April 3rd, 2015 - Tokyo, Japan - Day 230

Big Pete's POV

We woke up this morning with a little bit of an agenda.  It was Friday morning and we needed to go to the Vietnamese Embassy to get our visas for the next leg of the trip.  We have delayed this for a long time because we were uncertain if we were actually going to make it to Vietnam, and the visa process is not that simple unless you can physically get to an embassy.  In addition to the visas we Lea was still on a mission to get a camera and I was in the market for a new lens for my camera.  The stores down in Akhiabara have great prices (like 30% off of what Amazon offers), so we figured it was a good place to do this.  In addition to those errands, we wanted to visit a big shrine in the center of the city.  

We geared up early and were standing on the train platform by 9:00.  The ride to our stop was only about 10 minutes.  The train system in Japan is incredible by the way, it is fast, easy and reliable.  We got off our stop and were into Yoyogi Park (where the shrine is located) in about 1 minute.  The entrance to the park was impressive in and of itself.  

The park is one of the largest in Tokyo and has a couple of significant facts associated with it.  It was the location of the first powered flight in Japan and was also used by the US during our occupation of Japan for troops barracks, we called it Washington Heights. In 1964 it housed most of the athletes for the Olympics.  However, it is most well known for housing the Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to Emperor Meiji or Meiji the Great who ruled from 1867 to 1912 and is credited with bringing Japan from a feudal empire to a capitalist society.  

The park leading to the shrine was very nice, but did not have many Cherry trees, which we hunt everywhere we go.  

The Torii Gate - All shrines have these and they designate the separation of holy ground from the secular world

When you get to the actual shrine complex there is a station for you to wash your hands and your mouth out before you pray.  This is called the "temizuya" water pavilion and consists of a water basin and ladles. It is there to perform "misogi," a ritual to purify the body and mind with water before proceeding to stand in front of the deity. Originally this ritual was performed in the nude at special misogi locations (but to Lea's relief we did not have to disrobe) like the ocean or a river, but today the ritual has been simplified to rinsing your hands and mouth at the temizuya. The idea is to wash away impurities in your heart as well as from your physical self before you go to pray to the deity.

Once inside there were places to send prayers to loved ones, pray to the deity and to write prayers down which would be read and offered to the deity.  

We all said a prayer and then headed out the east gate.   It was about another 20 minute walk from the shrine to the embassy, which we found easily.  I am not sure how people managed before Google Maps, but it is an absolute godsend for us navigating our way though a big city where you can't read any street signs.  

When we got to the embassy it was pretty crowded and we had to wait in line after filling out our forms.  As we were waiting in line I asked if we could pay with credit.  The nice gentleman behind the counter told me I could not and tried to point me in the direction of the nearest ATM.  We have been noticing that a LOT of businesses in Japan are cash only and its driving me a little insane.  I hate using cash and having to go to the ATM, but that is what I needed to do if we were going to Vietnam, so I raced out the door telling Stacie and the kids I would be right back.  I hustled down the street to find and ATM and about 5 minutes later I found one.  However, when I tried to use it the machine just kept spitting my card back saying it was invalid.  So I went to the next spot I could find - same result.  I went to about 7 ATM's before I figured something was wrong with my card.  So I called my bank, Charles Schwab, and they told me everything was fine on their end, so I was even more confused.  It had been about 25 minutes since I left and I was sure Stacie and the kids were freaking out so I ran back to the embassy.  When I got there, Stacie was at the counter frantically cutting our passport style pictures and gluing them to our applications.  I had forgotten to tell here where those pictures were and had inadvertently caused a huge delay in the process by having her hunt them down in my absence.  This was all just going perfectly!  I told her about the problem and said I was going to go back out to try to find another ATM.  Peter came with me this time and we found another ATM pretty quickly.  I tried again and again it spit the card back at me.  Peter said - "have you tried pushing the International Card button?"  I gave him one of those "of course I have - what do you think I am an idiot" looks and said "yeah!" with a nasty bite to it.  But I gave it a try again and of course it worked!  Peter saved our bacon - we were back in business.  

We hustled back to the embassy and sat down to wait for our number to be called.  As we waited Lea decided it was a good time for a nap.  When we took this picture she was snoring pretty loudly and dead asleep.  I am not sure how she does it, but it is a gift!

