing instead a safer alternative, Orion draft beer, the Coors Light of Okinawa. I opted for the “all-you-can-drink” choice, a local tradition I have noticed – now this is one idea that we need to bring back home and suggest at the Harleysville Hotel!
Our menus arrived, and I had a chance to scan the offerings, including such delicacies as Braised Sharks Head & Abalone (yum!), Sea Urchins, and many more which I cannot describe at all. Not sure there’s anything here calling my name, so I defer to Kristen to order for us, and she selects Shabu Shabu, a Korean-based “set menu”, essentially a nine course meal. Keep in mind that my daughter might be pushing 105 pounds, so I figured I’d get some identifiable scraps from this selection, and did not order anything for myself. Good call! Right after we ordered, the manager came to our table, and attempted to explain (in Japanese, or course) our need to move to a different table. Hmmm…was it something we said? No, not at all….”different table” meant much larger table, cause K’s dinner was not going to fit on our table for two!
Once relocated, the parade of dishes began, and the variety was truly amazing! Tofu, seaweed, sashimi, fried prawn heads (crunchy, tasty, but no substance), various potato creations, yogurt, unidentified vegetables and sauces, dried fruit – and this was just the warm-up! Then our server, Rin Higa, who thankfully had a decent command of english and an even greater sense of humor, brought out our own tabletop gas grill, fry pan, ladels, bucket of water, and seaweed bullion. She set it up and fired up the grill to get our water boiling and the bullion kicking in. A few more Orions, and finally our water was starting to boil. Now out comes the main course, plate after plate of various cuts of pork and side dishes. The basic idea here was to boil the meat and veggies in a sort of fondue-fashion, so that’s what we did. Now I’m not sure that boiled bacon will catch on in the states, but it was pretty good here tonight. Dipping meats and veggies in, getting better and better with my chopsticks (have not used a fork or spoon in four days now!) we enjoyed the flavors and textures of this cultural delight. Finally, almost three hours (and many Orions) after we started, it was time for farewells to Rin and the rest of the very friendly staff, and we headed to bed and our last nights sleep on this delightul island.
Saturday morning it rained (surprise!) and we packed and headed down to the shuttle bus that would take us to the Naha airport for our flight back to Tokyo, and part II of this adventure. Our departure from the hotel was a bit surreal, almost a scene from the Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy left the Emerald City, with the hotel staffers, dressed in all their various ornate uniforms, waving enthusiastically to us and inviting us to return soon! Strange but wonderful place indeed!
Part II – Tokyo
Our three hour flight was uneventful and Miss Kristen Valaika had our travel all wonderfully mapped out (truly a compliment to her and the planning she put into this trip!) so we got on board the shuttle for the two hour ride from the airport to central Tokyo, and the Sheraton Miyako Hotel. Clearly we’re not in Okinawa anymore, as this is a much more bustling and urban environment. We checked in, freshened up, and headed out to test the comprehensive public transportation system that covers this city. As we board our shuttle bus to the train station, an older Japanese fellow boards the bus wearing an old Yankees hat. International diplomat that I am, I point to the hat and give him a hearty ‘thumbs down’, and that’s all we needed to get the conversation started. Turns out he is a professional interpreter, as well as a major baseball fan, and when I explain we are Phillies fans, he jumps right into telling us all about Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and his years as one of the top sluggers in Japan’s professional baseball league! Very cool connection, so when we get to our destination, the Meguro train station, he escorts us inside, shows us the in’s and out’s of purchasing the tickets, figuring out the route maps, and helps ensure we are off in the right direction. Cool! So, we jump on the JR Line train and head north to the Ebiso station, get our tickets and board the Hibiya subway line, past Hiro-o and disembark at Roppongi station. The Roppongi area is kind of like combination of New York’s Times Square and Las Vegas – an amazing array of shops, restaurants, odd characters, and lights – a pretty cool place indeed! We sauntered about, taking it all in, grabbing some more photo op’s with the locals (Kristen promised her friends at home a lot of photos) and finally grabbing a light dinner at the Havana Cafe. The walls are covered with posters of Che Guevara and hung with Cuban flags, but we are the only non-asians in the place. Dinner is good and it’s time to retrace our steps back to the hotel. More photo op’s, and more of dad embarrasing his daughter with his photo documentary of this expedition, but hey, that’s what dads are all about!
