Thursday, May 03, 2007

The whole fam damily!

To see all the pics from my family's trip, click here.

This week is Golden Week here in Japan. There are a string of national holidays all in a row, and usually this means that the Japanese people all take their vacations then. This year, I had a special vacation planned, as some of my family members came here for the week.

At an izakaya in Kasukabe

From April 25th - May 3rd, my mother (Laura), two of my sisters (Natalie and Rachel), and my niece (Emma) made the grueling trip out to Japan from Canada. It was very nice to see them all. I couldn't believe how much Emma had grown! After we met at Narita airport, they got their first real taste of Japanese culture: a 2-hour train ride to my apartment in Kasukabe. Straight away they became aware of just how different Japan is compared to Canada, and what it really means to be located in the middle of a huge metropolis.

Tori gates in Ueno Park

I was anxious to see how they would be able to cope with daily life in Japan. I had a very busy week planned for them, but I was mindful of the fact that it can be quite a struggle to adapt to the pace of life here. I remember when I first arrived in Japan, the jetlag was so bad that it took me a week just to recover. Regardless, I wanted to pack as much in as I could in the short time that we had.

The first place we went was to the Imperial Palace (Kokyo 皇居) in Central Tokyo. It was a very warm day (we were very lucky with the weather this week) and we took our time strolling around the grounds.

Imperial Palace

We were also very lucky because we were there a few days before Golden Week began, so there were no crowds at all and we could stroll at our leisure. From there we walked past the Diet building, and on to Hibiya Park. In the park there were many scenic spots as well as a playground for Emma to have fun in.

Rachel in Hibiya Park

From there, we caught the subway and headed over to Ueno. After a lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we walked over to Ueno park. We took in the sights, including the temples, statues etc. We stopped for ice cream, but the my family didn't seen to like the green tea flavoured ice cream as much as I did. Afterwards, we went to the surprisingly entertaining Ueno Zoo.

Emma at Ueno Zoo

The follwing morning (Fri Apr 27th) we woke up very early. I had a special weekend planned for us in Hakone, a very popular hot-springs resort town near Mt. Fuji. At 6:00 am we caught the train bound for Shinjuku. From there, we took the Odakyu line's "RomanceCar", a kind of deluxe train, for the 1.5 hour trip out to Hakone. I had booked us a night's stay at a beautiful old Ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) called Ichinoyu Honkan. For anyone travelling to Hakone, I highly recommend you check this place out. We were thrilled when we arrived and got our first look at the room. It was a very spacious room, with a main dining/sleeping room, a sitting room with a view of a waterfall right behind the building, and it even had its own private hot spring (onsen) bath inside!

Mom in her yukata at the ryokan

We dropped out bags off and then hopped back on the nearby Tozan train. We stopped along the way at an open-air museum that houses many amazing and strange works of art, as well as priceless pieces by Picasso and other more well known artists. From there, we took a cable car up to Sounzan. Next, we transferred to a gondola whic took us for a breathtaking ride over the volcanic region of Owakudani.

The view of Owakudani from the gondola

We could see the sulphur steaming and bubbling from the mountains, and the air was filled with the smell of rotten eggs (sulphur). When we got to the top, we even indulged in the local specialty of "kuroi tamago" or black eggs. They are just like regular har boiled eggs, but they are boiled in the sulphurous water, and therefore turned black during the process. It is said that you gain 7 years of life for every one of the black eggs that you eat, and that is good for me as I ate two of them!

Black eggs and pirate ships at Lake Ashino

Once we were down off of the mountain, we boarded the Pirate ship "Victory" which would take us on a cruise of Lake Ashino. Although the ship was quite over the top, and felt more like Disneyland, my niece Emma really enjoyed it. After a hairy bus ride back to the ryokan, we hopped into our private onsen, slipped into out yukatas and headed down to the dining room. Supper was a very well presented meal of Japanese "nabe" type food, followed by courses of fish, and deserts. As we had had a very big day, we stretched out our futons and had a well-deserved night's sleep.

Rachel about to try the cuisine at the ryokan

The next morning, we were all up ealy and went down to the ryokan's public bath. Men and women were seperate of course, and we could soak in the baths a bit before making our long trip back to Tokyo. Once we got back to Kasukabe, we all relaxed and rested most of the afternoon. That night, my girlfriend Natsumi preapred a many different types of Japanese food for my family to try. She also got them to help here make the food too.

Natalie honing her skills at making norimaki

We made norimaki (rolled sushi), tacoyaki (fried octopus batter-balls, substituting ham and cheese for octopus), yakisoba (Japanese chow mein), gyoza (dumplings), and cha-han (Chinese style fried rice). Everyone seemed to enjoy making and eating the food, and we were all very thankful to Natsumi for sharing this experience with us.

Mom, Nat, Rach, and Natsumi with the Japanese food they made

On Sunday, Aprill 29th, we had a more low-key day planned. The first thing on the agenda was to visit Hachiman Ginja, a Shinto shrine located near my apartment. Natsumi wanted to wear a kimono that day, and was nice enough to let us watch as she put it on. The process still boggles my mind...