We got our visa's just as the office was closing for a two hour lunch break.  At this point we were all a little tired and hungry, but of course we had no idea where to eat and we could not read any signs to tell us what we were in store for.  We stopped outside a restaurant to talk about our options and after about 5 minutes of everyone saying they did not care what we ate, Stacie turned and said "let's go here".  We wandered down into the basement of the restaurant and found it was traditional Japanese so we needed to remove our shoes and sit on the floor.  The food was udon noodles and was fantastic again!  

After lunch we headed back to Akhiabara to find Lea's camera, my lens and a new electronic drawing pad for Stacie to help with landscape design.  Lea had done some research and found the best shop in the district - Yodobashi.

We spent the next hour or so wandering through this MASSIVE electronics store with 7 floors of every gadget you can possibly imagine.  We all found what we were looking for and left as satisfied but exhausted shoppers.  

We made it back to the hotel pretty easily and laid down for a quick rest before dinner.  This time we wanted something other than Japanese, so we found an Indian restaurant and made a reservation.  We walked there in about 15 minuets and had the best Indian food of our trip - it was amazing.  Tokyo is right at the top of all of our lists for food - it has been simply incredible.  On the way home Lea and Peter we busy taking pictures and playing with Lea's new camera while Stacie and I were on a bee line for bed.  After another long day we were exhausted and fell quickly asleep - ready for another travel day tomorrow.


April 2nd, 2015 - Tokyo, Japan - Day 229

Peter's POV 

Today was the nicest day that we had in Tokyo, so it was an early one. We got out of the house and got some more Starbucks. Our first stop of the day was at a garden. We found the garden easily and were amazed by the cherry blossoms right when we walked in.  The garden was called Koishikawa Korakuen and was first laid out in 1629 which makes it the oldest garden in Tokyo.

Buying our fish food

The garden was very cool, had little bridges and ponds all over.  Lea and I got some fish food to feed the carp and headed right over to a pond to do just that.  Here are some pictures of the garden:

When we left the garden our plan was to go and get lunch. The planned lunch was a dumpling stand. When we got to the dumpling stand my mom and dad didn't think that they looked that good but we got one anyway.

The dumpling stand - these are called niku-man

The dumpling was very good and my sister and I got two more right away. My parents kept looking around for a place to eat. They finally found one that looked good and it turned out to be a Japanese style crepe place. The Japanese style crepes are very different from the French crepes. On top of the crepe there is cabbage, pork, and egg and udon noodles. It was amazing, I wasn't planning on eating there but after a tasted my dad's, I knew that I had to get one. 

Making the crepe right in front of you - this lady did EVERYTHING!

The final product - delicious!

After lunch I was more full than I have ever been in my life.  After 1.5 niko-man and one of these I did not ever want to eat again.  

While I digested lunch we went to the electronic district to look for a camera for Lea. When we got to the district called Akihabara I was amazed, there were billboards everywhere, it looked like Japanese style times square.

After about an hour and a half of comparing camera's Lea found one, the Fuji FinePix S1. She got up to the counter and we noticed everyone was using there passports to get the duty free discount. When she got up to the counter she found out that you needed your passport with you to get the discount. She later found out that they didn't have any of the camera's in stock anyway. We left the electronic district with nothing and headed to the river for a boat cruise. When we got there we found a line stretching out the door. This was exactly what we didn't need after a long day walking around the city. However, the line moved fast and we were on the boat before we knew it.

The ride was not that exciting but the tickets were just a little bit more expensive than subway tickets and they got us into the garden that we were going to see for free.  While we were on the boat we decided to have a competition on who could make the most disapproving face.  

I don't like it when he has this face on

Or when I see this one

Lea and I were not very good at this game - we could not stop laughing

When we got to the garden we were not amazed, it was more of a park than a garden, but still very cool. After the garden we headed back to the hotel right before dinner.  More garden pics:

For dinner we planned to walked down to a place that we saw when were walking to our dinner spot yesterday but it turned out to be Italian food. We walked around a little bit longer and found a place that looked good. It turned out to be amazing and we had a great dinner. We have been so lucky with every meal in Tokyo. We just wander into these little restaurants and every one has been incredible and different.  

