Japan Trip Day 5 - 2013-07-31

Today was the day we checked out of The Edo Sakura and made our way to Nikko. We started the day with breakfast at the hotel, followed by a complimentary tea ceremony. The woman hosting the tea ceremony was admittedly a bit new at it, but it was still fun and interesting. Their tea room had a hole in the floor so you could sit without your feet falling asleep, which was a nice little feature. We got to try our hand at whisking the tea to create a bubbly froth, which was harder than it looked!

After that, we packed up our bags and got ready to head out. Now that our room was free of our clutter, we took a few photos. You'll notice there's no bed: you scoot the table to the side and set up futons in the middle of the room. I just love how simple and clean the room is, they did a great job with the design.

Next we made our way to Asakusa, to catch the train to Nikko. We had a bit of time, so we wandered around the Asakusa market, a sprawling, covered pedestrian area that sold many different things.

Kellian saw a man demonstrating a fancy vegetable peeler that could do all sorts of things. Well, it could mainly peel, but it peeled quite well! It also had another blade you could attach to slice the veggies into really thin shreds. The demo was quite impressive! (Though we didn't understand a word of it.)

For lunch, we just popped into a place along the market whose plastic display food looked particularly appealing, and indeed it was very good! I got a bento box with a mix of different things, and Kellian got a noodle dish.

Similar to our tea ceremony experience, they had a trough where you could put your feet rather than having to cross your legs to sit on the floor. Also, the tables could slide along this trough to create tables of different sizes. Pretty clever!

The train ride to Nikko was nice, it lasted a little over two hours and it was fun to see the landscape changed as we progressed north. Halfway through the trip, our train split into two halves: our half went to Nikko and the other half on to another destination. Once we got to Nikko, our hotel was a short bus ride and a bit of a hike from the bus stop. It was quite scenic though!

We are staying at Annex Turtle Hitori-An, another traditional Japanese inn. Unlike our last hotel, our room has a separate area for the futons, which is nice so we don't have to make our beds each night! Also, the inn is near a river, so we can hear the sound of the water.

After getting settled, it was about 4:00, so we decided to take a walk around the area before dinner. The woman at the front desk suggested a walk around the river, so we headed that way. It was very scenic, with the river crashing over rocks and creating quite a display. This area is called the Ganmangafuchi Abyss (or Kanmangafuchi Abyss).

As we walked along the path, we came across a huge number of statues decorated with red knit hats and bibs. They are called Bakejizo (Decieving Jizo), based on the myth that no matter how many times you count, the number of jizos always seems to change. Given this, we didn't bother trying!

We walked along for a ways before coming upon a little rest area. I was a bit parched so I went to get a drink from the water fountain and WOOSH: the water shot about 30 feet high! Luckily I wasn't over the spout! With a bit of finesse I could get it down to a reasonable level and take a sip. Here's a picture of this geyser in action!

On the other side of the rest area was a cute suspension bridge that crossed the river. We went across and made our way back to town.

In town, we tried out this restaurant that our hotel recommended called Tearoom Bell. They had something called Monk's Feast, a vegetarian meal that features yuba (the skin that forms when making tofu cut into strips) prepared a number of different ways. Pretty funny that we would have two tofu-centric meals on consecutive nights! Tofu skin strips may sound gross, but it was actually very good!

After dinner, there wasn't much else to do in Nikko, so we headed back to our hotel to relax a bit. Tomorrow, we explore the various sights around Nikko!

Japan Trip Day 4 - 2013-07-30

Today we decided to focus a bit more on a single area, since yesterday we spent a lot of time travelling on the subway between different spots. We found a neat Tokyo guide app by Trip Advisor that had a few built-in walking tours, so we decided to try one of those and explore the area around Tokyo Imperial Palace!

As we were making our way to the starting point of the tour at Otemachi Station, we couldn't resist some vending machine ice cream!

The first stop on the tour was Kokyo Higashi Koen, the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Even though it was overcast, it was quite hot and humid as we were walking around, it would have been quite unpleasant if it were a sunny day! The gardens were pretty neat, with nicely manicured trees lining large walls to protect the palace.

Next we went to the Museum of Imperial Collections, which apparently has over 6,000 pieces of art in their collection. Somewhat oddly, the only thing they had on display was a number of different robes worn by the emperor of Japan as a child. They were quite impressive and ornate, though it would have been nice to see a bit more of the collection!

We hiked through the area around the Imperial Palace, which had some nice little paths through the gardens, before arriving at our next stop, The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo.

I was expecting more avante-garde art at this museum, but it actually mainly contains paintings and sculpture from the 20th century that are more traditional. Kellian informed me that modern art is actually art from a particular period of time (1860s to 1970s), what I was thinking of is contemporary art. There was one pretty amusing contemporary exhibit: it was a video of folks rushing around the museum carrying cardboard boxes, arranging them in various ways frantically. Hard to describe, but pretty funny to watch!

