Getting settled in Utsunomiya

We got up Monday morning, took the free shuttle bus back to the airport from the hotel, and used the money they gave us to buy bus tickets from there to Utsunomiya station.  My card didn't work at the ATMs, so we had to use Jamin's for everything big, and I'll have to pay him back when I get my card working.

Here is the first shot of Sky Tree from the bus.  It was pretty cloudy all day.
We arrived at the station a little before 1:00, and since we weren't supposed to meet up with Charlie until 4:30, we decided we'd walk there and take our time looking at things, eating lunch, and so on.  We briefly stopped at a large shrine along the main road.
Stairs up to the main part of the shrine.  It's pretty striking in the middle of a busy city street.

Jamin looking at the large torii in an open space in front of the stairs.
We climbed up some side stairs instead of the main ones, but they worked around to the same point.  There were a few different buildings up there, but this one seemed most interesting to me.

A long line of torii leading to a shrine that had a small table with offerings to a local god, I suppose.  It looked like a few people had left some food, including convenience store bread.

There were I believe four kitsune (fox) statues just outside the front doorway, three of which had red bandanas tied around them.
I didn't take many more pictures today, unfortunately.  It's mostly just been typical Japanese city streets, which I've photographed enough times in the past, I think.  However, Jamin and I spotted this as we were walking.

a photograph of a restaurant named "Rice Reaf" (Leaf with an R)
Somewhat unfortunate Engrish, though definitely not the worst I've seen.
The shrine didn't take too long to see, so we went the opposite way down a side street towards some castle ruins, I think.  The maps said that, but we didn't make it that far.  Instead, we saw a shopping arcade on Orion street and decided to walk through looking for food and interesting stores.  We stopped to eat at a Matsuya, where I got a "hamburg" steak (more like meatloaf) and egg meal, and Jamin got some gyuudon (beef bowl - beef on rice), to which he added a raw egg, stirring it in.  I've tried similar, but didn't care for the nearly raw egg, as you may recall if you read my blog from two years ago.

After the meal, we went to a store in the arcade that was all anime-based goods.  It was actually several stores in one building, each on separate floors.  We looked around for most of the remaining time there, but didn't end up buying anything.  I might go back later for something though.  They had lots of used figures for good deals, music CDs, DVDs, and a bunch of doujinshi and other books.  For manga, though, you can't beat Book Off's prices, so I didn't even look through them here.

As it was getting close to time to meet up, we left and walked the remaining two miles or so to the school where Charlie teaches.  I didn't have an actual map, so we were relying on reading the signs and talking to people to get directions.  We found what I was pretty sure was the school wall, and a teacher standing at a nearby corner, so I asked for directions to the specific area I wanted in order to confirm, and even though I was the one asking, he immediately turned to Jamin to respond.  The same thing happened when we talked to the crossing guard in front of the main gate, and, really, every time we've talked to anyone so far.  It's already getting a little annoying, but the real problem is that because he's here, everyone assumes he speaks Japanese and talks at full speed without enunciating, making it harder on me trying to actually understand.  I generally get it, though.  Just not used to hearing the language like that quite yet.  Well, I shouldn't say that.  Many people spoke to me as if I were fluent during previous visits (probably in hopes I was so they didn't have to worry about it).  But now that I've got an Asian with me, they assume I'm not.

We met Charlie outside the school, after giving up waiting for him inside because we weren't quite sure where inside we would see him.  I was actually surprised they let us in, but it was after class hours, with just the clubs still around, so I guess they weren't too worried.  By this point, it had started raining enough to warrant an umbrella, and that kept up for most of the rest of the day.

He led us down the street to his apartment, where we dropped off most of our things (including my camera) and took a short break before going out to the stores in the area.  We first went to a Hard Off/Book Off (same company, different types of products).  The Hard Off was for old hardware.  We got an ethernet cable to use with Jamin's mini wireless router he brought, and they also had a bunch of old games and game systems, really old CRT TVs, oscilloscope, and other cool stuff.  I ended up buying a cheap PS2 game (Memories Off Duet, a visual novel I know only by name), and a few random manga for practice later (one of which turned out to also be a currently-airing anime, which I didn't even realize until after I bought it because I didn't check the title).

After that, we stopped by the supermarket and got some groceries.  I mostly picked up non-perishables that I could eat for snacks and light breakfasts, and an old karaage bentou (fried chicken with rice and some small side dishes) for dinner.  We spent the rest of the evening talking and making plans for the next few days, and went to bed a little after midnight.

We're now waiting for our luggage to arrive.  Charlie left for work a few minutes ago.  As soon as we get our luggage, get cleaned up and repacked, then we're heading out to Tokyo for a few days to tour around Akihabara and Asakusa, possibly among other places.  I won't be bringing my laptop, so no more blog posts at least until we come back Friday night.

The longest trip yet

I left home around 6:15 this morning, picked up my friend Jamin, and headed to the airport.  We arrived a little after 7:00 for a 9:50 flight to New York, made it through security very quickly, and sat around the airport for a couple hours before leaving.  That first flight was short and pretty uneventful.  However, they only gave us two of our three boarding passes when we checked in, and told us we'd have to get the third later.  We also had no gate number for our second flight.

When we arrived at JFK in New York, I asked someone where the next flight was, and she directed us to the terminal on the exact opposite side of the airport, so we walked and rode our way there, arriving just a few minutes before they started boarding.  We had to get out and go through security again in between, since we were changing terminals, and I had a bunch of water left in my water bottle, so I had to quickly down the rest of it to get on, then refilled it before we left.  We also got called over to the Air China desk, where they had our boarding passes ready for the rest of the trip.  I had been worried about having to pick them up in Beijing.

