Saturday, May 10, 2014

Crazy Japan Trip - Part 1

The highly anticipated Japan trip has started! It took a few back and forths to figure out what which rail pass we wanted to buy. My friend in Japan has all variations of the rail pass and a group of people are going on a Hokkaido trip. Apparently this week is Golden Week in Japan where a few public holidays line up to form a nearly week long holiday. But my roommate wasn't so thrilled at the this whole city hoping business (and actually neither was I at first) so we ended up deciding to split up. I got the national Japan Rail Pass while my roommate and her boyfriend got only the Kansai Area Pass.

We still went to the HK airport together. I was trying to finish up some work and got back with just enough time to shower and eat something before we headed out. I packed a few days ago and managed to fit 6 days' worth of clothes and other essentials into a backpack. We checked in at Terminal 2 but actually flew out of a gate in Terminal 1. It was nice that they actually got a gate instead of one of those shuttle bus things. But maybe it's because the flight is late at night. We left at nearly 1am. As consistent with any other discount airlines, legroom was lacking and no food was served. They left the cabin lights on the whole time, which was unexpected for a red eye flight and didn't help with sleeping.
The obligatory photo

We got to the Kansai airport and got out at their Terminal 2. The structure of this terminal looked extremely temporary, with sheet piles as roofing. When we got out, it seems like Peach, the discount airline, was the only one using the terminal. I wonder if any other airlines will move into the space. This really goes to show that a discount airline does not necessarily mean the company has no money; they just want to make money off of being a discount airline. This is supposed to be the first discount airline in Japan. They have a lot of domestic routes so I guess they are trying to compete with the rail network too.

We took the shuttle bus to the real terminal (Terminal 1) and activated our rail passes. The best train to Kyoto gets into the city after 9am, which meant that it would be too late to meet up with my friend. We had planned to meet up at the station at 8am, before his 9am class. This also meant that I had to somehow contact him so that he wouldn't be waiting for me forever. The Japan Rail (JR) office that we were standing outside of advertised free WiFi. So I connected only to find that I needed to scan a QR code. But since I wanted to connect on my phone and the only device I had was my phone, this was a problem. It was a good thing that I was traveling with other people because I scanned off of my friend's phone. But the code wanted me to email something which was also a problem. I mean, if I can email, I really don't need to connect to their wireless network, right? Anyway, I realized at some point that we could just walk to the actual airport terminal to find free WiFi and we were successful. I ended up being able to get on the JR West WiFi network andade other plans to meet up with my friend right before leaving for Tokyo.

It wasn't until I was on the train to Kyoto that I realized I could have had a leisurely breakfast before rushing off on this 1.5 hr train ride that didn't seem to have a snack cart. So I was really hungry by the time I got to Kyoto station where I ate at a cafe inside the station. Then I still had 2 hrs before meeting up with my friend so I went to the Imperial Palace. It was the biggest thing on the tourist map but it turned out to be not very interesting. I got back to the train station and bought some rice balls and pastry for lunch. I waited around for people and they arrived in a panic about 20 minutes before the train left. So there was actually no need to panic. But anyway, at the platform, I realized that the rest of the group (with the exception of my friend) are undergrads from Stanford on a study abroad. Now it all makes sense why they wanted to do this all island trip. It's something that I definitely woke have wanted to do when I was an undergrad. Now I feel a bit old for this. Anyway, the group is pretty cool and people generally agree on things. I'm always wary of traveling in large groups since it's hard to make everyone happy. The group comprises of 8 people total, including me.

Tomagachi Store!

We got to Tokyo and wandered around the underground shopping area inside the station where there is lots of food and cute little shops. Two of the people in the group arrived late so we waited around in the station for them. We camped out at McDonald's for a while after we were all tired from walking. After we were finally together as a group, we went in search of our hotel. It was a good thing I printed out directions to the hotel because no one else had and trying to navigate using someone's phone is not so great, as we would find out on the next day. After we finally got there, I showered immediately and then we went in search of dinner. We found an Italian Japanese restaurant that had really cheap options. The food was decent. Some people wanted to do kareoke but places were closed and the neighborhood with all the night life is over an hour away by subway. So we toured the supermarket instead and went back to the hotel. I was really tired and went to sleep pretty much right away. Other people stayed up and made plans for the next day.

Really big vending machine
Day 2 was a whirlwind tour if Tokyo. We started the day with another round at the supermarket and ate in someone's room. I was surprised at how punctual everyone was. Anyway, after eating, we went to Tokyo Station and stuffed our bags into a locker and headed off to a department store that has a Kit Kat counter that sold special Kit Kat flavors. They sell different flavors everyday and apparently sells out pretty fast. You can get flavors that you don't get anywhere else. They're pretty pricey for what it is but weeks make really cool gifts. They have flavors like sakura green tea, cream cheese, chilly, and extra dark. I didn't get any because it's pretty hot out any I didn't think they could survive the trip. After that we headed to go find a sushi place that serves sushi from the famous fish market. We had decided the night before that we didn't want to get up that early up go see the auction. But we failed to find the restaurant but still had a pretty good sushi meal at another restaurant. It was a conveyor belt place but we orders off of the iPad menu because we were at the end of the conveyor. It was a good meal and I paid $15 USD for some really good stuff. Traveling with students definitely makes this a budget trip.

Sushi lunch!
We walked around the akihabari area after eating where it is supposed to be the center of anime and gaming. We really didn't know what we were supposed to see and waked into random arcades. We saw one where they have these capsules where you sit inside a pod with screens on 3 sides and team up with other people to fight virtually. They looked pretty cool. Some of the other shops had sketchy stuff though and we were generally unimpressed.

We headed back to the Tokyo station after this to get our stuff and to get ready for the long journey north. We had some confused moments after getting to the station of trying to find the lockers we left our bags in and the platform the train should be on. We made it to the right platform well in advance of our train and settled in for a 3hr ride to the tip of Honshu (the long island). Our overnight train journey started at the conclusion of this train ride.

We basically got to the station where our overnight train would depart 3 hours early. The reason that our trip is so well planned is that one member of the group is very into planning things ahead of time. This works well with being able to reserve seats and such but unfortunately for this important leg of our trip, the reserved seats were all booked out. So we basically had to fend for ourselves in the nonreservable seats. This is why we ended up at the platform 3 hours early. One member of our group basically planned the entire trip and is someone who gets really anxious about things. She ran ahead to the platform and put our stuff in line to wait for the train even though we were 3 hrs early and there was no one else around.

The train leaves from the town of Aomori but from the old station. Our shinkansen from Tokyo arrived at the new station where there where things were much nicer. Since it would be kind of dumb to go back, we gave up on the idea of finding showers and just went around the station for food. My friend and I went to a Yoshinoya after being unsuccessful at finding anything for more than an hour. Places seemed to all close as we walk up to them. So we finally ate at the Yoshinoya even though it's something that I can get everyday at work. It's much nicer though and we ate while talking about how old we are compared to these youngsters.

When we got back to the station, all members of the party had arrived and were joking around loudly about how we weren't going to let anyone else through, be they babies, elderly, or disable. They had separated the group into 2 so that we took up north doors of a train car. The plan was that we would coverage in the middle and take up 8 seats together. The plan worked, mostly because the other people waiting on the platform became scared of us and put a "no man's land" between us and the rest of the train. That space got filled up though. The ride was very loud and bumpy, not smooth like the shinkansen at all. I didn't get very good sleep and was awake for a lot of the ride.

The overnight train