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March 10, 2004

Japan 2004: Introduction

A long time coming, I’m happy to report that the Tokyo March 2004 Trip Diaries are now complete! It only took 10 years after the original trip to transcribe my notes for this trip. As most of you know, I actually took two trips to Japan in 2004 – one in March and the other in October. I have zero notes from the October trips and probably can only barely remember what we did on a given date thanks to a quick timeline I wrote at the end of the trip.

One day I hope to post something from October – probably photos with some short, short notes on the trip as it featured a significant Earthquake on the second day we were there.

In the meantime, enjoy my first trip to Asia!

March 11, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 1: Los Angeles to Tokyo

Thursday March 11, 2004
The adventure started at LAX where Daniel and I boarded American Eagle #3161, a small commuter plane to fly up to San Jose. American is ready to introduce their non-stop service to Tokyo in a month or so, but right now we have to do the connection in San Jose. For the price we are paying ($399 round trip before taxes) it is worth the hassle.

The flight to Tokyo, American #129, was great despite the 11+ hours in the air. There was plenty of room thanks to the more room in Coach policy as well as flying onboard a Boeing 777, which felt like a limo with its nice wide-open aisles. The first meal a dinner with some beef product was OK nothing special, but the Pizza lunch was fantastic – reminded me of the ol’ Great American Burger days. For the last 5 hours of the flight, the woman seated behind me started to have a coughing attack. Other than mild annoyance, I was worries I was going to get sick since the last several trips I had been on, I ended up sick. Fortunately, I have been taking Echinacea and vitamins to try and save off any illness.

March 12, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 2: Arriving in Tokyo

Friday March 12, 2004
I was happy to see our bags arrive in Tokyo. I was worried since the last time I had seen them was on the tarmac at LAX. With a smile we made it through customs. Narita airport features a lot of English signs, so it was not as alien as I had anticipated. Thanks to my friend Jonathan’s instructions we found the booth that sells tickets on the Keisi Skyliner. The main hitch was that it was cash only. Jonathan had warned me that Japan was a very cash-oriented society and this was my first taste. After a few minutes of searching, we found a Citibank ATM machine and got some money out. I heard that not all Japanese banks take US ATM cards, and I brought some traveler’s checks just to be safe. The ATM line was short compared to the crowd at the currency exchange booth, so we will just exchange for money on Monday.

We arrived at the Skyliner platform and the lady told us to go ahead and hop on the train instead of waiting for the one we were ticketed for. She gave us some seats that were empty and when we arrived, someone was in them. Daniel and I decided to hop off at the first stop (another terminal at Narita) and just wait for our train with our seat assignments just in case we ran into another controller-type problem a la Munich. After about 20 minutes we were on the way to Tokyo. The scenery was cool – reminds me of rural California, but with a lot more people. According to Jonathan’s directions, we needed to transfer at the Nippori station to the JR Yananote line. So when the train pulls into the station, Daniel and I hop off and step into an alien world.

All the signs in the Nippori station were in Japanese. No English at all. Daniel and I looked at each other and I think both thought to ourselves my god what have we gotten into. We were able to figure out where the Yananote line was and by uttering the words Kanda to the ticket man, we were able to get a transfer ticket. So now it was left to figure out which station on a map of nothing but Chinese character symbols was our destination. We guessed at first, but after some investigation in my Lonely Planet book comparing the English map in the book to the Japanese map and Daniel’s basic understanding of some Japanese we realized we were on the wrong side. So up and down the stairs we went again and eventually we were on board the train. The good thing is that the Yananote line is a circle line around Tokyo so worst case would be that we had a hour ride to our stop instead of a 15 minute one. After some tense moments on the train, we realized we had made the right call and were going the right direction.

Arriving at the Kanda station, we found the North exit as described by Jonathan and proceeded to follow the directions given by the hotel. Along the way, a nice lady on a bike stopped us to ask if we needed help. Obviously the sight of two Americans with their suitcases and a map walking the streets of a financial district after hours was something of an oddity. We explained we were looking for the Hotel Kazusaya and she said sorry she didn’t know where it was and wished us luck. After some wandering, we were finally able to find it. At check-in the guy asked if we would be OK in the semi-double. I told him that would be fine and we proceeded to room 420.