In front of Kasukabe Hachiman jinja

It was another beautiful day, and the shrine was only a 5-minute walk from my apartment. After spending some time in the shrine grounds, playing with Emma in the playgroung, and climbing the steep stone-stepped hill near the shrine (congrats on climbing that Mom, what a great feeling eh?), we headed over to Fuji street, where by chance, Kasukabe city was holding it's annual Fuji Matsuri (festival).

Natsumi teaching Emma how to pray at a Shinto shrine

I was blown away by how good the festival actually was. I was expecting it to be a very low-key thing, with a few stalls and performers. When we got there, however, we realized that it was the real deal. Almost every school in Kasukabe had their marching band out to perform. There were also countless adult groups performing.

Parade during Kasukabe`s Fuji festival

We were able to see traditional Japanese dances, taiko performances, magic shows, and countless other performances in the seemingly endless parade. This was all framed by the blossoming Fuji trees which line the appropraitely named Fuji street. There were also dozens of booths and stalls selling the traditional Japanese festival wares: fried squid, fried octopus, chicken, okonomiyaki, kakigori, and countless others. To our delight, we were also in the right place at the right time to witness a traditional Japanese dance performed right in front of us!

With some performers at the festival

After a rest at my apartment, we headed next door to Turkey Bowl, a local bowling alley. From there, we had supper at Raku-Gan-Tei, a local izakaya. We had many delicious (in my opinion) dishes. Following that, Natsumi, Natalie, Rachel, and I headed over to a Karaoke joint and sang our hearts out well into the night. It was a blast...and all you can drink!

Havin` fun at Karaoke

We all needed a good sleep-in the next morning, but we sure didn't waste the day. Around noon we headed to Asakusa, and the famed Senso-ji shrine. This is the most visited tourist sight in Tokyo. It also happens to be one of my favorite places in Tokyo (and in the world for that matter). We stopped to check out the main gate (Kaminari-mon) before walking down the souvenir shopping street (Nakamise dori).

Kaminarimon, outside of Senso-ji temple in Asakusa

It was another beautiful day weather wise, and we took our time strolling down the crowded street. When we arrived at the main temple of Senso-ji, we stopped to each take our fortunes from the fortune boxes. To do this, you shake 1 chopstick free from a container, match the kanji character on it with the corresponding one on a shelf of drawers, and take your fortune paper from inside. Emma received a very good fortune, and the other had neutral or good fortunes, but I was the only one to get a bad fortune :(
After exploring Senso-ji's temples, 5-storey pagoda, and other sights, we moved on to the Water Bus terminal.

Senso-ji temple

Near Asakusa, the Sumida river runs towards Tokyo Bay. We bought tickets on a ferry and rode it down the river. We passes many famous bridges and buildings, and ended up at our destination: Hamarikyu garden.

Joey and Natsumi at Hamarikyu gardens

This is a traditional Japanese garden situated right in the heart of Tokyo's business district, Shiodome. it is quite a thing to see the beauty of the garden juxtaposed against the skyscrapers of Shiodome. We spent a good deal of time relaxing in the garden and discussing our next move. We had planned originally to go to Ginza, but instead decided to head towards Shinjuku.

After a short ride on the Yamanote line (Tokyo's famed "circle train line") we arrived at Shinjuku. The first thing we did was head to a 100 yen shop, another must-do when you are in Japan. After stocking up on supplies there, we headed for the red-light district of Tokyo, called Kabuki-cho.

Kabukicho at night

Keep in mind that a red-light district in Japan is quite different fromt he rest of the world, and really isn't as shady as it sounds. We were able to see a lot of neat things, check out a huge arcarde "game-center", take "purikura" pictures, etc. After supper at a ramen-shop, we left Kabuki-cho for the high rise district. There, we went up to the 45th floor of the Keio Plaza and had drinks in the Sky Lounge, complete with it's tuxedoed waiters and breathtaking view of Tokyo at night.

Everyone was a bit train-and-Tokyo'd-out the next day, so we just stuck around Kasukabe. It was just as well, as it was a rainy day (again with our luck with the weather!) We did some shopping at a local department store, went to some restaurants, and basically got rested up for the big trip back to Canada the following day. Natalie and Rachel even cooked us supper that night: chicken, mashed-potatoes, broccoli and cheese sauce, and of course plenty of beers, a completely Canadian treat! Thanks again guys!

The next day (Wed, May 2nd) the girls got all their stuff packed and we made the 2-hour train trip back to Narita airport. The week had flown by, and it had been great to see the family. I knew they were anxious to get back to more familiar lands, but I think they had a good time as well. Hopefully the experiences we had during the week will last them a lifetime. I hope it at least gave them more of an impression of what my daily life is here in Japan!

At a soba restaurant

*NAT, RACH, MOM, guys did super great! Thanks again for coming to visit Japan! I now it was a bit hairy at times, but it meant the world to Natsumi and I. Make sure you show the pictures and share the stories with tons of people... Arigato ne!

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