Kanazawa

Kanazawa is a historical city on the west coast of Japan, about two hours by train from Tokyo.  It was not bombed during world war II, and has become home of many crafts people.  We went there August 28-29.

The Hotel Pacific Kanazawa was quite adequate, but Jenny insisted on taking my picture coming through the hotel door.

Hotel dor
I don’t know why Jenny wanted a picture of me coming through the hotel door

Not far from our hotel was the castle…

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle

Jenny loved the Tern that was in the nearby pond

Kanazawa Castle
Tern swimming outside the Castle in Kanazawa

The castle gates were massive

Castle gate
Kanazawa Castle Gate
Castle door
The door to the Kanazawa castle

Across the street from the castle is the Kenrokuen garden, classified as one of the most beautiful in Japan.   The spacious grounds used to be the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and were constructed by the ruling Maeda family over a period of nearly two centuries, and opened to the public in 1871.  If you cannot afford the $3 entrance fee, note that people over 65 are free.

Just into the garden was this bridge – obviously OSHA hasn’t made it there yet.

Footbridge
Footbridge without railings

The sign says that this is a radio broadcast tower from 1933.  Okay, if you say so.

Radio Tower
1933 Radio Tower

The local young people here liked to dress in the traditional style – Kimono with obi sash, bag, zori sandals, and iPhone.

Girls in traditonal dress
Traditional dress for young women has been expanded to include an iPhone and texting

In the garden was a Statute of Prince Yamato Takeru, more simply called the Meiji Monument in the garden.

Meiji Monument
Meiji Monument in the garden

We found a very interesting restaurant for dinner.  When we were exploring menus, the chef said (in perfect English) “please come back at 5 pm.”  We did.  He had helpers, but personally explained the menu to each guest. And prepared the food in front of us.  He explained that he had worked in California for several years but had returned here to open “Elbow Room.”  For US$72 we feasted on many dishes, all outstanding.

Elbow room
Elbow Room – an amazing restaurant in Kanazawa, that looks like a “hole in the wall.”

For desert we chose Black Sesame and Sweet Potato ice cream.  It was fantastic.  Who would have thought!

Elbow Room Desert
Is this Ice Cream, Gelato, fruit, orchid bouquet, or… just delicious.

Kanazawa is probably the world leader in production of gold leaf.  We visited the museum of gold leaf for several hours, but no photos allowed.

The crafts were not artisans in small shops as we had expected, but a gold leaf museum, a school for dying silk, etc. The crafts for sale were very high end, in boutiques rather than sold by craftsmen.  We had a good time, but would return to Kawagoe, a day trip by train outside of Tokyo that we really enjoyed in 2013.

 

Tokyo

Most of Friday (August 25) was spent on the train from Nagasaki back to the Shinjuku area of Tokyo.

APA Hotel review

We checked into our hotel not far from the Shinjuku station, but the hotel was noteworthy… it is part of a growing chain of APA hotels, as in jAPAn.  After we were there I saw a review that said the owner was putting all the profits into extremist publications, one person reported three extremist books in their room (like Gideon Bibles).

They are trying to eliminate desk clerks with self service check-in terminals (that don’t work, so there are people behind the desk to bail out of program failures). Find your own reservation.  Enter your own credit card.  Hope your room keys come out through the dispenser.

The room was so small that we even had to move our wastebaskets to the hall to make room for our bags. We removed all the signs and booklets to make room to open our luggage, so we didn’t see the propaganda.

We wrote reviews on each of the 5 hotels we used on this trip. The APA hotel was by far the worst – and the most expensive. Our other 4 reviews of Japan hotel were published; the negative review of this hotel was suppressed. We will never stay in an APA hotel again.

End of rant

Edo Museum

On Saturday we planned to go to the Edo Tokyo museum – we were there too many years ago for too little time, so this seemed like a good opportunity for a return trip.

Angel Eyes
The place was swarming with people of all ages in pink
Ayaka Nation 2017
And there were vendors selling all sorts of pink things

We finally figured out there was going to be a concert, and the museum was closed.  Saying the Edo museum would be closed for a concert didn’t make sense, but someone with a little English assured us that the Edo museum was going to be closed to redo their displays.

When we got home, some research showed that a pink teen-age superstar was related to the CDs and junk on sale

Ayaka Nation
Notice that Ayaka Sasaki is the singer, producer, writer, director, production designer, sound designer, chief lighting designer, and choreographer, and seems to be in all 8 pictures on the poster. Ego central, anyone?

Given that we were a failure at the Edo Tokyo museum, we decided to check out Haneda Airport.