My first impression was that of a Winnebego. It was a small room, but perfect for our needs the bed was cozy for two, but we didn’t mind. Our biological clocks were off so we weren’t tired yet. After relaxing a bit, we called Jonathan who said by the time he got there our clocks would tell us to crash. So we agreed to meet up the next day to head out to Kamakura. He suggested we walk around Ginza a bit since it was near our hotel. So off we went and walked around for a while. It didn’t take long for us to get tired and we were back at the hotel ready for bed by 9:30pm local time or 4:30 am back home.

March 13, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 3: Kamakura and Shinjuku

Saturday March 13, 2004
Jonathan met us promptly at 8:30am downstairs in our hotel and we set off on our first full day in Japan. Before we headed off to Kamakura, we decided to head over to Tokyo station to exchange our money as well as to validate our JR Rail Passes. Jonathan was a big help. He was able to get the passes done without any problems. It was very overwhelming and I am glad he is here for the first day so we can get our travel legs. There was no currency exchange available, but we were able to find ATMs at the Post Office across the street. I took out 30,000 Yen (approx $300) – it should be enough until I can translate my Traveler’s Checks I am worried that I might eat through all of my cash, but I know I have Daniel’s extra money in my account to spend. I might have to call back to the States to have Mom look up my bank account and make sure I am OK.

After a quick stop at a convenience store for some nibbles, it was off to Kamakura. The train ride was smooth and efficient once again. I pictured the town to be a small village, but here in Japan that means only 500,000 people. Once off the train, we managed to catch a bus out to the Diabatsu. Photos I had seen of it had sort of made me think that it was in the middle of a remote area, but like Stonehenge, there is a major highway right next to it. We managed to snap some good photos, and it finally feels like I am on vacation. From there, it was a short walk down to the next temple Hasedera. This was a neat temple complex with some great views as well as some cool photo ops. From there, we attempted to get to the Zeniarai benten. Not an easy task as it turns out. We managed to take a very scenic route (one spot Jonathan was asking for directions at a museum in a whirl of Japanese). After a brief stop at Sasuke Iwari Jinga Shrine (which we thought was in the direction of the Zeniarai benten), we finally arrived at our temple. This is another very popular temple complex set in some caves. The main highlight is a spot where you are supposed to wash your money for good luck and good fortune. I washed some money and the Gorn and then back on foot to the train station. We stopped for a quick bite at a supermarket and also for some ice cream on the “Shopping Street”. I tried Jonathan’s purple sweet potato ice cream. Daniel likened it to “Lucky Charms Marshmallows” I just didn’t care for it at all.

We made it back to our hotel without much ado and after a few Cokes and tea we set off for Shinjuku. It is a bit overwhelming of a place for the first time visitor to Tokyo – very crowded and full of life, and actually just as I imagined Tokyo. We decided to do some Shopping, first at Uniqlo and then Tokyo Two hands. I decided that I must have a shoulder bag to replace the one I left back home – especially since everyone here has one. I decided that I’d settle on the cheap 1,000 Yen bag at Uniqlo, just need to get an opportunity to come back and get one. It was then off to Yodibashi, the famous electronics store. It was delightfully tacky and crammed with goodies. I fell in love with some of the tiny laptops, but not the prices. It was not surprising that prices are just a bit more than the states on most items. Even memory cards for my camera were way overpriced. I did manage to find a case for my camera that was uber-cool.

After shopping, Jonathan led us through the more colorful red light district, but not before stopping for some counter service pasta. It was not that good because my “meat sauce” was actually “pork sauce” and tasted like Taco Bell meat (better luck next time). After some more exploring, we popped into a bar that Jonathan liked. Not much going on so we were on our way before too long. We finally headed back to the train station to go back to the hotel, but not without stopping at Tower Records first. I wanted to get “Dark Water” but the copy they had was Japanese only with no English subtitles. Looks like eBay for me! We finally made it back home and collapsed into a deep sleep so we would be ready for another full day tomorrow.

