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March 31, 2006

Imperial Palace - Tokyo

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Nuala somehow convinced me an early morning stroll around the Imperial Palace would be a good idea...and I am so glad that she did. This is one of the most popular jogging spots in Tokyo. And it is also a beautiful walk if you look at the palace instead of the road. If you are really focused, you can forget that you are in the middle of one of the world's largest cities.

We met at 7am at the Palace Hotel and started off. You should always go counter-clockwise when doing this. I am not sure why, but this is what most people do. It does help that you get the uphill part of the walk out of the way first, I guess. Here are a few shots of the moat and palace walls from the Kudanshita side...

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As you can see, it was a beautiful morning...a bit chilly, but not a cloud in the sky and the cherry blossoms along the way were in full bloom. And at 7am, there was not much traffic, so it was very quiet.

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This could be one of my favourite cherry blossom pictures...I cannot believe that it turned out so well. Too bad it was so early, as this would have been a good place to celebrate o-hanami with beer or sake. Maybe I will go back later...

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It only took an hour to walk around and that includes walking back from the palace to Akasaka/Roppongi. That is Nuala on the left below...I am on the right - not quite sure what I am doing in that picture, but it does prove I was there and not making it all up.

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Thanks Nuala!

Posted by Kirk at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)

March 30, 2006

Well, that's not so bad then...

More earthquake news!

The latest study on the potential impact of a major earthquake in Tokyo estimates 5,600 people would die in a 7.3 magnitude quake. This estimate, from the Tokyo Metropolitan government, is less than the 13,000 fatalities forecast by the central government.

Of course, a healthy dose of skepticism is probably required as the new lower estimate has been published even though we know now that some supposedly earthquake-resistant buildings have not been built to code. And the expected fatalities is less than the number that died in tiny Kobe when that city was hit in 1996.

The study also estimates 9,500 of the 14,500 high-rise elevators would be out of commission. Only 9,500??? Probably the last place I would want to be after an earthquake is geting into an elevator anyway, but I am lad to know that the option will be there.

Posted by Kirk at 02:37 PM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2006

A sunny afternoon in Odaiba

What better way to spend a sunny (pre-) spring day then go to Odaiba? Actually, no need to answer that.

Odaiba is a funny place. It is an island built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, which means that there is nothing old or historical to get in the way of development. As a result, it does not have the crowded feel of other parts of Tokyo. The downside, of course, is that it is the last place you want to be if there is a major earthquake!

You can get to Odaiba on the Yurikamome Monorail (¥370 from Shimbashi Station) or by water taxi from Hinode Pier. We took the monorail in both directions - you get nice views, especially when you are going over the Rainbow Bridge. You can also access Odaiba on the subway using the Rinkai Line, but I have no idea where that goes...it is just sort of there.

The prime attractions are the Palette Town/Venus Fort shopping center, which made a huge splash when it opened. It was positioned as an upscale shopping area at the time, but seems to be moving downmarket in the face of competition from new more easily accessible developments like Roppongi Hills, Marunouchi Building and Omotesando Hills. But, still good fun to walk around in.

We walked around the bayfront park (nice day for a stroll and not crowded at all!) first and had lunch at Kua'Aina, a Hawaiian hanmburger place (it is very good!). On the way, I got my first close-up view of the Statue of Liberty. The Tokyo version, I mean (see below). There is also a pictures of the Fuji TV building, which is easily identifiable from the rest of Tokyo (assuming the wall of new skyscrapers in Shiodome does not block your view).

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These are pictures of Tokyo from Odaiba (left) and a ship at Tokyo Port (right) taken from the Aomi Station.

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Posted by Kirk at 10:33 AM | Comments (0)

Cherry blossoms update

I am sure that a lot of bloggers are putting more effort into this than I am, but here is an update on the cherry blossoms anyway. Actually, I just liked these pictures and wanted to put them online.