Haneda Airport

We are starting to see more and more international flights to Haneda rather than Narita airport.  Haneda is a short subway ride from much of Tokyo, rather than an expensive train trip.  But it is the old run down domestic airport.  NOT.  It is a very modern, bright, pleasant airport, that we rank among the best in the world for convenience and facilities.  We spent a couple hours touring the public areas (before security) including a magnificent observation deck, historical aviation displays, demonstrations of Japanese crafts and culture, and a huge variety of restaurants. and shops.  Security seemed well organized with no long lines.  If the secure area is half a good as the public area, the airport is great. And the subway comes under the main terminal.

While we were having an adult beverage in one of the restaurants, we struck up a conversation with a group of 4 English teachers who had been in Japan for many years.  Their frustration was that they were required to teach “tourist phrase-book” English rather than any phonics or analysis that would allow their students to grow beyond the canned words and phrases.

Church

If we are not the only tourists that go to church abroad, we recommend the Franciscan Chapel Center – an English language parish in Roppongi area of central Tokyo.  A full range of mass times, all in English.

Close to the church are many restaurants, including the one we found and liked four years ago.

Edo Tōkyō Museum, Try 2

Sunday was a visit with our friends Stuart and Emiko Ablett.  Stuart has lived in Tokyo 28 years, Emiko was born there. Neither had ever been to this museum.  They got us there (apparently the pink concert was in the adjacent Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the Sumo Wrestling arena.)  As they said, “It is a shame you have to have international visitors to go to the good things in your own city.”

There was a very precise very large model of the classical city.  So detailed that you were invited to investigate the details with binoculars.  The large bridge in the foreground was recreated in the museum – half scale but still huge – that you walked across to get to the exhibit.
City Model
City model in the Edo Museum

In addition to many classical exhibits, they also had transportation.  Jenny is a sucker for any rickshaw.

Rickshaw
Jenny found the rickshaw but no driver

Stuart was captivated by the first Subaru – their product line is still dominated by small vehicles in Japan, but includes much more than this tiny original car from the 1950s, to be a car for everyone.

subaru
First Subaru model

The Ford Model A was also manufactured in Japan, as a car for everyone.

Ford Model A
Ford Model A, also manufactured in Japan

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo has two towers, both reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower of Paris. – the 1,093 foot, Orange and White, “Tokyo Tower” – opened in 1958 as a TV broadcast tower and tourist attraction.  As Japan has gone to all digital broadcasting, the Tokyo Tower was not tall enough to broadcast a good signal to all areas served, so a new 2,080 foot (634 meters) “Skytree” was opened in 2012, as a broadcast tower and tourist attraction.

Like the Eiffel Tower, the line to buy tickets to get into the Sky Tree is endlessly long.  However, our hostess went on-line, and pre-ordered our tickets for a specific time, so we got in without waiting.  Unfortunately the on-line tickets are on a web site that is Japanese language only, and requires payment with a credit card issued in Japan.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have Japanese friends, there is a special “Fast Skytree Ticket” with presumably a shorter line, available only to international visitors buying “same day” tickets. The price for the combination ticket for the upper (450 meter) and lower (350 meter) observation floors is more than the two separate tickets sold to locals (not cheap at ¥4,000, but the shorter line is probably worth the extra cost).

Tickets (other than on-line) cannot be bought in advance or for other people – when you buy the ticket, have everyone present and be ready to enter promptly.

Near the tower is a gift shop with a mirror for taking “selfies” with the Skytree in the background.

Skytree mirron
Stuart and Emiko Ablett and Jenny playing with the mirror showing the Skytree behind Stuart

If you want a better picture, one of your party lies on the ground and takes a picture of the others.

Skytree
Emiko Ablett, Jenny and Charlie Plesums at the Skytree. Photo courtesy of Stuart Ablett, who was  lying on the ground.

The view of Tokyo from the lower (350 meter – 100th floor) observation level was great.  Some claimed to see airplanes taking off and landing at Haneda Airport, near the water at the top.  Stuart and Emiko kept trying to identify their home in the distance.

Tokyo from Skytree
Tokyo towards Haneda, from Skytree

Not a great picture but the building that looks like an ocean liner on stilts at the left below is the Edo Tokyo museum.  The green roof building at the right is the sumo wrestling arena.

Edo Museum
Edo museum on the left, and Sumo Arena under the green roof at the right.

We took the elevator to the upper level (another 100 meters or about 30 more stories).  The elevator had a window in the ceiling so you could see the construction of the Skytree.  I didn’t want them to feel bad that nobody used the window, so I obliged them.