March 14, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 4: Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, and Daiba

Sunday March 14, 2004
Today Jonathan met us at our hotel lobby in the morning and we headed off into the city. Our first stop was a little café to get some breakfast and hot chocolate and plan out what we wanted to do with the precious time we had left with him. First order of business was to get our Tokyo Disney Resort tickets for the next four days. There is a TDR ticket office in Tokyo, and as it turns out, was right next to a statue of Godzilla near the ToHo studios. It was only a short subway ride from our café to get to the ticket office and we made it in no time. As we were taking photos of the statue and ourselves, an elderly Japanese woman approached Jonathan and started talking to him in Japanese. Daniel and I exchanged puzzled looks, and as the woman left, Jonathan filled us in to what she was saying. It turns out that she was in the café back near our hotel and overheard us saying that we were trying to find the Godzilla statue. She had followed us from the café to make sure that we found the statue with no difficulties. I was floored! What a great thing for a complete stranger to do for some fish out of water tourists!

It was a short walk over to the TDR ticket office and Daniel and I loaded up on our 4-Day Park Hopper passes for the next few days. We were so excited, but we had to get back on the road to see the sights. First up was Shinjuku, home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings and some of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. We went up to the observation deck and were treated to some great views of Tokyo. Up there, you really get a sense of just how sprawling an area Tokyo really is. Of course, Mt. Fuji was nowhere to be seen, but they assure us that it is off in the haze just waiting to be seen some day.

From there, we went to our next stop on the Subway line – Harajuku. Harajuku is home to the Japan youth who on Sundays enjoy cosplay around the Jingu Bridge that connects Harajuku to the Meji Shrine. Daniel was really looking forward to taking photos of the cosplayers and he was able to get some good photos taken while he was admiring them. I had to use the facilities, so Jonathan and I left Daniel back at the bridge and set off to find one in the Meji Shrine area. It was just a short walk, but since I was at the temple, I decided to take some quick photos of the shrine area before we hustled it back to Daniel. Daniel was a bit worried about us, but we were soon reunited and headed towards the Takeshita Street, one of the main shopping streets of Harajuku. This street reminded me of Berkeley and Melrose type area as opposed to Omotesando St which featured more high end shopping.We did some window shopping and wandered a bit before running into some St. Patrick’s Day festival. Not really sure of what was going on, but there was lots of green and shamrocks so that’s the conclusion we came up with before moving to our next destination.

Since we were already blocks from Harajuku station, we decided to just keep walking down to the Shibuya area. After a photo of Jonathan at a billboard (which I cannot find, so I assume he has it on his camera), we arrived at the statue of Hachiko at Shibuya station. The statue commemorates Hachiko who waited for his master at the station years after his owner had died and is a celebrity in Japan. The statue is also one of the most popular meeting areas for people trying to find each other. After some photos, we set to cross the famous Shibuya crossing. More than 1 million people use this crossing each day. Despite the business, we were able to get a good shot of me crossing the street in a sea of people.

We then explored the many shopping areas around Shibuya including one of my favorites, The Loft. Jonathan finally had to leave to get ready to head back to his part of Japan. We were sad to see him go as he was indispensable during our first few days in Japan. After he left, Daniel and I decided to head to Odaiba to the Fuji TV headquarters and the big Megaweb Toyota area. After taking the subway there, we then transferred to the Yurikamome elevated train which was an automated train. Arriving, we headed to Fuji TV to see if there was a tour we could take. We ended up wandering around some exhibits at the top of the building before headed down into the Decks Tokyo Beach shopping mall.

Daniel and I decided to attempt to order a plain hamburger in Japanese – always a fun thing. Fortunately, McDonald’s in Japan feature pictographs so you can point to what you want and then explain you want it plain. We were surprisingly successful in our ordering and the food was not that bad!