Sunday now and dad decides to take the day off from touring and relax at the hotel, while Kristen heads off to meet one her friends from the Governors School, Mayuko, who lives about a half hour north of Tokyo. She attended the academic program last summer, held at the University of Pittsburgh, and since then they have stayed in touch. Now she’s excited about the chance to show off her ‘hood to her American friend, so they have a day planned to visit the Harajuko area, the high-fashion district if Tokyo.
A long afternoon of touring complete, the girls head back to the hotel to pick up dad and go out to dinner. Kristen has the place selected, it is just one railway stop north of here (how come we can never eat where we are??) so K, Mayuko, and I get back on the bus and back on the train and back up to Meguro……to eat dinner. We are somewhat clueless where this place is, although we have an address, so we stop in a local shop, where our token local Mayuko speaks to the shop keepers. You know it’t not going well when the real locals are Googling the location and then our local is taking pictures of their computer screen showing the Google map, using her cell phone. I am sensing the odds of making it to dinner tonite are way low.
Not to be the pessimist, we head out and begin our exploration, down one street, maybe another, ok, maybe turn here,,,,,,you are getting the jist of it. Ask another local shopkeeper, and even without understanding the language, you can tell from the body expressions that we are no closer to dinner than we were yesterday! So we push on, for a while at least, until the girls finally give it up. So I say, let’s just pick a place along the way back that looks good and is not too expensive, and we go from there. The ladies choose a restaurant with a name that I cannot describe, and we go inside, where we are seated, without shoes, in a pit sort of layout of a table. Turns out this place is not so Japanese, so Mayuko really can’t interpret the menu, which is in Korean. Who’d of thunk, eh? So sensing our dilemna, the waitress brings out a translated version of the menu, and we go from there. Well actually the two girls go, since I have read the menu like three times and still cannot find a single item I can eat on it. I have to admit some of these Korean specialties really make me wonder, including such goodies, as cod entrails in firey cream sauce, pork entrails with noodles, and beef entrails with spicy rice…..stuff we tend to toss out at home are menu items here. Even the girls pass on that, and finally dinner is brought out in two red-hot ceramic bowls, and our waitress mixes the one-pot specials up and basically fries them at our table due to the extreme temperature of the pots – interesting, to say the least. Never the less, the girls dig in, and enjoy dinner, while dad enjoys a draft beer (or two). Mayuko is interesting, in her senior year of high school, and we learn a lot about family life in Japan from her. Finally desert is served, the ladies are happy, and it’t time to escort Mayuko back to her train, while K and I head back to ours, and a nights rest at the hotel. And as we are walking into the hotel, I look out and getting on to the bus, there’s a guest wearing a Slate’s Dive Center t-shirt from Key Largo! Small world.
Monday and it’s time to visit one of the most famous shrines in Tokyo, the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. One bus, one train, and one subway later, we arrive. This area of Tokyo is beautiful and we encounter our first homeless folks here, camping out under the bridges along the river. A few good photo op’s and we’re off to see the temple. Entrance to the temple is through one of three huge gates, and the largest, Kaminarimon Gate, towers over a hundred feet above the crowd. The original was destroyed in the air raids of 1945, so this is a reconstruction built in 1960. Just inside the gate are statues of the God of the Wind and the God of Thunder. Once through the gate we were smack dab in the middle of the Nakamise Shopping Arcade. The street is lined with colourful, lively stalls selling traditional knick- knacks, festival foods, traditional sweets, and rice crackers of all sorts. Of course we dropped a few thousand yen here on trinkets to haul back home! Hanzomon Gate marks the end of the street, and it is nearly as tall as the first, with the treasures of Sensoji stored safely inside. There are a pair of woven straw sandles, about 30 feet high, hanging on the gate, that tradition says were woven by the villagers as a gift to the gods.