These were taken on Sunday on Sakurazaka behind Ark Hills and the ANA Hotel. It looks like 40% of the blossoms had opened. Not many had fallen off the trees yet and with no rain so far, it should look pretty impressive when the trees reach full bloom.

The picture on the left is a close up of one of the branches, which gives you a good idea how far along we are. On the right, is an actual tree (!)...it will look even better as the week progresses.

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More to come...

Posted by Kirk at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

March 24, 2006

Early o-hanami this year?

It looks like an early start to the cherry blossoms this year. After lunch in Ark Hills today, we saw that the cherry trees on sakurazaka (cherry blossom slope) were well on their way to full bloom. It is amazing how these kind of things sneak up on you.

There has been a lot of controversy on the accuracy of forecasts over the last few years (for morer detail check the link below). It is important because convenience stores need to stock up on beer and sake (and food too, I guess) for the numerous cherry blossom viewing parties. And that means this guy's job can be very stressful. If you are in Japan, I hope you have made your plans already.

Posted by Kirk at 12:56 PM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2006

I finally have an iPod

It is awesome...how did I live without it?

I have converted seven CDs so far, and that only fills 25% of the capacity (I got the 2GB Nano)...the hard part will be clearing out the songs on those albums that I do not like.

Posted by Kirk at 05:18 PM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2006

Sleepy Yudanaka (湯田中)

I went to Yudanaka on Thursday afternoon - it was a quick trip, only twenty four hours. Because it takes three hours to get back and forth, it may sound short...but I like the train, so I did not mind at all.

Yudanaka is an onsen resort in the mountains near Nagano - it is the gateway to the Shiga Kogen ski area (home of the 1998 winter olympics!) and there is also a monkey hot springs (Jigokudani Yaenkoen - 地獄谷野猿公苑), which is why I went. To get there, you can take the Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano and transfer to the Nagaden Line for Yudanaka.

I stayed at Shimaya Ryokan, which I found through an Internet search. It is a nice place and you cannot beat the price (Y5,500/person). The owner speaks some English and was super helpful...he even gave me a ride to the monkey park on Friday morning (more on that later).

Here is a picture of the Ryokan sign (I took it from the window of my room) and the room itself (for the gossiping women in my office - notice there is only one futon).

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I was the ONLY GUEST that night, so I got a lot of attention from the owner. I tried to slip out and grab a bite to eat, but he pulled out all these brochures of where to eat. After letting me look at them for awhile, he told me to go around the corner to Yamaguchiya. In fact, he seemed to be insisting that I go there. So, I did.

It was a very old place - if you are looking for the traditional Japan, this is where you want to be. There were four old guys in the corner getting absolutely hammered, an old woman who apparently did all the cooking and serving, and me (reading a book).

I had breakfast the next morning at the inn...it was kind of creepy walking to the bath and the dining room and not seeing anyone...and headed off to the monkey park. Overnight it had started raining/snowing, so I was wondering whether to wait it out or not, but the inn's owner insisted I should go up then because it would be beautiful and the monkeys would be in the hot spring.

So, off we went. He could only give me a ride to the monkey onsen and not back as he would be driving to Tokyo later for his daugheer's college graduation, but he showed me where to catch the bus back to Yudanaka Station, so that was OK.

What he did not tell me at first was that there was a 1.6km walk up the mountain to get to the actual place. This is what I saw when he dropped me off. That was a bit disturbing because the snow was coming down harder now and it was much windier than it had been in town.

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In fact, I had serious doubts about wanting to see the monkeys once I started walking. Of course, by that time it was too late to turn around. And, of course it was worth it. This is a sign directing me to the park...I am not sure what the buildings are in the picture on the right and I did not see anyone up and about when I walked past.

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And here are some pictures of the monkeys! Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and I was so cold that I could not get very many steady pictures. It did not help that the monkeys seemed to sense when I would take a picture and move as soon as I shot the picture. I think I took 30 pictures...these two are the best. (there is a live webcam here that can give you an idea of what is like now...much nicer!)