Touring around the area, we visited a replica Statue of Liberty and wandered around the complex before heading into MegaWeb. I was floored by the massive amounts of Toyota products including automated machines which brought your selected vehicle down from a shelf to right in front of you. There was also a testing facility where you could test drive the latest from Toyota. Unfortunately, you needed to have a valid International Driver’s License so we were ineligible. Another thing we were unable to do was the automated car system that took passengers in cars around the facility. The line was way too long and it was getting late.

Our last stop was Tokyo Leisure Land – home to a ton of video games and photo booths. We decided to get some snack ice cream before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel. It was another long day, but Daniel and I were excited about our next adventure at Tokyo Disney Resort!

March 15, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 5: Tokyo Disneyland

Monday March 15, 2004
This is it. The day that Daniel has been waiting for his entire life – the first day at Tokyo Disney Resort! The ride to the resort was easy to manage and we made it to the gates before the park opened. As we got closer to Park opening, there was so much excitement in the air, and not just from us! Due to our tickets, today would be Tokyo Disneyland, tomorrow Tokyo DisneySea, and then Wednesday and Thursday would be Park Hopping between both.

Tokyo Disneyland gave us an amazing first impression as the gates opened as a massive amount of people ran for Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, the current most popular attraction. I had to give up as we came towards the end of World Bazaar and gave my ticket to Daniel so he could finish the sprint towards the Fastpass machines to secure our place in the queue for the attraction.

Once our Fastpasses were secured, we headed over to Space Mountain which was like visiting an old friend. It’s just like how Disneyland’s Space was before they added sound. It was like riding a rocket when the audio was out and it was cool. After Space, we went back to Pooh to experience the ride we had heard so much about. It did not disappoint!! Very impressed with the ride technology and the show of the attraction – and let’s be honest it was so much fun.

We then decided to get something to eat and thankfully TDL had the Great American Waffle Company so we could enjoy something that was not curry or seafood based. The waffles were great and we walked over to Guest Relations to exchange some money. I asked about tours, but sadly they do not offer any in English. I received an overview of the different food offerings in the Park and then Daniel and I set off to explore the rest of the park.

The rest of the day was such a blur, but here are some highlights:

  • Pirates was very similar to Disneyland in California and even though they do not have a place called “New Orleans Square” it looked just like it.
  • Jungle Cruise was entertaining in Japanese and the ride reminded me of the Florida version
  • Splash Mountain was side by side seating like in Florida, but was actually designed based on the concerns here in Japan. Apparently side by side is culturally more desired in Japan than one in front of the other like at Disneyland. In terms of theming and overall ride experience, I think the TDL Splash is my favorite.
  • Big Thunder: Paris will always be my favorite, but Daniel LOVED the Thunder here in Japan. I liked it too and especially appreciated it’s layout.
  • Country Bear Jamboree was hysterical in Japanese…
  • Snow White and Pinocchio were so much faster than at Disneyland – also they let you exit the ride before it came to a complete stop which was a bit unnerving as a ride operator.
  • Tiki Room was awesome as well. All in Japanese, but just seemed like a fun show and the Cast Members were really into it.
  • Roger Rabbit – they were using the old 1990s cars which was fun to see.
  • Grand Circuit Raceway reminded me of Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland Speedway, neither of which is as good as the post 2000 Autopia at Disneyland.
  • Western River Railroad – Small train ride with Primeval World gave us some great views, but miss the around the park experience offered elsewhere. I know the reasons they don’t do it in Japan and they did an excellent job with what they could.
  • Rivers of America – Great riding the Twain around the river at night with some great vistas.

We stayed for the fireworks which felt short, but then again I think we are spoiled by Disneyland. No parades for us today, but we will make sure we see them on Wednesday when we are allowed back into Tokyo Disneyland. On the way out, we stopped at the Disney Gallery in the World Bazaar and they had a great 20th Anniversary exhibit for the resort and it was interesting to see how they have evolved over the years.

Completely exhausted we made our way back to our hotel and couldn’t wait to come back the next day.

