Thursday, June 11, 2015

See Cruise

Thursday we went to the Tokyo SkyTree. We picked a good day. The crowds were thin. You could tell from the line control stanchions that they normally have big crowds but we got through the line in about ten minutes. The SkyTree experience starts with a high speed elevator to the 350m observation deck. After enjoying that view there is an optional elevator to the 450m level. On that level you walk through an enclosed sloping tube that wraps around the outside of the tower leading to the highest observation platform. We went for the full experience and admired spectacular views.

Observation deck
Sloping tube to higher level
After the SkyTree we took a short train ride to Asakusa and boarded a sightseeing cruise. This hour and a half round trip on the Sumida River passes under many bridges, each a different style or design. Several points of interest were observed including Tokyo tower and the Asahi beer building.
Asahi building
Bridge over the Sumida
We concluded our touring of Tokyo after the river cruise and returned to the hotel for dinner and repacking for our trip home Friday. We all look forward to being home again.

Roboto continued

I didn't have time to upload pictures of the Robot restaurant yesterday. Here's a short video that shows a little of what it was like.

When I made our online reservation for Robot Restaurant, the form asked if anyone was celebrating a birthday. Since our reservation was in fact on my birthday I said yes, expecting the typical restaurant cake after dinner. I also figured many guests would select that option. Wrong, and wrong. Near the end of the show, the MC singled me out and had the entire theater cheering while Happy Birthday displayed on the giant video wall. And apparently no other guest selected the birthday option. It was great fun if a little embarrassing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mr. Roboto

Wednesday was mostly a travel day. We checked out of the Okura in Kyoto and took a taxi to the train station. We bought tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen which covers the 318 miles to Tokyo in 2 hours 20 minutes averaging 136 mph with top speeds of 178 mph. The ride is very smooth and the seats are comfortable. It was definitely a worthwhile experience.
On arrival we took a taxi to our hotel next to the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium. It's a modern 50 story hotel whose ambiance is a stark contrast to the classic elegance of the Okura. The rooms are  spacious but the wifi is poor. There is a Sizzler Steakhouse in the hotel with an unlimited salad bar. Elliott and I had lunch there and found it to be pretty good.

This evening we took the subway to the Shinjuku entertainment district to attend a performance at the Robot Restaurant. Walking from the train to the restaurant we were surprised by a life size Godzilla head and claw peering over the top of one of the skyscrapers complete with smoke shooting from his mouth and his classic roar. Robot Restaurant is more theater than restaurant although you can get food and drinks there. We started in the Robot lounge where we were entertained by a live band dressed as robots. Soon we were led down several fights of stairs to a cramped 2 sided theater with a runway type stage in the middle.

'robot' band
The show is like nothing I've seen before. It is loud music and drums, go go dancers, and r/c operated mechanical floats with neon and lasers. Oh yes, and robots. I'd absolutely recommend the show to anyone with an evening free in Tokyo.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Tuesday morning was raining, but forecast to improve before noon so we took our time getting going although we didn't sleep any later. We've all been falling asleep early and waking up early every day. When the weather cleared we walked to a nearby station to get an underground train to Sanjusangendo. Sanjusangendo is Japan's longest wooden structure and contains 1 large Buddha statue and 1000 human sized statues, 500 on each side.

After touring Sanjusangendo and the surrounding grounds we returned to our hotel and asked the concierge for advice on someplace to visit excepting temples and shrines. She suggested the Nishiki food market. It was only a ten minute walk from the hotel so we followed her recommendation. Before entering the market we stopped at a fast food restaurant where I got a burger with egg and potato salad on it, and Elliott tried some pancakes covered in chocolate syrup with custard drizzle.
Pancake lunch
We strolled through the narrow street of the food market and were amazed at the varieties of food available. Many kinds of vegetables and seafood were displayed, some on skewers that were intended to be purchased and eaten on the spot as a snack. It was an interesting cultural exposure.
Nishiki market

Later we made plans to walk to the Gion district, famous for its charming buildings and restaurants, but mostly for the Maiko and Geiko that can be seen there. When they appear, tourists flock around them with cameras clicking, though they don't appear to enjoy their celebrity status.