At this point we were running out of steam a bit, it was around 1:30 and we hadn't eaten, so we decided to bail on the walking tour and find some food. There were some more cool paths through the park that we followed.

When we emerged from this area, we stumbled upon a big crowd of people, with a bunch of kids warming up with Kendo swords in front of Nippon Budokan (a martial arts arena). It turns out there was a huge tournament in progress! We went inside and watched for a bit, it was fun watching these kids wailing on each other with bamboo swords, though we weren't quite sure how the point scoring worked.

After watching for a bit, we grabbed some lunch and decided to head to Ueno (along the way to our hotel), where we checked out a pedestrian market area with all sorts of shops. There is a large park in Ueno that we were thinking of walking across, but we were pretty tired at this point so we decided to head back to the hotel and rest for a bit.

Back on Saturday, we got a tip from a woman sitting next to us on the train that there was an excellent restaurant that specializes in tofu near where we were staying. Since Kellian is a vegetarian, we were pretty psyched to check it out! They had a 9 course menu where every course features some variation on tofu, ending with tofu ice cream and plum jelly for dessert!

It might sound/look odd, but it was all actually very tasty, and quite varied considering it was all tofu! Definitely worth checking out if you are a vegetarian (or like tofu) and are visiting Tokyo.

Stuffed full of tofu, we headed back to the hotel for a bit. We saw that a band was playing on the local swing dance calender and went to check that out, but it had a $20 cover and no room to dance, so we decided to skip it once we got there. Besides, we were pretty exhausted from a long day!

Tomorrow, we head to Nikko!

Japan Trip Day 3 - 2013-07-29

After a good night's sleep and waking up at a more reasonable hour, we headed off for a day that would be pretty jam-packed. It was raining, so we planned things that would mostly be indoors. On our way to our first destination, we noted how Japanese seem to think of everything, they even had hooks next to the pay terminals on the subway to hang your umbrella!

Also, they have these neat umbrella bag dispensers: just stick your umbrella into the top and pull it out sideways.

Our first stop of the day was The Miraikan Museum of Science, which sounded like it would be pretty cool. It had some interesting exhibits, and fortunately all the exhibit text was also in English. I think my favorite exhibit was this machine which physically simulated how the internet works: You load black and white balls into one of the stations where the first four balls indicate the destination of the message, and the next eight balls represent a letter. Then you send the balls down a ramp to another machine that acts like a router, sending your letter along to the next router closer to your destination and so forth.

Unfortunately, there was a bit of a malfunction so you could only send the messages back to yourself, but it was still a cool idea! Some of the other exhibits were interesting, but we found them to be a bit dense and confusing: you had to read and process a lot to figure out what they were trying to get at.

Our next stop was Rappongi, which has a whole bunch of shops and restaurants. We ended up eating at a cute little restaurant that had a number of different types of rice that you could order with your entree. I got one with eel in it and Kellian's had chestnuts and red beans. Quite tasty!

Our main reason for visiting Rappongi was to check out a design exhibit that Kellian found called Tokyo Midtown Design Hub. The exhibit featured all types of design from product packaging, various products themselves, and print media.

Next we made our way to Sunshine City in Ikebukuro to check out Namco Namja Town, an indoor theme park with some rides, an area with a bunch of desserts, and an area with a bunch of different types of gyoza (dumplings). It cost 500 yen to get in ($5), and we weren't quite sure what to expect. The ice cream was pretty tasty (and cute), here's Kellian with an ice cream cone that looks like a bunny.

The rides were another $8 each (they're free if you buy the $30 entrance pass), so we only did one of those. It was a game where four groups of players sit on a large circular platform facing four screens. They each have a gun that shoots golf balls at the screen when you turn a crank. You try to shoot things on the screen for points, and at the end it totals up your score to figure out how well you did. I won, which was a bit surprising considering I didn't really know what was going on!

For dinner we had okonomiyaki at a little hole in the wall on the way back to Ikebukuro station. They have a grill on the table, and you order various proteins and veggies that are mixed into a batter. Then you dump it out onto the grill and make yourself a savory pancake. It is kind of crispy on the outside and a bit gooey on the inside: quite tasty!

At this point we were pretty exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel. Tomorrow we're thinking we might check out Tokyo Disney World!

Japan Trip Day 2 - 2013-07-28

We were a bit jet lagged today, so we ended up waking up pretty early and grabbing breakfast at the hotel. It was quite tasty! They have a nice lobby area where breakfast is served with windows looking out into mini-gardens on either side.