Near the temple there were large incense burners. Traditionally, incense is wafted over the body as an act of purification, so many were lined up, waving their arms to direct the sweet aroma across their bodies. One of the cool things were the large wooden fortune telling stands. To use it, you shake a large metal cylinder, then select a stick from inside. Next you give the stick to one of the temple officials who directs you to one of the hundreds of wooden drawers, each containing various versions of your “fortune”. Some are good, but some are not, and if you get a bad one, you need to counter it by then tying it to the branch of a tree or the special rack provided, it will apparently blow the bad fortune away. Of course this costs 100 yen to experience – what a racket!
The Sensoji Temple dates back to 645, but with the original destroyed in the air raids of 1945, today’s building is a 1958 reconstruction. Before you enter the temple area, you need to cleanse yourself, and there are fountains with ladels to do so. You dip a ladle in, pour a small amount of water on one hand, then on the other, and finally pour some water into your hand, use it to rinse your mouth, then spit it into the trough. After that you walk to the top of the stairs, make a donation, and then, as a mark of respect, you clap twice and bow your head. The temple itself was beautiful inside and out, and today’s trip was truly worth the effort to get here.
We stopped in one of the little market restaurants and some Brit’s eating there recommended the Lemon Bread, a local delicacy – very good call! And a couple of Asahi’s to chase it down, and we were good to continue our shopping and exploring. For lunch we visited a local eatery, and as soon as these two wide-eyes walked in the woman in charge came right up to us and told us that this was a traditional Japanese place. Well what that translates to is this…..you figure out what you want to eat & drink, walk up to a large panel on the wall with about 50 buttons on it, make your selections, pay the amount shown, directly into the machine, and get a handful of tickets/receipts for your food. Think an early Horn & Hardart Automat cafeteria, just without the food in the doors! So we sit down and the same woman brings our food out and puts it in front of us. So that sums up the traditional japanese style of eating – no customer interaction at all, and no one handles the money. Interesting! Well enough culture and shopping for one day, and lunch held us over through dinner, so time to rest up for a very early start tomorrow morning!
Well Tuesday’s early start didn’t quite pan out as planned, as Ms Kristen needed a little more beauty rest before starting her day. Dad was, amazingly up, showered and dressed, when her alarm rang, and she mumbled the infamous “ten more minutes”, before crashing back into a deep sleep. That’s OK, we have tomorrow, so once she finally rises, we shift gears and decide to visit the museum area today. We board the 8:05 bus to the Megeuro train station, get our tickets (we’re old pro’s at this now) and shuffle on down to the track. The station is a lot busier than we’ve ever seen it, but this is the first time we’ve been here to experience rush hour, Tokyo-style. Down to the platform, and the folks are lined up where the doors of the 11-car subway are expected to stop. IT arrives, screams to a halt, the doors pop open, and it is literally a sea of humanity inside. The people are packed like sardines, shmussed up against that doors and windows. A whole bunch of folks jump off, but they get right back in line in front of us, and it takes us a minute to realize that this is part of the morning ritual, to allow the people behind them that wanted to get off access to the door. So they jump back on, pushing a bit to fit, and K & I look at each other and say “we’ll wait for the next one”. But we’re quick studies, so we adjust our position on the platform, and the next train follows in about two minutes. This time, like riding a wave at the beach, we wait just till the outgoing tide of commuters has crested, then we shove right into the car, and are firmly sealed in by 40 or 50 folks behind us – whew! I do a quick head count (with my 6’2″ height I can see over most of the heads in the car) and I estimate about 550 people are on our car with us! With the 11 car train length, that makes like 6,000 riders on this morning run, every two minutes!! The interesting thing though is how quickly it thins out, as we are clearly heading away from the business centers on our jaunt today. Within about ten stations you could dance in the car, it was that empty.