Inside of Skytree
Inside of Skytree

We had tickets at 4 pm so we could see Tokyo by day and by night.  In fact, we got a table in the cafe for a snack at sunset.

Tokyo at night
Tokyo at night. Can you see Jenny and me in the picture?

And of course, every tower has to have it’s night lighting

Tokyo Skytower lighted at night
Tokyo Skytower lighted at night

Nagasaki

Our first destination in Japan was Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was dropped.  To get there from Tokyo we flew into Fukuoka, the nearest commercial airport to Nagasaki.  The town closest to Fukuoka is Hakata so we spent a night there at Dukes Hotel, a block or so from the Hakata train station before continuing on a two hour train trip to Nagasaki.

Hanata
Hanata JR train station

Then on Wednesday morning we took the train to Nagasaki, a pretty coastal town that was the center of commerce and western influence for centuries.

On the two hour train ride we saw some modern scarecrows in the rice fiends… they appeared as workers in the field, with just the head above the crop, with baseball caps or head scarf, men and women, working in the fields.  With the fast train I was only able to catch a couple, but there were many around some fields.

scarecrow
The modern scarecrow looked just like workers in the field.

Ground Zero and the museum were a short tram ride from the train station where we stayed in a very nice JR hotel right in the station.

Nagasaki was the “alternate” site for the second atomic bomb (the primary site, Kokura, was overcast with clouds and smoke).  The bomb was dropped on a munitions factory in a valley, rather than the city and harbor as planned, so the damage was confined by geography, but it was still enough to bring an end to the war.

Nagasaki bomb site
Map of the Nagasaki bomb site  1: Peace Statue, 2: Fountain of Peace, 3: Ground Zero, 4: Bomb Museum.  Across the street (down on the map) are the city athletic fields – baseball, rugby, soccer, track and field, tennis, softball, and archery.

Ground Zero, or the hypocenter, has an obelisk to mark the spot, and a symbolic tomb.  There are countless open but full water bottles on the tomb, like flowers. Reportedly it  is because the dying people were frantic for water (even though it was not good for them).

Ground zero monument
Ground zero monument. The blast occurred 500 meters (1600 feet) above the obelisk. There is an empty tomb in front of it that has microfilm records of those who died.

Not far from ground zero is the remnant of the Urakami Cathedral.  Urakami was an area of Nagasaki where the Christians “went underground” for the 200+ years that Christianity was prohibited in Japan.  In early 1900s they emerged, continued to live in that area, and built the largest church in Asia – their Cathedral, only 500 meters from what became ground zero.  It is estimated that 10,000 of the 15,000 Christians there were killed by the bomb.

Urakami Cathedral
The cathedral immediately after the blast

As they rebuilt the Cathedral the remnants became unstable, so a portion was reinforced and moved near ground zero.

Urakami Cathedral
Remnant of Urakami Cathedral, moved near ground zero

Ground zero was originally at river level, but today is about 6 feet above the river.  Rubble from the blast – trash and factory debris – made up that extra “altitude.” When they rebuilt the river bank, they excavated, and made a display of what they found, behind glass, from the original burned stones up to the current ground level.

Debris at Ground Zero
Debris created by the blast near ground zero, behind a glass window where they excavated to rebuild the stream bank.

All around Ground Zero, and in the Atomic Bomb Museum, were chains of folded paper cranes, many made by school children.  The tradition of folding 1,000 cranes and your wish will come true has become a symbol of hope and peace.

Paper Cranes
Folded paper cranes, as a symbol of hope and peace
Paper Cranes
The paper cranes were “everywhere” in large number, apparently by different school groups.

One of the exhibits of the Atomic bomb museum was this wall clock, stopped at 11:02, the time of the bomb blast. There were also the usual exhibits of melted glass bottles and cement melted into glass.

clock
Clock stopped at 1102, the time of the bomb blast

This is a reproduction of Fat Man, the Nagasaki atomic bomb.  It was yellow, and the black color was a tar-based sealant where the bomb was assembled.  Note the fins above it – since the bomb was almost 11 feet long, 5 feet in diameter, and weighted 10,300 pounds (limited by the capacity of the aircraft), testing found that the fins collapsed making the drop erratic – until they came up with this design.

Fat boy bomb
Nagasaki “Fat Man” bomb reproduction

They had a cut-away view of the bomb in the museum.  The core in the center (red) was plutonium, 3.6 inches in diameter, weighing 13.6 pounds.  Later analysis indicated that only 1 gram (1/28 ounce) was converted to energy – the rest was “wasted” in this early bomb design.  A total of 120 of this type bombs were built before it became obsolete about 1950.