We walked home from dinner and fell into our beds, exhausted from another big day in Tokyo.  

April 1st 2015 - Tokyo, Japan - Day 228

Big Pete's POV

After our first full day in Japan we all agreed how much we liked the city, the culture and the people.  Tokyo is so different from what I remembered when I lived here almost 20 years ago.  It makes me wonder what the hell was wrong with me back then.  I really had no appreciation of the culture, the people and especially the food.  I hated everything about the city back then and now I love everything about it.  It is almost surreal, but the good news is that apparently I have grown up a little bit and expanded my horizons over the past 20 years :-).

Today started early with a 5:30 AM wake up call and right down to the gym.  I had a conference call at 6:30 and I did not want to hold everyone up by working out after the call.  Once Stacie and I were wrapped up with the workout, conference call and getting ready we headed out to try to find a better breakfast than Starbucks.  Unfortunately the area we are in is not full of breakfast restaurants, so we ended up right back at Starbucks.  By the time we made it back to the room Peter was up and had eaten (apparently at Starbucks - where we missed him) and Lea was still asleep.  She is not feeling well and was really tired out from our big day yesterday.  

We rallied Lea out of bed and got ready to go.  After a quick stop at guess where - Starbucks - we jumped on the train to head to the worlds busiest train station Shinjuku in order to head to the Shinjuku Goyan Gardens to see some blooming cherry trees.  We made it easily to the station and quickly found our way out on to the street.  I dialed up Google Maps and we were on our way.

Wandering down the streets of Tokyo is an adventure in and of itself.  The city is really cool and as Peter mentioned yesterday everyone is very nice and extremely polite.  In fact the process of lining up for anything (like an escalator) is so orderly that we did not even realize we were cutting the line when we first arrived.  We are so used to the herd approach which is so common in Europe that an orderly line is a foreign concept to us.  

Peppered throughout the streets are these little restaurants which seat maybe 10 people at a time.  They are really quaint and all I want to do is go sit in them and eat and have a beer. But it was only 10 so I figured I should wait :-).

We made it to the gardens about 15 minutes later and found a pretty big line.  Yuka (our cooking instructor) told us how much the Japanese like the cherry blossoms and it was apparent when we arrived at the garden.  This is a big deal and the city had turned out to celebrate.  Our timing on the blooms appears to be good as the trees are mostly full and completely open. 

We jumped in line and were to the ticket counter pretty quickly and then into the garden.  There were thousands of people inside just enjoying the blooms.  Most were spread out on blankets under a cherry tree with their family enjoying the day with a picnic.  It was a really nice scene, and because the park is so large, there was plenty of room for everyone.  We wandered around for about an hour and a half before we all agreed it was time to eat.  Our little Starbucks breakfast was not holding up in the face of all this walking.  Here are some pictures of the garden, which do not do the blossoms justice, you really need to see it to believe it - they are beautiful. 

Stacie had done some research on where we could find a good authentic ramen shop and it was only about 15 minutes away, so we headed over to see if we could find it.  By the time we arrived we were all beat and really hungry, however, the line was out the door and again the place sat like 10 people, so we were out of luck.  We wandered back up the street and found another little shop that did not have Ramen, but did have food and seats and that met our requirements.  

The food ended up being great and we were all stuffed by the time we left.  On a side note - the weak Yen has made Tokyo a bargain, our lunch cost about $20 and was huge.  

At this point we were all dragging and ready to head home.  It had started raining as well, so a restful afternoon sounded great.  We worked our way back to the hotel and collapsed into bed for a nap.  I am not sure what it is, but being a tourist in a big city can really drain you.  All of us slept for about an hour and a half before getting up for dinner.  We went out to one of Yuka's suggestion - a Yakatori restaurant.  We really wanted to go to a Yekatori restaurant, so we were excited to have her recommend one to us close by.  Yakatori is basically grilled chicken and vegetables on a skewer, however, the good shops use literally every part of the chicken.  We had all committed to trying new things while in Asia and this seemed like a good place to start.  

Our Yakatori Resturant

We found our spot pretty quickly and when we arrived we were the only people in the restaurant.  It was a really quaint spot (again with about 10 seats).  

The workers inside were very nice, but let us know they did not speak any english - so the adventure in food continued.  They did have an english menu though and that helped a little bit.  We ordered a bunch of things and then sat back and watched our food get prepared right in front of us.  