We arrived at Ueno-Koen station, and head out to the museum park. As we arrive in the museum area, the first thing we see is an assembly of sorts – turns out it is a high school class trip, and the students are aligned military style, squatting down in complete silence, listening to the group leader spell out the days plans. American kids could learn a lot from the respect these kids were showing here and everywhere else we see them! We wander along, and take in the beauty of the park. A few more homeless folks live here, as might be expected, and again, their camps were as clean and neat as the ones we saw yesterday in Asakusa. We’re a little early for the museum, so we stroll over to a local cemetary and are absolutely amazed at the memorials constructed to honor the dead. Each plot is like a stone sanctuary, polished, clean, about 10 x 15 ft, with fresh flowers, incense, candles, and prayer sticks, like 6 ft long, standing everywhere. We check out a few hundred plots, and peer over the fence into the “lower rent” district, where the plots are maybe 4 ft x 6 ft, but just as ornate, although on a reduced scale. Nothing at all like a U.S. cemetary with plastic flowers and flat marker stones for the lawnmowers.
Finally the museum opens and we buy our tickets and head in to see the Tokyo National Museum, the centerpiece of the Japanese cultural preservation. With artifacts, artwork, and historical pieces dating back to 2,000 B.C., each room just left us in awe as we took in the entire two floors on the building. We stopped for a light lunch at L’Accord restaurant, and then visited the Hyojin National Conservatory, chock full of more treasures and Buddhist religious items. Properly cultured, we were ready to check out the surrounding neighborhood, and that we did. We visited the center of the Ueno park, and suddenly find ourselves on the Japanese version of Mallory Square, with street performers everywhere, plying their trade for tips from the crowd – pretty cool. We take in a few more temples, watch the locals feed some huge black Koi in the lake, and then boogie on over to the Ameyoko shopping district. This seemingly endless bazaar, located under the elevated train tracks and a few blocks out to either side, is the place to go if you want to buy….well anything! First and foremost, food, with probably a hundred vendors hawking anything and everything that swims, crawls or floats in the sea. Huge octopus, dried squid, fish I couldn’t begin to ID, crabs, tuna steaks, swordfish, snails, every flavor of seawood and sea cucumber imaginable, and more…..and the best part is that need to keep things refrigerated? – only a guideline! I hope this stuff sells quickly!
I did score on some grilled squid, split, cooked right there on a griddle, seasoned lightly then run through a tenderizer to make it just about melt in your mouth – yummy! We walked up one street and down the next, never getting bored, and often being surprised, at what the next stall is selling. We even stopped at a little coffee shop, and as I’m sitting there I notice the maple leaf motifs etched in the glass…..turns out we’re in the Canadian Coffee House, eh! Lots of fun, and finally we head back on the train, getting back early enough to beat the evening rush hour crowd!
For dinner we decide to stay local and eat in the upscale Chinese restaurant in the hotel ‘Shi Sen;. It’s amazing how popular other asian foods are here in Japan, with Chinese, Korean, and other asian eateries dotting just about every corner. Well it’s real Chinese, so I expand my pallet once more, and decide to try the Shark Fin Soup with crabmeat (go ahead, shoot me Barb!) and the abalone with cream sauce. K, the more eco-friendly of us, goes for the tofu & veggie soup, with rice. I am glad I had the chance to try this most controversial soup, but honestly there was nothing there that set it apart from any other soup, and I remain convinced that shark finning should be abolished worldwide. Consider it the price of good research, but that will be the last bowl of shark fin soup that crosses these lips. For the record, there were probably a dozen shark fin items on the menu, including whole shark fin – I just hope someone ate the rest of the animal. Now it’s early to bed for Kristen so we can make out 4:00 a.m. wake up call tomorrow!
It’s Thursday night now, and as I sit here, munching on mochi, I’d like to share the events (and non-event) of the day, along with some personal observations and deep thoughts. First, the non-event – K & I awoke at oh-dark-thirty, actually 4 a.m., and get dressed, out the door, about a mile walk to the train station, down fifteen flights of steps into the bowels of the Tokyo mass transit system, board our train, wolf down some dried squid strips for breakfast, head fifteen stations east, get out, wind our way back up to street level and the exit, and find a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, all lamenting that the Tsukigigi Fish Market, the worlds largest, decided to not open today! All the info says it’s closed on Sundays, and irregular Wednesdays, and who would have thought today was an irregular sort of Wednesday??? So, we confirm the sad truth, head back in the station, repeat the earlier steps, and make our way back to bed, since nothing is open at this hour! We’ll be back tomorrow!