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And then it was back down the mountain...I think there must be an easier way because there were three-four people at the park when i was there, but no one had been using the trail I was on and I saw some of the same people at the train station an hour later even though they had never passed me. I might have to have another chat with the owner of the inn!

I got to the bus stop just in time to see the bus heading off towards the station...not good as it only runs once an hour. I figured I could get a coffee somewhere and wait, but as I looked around there did not seem to be anything open. I walked farther down the hill as the snow turned into sleet and saw a museum/restaurant, which would do the trick for me. But somehow...at 10am in the middle of nowhere...the restaurant was "reserved" and no seats were available.

Eventually, I asked the museum staff to call me a taxi and I went back to Yudanaka to catch my train. I had the best cup of coffee ever in this coffee shop, while I waited an hour for the next train.

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That was Yudanaka. I was completely soaked so I did not stop anywhere on the way back to Tokyo. Good trip.

Posted by Kirk at 10:17 AM | Comments (3)

March 17, 2006

A day of two halves?

I am back from a quick (overnight) trip to Yudanaka. I will write about it in detail and post more pics, but thought I could tease you a bit first. The picture on the left was taken in the mountains above Yudanaka at 945am...on the right is the view from my balcony at 3pm. Snowstorm in the morning - spring in the afternoon...amazing where a three-hour train ride will take you.

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Posted by Kirk at 05:40 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2006

Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort

I am back in Tokyo now...whew. It only took 66 minutes on the train and I slept most of the way. What a shock: I left cold weather and snow on the ground and returned to...cold weather and rain.

Anyway, yesterday I went up to Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort. It is amazing how easy it is to get around that town, probably because there is nothing else there. I walked about 0.5km, bought a ticket on the gondola and off I went.

It was beautiful as you can see...here are some pictures. Looking at them now, I cannot believe I was just there 90 minutes ago!

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This last picture is taken from the gondola station at the top, looking down on Echigo Yuzawa and the rest of the valley. The buildings towards the bottom are the town itself - there are other ski resorts as you move down the valley.

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It was not very crowded on Wednesday and Thursday, but this morning was crazy. I could not believe how many people got off the train between 7-8am...that was by far the busiest time of the whole trip. I am not sure I was ready to come back...then again with a 140 minute round trip, there is no reason I can't get back there soon.

Posted by Kirk at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2006

Hatago Isen - Echigo Yuzawa

This is where I am staying during my few days in Echigo Yuzawa. It is called Hatago Isen and it is a fantastically good ryokan (Japanese inn). They renovated the place in October and it is really impressive.

You can see the entrance in the picture below along with a shot of my room.

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The baths are on the top floor of the building and look out at the mountains across the valley. The only possible downside to the place is that the train station is right across the street (then again, it makes it easy to find!), which you see when you stand up in the bath.

There is also a very good kissaten in the lobby - the coffee is excellent. When I got here yesterday, I walked around trying to find a coffee place before I checked in...I felt slightly ridiculous when I finally entered the ryokan and realised the best coffee in town was at the place I was staying. Ooops.

I should thank the people at We Love Snow, who have put together a website that makes travel to Echigo Yuzawa very easy for foreigners that do not speak Japanese. Hmmm - wonder what their neighbours think about that. In any case, that is how I found this place and why I decided to spend a few days here. (if you ever see this...thanks!)

I took some pictures from the mountain - will post those later.

Posted by Kirk at 05:50 PM | Comments (1)

Sunny Yuzawa

I woke up early and had a bath already. I did not set my keitai alarm right, but I went to sleep so early that it did not matter.

As you can see it is beautiful outside this morning. It was cloudy when I got here yesterday, but the sun is shining now...looks great. Actually, I had to do a bit of work to get rid of the rental car company sign and the parking lot before I posted this - selective perception, but you get the idea.

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I will go take some pictures before I have my breakfast. Then we will see what the day brings.