With each skewer that came out our chef / waiter would tell us what part of the chicken we were eating.  e also had a handy english picture guide to help us understand:

The food was generally delicious - especially the vegetables, and most of the chicken cuts, however, we all agreed we would pass on the kneecaps if we went again (except for Peter, he liked the caps as well).  I was really proud of us for eating everything on our plates and relishing the experience, it was a great night.  The kids finished off the night is some soy ice cream that was wonderful.

Day 2 in Tokyo was fantastic and is making the transition to Asia much easier than any of us expected.  


March 31, 2015 - Tokyo, Japan - Day 227

Peter's POV 

Today was our first day in Tokyo. What we saw of the city yesterday made us really like it and we were all excited to see more. When we woke up we went to have breakfast at a Starbucks down the street. Starbucks are literally everywhere here.

When we were finished with breakfast left to go to the Patagonia store. When we were out with Dave on the Daintree forest tour I left my belt at one of the swimming holes. I had waited until Tokyo to get one because I wanted to see if I could get the same belt. When we got to the right area we also began looking for a sim card, so my dad could get a data connection and use Google Maps to help us navigate. The problem is that in Japan, they don't carry prepaid sim cards in general stores, they only carry them in certain electronics stores. So we were stuck wandering around Tokyo hoping to find either the sin card store or Patagonia. 

13.4 million people 

13.4 million people 

We found a couple of stores that had belts in them, but we really wanted to find the Patagonia store. We eventually had to break for lunch. We were all tired hungry and lost so we just found a restaurant that looked good and walked in. We were hoping to find some noodles, and after a couple stores we found a store with Chinese noodles.  The restaurant was great and the food was fantastic.  As you can see I really enjoyed digging into my bowl of noodles.

My mom's noodles

Birdcage lights over the counter

Another good thing came from lunch, my dad got a wifi connection, he found the Patagonia store and it was pretty close. We walked to the Patagonia and found a belt that we thought would work.

When we checked out I put the belt on only to find that it really didn't work, it kept slipping. We returned the belt and moved on, but my dad got a t-shirt and we all got stickers.  The people here are so friendly and polite - we are all really enjoying the culture. I ended up buying the first belt that I saw that day in a store called Haglofs.  Here are some pictures from the day out shopping around Tokyo.

This is a real cutting from a cherry tree in full bloom

This is a real cutting from a cherry tree in full bloom

When we were done looking for the belt, Lea said that she wanted to buy a camera. So off we went on our new mission. Luckily there was a store about 15 minutes toward the train station that we needed to go to and the store not only sold cameras, but they sold sim cards! When we got to the store, we found that the price of the camera's were more expensive than Lea guessed, but my dad was able to get a sim card, so we were back online.

We were all getting tired from a ton of walking so we decided that instead of going to see a park we would go back to the hotel for some rest before heading out around 5:30 for a sushi cooking class. 

At 5:30 we left for the class and weaved our way down the side streets of our neighborhood looking for the subway stop we were meeting our instructor at.  We finally found her a few minutes later than we were supposed to arrive.  Her name is Yuka and she was so nice!  

When we got to the class, we soon found that making sushi requires a lot of steps. First we made some sticky rice, and chopped up all of our vegetables and fish. Then we made a broth made from kelp, then we tested some different sauces and combined some to make our sushi sauce. 

Lots to chop up

We made our own Wasabi - spicy!

I had to pull wet kelp out of a pot - not easy!

Cutting the tuna for nagiri was REALLY hard to do well

After all of that the hard part began. Making sushi requires a lot of practice. First you put on the rice, which is not an easy task because you are dealing with sticky rice, which is VERY sticky. Then you put on the ingredients, next you have to roll it. The rolling is the hardest part, I never really got it, whenever I did it my ingredients would be squeezed out of the ends. So if you ever want hollow roles of rice and seaweed then you should get me to make you sushi.

The final product

Lots of Sushi!

We ended up having a lot of fun and Yuka so nice and patient with us. The sushi was really good and we were all stuffed by the end, in fact we could not finish it all.  She told us all of her favorite restaurants in the city and gave us some advice on things to do.  Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and fell into bed after a long first day in Tokyo.  