Back to that mochi – there is nothing to quite describe the delicious taste and texture of this Japanese treat! Rice cake, pounded into a paste, is molded into balls, wrapped around one of many choices of inner flavor. Tonite I opted for white cheese, while K enjoyed a cranberry-honey version. There are only about 50 or so flavors to choose from, and every single one is a winner! If you thinking about opening a mochi drive-thru in Harleysville, you can count on your first two regular customers right here!
So with the day’s plans sorta in a state of re-work, we shifted gears, and Kristen headed off to the Harajuku market, an area teeming with department stores and specialty fashion shops of every sort. Her mission: to turn her hard earned savings into a closet full of cool Japanese style for her first year in college when she heads there in September. Lots of difficult choices and budgetary decisions but she manages to pull it off, and comes back with bags full of some pretty fashionable stuff! Meanwhile I took advantage of the morning and plowed through more work that I had packed away in my bags for this trip.
Our plans for the afternoon included another rendesvous with Mayuko, K’s friend, and we met her at the Ikebukuro train station, and she was properly prepared to show her wide-eyed friends around her town! We started off with more shopping (what’s with these young girls and shopping anyway??) stopped for some Takoyaki for lunch, and headed into more of the endless mall areas. The Takoyaki was interesting, essentially a spoonful of various foodstuffs, including octopus, cut sausage, and veggies, ladeled into the center of a rice-bread based bowl, wrapped up like a crab cake, cooked in a mold, and then served in a typical Chinese take-out sort of container, with shredded dried Bonita tuna across the top – yum yum! And, you get to eat this with chopsticks! Actually it was pretty good, I know, amazing hearing that from me. Then we ventured to the top of the Sunshine 60 tower, a sixty floor office and shopping center with a fantastic 360 degree observation deck on the top floor. Talk about great views! And while we are there, Mayuko shows K some photos of her house on her cell phone, and her screensaver photo comes up – it is Taylor Swift. K laughs and M tells her what a fan she is of Taylor, and how she’d love to see her in concert. I then tell her I have tickets to see Taylor in concert at the end of August, and M is floored that K’s dad is so cool! I’m actually taking my other two daughters, but I’ll take “cool” points whenever I can get them!
After that, some more shopping (this never gets old to them!) and we dropped M off at the train station so she could get to ‘Cram School” on time. She’s a senior, and the Japanese university system is not based on applications, but rather how you place in standardized tests that the government administers. Her ambitions are to be a chemical engineer, and she knows she needs to score well for that, so she attends an evening school program five nights a week after her all day high school program – talk about personal commitment! K and I head back , but it’s finally time for a dad treat, and we jump in a cab and head out to the local Outback Steakhouse, my favorite! Great meal, and we get another early to bed evening with the alarms set for that fish market run in the morning!
Before I go, I thought I’d share a few observations. This city, and society, is truly amazing to me as an American. It starts with respect, both to yourself and others. It is obvious in every person we see, they are dressed well, carry themselves with confidence, the politeness runneth over, and they can’t help you or each other nearly enough. With that respect comes trust, and no better way to sum that up than the amazing number of kids, ages, 6, 7 or 8, that get on the subways and trains every morning, by themselves, and navigate their way to schools, with nary a concern that anyone would do any harm to them. They sit there and do their homework on the train, are not afraid to say hello, and truly are just amazing. You also see the respect in the lack of graffitti and the non-existence of any damage to public or private property that we are so used to seeing at home. And another observation – Tokyo has the fewest numbers of waste recepticles that I have ever seen, but what is even more amazing, is that it has even less litter! People just carry their trash or recyclabels until they get to an appropriate place and then they make sure everything goes in – there is nothing, and I mean nothing, on the streets, in the gutters, hallways, stairs, anyplace – this place is cleaner than Disneyland! As you might sense, i have developed an entire different sense for the japanese people after my short time here.