A theater in Gion presents a nightly show of Japanese arts and culture. We attended a performance while we were there and enjoyed the condensed introduction to Japanese tea ceremony, music, dancing, and theater.
Tea ceremony 
We completed our evening with a walk back to the hotel and a very good buffet dinner. Elliott enjoyed the beef curry with rice and we all savored the chocolate fountain dessert. Tuesday was our last day in Kyoto. Wednesday we travel to Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train). I'm looking forward to the experience.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Palaces Restaurant

There are 3 breakfast options available here at the hotel: a western style buffet, a Chinese buffet, and a Japanese breakfast. We've already tried the Chinese and western buffets so Monday Elliott and I tried the Japanese breakfast. The Japanese breakfast is a tray of assorted items including meat, egg, fish, and vegetables accompanied by a choice of steamed rice or rice porridge. I selected the porridge side and Elliott stuck with the sticky rice. I sampled almost everything and finished most of it, but it didn't really consider it a satisfying breakfast. Elliott was adventurous and willing to experiment but didn't really enjoy his breakfast either. After leaving the restaurant we stopped at the bakery for some croissants. :)

Japanese Breakfast
Rain was forecast Monday but it was still dry after breakfast so we decided to try to take in some more sights in the morning then go to Arashiyama in the afternoon. We started with the Kyoto imperial palace. This former residence of the imperial family is in the center of a large city park. You can visit the park and  the residence area of some of the ancient noblemen, but the palace grounds are off limits without an advance reservation. So we enjoyed a stroll through the park but all we could see of the palace were some rooftops that rose above the palace walls.
Imperial Palace
We got back on the subway and got off at Nijo Castle, the residence of the first shogun Tokugawa. Here we were able to enter the building and tour all the interior rooms. One of the interesting features was the nightingale floors that intentionally squeaked when walked on to serve as a warning against intruders. We also toured the exterior grounds including the gardens.
Nijo Castle
When we finished at the castle the weather was still good so we continued to Arashiyama where we went for a ride on the scenic railway that runs along the Hozu river. When we got back we took a walk to the nearby bamboo forest. It started raining as we approached the bamboo groves but we had umbrellas so we were able to mostly keep dry. When we finished our bamboo walk it was time to return to the hotel.
Sagano Scenic Railway
Bamboo Forest

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Deer Prudence

Sunday was a beautiful day for sightseeing so we took advantage of it and made the trip to Nara. We took a subway from our hotel to the Kyoto Station and the searched for the train to Nara. Kyoto station is ginormous, accommodating subway, busses, trains from several railways as well as the bullet trains. It took us a bit to find the right location for our train to Nara. On the other hand we are becoming quite adept at getting around on the public transportation system. Once we found our train we had about a 20 minute wait so Elliott and I enjoyed an iced cappuccino from a cafe next to the platform.

Train to Nara
Once we arrived in Nara it was about a mile walk to Nara park. Nara park contains the huge Todaiji temple, the Kasuga Shinto shrine, and the famous bowing deer. You can buy cracker to feed the deer, and if you hold the crackers high in your hand, the deer will bow until you give it to them. We found some of the deer to be a little aggressive. While I was buying crackers at a stand nearby a deer came up behind me and grabbed the street map that was folded and sticking out of my back pocket. I whirled and grabbed the other end and played tug o war with the deer a few seconds before he released it. We had fun feeding the deer but it was a little unnerving when several would surround you.
Bowing deer

We toured the Todaiji temple that houses the world's largest statue of Buddha as well as some smaller yet huge guardians. It's astonishing to consider building such a large wooden structure without modern  construction techniques. As we were exiting the temple a friendly Japanese man offered to take our picture using our camera. We agreed and then reciprocated by photographing his family with their camera. They were very friendly and struck up a conversation in English. Elliott had an opportunity to demonstrate his Japanese and they were very impressed.
After Todaiji we walked to the Kasuga Shinto shrine which is famous for the hundreds of lanterns that line its pathways. It was another uphill walk. Our legs are getting quite strong.
Kasuga lanterns
We finished touring Nara and returned by train to Kyoto. While still at Kyoto station we transferred to the train for Fushimi Inari where we tried to go yesterday. Fushimi Inari shrine is a Shinto shrine on mount Inari. It is famous for thousands of Torii gates that form tunnels over the pathways. You can follow the paths all the way to the top of mount Inari but it's about a 3 hour round trip so we opted to go partway up and then turn back. 
Torii tunnel
We finished up the day with a train + subway ride back to the hotel and an early dinner. Elliot and I both enjoyed the Kobe steak burger and Janet had a margherita pizza. Monday's weather is looking wet so we will plan accordingly. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stairways to Heaven

