Sunday, May 1/Monday, May 2
I woke up bright and early, fed the dogs (who were subsequently going to be watched by the neighbors), and headed out the door with a large suitcase to catch the bus to the airport. I was leaving for a week-long trip to Japan, and my flight was leaving so early that I had to take the first bus of the day. However, when I arrived at the bus stop, I inspected my suitcase and discovered that TWO of the wheels had broken. Lovely. I didn't have time to walk all the way back home and repack in a different suitcase, so I was stuck with it for the trip.
Fortunately, I didn't have to drag the suitcase far once I arrived at the airport, and I soon had it checked in for my journey on Air Canada. It was my first time taking this particular airline, since usually I would fly direct via JAL (or Delta before that, when they still flew direct out of SFO). Since this was kind of a short notice trip (planned only two months in advance, rather than the usual year), I went with a cheap ticket and a layover in Vancouver.
As it turned out, Vancouver has a nice airport. At SFO, all arriving international passengers have to pick up their checked suitcases and cart them through customs before re-checking them on to their final destination, even if they are traveling overseas. In Vancouver, however, I didn't have to pick up my suitcase at all. I walked off my plane, went down the hallway, spoke briefly to a single customs officer in a lone booth, and went directly from there to the gate area. No further inspection. Nice!
The international terminal in Vancouver Airport is decorated with an under-the-sea look. There are entire schools of fish dangling from the ceiling, and there's even an artificial river leading to a huge aquarium built into a wall, for waiting passengers' viewing pleasure.
My flight from Vancouver to Tokyo was pleasant enough. Air Canada has good leg room and decent meals, though their entertainment selection was disappointing. I arrived at Narita and got through customs without a hitch. Then I went to withdraw money from the Japan Post ATM, which is what I've been doing on all my trips for the past several years...and my card was rejected. I tried again with a lower amount, wondering if my withdrawal limit had been lowered, but still no luck. It was a good thing that I still had some US bills in my wallet that I could exchange for train fare to get from the airport to the city, because the train I was taking didn't accept credit cards.
I made it to the room I was sharing with wednesday_10_00, where she had already dropped off her stuff and had left to go shopping. Unlike all our previous stays, where we found places in or near the Sunshine building, this time we were on the Metropolitan side of the station. I was too tired to do much more than pick up some food at the nearby convenience store and call it a night.
I did, however, have to stay awake long enough to contact the online help service for my debit card to find out why my card wasn't working in the ATMs. The customer service person verified that I did have a travel alert set on my account, so the withdrawal wasn't being blocked as suspicious. She told me that the machine probably wasn't compatible with MasterCard (which I knew that it was, because I used the same type of machine the previous year with no problems) and to try a different machine.
It was surprisingly noisy outside the room. There was loud music and amplified karaoke. At first we wondered if the area was noisy all the time, but as it turns out, there was a large Oktoberfest celebration being held in a nearby park every night that week (which was Golden Week, a week with numerous national holidays).
Oktoberfest in May? Oh, Japan.
Needless to say, this was not conducive to restful sleep, particularly for a couple of jet-lagged visitors.
Tuesday, May 3
While the rest of the group had adventures elsewhere, I dedicated the day to shopping locally. I walked through the station and out to the Sunshine building, where no stores was open yet, since I was still early. There were, however, some ATMs, so I tried a couple. Still no luck. I was about to despair of ever getting cash when I decided to try backtracking to a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store, where they had a couple of ATMs capable of handling international cards. To my relief, their machine worked. I suspect the problem is that the other machines were not yet enabled for the new security chip in the debit card, while the 7-Eleven machines advertised that they were.
I went next to Seiyu for some food, where they had some really good chestnut/kabocha croquettes. After I finished, I went to line up outside the Disney store, where they were releasing a special limited item that a co-worker wanted me to pick up for him. They were prepared for a crowd of people to buy this item, but as of the time they opened, there were only three of us there to get it; everyone else was lined up to buy park tickets. Maybe more people bought it later.
After getting the Disney merchandise, I finished off the rest of my day by shopping in Ikebukuro, with a brief trip to Shinjuku in the afternoon to visit the Yellow Submarine game store and another Disney store branch.
Wednesday, May 4
I was originally planning to shop Akihabara this day, but I decided to postpone that and join everyone else for a trip to Shibuya. After spending some time scouting out coin lockers, we went to Shibuya, where I continued working on finding the items on my shopping list at Animate and Mandarake. I also made a brief stop at the Disney store branch there, which has an impressive decorative entrance. (It was also extremely crowded.) Then we hit a department store building that had some shops with special anime merchandise and took a brief rest on some benches shaped like peeled potatoes.
We concluded our shopping in Shibuya and moved on to the nearby area of Harajuku. Upon exiting the station, we decided to head down Takeshita Street, possibly the most crowded street I've ever encountered in Tokyo. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see that the entire length of the street shows nothing but the tops of people's heads. There is no actual street visible.
We pushed our way through the street (thankfully dropping our purchases off at a coin locker along the way) and out the other side, where we stopped for a snack consisting of long potatoes. The long potatoes are made rather like churros, except instead of batter, they are made from mashed potatoes squeezed out into hot oil in a deep fryer. They are then sprinkled with salt and drizzled with assorted toppings. I elected to have the garlic (aka "galic" as it says on the sign) flavored ones. Yummy!