The alarm rings at 4 a.m, and it’s time once again to attempt to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, so we wipe the sleep from our eyes, wolf down a breakfast of mochi (I’m out of squid!) and grab a taxi to take us to the market! Once there, we quickly find our way to the busiest, fishiest place on earth! I am loving it, Kristen is wondering why she wore flats to walk through the endless stream of blood, fish guts and unidentifiable goo, that makes up the aisles. This place is pure insanity with a seafood scent – the staff at each stall is hawking their products, the forklift traffic is endless and does NOT STOP for anyone or anything. There are more species of fish and other critters from the ocean than I could imagine – this would be the perfect place to run a Fish ID course! We saw clams of every sort, octopus (alive & dead), eels (alive and being fileted alive), dolphin, tuna, scorpionfish (alive), spiny urchins, baby cuttlefish, squid, seawood, sea cucumbers, snappers, flounder, bonita…….you name it..it was there, and utimately edible. The tuna auction was in full swing and we got a chance to watch that action, as bidders vied for the best fresh tuna carcasses. Inspectors were everywhere, poking, probing and grading the fish. It was not easy knowing how excited we get when we see an octopus or cuttlefish, to see them piled up for sale here. Tough place to visit, very mixed emotions, but I am sure I would be doing plenty of time in the Tokyo big house if I had decided to act on my feelings and let all our little friends go free!! End of story, I loved it, K was grossed out – go figure!
After that we strolled about two miles, taking in the shops of Ginza (thankfully for dad, not open yet!) and on to the Imperial Palace, where we toured the magnificient palace gardens. After this we headed to the Tokyo International Forum, and had lunch at one of the local eateries. From there we toured the Tokyo Station, taking in all the history of this central facility Tokyo’s transportation system, including quite a bit of wartime history, such as the WWII incendiary bombing damage and repairs, troop movement, and wartime operations. Finally we board our train, back to Meguro station, and one last chance to spend our remaining savings in Japan, with just enough time to get packed and leave the hotel.
We check out, jump on the bus for the 20 km ride to Narita Airport, and board our flight for the seven hour, 3,800 mile ride to the last stop in our journey – Honolulu. And for you Bill Murray fans, this is like something from Groundhog Day, after we have spent this seventeen hour Thursday in Tokyo, we get to repeat Thursday again tomorrow in Hawaii!! Amazing how that international time line thing works!
Part III – Hawaii & home
It’s Thursday morning – again! – when we finally land in Honolulu. Talk about your inner clock being confused! I have to hand it to Kristen – she is one tough traveler, and has weathered these long flights and crazy hours without any whining at all! So we head to immigration, it’s hugs and kisses from all the Homeland Security folks, welcoming us back to America, and we sail through without even a bag check. From there to the rental car counter and K picks out a bright yellow Jeep for us to tool around in for the next three days. A short ride to the hotel to check in, and we are good to go.
Now, riddle me this Batman…..if we are in the middle of such an economic recession, how is it that this Hilton Hawaiian Village property, with 3,900 guest rooms, is SOLD OUT through the end of August – yes, sold out! Folks were at the counter trying to extend their stay a day and being told no – there is zero capacity. Amazing to see this side of economic reality when you hear all the doom and gloom stories on the news and in the paper.
So we start off with a little tour about 30 miles north along the coast for some photo op’s, and stop for some lunch at P.F.Changs…like we have not eaten enough Asian cuisine this week! More chopstick skill improvements, but now, with a more learned eye, I note a difference – this American chain restaurant uses non-stick white rice – what’s up with that?? You can’t eat that with chopsticks – you need the good old sticky variety. Anyhows, after that we head down to the beach, soak a little in the beautiful clear blue water, and grab some dinner, before getting an early lights-out for tomorrow’s 6 a.m. rise to get out diving with our friends at Ocean Concepts.