That second flight was way too long.  13 1/2 hours to get to Beijing, and just about everyone on the plane was Chinese, so I couldn't really understand much.  I did at least get to watch the new Muppets movie, but it was really hard to hear.  As for the food, they served two meals, which were actually pretty good.  Chinese food, which I prefer over Japanese in general.

Chicken and rice with cabbage, I think.  Plus some basic fruits, rolls (I got an extra one when they offered), yogurt, and some strange but actually pretty good corn-and-something mix for desert.
My second meal, pork and fried rice.
Jamin got the beef noodles instead, but he thinks the rice would have been better.
The plane went through the arctic circle, pretty close to the north pole.  I've only gone through Alaska before, never that far north.

Here you can see our flight path around the halfway point.  Our time of arrival is n/a, so... we won't ever arrive?
We did finally land, and had to get out and walk through security again, before which I once again drank almost my whole water bottle, since I didn't need much of it during the flight.

Lines were pretty long.  Longer for those staying in China than those of us passing through.
Here comes the fun part.  We actually didn't have any real trouble getting around, since enough of the signs were in English, and the security people spoke well enough too.  We got to the gate, though, and when I looked outside, instead of a plane, there was a bus.  Kind of amusing.  We got to rest a little bit (maybe 15-20 minutes) before boarding started, then lined up and squeezed into the bus with everyone else.  We'll call it practice for Tokyo's rush hour trains.  The bus drove us out onto the tarmac, past a bunch of planes, luggage cars, etc., into the middle of a big open space with our plane, where we climbed up the stairs and got on.  I haven't done that before; it's always been through the tubes that go directly from the airport to the plane.

Moving up to board the plane.
We noticed a few drops of rain on the windows shortly after boarding, and then they said that the flight would be delayed due to bad weather.  Fast forward two hours, after all the rain passes and night has fallen (and the kid in front of us had finished throwing his tantrum about not wanting to stay on the plane and his nose hurting - it was in Japanese so I didn't quite catch everything), and we finally start going to take off.  They'd already fed us our in-flight meal and shown a movie (that I didn't watch).

Last flight food picture for now.
This meal was Japanese style, which means some sort of seafood (octopus?) with packed rice, bitter beans and carrots with cold pork, and an pan, sweet red bean bread.  I managed to eat everything except the bitter one.  I don't know why Japanese people like their bitter, sour, and slimy foods so much.  The an pan was actually really good, though.

I kind of want to go to sleep, so I'll hurry this up.  We got to Japan, filled out the necessary paperwork, and made our way through the first security check up to the luggage carousel, and after only a couple minutes there, someone approached us with our names written on a large sheet of paper, and told us that our luggage didn't make the flight.  It got left behind in Beijing.  Hey, better than being left in New York.

Long story short, we talked to them at the counter for a while, gave them the information of where we'd be staying in Utsunomiya, and arranged for them to ship the luggage up to us.  It'll arrive the morning of the day after tomorrow.  They also gave us each 5000 yen to buy clothes and necessities to use in the meantime, and arranged a night at a hotel.  We had said we didn't have any hotel reservations, but planned to stay at the 9 Hours capsule hotel right at the airport.  Instead, they got us two rooms at Hotel Nikko Narita.  They said we each got a "single" room, which seemed pretty fancy already, but when we got here... wow.  This place is nice.  Way too big for one person's hotel room.  I mean, I've got two beds and four pillows.  And a couch and bench.
Pardon the pixellation and missing parts of the image.  I can't do iPhone panoramas perfectly yet.
As you can see, they also provided clothes for sleeping, and they had all the toiletries I was missing in the bathroom, including toothbrush and razor, so I don't think I'll really need to buy anything on my own with the money they gave us.  Probably use it for the bus/train fare tomorrow.

Here's another view that includes the bench as well.
After a shower and soak in the tub, I came out to write this up, and now will try to get some sleep.  I "slept" a lot on the last flight in particular, so I'm not all that tired, but I need to start adjusting, and check-out is no later than 11:00.

Tomorrow, we set off for Utsunomiya by whatever means are cheapest (we'll inquire at the bus/train ticket counters at the airport).  We're scheduled to meet Charlie outside his elementary school (he's an English teacher) at 4:30.

Once again, back to Japan

I've been working out a plan for the past several months to return to Japan yet again, and it's finally coming close to time. On the 30th of August, I'll be flying out with a friend to spend a month in Japan.  This time, I don't have any classes to take or tourguides to follow.  It's just us doing what we want to for a whole month.

For the first couple weeks, we'll be staying most of the time with the same friend I stayed with two years ago, only now we'll be in Utsunomiya instead of Yokkaichi.  We haven't nailed down all the details, but we do plan to visit Tokyo for a few days, as well as Nikko, and if we can manage them, Kyoto and Osaka.

For the last two weeks, I'll be instead staying with my brother's family on his vacation, after my friend returns to the U.S.  That will be mostly around Tokyo with Kyoto towards the end.  So this time, I'll be the tourguide.  The friend who lives there speaks and reads Japanese at a fairly high level which can help in the beginning, but the one coming with me only knows a little, and my brother's family knows none.  So by then, it will be up to me to handle all the foreign interactions.  All of them.  I'm a little nervous about that.

I'll definitely be maintaining this blog as much as I can while I'm gone, so look forward to it.  And in the meantime, Otakon is coming up as well, so I'll try to actually post some pictures this year.