Our first task of the day was to figure out how to get some cash, since the ATMs had been giving us trouble. We got a tip that the Post Office ATMs worked with foreign debit cards, so we struck off to try that out. There was one about a 10 minute walk from our hotel, but when we arrived we saw that it didn't open till 9:00. We walked around the neighborhood a bit until 9:00, and were extremely relieved when the ATM didn't reject our card!

After that, we headed off to Hanayama's headquarters, where I would be participating in their first Cast Puzzle World Championship. The competition consisted of 16 participants, most from Japan MENSA society and a few from elsewhere in the world. There were three rounds, the first two consisted of previous Hanayama cast puzzles, and the last which had a new puzzle.

Since Hanyama has over 40 cast puzzles, that was a lot of puzzles that I needed to know how to solve! I had been practicing, but there are of course some that I'm better at than others. Fortunately, they ended up choosing one of my favorites, Cast Baroq for the first round. I did fairly well, placing fourth about 24 seconds. A three of the Japanese competitors had very impressive times, with the best one at 15 seconds!

After the first round, the fastest 8 competitors moved on! The next puzzle would be Cast Enigma: another fortunate selection since I had been practicing this puzzle recently. It is a classic Hanayama cast puzzle, so it was definitely a good choice. I did fairly well again, with a time of 1 minute and 13 seconds, enough to clinch 3rd place and make the cut to the final round! Woo hoo!

The final round was a new puzzle by Vesa Timonen, Cast Cylinder. This beast kept the final four competitors for over 20 minutes! I according the commentary, I was in the lead for a while at the beginning, but I became convinced that I was a dead end and headed back to the beginning to try another approach. Unfortunately, I ended up being unable to solve the puzzle and watched my lead slip away to come in 4th. Quite disappointing since it felt within my grasp for a little while there. Ah well, at least I made it to the finals! Masata Karatani came in first, followed by Isao Mananami and Yuki Yamada.

As a thank-you for participating, everybody got special gold colored copies of Cast Cylinder, with 2013 Cast Puzzle Championship written on the pieces. Very nice! Now I can get a chance to finish figuring this puzzle out! A big thanks to Teddy Sakamoto and the folks at Hanayama for inviting me!

The event was fun, but also stressful: solving puzzles against 3 other people while a crowd watches is a bit unnerving. I think I'll stick to solving in my living room!

After the competition, we headed out to explore the area around Hanayama called Akihabara. This area has all sorts of electronics shops, arcades, maid cafes, and other random things, so it was fun strolling around and exploring the various shops. Kellian wanted to check out an area between Akihabara and our hotel called Ueno, so we headed there for dinner. We came across a great Tempura restaurant, which was quite inexpensive but also really tasty! It didn't look like a lot of food, so we also got some hot udon soup, but that ended up being way too much food!

After that, we wandered around a nearby shopping mall before heading back to our hotel, quite exhausted and a bit jet-lagged. Quite a long day!

Japan Trip Day 1 - 2013-07-27

Today Kellian and I headed to Japan for a bit of vacation as well as the International Puzzle Party! We decided to splurge a little bit and get the direct flight from Boston to Tokyo, which was awesome. First off, it took 13 hours rather than 22+, which is great. It was also on the new Boeing Dreamliner which has all sorts of fancy new features: variable tint windows, usb charging plugs everywhere, AC charging plugs under each seat, and an excellent in-flight entertainment system. Kellian and I passed the time watching a few movies and playing some of the games (Street Fighter!) on this system, we didn't even need to break out the iPad for entertainment.

Once we got to Tokyo at around 4:00PM, we made our way to our hotel. This involved taking a train and then taking a cab, which should have been pretty simple. Unfortunately, we had a heck of a time getting an ATM to give us some cash for the cab: we tried about 5 of them over the course of an hour without any luck. Eventually, we just started asking around if there was some place we could convert some USD into Yen, and there was actually one nearby. That was a relief!

We found out from a German fellow living in Japan that there was recently a change to the ATM network that may be what is causing the problems. He pointed us to a particular bank (Postal Bank) that should accept our cards, so we're planning to try that tomorrow.

Once we got a cab, he had a bit of trouble actually finding our hotel (The Edo Sakura), but eventually we got there! It is a new ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with futons and tatami mats the rooms. Pretty neat and very clean since it was recently constructed.

After that, we headed out to grab some dinner, which was unfortunately just as the rain started coming down. We made a run for it and ended up finding a place, but not before we were pretty wet. Due to the rain, we couldn't be very picky and actually ended up at a Korean restaurant. Still, it was delicious!

Now Kellian is snoozing and I am finishing this blog up rapidly so I can do the same. No sleep for quite a few hours (I didn't sleep on the plane), so I'm looking forward to getting some rest!