Ocean Concepts is a PADI 5 Star IDC facility and the training director is my good friend Joanna Mikutowicz, a fellow PADI Course Director that was part of my team at the PADI CD program last summer. They are located about an hour west of Honolulu, so we did the early thing again, and headed down the highway to find them. Once we got there, met the other divers, and got all set up, we headed over to the boat in the marina. This is a very labor intensive operation, as all the gear is on the boat, already set up, and each individuals rental gear is in a bag with your name on it, next to your pre-assigned seat on the boat’s seating chart….yeah, a little too organized, especially for the insta-buddy assignments handed our during the shop briefing – thank goodness I packed my own (Kristen!).
So we motored out a short 25 minutes to the first site, a ledge / wall of sorts, with the top around 50 feet and base at 100 ft. Kinda surgy, bit of current, and kinda dark, as the bottom is brown so very little light reflection even though the water clarity was great, and it was 80 degrees. I was using rental fins, and let me state clearly that I would not recommend this brand to anyone – it was like wearing nothing on my feet with regards to propulsion [make & model withheld to protect the innocent]. We did see some nice critters, although the area was devoid of any sizable sea life, except for one honkin’ huge moray that had Kristen screaming through her regulator! Lot’s of cool stuff we don’t normally see, various butterfly fish, urchins, other eels, shellfish, razor fish, crown of thorns starfish (but no other starfish, interestingly), and some others….all in all, probably not 10% what you see on a Key Largo dive! Hate to use that as a yardstick, but that is a healthy reef system with good (and enforced) protection, and that’s what a reef should look like, from a bio-mass point of view. Anyway, we are diving with rental gear (kicking myself for not packing ours) and our Suunto computers are screaming at us to end the dive waaaaaaaaay early – thank goodness I am not using it, just taking it for a swim, as I actually am wearing and diving my Cochran EMC-20H. Kristen and I log 45 minutes on this 95 foot dive, and the rest of the divers, including the DM, are back on the boat in 30. We are fine with our profile and two more living DAN experiments are completed!
So we head head up, grab some tasty sandwiches on the boat (nice touch, lunch is included on a 2-tank trip), and then slowly motor over to dive site #2. Very slowly….so I ask…”what’s up” and am given the Suunto-based answer – we need an hour surface interval. Geeesh, I thought I was in Cozumel or something! So finally we get to descend on our second site, the Shallow LSU ( at 80 feet, that differentiates it from the Deep LSU). This is an old naval utility landing craft (Landing Craft, Utility – hence LSU), and even though the briefing was inaccurate, refering to it as an old Landing Ship, Troop (LST), commonly referred to as a Higgins boat which many might know from “Saving Private Ryan” and other WWII actions. These lighlty armed, lightly armored, under-powered boats had nicknames such as “Large Slow Target” and “Loaded for a Single Trip”, but none-the-less were important in helping shape the world to where it is today. It’s OK, we just get in and enjoy it. Well talk about an artifical reef that needed to be, this is one. There is nothing but sand here at this 80 ft deep site, and the LSU, a pile of concrete blocks, and a recently sunk fiberglass sailboat. Humming the recent hit ‘Dead & Gone’ by T.I. & Justin Timberlake …..I look to the east…I look to the west…..etc…and NOTHING. This wreck is THE site. So we explore it and the rubble slowly, and manage to find some interesting stuff – two nudibranch’s evidently involved in some sort of copulation (we looked away quickly to avoid embarrasing them), a large porcupine puffer (matches my new Japanese cell phone charm!), sea stars, some various Hawaiian goatfish, and then the coup de gras – I sight a very large (like 10 inch) frogfish, hiding in the rubble near a railing…..very very cool! K & I take it in, watching as it walks about using it’s pectoral fins like hands to hold on or brace itself. What a neat find, right at the end of our dive. Ok, maybe time to head up….no…wait…look at the size of that octopus! Wowsville……all this in 3 minutes! So we follow him, watching the Cochran carefully and realizing that good research never ends, so the DAN guinea pigs stay down, taking in the octo’s activities as he does some repairs to the front of his nest, rearranging shells and other good hiding materials. Amazingly creative animal, and smart, waiting till we had pushed our limits on time, to finally show himself! So we balance the great show with the growing deco obligation, and finally head up, to enjoy 5 minutes at the 10 ft mark to clear ourselves enough to surface. once again, our 45 minute runtime at 80 feet is 15 to 20 minutes longer than anyone diving the Suunto’s – amazing! And we survive, again!