We continued on for a bit more shopping, survived the trip back to Takeshita Street to reclaim our packages from the coin locker, and returned home for the night.
Thursday, May 5
I left early to line up for the Tokyo Game Market. I got to Big Sight at about 8am, which was 2 hours before the doors opened, and there were a substantial number of people already in line in front of me. (Not as many as Comiket, to be sure, but probably a couple hundred.) I had already prioritized the list of things I wanted to buy, so it only took me about an hour to wander the hall and pick up everything. I even had time for a bit of browsing and spontaneous purchases. I ended up with a small yet varied haul of board games.
After leaving Big Sight, I made my way across town to Nakano, where I waited for the rest of the group. We spent a fair amount of time shopping in the large mall there before reassembling. We made a brief stop at the game store Sugorokuya in Kouenji and then had our traditional supper at the vegetarian Indian restaurant Nataraj.
Friday, May 6
Disney! We headed out early to go to Tokyo Disneyland, which had chosen Easter as its springtime theme. When I lived in Japan, very few people knew anything at all about Easter. As a foreign teacher, it was part of my job to teach about holidays from my home country, but Easter was a tough one because it always falls either during Japan's high school spring break or at the very beginning of the new school year, at which time the students have orientation and other things interrupting classes, and frivolous items like foreign holidays get pushed pretty far down the list. From the state of TDL, however, it seems as though at least the concept of Easter bunnies with decorated eggs has made some headway.
My first purchase there was the R2-D2 popcorn bucket (filled with soy sauce flavored popcorn, which was pretty good). We were relatively fortunate in that the day was overcast and slightly chilly, which helped keep the crowds down. We never waited in line more than 25 minutes for any ride, which is rather impressive. I should have worn something warmer, though, as I was regretting not having brought my sweatshirt by the end of the day. I did make some nice souvenir purchases there, and I got a Pooh "hunny" pot that I figure I can use for actual honey (once my bees start making some).
Saturday, May 7
I began my Saturday morning by watching the first showing of the latest Meitantei Conan movie, which had a particularly epic plot to celebrate being the 20th movie in the franchise. (Yikes!) After the movie ended, I met up with mereflair and her husband for a sightseeing trip to Asakusa. We ate some convenience store food while sitting on some rocks under a tree, then wandered around shopping for souvenirs. I ended up having to buy a new handbag, because the thread holding the zipper on mine came unraveled.
After departing Asakusa, they headed back to their room while I continued on for some shopping in Akihabara. I visited two board game shops and Animate, though sadly (or perhaps luckily?) I didn't find much to buy. That evening the whole group got together at our regular place for an okonomiyaki dinner. We followed that up with a trip to a nearby game center for some purikura, but it seems that the booths have changed their focus in the past few years. They used to be zany fun; now they mainly focus on glam shots with funky makeup effects.
Sunday, May 8
I spent my last full day in Japan traveling to Yokohama to meet up with my cousin, who is currently living in the area. We picked up some lunch in the basement of the department store attached to the station, then wandered around town. We started at a park on the water, where we came across a crazy sculpture of a fruit tree. After that, we walked across town in search of a shrine which we could see on the map I had picked up at the station's tourist information office. As is the case with many things in Japan, you may know where it is on a map, but finding the road that leads to it is another story entirely. We eventually found the right road and visited the shrine. As a bonus, on our way back we also came across a nearby temple, which was quite colorfully decorated.
While walking back to the station, I was also treated to the sight of this helpful warning sign, which cautioned me to Please Watch for Pigeon Poop. Then it was back to Ikebukuro for an evening of packing.
Monday, May 9
We crammed all of our suitcases into some coin lockers at the station for a couple hours while we walked around for our final shopping. Then it was time to drag all the bags to the nearby Metropolitan Hotel to catch the bus to the airport. I only had one checked suitcase (rather than two), but it was still a bit of a struggle due to the broken wheels. We played digital Splendor to occupy us on the bus. I was able to check in and get through security without any problems, and I slept most of the flight back.
Speaking of the flight, the plane was noticeably empty each way. I was in an aisle seat, and the middle seat next to me was empty both directions. On the return trip, one guy in front of me was alone in the center section and was able to lie down across three seats to sleep. In these days of packed flights and no space, it was quite unusual.
My trip through Vancouver was relatively easy, though I did have to explain about my purchases to pre-clearance customs, because I was bringing back a hefty amount of merchandise. None of it involved any jewelry or designer bags, though, so I got off without paying any import duty. Upon my arrival at SFO, I took a taxi home, where I was greeted by two excited dogs (who had gotten into serious mischief while I was away).
I had quite a lot of house work and yard work and other things to catch up on after my vacation. The garden needed tending, and I spent some time replanting a few things that either hadn't sprouted or had gotten damaged after sprouting. The weeds in some areas of the yard are out of control, but I would need a solid 2-3 days to clear them up, and I have too many other items on the agenda to devote that much time to weeding.
I added another box to my hive, filled with frames that the bees can use to store honey. They haven't started using it yet (it's still pretty early in the season, and they're concentrating on raising more baby bees), but eventually it will be their winter food storage.
One of these days, I will actually start unpacking...