March 16, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 6: Tokyo Disney Sea

Tuesday March 16, 2004
Today was our first visit to Tokyo Disney Sea, an amazing park full of lots of details to keep you busy for hours. Our first stop was the Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction in Mysterious Island (yes, that’s a volcano that shoots fire out at regular intervals). Journey is an amazing ride – based on the Test Track ride system. It felt short, and I think I would have liked an additional 30 seconds of ride or so and it would have been perfect. we spent the whole day just going all over and taking in the sights of the park. Our favorites (besides JTCE) were Sinbad’s Seven Voyages, Aquatopia (a neat simple GPS controlled attraction where the vehicle pilots itself over water) and Stormrider (for how over the top the guy doing the overview at the beginning was as well as the actual attraction). We also loved their Indiana Jones attraction – it’s not better than the Disneyland one, but we appreciated the subtle small details that made it different (smoke rings instead of fire and the queue).

The Mermaid Lagoon area was full of off-the shelf rides similar to ones offered at Disney’s California Adventure, but who knew they could be so much fun?? The theming here at TDS is far superior to the similar rides in Flik’s Fun Faire or Paradise Pier at DCA and I’d certainly take the Scuttle’s Scooters over Tuck and Rolls any day.

Another fun attraction (that we didn’t have a clue what was going on) was the Magic Lamp Theater which showed the story of Aladdin using 3D black light effects. It reminded me of Animagique at Disneyland Paris. On the other side of the park, the Cape Cod and American Waterfront were again very nicely themed. Daniel and I enjoyed that you easily get a plain hamburger at the Cape Cod Cookoff! The Donald’s Boat Builders show was also very fun while we were eating.

In American Waterfront, we watched the Encore show which was your usual good quality Disney Theme Park show – some challenging lip synching by a few of the performers, but overall a great time. Around the lagoon we caught DisneySea Symphony towards the end of the day. Like all of the pyro nighttime shows we watched, it was pretty quickly paced compared to the US nighttime spectaculars.

We left the park exhausted via the Monorail back to the JT line to head back to the hotel. I love the Monorail design here with the Mickey Mouse windows and handles inside the trains. You can also walk completely through the whole train and made it seem more like a regular commuter train than a theme park attraction.

Off to bed and back tomorrow!

March 17, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 7: Tokyo Disney Resort Park Hopping

Wednesday March 17, 2004
High winds ruled as we ventured out back to the Tokyo Disney Resort. When we arrived at Tokyo Disneyland, there was already a huge line for Winnie the Pooh FASTPASS (we arrived after 9am today) so we decided to concentrate on the attractions we missed back on our first day at the resort. We hit the Teacups, Peter Pan (a copy of the Walt Disney World version), the Castle Mystery Tour (a Black Cauldron(!) inspired walk-though attraction all in Japanese), and then a repeat visit to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. By 3pm all the parades and shows were cancelled and replaced with Rainy Day alternatives so we headed off to Tokyo DisneySea.

Arriving at TDS, we headed to Journey to the Center of the Earth for another 3 rides as well as hitting Indy, Sinbad, the Carrousel, and Aquatopia before exploring the SS Columbia. We were taking it slow and steady and the wind was really beating us down. Most money we are spending at the parks has been on food around $17-$20 equivalent for both of us at a quick service restaurant (I miss our discounts!). After the Columbia, we headed over to Ikspiri, their version of a Downtown Disney. We managed to pick up some CDs of Tokyo Disney Resort music and wandered around the Disney Ambassador Hotel taking photos.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel. Only one more day at the Resort before resuming our explorations of Japan!

March 18, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 8: Tokyo Disney Resort Last Day

Thursday March 18, 2004
Today we arrived at the resort under cloudy skies and we knew we were in trouble when we saw most of the Guests of the Resort carrying around umbrellas. We are at a distinct disadvantage in not being able to understand the local weather report and today it really left us unprepared. We managed to get on Winnie the Pooh, Star Jets, the Mark Twain, explore Tom Sawyer Island, and catch the Tiki Room Show. One good thing about bad weather was that the lines were non-existent at most attractions.