Finally we surface, climb aboard, and head back in. Back to the hotel, showers and fresh clothes, and it’s time to go shopping! Woo hoo….this never gets old for her! Hilo Hatties is always a hit, and helps keep Dave stylin’ at the shop with his collection of Hawaiian shirts. Some more goodies for K, including a chic new Le SportsSac computer bag, then dinner in Waikiki, and we are finally….almost….done!
Our last day in tropical paradise starts off with a lazy morning, the first one in two weeks we haven’t gotten up at 6 a.m. or earlier to go visit or see or do something. We pack, checkout, and finally head to a museum of Dad’s choosing – the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii. This is a pretty cool place, located in a former shore defense artillery bunker, right on the beach. Dad enjoys it, K is less than impressed but she tolerates it well for Dad. Now it’s off to the airport.
We swing by the airport and check our bags in, then head out to return the car to the offsite location. No problem on timing, we are relaxed, ahead of schedule, and very unlike most of my travels. So we drop off the car, take the shuttle bus back, clear security, find our gate, head to the airline club, and kick back to await the boarding call. So while we are there, K suddenly says “Dad…my shoes are in the rental car!”. Oh my goodness, there goes that relaxing departure! With less than 45 minutes to take off, Dad is out the door, waving down a shuttle bus, heading out to the rental lot, finding the car, finding the shoes, finding a bus back, again through security, being summoned on the PA system for the gate, finds Kristen, then we are finally boarding…….yep, now this is more like a standard Dave departure.
So the flight is actually overbooked (yes, it that’s depressed economy thing again….the flights to Hawaii are overbooked!). So, they are asking for volunteers to jump off and make room for some family members to get on board together. I try to convince K that this is a good idea, a couple hours delay, a big travel voucher, and a first class seat on the next flight, but no, she wants to go home NOW! OK, whatever, we head to our seats, and since the flight is over booked we are not even sitting together, and I give up my assigned seat so a mom can sit next to her infant. I know, sensitive moment. So I go to my new seat, and there is a guy who wishes his wife could sit next to him, but she was stuck up in the exit row with about 6 feet of legroom. OK, OK, I’ll be sensitive twice, and I exchange seats with her and let her sit with hubby while I stretch out in her seat – it’s nice when the airline Gods smile on you like that. Meanwhile, Ms Kristen, who did not want to consider taking a later flight and a first class seat, has been seated next to a very, very well nourished couple, stuck (literally) in the window seat….ha ha ha……how’s that first class seat sounding now, missy! So we take off, things are cool, and I order a couple of beers to pass the time. Well George, my flight attendent, can’t be more helpful or attentive. First he takes my second beer, and packs it in a bag of ice, to keep it as “cold as he likes it”, and, to take the level of service one step higher, he even fashions a coozie for my beer from some paper towels and tape from the first aid kit, so it stays nice and cold. Then he serves me not a a bag of peanuts, but a whole cupful, that he evidently filled one little bag at a time……Hmmmm…was it my wink or something??
So as I enjoy my coozie-wrapped beer, I get to enjoy some of Hollywood’s finest works, including ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’ (starring the Rock), ‘Yes Man’ (with Jim Carrey), and finally ‘New in Town’ (with Renee Zellenger). Finally K, myself and my favorite attendent George make it to Atlanta, I bid farewell to my new ‘friend’, and Kristen and I catch the last and final leg of this adventure, to Philadelphia and home.
Filed under: Dive Trips, Indian Valley Scuba | Tagged: China Sea, Delta, East China Sea, Gwynedd Mercy Academy, Japan, Okinawa, Tokyo | 2 Comments »