March 30th, 2015 - Port Douglas to Tokyo - Day 226

We are finally heading back to the northern hemisphere for the last leg of our trip.  Our time down under has been very special and we will not soon forget the hospitality of the Aussies and the Kiwi's.  We all put both Australia and New Zealand near the top of the list when we talk about our favorite stops to date.  

Stacie and I woke up early this morning because we wanted to make sure we got a run in before we had to leave, which was 9:45.  We left the house for the run at 6:00 right as the sun was starting to come up.  When we got to the beach we noticed the tide was pretty high and it was going to be a tight squeeze between the tree line and the waterline, but we decided to go for it anyway.  There are a couple of tidal creeks we need to cross when we are running down the beach and when we got to the first one we knew we were in trouble.  The creek was full because of the tide level and there was no good way across.  These creeks tend to smell really bad and have a bunch of junk in them so the thought of splashing across them was not too appealing.  During low tide you can pick your way across easily without really getting wet, but there was no option for a dry crossing here.  We found a spot that was as narrow as possible and I jumped as far as I could and only got a little wet on my right foot.  Stacie was not as lucky and got both feet drenched in the stinky creek water - not a great way to start your run, or your day for that matter.  However, she just rolled with it, like she does with most things these days and we were off down the beach without any hesitation.  We had to cross another creek before we turned around and then do the same thing on the way back, so in total we had four crossings and had to weave in and out of the trees to avoid the water from the tide.  All in all it was not the best run of the trip, but it was nice to get some exercise in.  

The rest of the morning went smoothly and we set off from PD right on time.  I took some pictures of the house before I left.  If we ever own a beach house (highly doubtful) I would want it to have the vibe of this place.  I am not sure how they pulled it off, but it's the most relaxed house I have ever been in.

This is the seat I spent most mornings in

The pool and upstairs balcony

Master bedroom

Lea's nook

Lea's couch where she would do all of her work

Setting the vibe

24 Sorrento

On the front door - words to live by

Thankfully Stacie remembered we had not placed a sticker in PD, so on our way out of town we headed down to four mile beach to find a spot.  Since the whole of Australia is full of things that can kill and injure you we thought it was appropriate to place the sticker on one of the ten thousand signs that tell you how dangerous this place is.  In reality we were NEVER worried about anything while we were in Australia.  It's just like anything else in life, the images you paint in your head are typically far worse than reality.  

With the sticker placed, we were off to the airport.  After an hours drive we were there and ready to fly.  We had to wait in a long line to check in, but we had time so it was not a problem.  Once we were checked in (by the only grumpy person we met in Australia), we headed up to immigration and security.  After another long line we were through the screening and putting our bags back together.  Lea and I were the last ones through and as we were walking away from the collection area a security official selected Lea for some additional screening.  He said "I need to screen your bags for explosives"  Lea did not hear him quite right and thought he was offering an additional "service" so she replied "oh no thanks, I'm all right".  She quickly realized her mistake and we all had a good laugh.  

We got a quick lunch and then boarded our 7 hour direct flight to Tokyo.  

The flight went perfect and before we knew it we were landing at Narita airport.  Just as we were starting our decent the captain came on and let us know that there was a good view of Mt. Fuji off the left side of the airplane.  Since Peter was on the left window we were able to get a shot of the beautiful sunset with Mt. Fuji popping through the clouds.  

We landed and then walked for what seemed like a mile before we got to immigration.  We spent another 45 minutes in line for immigration and then went to collect our bags.  Once though customs we quickly found a place to buy our train tickets into the city and hopped on our first bullet train in Japan.  This train took us 41 minutes to get into the city and then we transfered to a local train to get us closer to the hotel.  Despite being in the largest city in the world (40 million people) and in a country where you can't read the language at all, the process was by far the easiest (and cleanest)  arrival into a big city we have had on the trip.  

Clean and easy!

We made it to our stop about 30 minutes later and hopped off.  We walked the remaining 10 minutes to the hotel and checked in quickly.

Even though we had not eaten dinner, everyone was tired and since it was 10:00 we decided to call it a night and get some rest.  So far Japan gets a big thumbs up from everyone.  There is even a Starbucks right across from the hotel, so Lea is loving it!

More from the land of the rising sun tomorrow!