Emerging from the Tiki Room, it started to pour! I told Daniel it was just like the last time we were together in Japan at Walt Disney World and it was pouring rain. One great thing? We managed to score Tokyo Disney Resort umbrellas for only 1,000 Yen – a bargain and they were super neat. We hung out in the World Bazaar with most of the rest of the attendees at the park that day. It was packed so we headed over to get Big Thunder Mountain FASTPASSes and killed time roaming throughout the different shops and a couple of the theater shows until we got to ride it. Since the parades were still cancelled due to the rain, after Big Thunder we headed over to Tokyo DisneySea.

Man, I love Tokyo DisneySea! We had Spaghetti Pomodoro at Zambini Brothers’ Ristorante for the third time. So good. We rode Journey to the Center of the Earth an additional 5 times (9 total for this trip still no back seat 6 front, 3 middle). No wait on the Indiana Jones Adventure so we rode it three times and on the last trip, Daniel and took a goofy photo of us holding each other screaming like the Expedia commercial. indyphoto
I think the other people in the car were very confused.

We rode Sinbad again. Gosh, I really love this ride and I wish I knew what the heck was going on – I still don’t understand the story. We ended our day with a walk through the very nice Hotel MiraCosta. I wish I could afford to stay here one day.

Back to Tokyo with a bit of a Disney hangover. One challenge we have is that there are no quick cheap places to eat at our hotel since we are in the business district. On one hand, I wish we were in Shibuya or Shinjuku so we could be near the nightlife, but on the other hand, our hotel is so close to Tokyo Station – the gateway to the rest of Japan which is very nice.I am glad we didn’t stay at the Hotel Bandung in Asakusa which was recommended to us due to cost, but it is even farther away than the Kazusaya.

March 19, 2004

Japan 2004 Day 9: Nikko

Friday March 19, 2004
We woke up early to catch the Shinkansen for our trip to the Nikko National Park just north of Tokyo. When we arrived at Tokyo Station we decided to reserve our seats for our trip tomorrow to Hiroshima. We decided to go far and work our way back from there to see what we can do. We have an hour lay-over in Osaka before arriving in Hiroshima before 1pm. That’s just enough time for us to hit the museum and take a few photos before we have to hop back on the train back to Tokyo. We want to hop off in Kyoto on the way back, but we are worried as the train options back from Kyoto are limited on the weekends. The good thing is that our Japan Rail Passes give us some flexibility.

From Tokyo Station, we set out for Nikko on the Tohoku Shinkansen which only took 50 minutes to reach Utsunomiya. At Utsunomiya we transferred to the JR Nikko line and that was another 45 min ride via local service up the mountains to Nikko. Once we arrived there, we walked 20-30 minutes to the National Park. It cost us only 1,000 Yen each to see the 5 major temples of the park. The area was really beautiful. Lots of mountains in the background and tall redwood trees – reminding me of Northern California. The is certainly a highlight of the trip, even with all the touristy nick-nack stands that were omnipresent. Some of the placement of the souvenirs was a little tacky next to the highly religious temple sites, but not enough to bother me. I bought a book so I could remember all of the temples names and made sure that I took photos of adjacent signage for reference.

We reversed our train ride back to Tokyo so we could get dinner and do some shopping in town before the big trip on tomorrow. We headed for the Roppongi district and boy was it an adventure! It took us three tries to find the McDonald’s in our guide map. While there, we discovered that there was a Hard Rock Cafe close by so I made sure to pick up Kevin’s shot glass and a shirt for Gary and I. We then wandered around the mall before heading over to Shibuya. Daniel found a shoulder bag (he looks so Japanese now!) and I found another notebook to ponder my Disney Tally to determine what I think the best ride versions, parks, and Resorts are around the world. Something to do on the train ride tomorrow. After some Baskin-Robbins for dessert we decided to call it a night.

Up early tomorrow for Hiroshima!