Open view of Fat Man bomb
Fat Man had explosives surrounding the nuclear core. The explosion compressed the core and started the reaction

The Hiroshima bomb was different technology, like a gun shooting one pellet of material into another.  “Thin man” was not successful plutonium technology, but led to “Little Boy” which worked with Uranium.  It was only 28 inches in diameter, still 10 1/2 feet long, and weighed 9,700 pounds.  Overall 26 were built before 1950.

Nagasaki Martyrs

Closer to the train station we encountered a memorial to the “Nagasaki Martyrs.” In 1597 the Japanese government wanted to remove outside influences, and banned Christianity.  Not all the Christians left or gave up their religion, so 26 from Osaka and Kyoto were walked the 500 miles to Nagasaki, were there were many Christians.  On arrival, all 26 were crucified on the hill where this memorial stands, in the presence of the other Christians in Nagasaki.

Martyrs if Hiroshima
A recent monument on the hill where the 26 martyrs were crucified. Behind the memorial is a church dedicated to their memory.

The younger two on the right were 12 and 13 years old, and the younger man on the left was 14 years old.  6 were missionaries, most were Japanese Christians.  Over the next couple centuries, hundreds of other Christians were crucified, beheaded, or burned, until Christianity was finally allowed again.

Summary

We really enjoyed Nagasaki – nice town, nice handling of the atom bomb.  However, is is a LONG was from the usual sights in Tokyo and central Japan.  I doubt if we will return there.

Shinkansen Bullet Train

We spent enough time on the Bullet Trains that I started to notice some differences with regular trains, and confirmed them when I returned.  There are so many “gee whiz” facts, that I decided to summarize them here.

There are many different Shinkansen lines operated by the 5 separate companies of the Japan Railways Group.

Shinkansen trains
JR East lineup of the different Shinkansen trains in 2012. They look fast just standing still.

Japan is extremely hilly, so a fast train has to go through mountains, not up and down or around the hills.  It seems like half of each trip is in tunnels. Actually not half, but a lot of time is in tunnels.

The train is so fast that there are few if any grade crossings (flashing lights and dropped barriers).  Most of the track is elevated.

The track is wider gauge – actually the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches that is standard in the United States, rather than the 3 feet 6 inch gauge used elsewhere in Japan.  This creates more stability; the demonstration of the better stability and safety has led to other countries copying the wider gauge.  Why the odd 4′ 8 1/2″ size? Arguments go back to with width of ruts, based on the width of axles of horse drawn wagons, which arguably is the width of two horse’s butts, back to Roman times.

The thing I actually noticed first, was that the insulators on the Shinkansen overhead power lines were far larger than on the regular train lines.  I was right.  The bullet trains use 25,000 volts AC (60 Hz) while the regular trains use 1,500 volts DC.  Each axle is powered rather than having a heavy locomotive pulling the train, thus it can accelerate faster leaving a station.

The station stops that I timed were from 60-90 seconds.  The trains are from 10 to 16 cars, carrying over 1,300 passengers. At peak times there can be as many as 13 trains per hour in each direction.  Despite monsoons and earthquakes, their overall average delay from schedule was 54 seconds, but the best year the delay was only 18 seconds.

The cars are air sealed so the pressure doesn’t change when entering tunnels at high speed.

In 60 years of operation there have been no fatalities caused the the railroad, and only one due to a passenger getting caught in the door. There have been several suicides from people jumping in front of or out of a train.  There is even an earthquake sensor that quickly stops the train when an earthquake is sensed.

Japan 2017

Our Trip 6 of 2017 – August 23-30 – was back to Japan.  We love the country and it has been 4 years since our last visit. We also wanted to see Nagasaki – the target of the second atomic bomb – (we have been to Hiroshima), and Kanazawa, one of the historic craft cities that caught Jenny’s eye. This is Charlie’s 5th trip to Japan, and Jenny’s 4th.

Be sure to follow the links below to Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Kanazawa for the full story and pictures.

Our first destination was Nagasaki at the southern tip of Japan.  We decided to fly, since we would be arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo, and there are bargain flights from there.  But there is no commercial airport in Nagasaki.  The closest “large” airport is at Fukuoka, a 2 hour train ride away from Nagasaki.  After Tuesday night in Hakata (close to the Fukuoka airport, and near the train station to Nagasaki) we spent Wednesday and Thursday in Nagasaki.

Shinkensen train
Either front of back end of the train we took (they are the same). It is the “pilot compartment” but not the engine, since each axle has it’s own motor.