Saturday we did some sightseeing. The day began cloudy with a few light sprinkles but was forecast to improve so we headed out early after breakfast. We started  in the Higashiyama area which is in the foothills of the  mountains east of Kyoto. This means all of the temples are multi level complexes of buildings built into the slopes and are accessed by many, many stairs. According to my steps tracker, we walked over 15000 steps Saturday and a healthy percentage was up and down stairs.
Our first temple was Kiyomizu whose high location offers nice views overlooking Kyoto. There is also a waterfall that is divided into 3 streams from which it is considered good luck to drink. Next we walked to the Yasaka shrine near Gion, and continued through the Higashiyama district which most closely maintains the look of old Kyoto. We continued to the Kodaiji temple and toured its grounds. While there we witnessed preparations for a traditional Japanese wedding. After leaving Kodaiji we took a look at the enormous statue of the Ryozen Kannon before returning to the hotel for lunch.
Elliott and I tried the hotel's Japanese restaurant for lunch. I had a tray of assorted Japanese delicacies, and Elliott chose several kinds of sushi including squid, prawn, and sea urchin. We both finished with green tea.
After lunch we took a bus to see the Golden Pavilion temple. The sky had cleared up by afternoon and we were able to view the gold covered temple as it gleamed in the afternoon sun. We toured the rest of the temple grounds and then took another bus to downtown Kyoto where we rode to the top of the Kyoto tower for some nice views of the surrounding area. You could even see all the way to Osaka. After the tower we walked to Kyoto station to get a train to the Fushimi Inari temple. However, we didn't go because a ticket agent said the temple was already closed for the day. This conflicted with what I had researched but we took her word. Although I later learned that I was right, it was probably a good idea to return to our hotel then anyway because Elliott was exhausted from our long day of touring and crashed in the bed as soon as we got back.
Weather is supposed to be excellent Sunday so we will probably go to Nara.

Japanese wedding
Drinking from the streams

Friday, June 5, 2015

Kon'nichiwa - continued

We landed in Osaka a little after 3pm and cleared customs fairly quickly. We had to stop to fill out a form that I think the airline could have given us in advance but it didn't take long. We were happy to see our checked bag arrived with us. After stopping at the ATM for some cash we went to the train station which was a short walk from the airport terminal. We bought tickets and got to the platform about 20 minutes before the next express train to Kyoto. The train was modern and clean. When it arrives at the station, a cleaning crew boards and cleans the train before passengers board. The ride to Kyoto took about 1 hour 15 minutes with two brief stops. It was a smooth ride and eventually lulled Elliott to sleep. When we arrived at Kyoto we had some trouble finding the hotel's welcome area where we were supposed to go for the hotel shuttle. When we did find it it was closed so we took a taxi to the hotel. The hotel room is big by Japanese standards and well appointed with bath robes and slippers. We also have a very nice view of the eastern mountains. We had dinner in the hotel and finally laid down to sleep after a long day of travel. Saturday will be our first day of touring. It was raining Friday when we arrived so we are hoping the weather clears.

Hotel View


One thing I've learned as a traveler is to be flexible. I wasn't always so flexible. Our first trip to Japan 10 years ago caused me a lot of stress when our return trip was canceled due to weather. I handle those kind of situations much better now. This trip our flight to SFO got delayed to the point we were at risk of missing a connection and possibly missing our flight to Japan. However we talked with an agent and were able to change to a San Francisco direct flight. The change took a long time to make but we got confirmed on the new flight just in time.

Cramped seat to San Francisco 
We had to accept some less roomy seats than we originally had but we were happy to be on our way without delay. We arrived in San Francisco about 4 hours earlier than we otherwise would have. We were surprised however to learn that our checked bag was checked through all the way to Japan even though we had an overnight in San Francisco. Fortunately there wasn't anything we needed in it. We had a nice room at the Embassy Suites and the next morning there was a breakfast buffet that included pancakes and cooked to order eggs. We planned to take the 8:50 shuttle back to the airport and arrived to the lobby in plenty of time. The shuttle was standing outside but the desk clerk said to wait inside until the driver came in to get us. While we were waiting the shuttle pulled away. The desk clerk apologized and said to wait outside and she would call the shuttle back. After a few minutes she told us the shuttle could not come back but we could walk to the hotel next door where it would wait for us. So we walked to the next hotel and got on the shuttle, which then returned to our original hotel to PICK US UP!
Roomy seat to Japan
We did make it to the airport with enough time to enjoy some coffee in the United club before heading to the gate. The flight to Osaka was on one of the new 787 Dreamliners. We had comfortable seats with lots of legroom. Elliott seems to be traveling well. He's kept himself entertained with the iPad we lent him and hasn't complained about the long trip at all. We are about an hour from landing as I write this. I'll try to get it posted tonight and write an update after our first day of touring.