Posted by Kirk at 07:28 AM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2006

Echigo Yuzawa

How is this for a change? I am in Echigo Yuzawa for a few days. I arrived this afternoon, escaping the warm weather in Tokyo just in time.

It must have been 16 degrees when I left there - So, I suffered through a miserable week in London and ten days of terrible weather in Tokyo, only to run off to the mountains at the first sign of any decent weather? Well, I booked in advance and bad timing is the story of my life.

In any case, it is nice up here...cold, but it is supposed to be. And very relaxing. I checked into the hotel around 4pm, took a bath, and sat in the coffee shop downstairs and read my book. It is very quiet and calm. In fact, I am torn between reading some more or watching a DVD now...exciting life, right?

But it is very good to get away from Tokyo for a few days so I can get my head on straight. I am here until Friday - let's hope I can do it by then.

Here are a few pictures of Echigo Yuzawa that I took when I got off the train. The first one shows the mountains behind the town - these are bunny slopes for kids to practice skiing on. The second is a giant snowman...and, no, I did not make it. That big concrete thing in the background is the tracks for the bullet train (shinkansen). Did you know it only takes 77 minutes to get here from Tokyo? Amazing!

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I will put some pictures of the ryokan I am staying at along with an Internet link tomorrow. This is a fantastic place and I want you to be jealous.

Posted by Kirk at 08:04 PM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2006

Coffemaker success?

I finally have a coffeemaker!

Of course, I made it more difficult than it should have been, including three trips to the electonics store over two months (two this weekend). But I have one.

I went shopping with Yoko on Saturday morning in Akihabara and bought a Delonghi espresso maker. I was quite excited about that. But I could not figure out how it worked - maybe I should learn Japanese and I could read the instructions?

But having the useless (to me) machine in my kitchen made me realise that I only bought an espresso machine because that is what I was using before. So, I went today and bought a regular drip coffeemaker. Why didn't I do that in the first place? Good question.

Posted by Kirk at 02:12 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2006

China Cafe Eight and Shanghai Bar

Despite the bad weather, I have been going out most nights. Last night, I met Chiaki, Shiho and Ikuko for dinner at China Cafe Eight in Roppongi (across from the Grand Hyatt). The food was suprisingly good and very cheap, which would explain why it was almost impossible to get a table without a reservation.

The interior design is...interesting. I won't ruin the experience for you by describing it here, but Roppongi is a good location for it.

Keeping with the China theme, we popped over to Shanghai Bar for a few more drinks afterward. Not much to say about this - expensive drinks, and moderate service. You can't beat the location, however.

Posted by Kirk at 03:47 PM | Comments (0)

Ochanomizu, Yushima and Ueno

The weather in Tokyo has been truly miserable this week. It was not what I was hoping for after spending a week in cold, wet England.

I did manage to get out a bit yesterday, however, and the rain held off long enough for me to wander from Ochanomizu to Sendagi, pick up some senbei and get back home.

This is a picture from Ochanomizu looking east along the train tracks to Akihabara. The water on the bottom left is Kandagawa, although it looks more like a canal. It is a small example of how crowded Tokyo seems sometimes.

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From there, I walked north towards the old part of town (shitamachi)...I really have been spending too much time exploring this part of town, but it was very close and I had nothing better to do. Just across the river from Ochanomizu is Yushima and I walked by this temple. Not being someone who can resist a picture of yet another temple, I had to stop and get this shot. It was very colorful and well maintained...I imagine it would look fantastic if it was sunny!

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I also walked a bit through Ueno Park, but what really caught my eye was this building, the Hotel Sofitel, which I assume is not related in any way to the European chain. It struck me as being the one sure place I would NOT want to be when the big earthquake finally comes. I got vertigo just imagining what it would be like up there. Scary.

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I took a bunch of other pictures, but they did not seem blog-worthy. I may put them in the photo album later. Maybe.

Posted by Kirk at 03:33 PM | Comments (1)