Friday was largely spent on the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” (up to 200 mph) from Nagasaki back to Tokyo. Saturday and Sunday included a visit to the Edo museum and Tokyo Sky Tree with our friends in the Shinjukuu area of Tokyo.

Then on Monday we took the Shinkansen train a couple hours to spend a day (and night) in Kanazawa on Monday and Tuesday, August 28-29, before returning to Tokyo for a night before returning home to Texas on Wednesday August 30.

The long legs of our trip were in Premium Economy, from Los Angeles to Tokyo on American Airlines, and returning from Tokyo to Dallas-Fort Worth on Japan Airlines. It is an interesting experiment, with space and service between coach and business class, that we will try again.

In summary, it was a great trip to Japan, but we tried too many things, too far apart, including 5 different hotels in 8 nights.

You can also read about our 2013 trip to Tokyo and our 2006 trip to Osaka.

Telecomm in Japan

Preparing for our next trip to Japan (the first since we have unlocked cell phones), I figured I would research the options.  What SIM card should I buy?

Oops, in Japan only residents can have a cell phone with voice and SMS text message service.  And even though you can use Google Maps, you cannot download them in advance before you leave home, or through WiFi from your hotel room. Suddenly a data plan looks very important.

Do I have to do anything?

AT&T Pay Per Use:  Voice calls placed and received $3 per minute, Data $2.05 per megabyte, Text Message sent $.50 each, Picture and video message sent $1.30 each, messages received at domestic rates.  This may be useful for emergencies, but is frightfully expensive for routine use.

AT&T “International Day Pass” at $10 per day includes international unlimited voice calls to/from the United States and within the country you are visiting, but not to other countries.  Unlimited text to anywhere in the world.  Data comes from your domestic contract limits. For $10 per day, it may be a bargain for quick trips, or while in transit.  You are only charged for days actually used, but beware that apps running in the background that may trigger the daily fee.

The AT&T “Passport” has several plans.  Each is for 30 days, but can be automatically renewed as long as you want.

  • The Basic plan is $40, with voice calls to/from anywhere at $1 per minute, unlimited text (including pictures) and 200 MB data (overage is $.25 per megabyte).  Unlimited access to AT&T WiFi Hotspots, but we have never found any, nor are they recommended on travel forums.
  • The Silver plan is $60 per month, with voice calls at $.50 per minute, 300 MB data (overage is $.20 per megabyte) and similar text and WiFi.
  • The Gold plan is $120 per month, with  voice calls at $.35 per minute, 800 mb of data (overage at .15 per megabyte) and similar text and WiFi

Other telephone providers presumably have similar plans.

Data only in Japan

If you cannot buy a Japanese SIM card with voice service, what can you do? There are many data applications that provide voice telephone (and message) services.  Skype is well known and comes on many devices.  Apple Facetime runs on the data rather than the voice phone network. Whatsapp provides text and voice, and is popular in many countries, using the data network. Since you can convert you voice needs to data, the question is how to get the data.

Pocket WiFi Router
PocketWiFi
Pocket WiFi Router for up to 10 users, rented from Japan Rail

A recent solution is “WiFi in the Pocket,” sometimes jokingly called “MyFi.” This is a cell-phone size device that automatically connects to the Japanese data network (also available in other countries), and provides WiFi Service to up to 10 devices.  One vendor is Japan Rail Pass (the same folks that offer train tickets); rental cost is US$54 for 5 days, up to US$144 for 30 days (they can be purchased for much less, but this price includes the network connection with unlimited data).  Pick it up at your arrival airport or hotel, and mail it back in the provided post paid envelope before you leave.  The rechargeable battery operates for about 10 hours of continuous use.

Data SIM card
Japanese Data SIM
Japanese Data SIM card from eConnect, available on Amazon

There are several cell networks in Japan, with various coverages, but the one I hear most about for speed and coverage is Docomo.  One of the vendors of SIM cards on that network is eConnect, which sells the SIM cards on Amazon for $21.99.  You must download an app on your phone to activate the card – to start the 15 day timer for 1 gigabyte data in this case.  Other size SIM cards (Micro and Nano) and other amounts of data and time are available.  The reviews are largely great, except a few that “put it in and it didn’t work” (like SIM cards in some countries).  They probably didn’t download the eConnect app to activate the SIM card.

We ordered this SIM card and had great service in Japan.  You do have to activate it through the App – it automatically filled in the blanks we expected to type in – so we thought we were done.  A couple days later it stopped working since we had not properly registered our account (no big deal, but it took a few minutes before we were active again).

If you wait and buy the SIM card in Japan it is more expensive than on Amazon.