Back in the U.S.

Our return trip to the U.S. was much, much easier than our frantic departure.  We took the Keisei Limited Express from Asakusa Station to Narita Airport, a little over an hour ride, and made it to Terminal Two with plenty of time to spare.

Our flight on the 787 Dreamliner was relatively easy, and we did notice and interesting difference between the ANA (All Nippon Airways) and the United Airlines flights.  Simply put, United flights across the Pacific are a bit more comfortable and the entertainment options more robust.  We found the options available to us on United far outpaced the ANA offerings and we were pleasantly surprised that the service was a bit better.  This note is not to knock ANA.  We just noticed a couple of differences that make long flights to and from Asia a bit more bearable.

Speaking of which, flights across the Pacific are long.  The shortest route, from my experience, is the LAX or SFO flights to Tokyo.  Running about 11 hours and 30 minutes, that trip is tiring.  On trips to Bhutan, I always fly to Bangkok, a 6 hour and 40 minute flight from Narita in Japan.  That makes the flying day, from Albuquerque, roughly 18 hours of travel IN THE AIR.  Whew.

Back Home....
Back Home….

Back in Albuquerque, Halle, Natascha, and I were spent, and we pretty much crashed.  I think I walked in the house and fell asleep almost immediately after having been awake since 3:45 AM Bangkok time….about 28 hours of being awake!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will submit a few more photos from my Black and White rolls of Bhutan and Japan.  In the meantime, you can read some reflections on the trip from Halle and Natascha as well as some thoughts about the upcoming trips next summer.

Thanks for reading.

A Couple of Thoughts about Photography

Finding the perfect shot in this city is all about angles and light; the flat, grey sky over Tokyo is tough on photos, and we tried and tried to grab some decent shots.  Halle and Natascha took hundreds of photos of everything they saw.  I will post selections of their photos today and tomorrow.

The Perfect Shot.
The Perfect Shot.

I used my iPhone and my film camera, a Hasselblad 500 C/M.  I shot mostly black and white with a couple of color rolls thrown in for good measure.  As I develop the film, I will upload what I have.

The other thing we noticed in Tokyo was that the frenetic pace is hard to adapt to in street shooting.  It took a day or so to get into a rhythm.  That experience is probably true for most folks and we experienced the movement of people especially when we were trying to take a photo…in that moment you deliberately stop, pause, and compose.  In my case, the composition part of the process included setting aperture and speed, and focus each time I took a picture.  I became much more choosey, as well, because of the number of photos I could shoot. (12 per roll)

If you are looking for 120MM film in Tokyo, really you have few choices.  I tracked down a decent selection at BIC Camera in Shibuya….only some of their stores have anything.  For B/W, you can find Ilford HP5.  For color, Fuji Velvia 100 (that’s it!)  Tokyo has quite a few film labs around the city; many locals are still shooting 35mm film and I saw many older folks (me included) shooting film cameras.

Of course, the tide turned years ago.  I will have to send my color film off for development to San Diego when I get home.  They process and scan for one price.  For B/W, I’m developing my film at Prep.


Asakusa to Shibuya to Harajuku and Back

The Ginza line ends in Asakusa station and it is a straight ride to Shibuya and the excitement of downtown Tokyo.  Well, maybe not DOWNTOWN, but near town and in an area of everything going on at once.

We had four goals today: visit the Meiji Shrine, see Harajuku, and walk around the Shibuya shopping district, and spend some time finding Bubble Tea….Halle was obsessed with finding tea with tapioca and the online information on this type of tea said most of the shops were in Shibuya and Harajuku.  So, once we left the Shibuya station, we turned to Apple Maps, again, to find our locat

Bubble Tea FOUND!
Bubble Tea FOUND!

ion.  About 1.4 miles later we found Lady Pearl’s Tea and Crepe Shop.  Bubble Tea found!

The tea spot is in the midst of the mania of the Harajuku shopping district, Takeshita street.  The hawk wares of questionable quality as well as any kind of hip, trendy thing going on in Tokyo at the time.  Seriously, here is the center of youth fashion (maybe for the world) and you will find people attired in a wide range of clothing and styles….the main word I would use to describe the clothing and area is “cute”.  Little animated characters are everywhere; anime and manga characters are represented as well as small, cute cartoon animals.  The young women are often seen dressed as dolls all in lace.  Some are dressed in a kind of goth style with black and white accessories.

As we waddled on, the day became almost painfully hot.  93 F; 64% humidity.  Walking in the sweltering weather, we hoped for a cooler respite in the Meiji gardens.  The shade was a blessing, and, as many of you know living in the southern states, shade does not seem to alleviate the heat.  Still, we walked through the park, to the shrine.  Crews had covered the shrine and were doing some restoration work.  We took pictures, hung around for a while, spent some time writing prayers on paper and putting them in a prayer box….then off to shopping!

Sake Donations, Meiji Shrine
Sake Donations, Meiji Shrine

While I can imagine shopping is one of those things that draws people to it, I am not one of them.  I found a bookstore and café in Shibuya and Halle and Natascha wandered the streets looking some of the hundreds of shops and stores.

We met back up around 4:30, waited until almost dark, and headed over to the so-called Shibuya Scramble.  It’s a place where thousands cross the road in 5 directions at once….it is something to see to believe.  I’ve mentioned the number of people we pass each day and the huge numbers of humans crossing these streets and walking through town are just amazing.

Grabbing the Shot
Grabbing the Shot

We watched for most of an hour as we photographed various stages of the experience.  And it is an experience to be among so many people at one time.  I have to say that humanity, in these moments, is so wonderful.  Just being in the presence of people and all of us in our own little worlds, passing by one another, making eye contact ( or not), a smile (or not), all of it is so remarkable.  I stood in awe of this experience….hopefully, when I develop my photos from the trip, I can share some of the wonder.  In the meantime, I’ll post Halle and Natascha’s photos to the blog tomorrow.

Halle in the Midst of the Scramble.
Halle in the Midst of the Scramble.

We ended up eating at the original sushi spot, Maguro Bito, and we, now regulars, received special treatment from a couple of free dishes and watermelon.  The sushi chefs really got a kick out of Natascha and Halle….making Halle, tonight, order in Japanese!  Funny.

On we go tomorrow back to the U.S.  We are ready to get home.


In and Around Asakusa and Ueno

Our morning saw us sleep in a bit before the rush of the day.  We headed to Starbucks for breakfast (close, easy) and found that, aside from a few drinks, everything was different…food included a wide variety of pastries like matcha and plum bread (similar to pumpkin bread in the States).  Many of the drinks include some form of tea…really interesting.

With our “home” fix in we hit the streets and headed to the temple grounds around Asakusa.  The number of people out for the day was enormous.  A sea of people walking around this place.  Once inside the temple grounds, the crowds thin out, and you can walk, relatively easily, through the temple grounds.

Natascha spied the tower overlooking Asakusa and all of Tokyo, and we decided to walk.  Seeing the tower from the temple, it really looks like a 5 to 10 minute walk.  Not so.  It took us a solid 45 minutes (with a stop for water) walking directly to the building below.IMG_1413

The Skytree tower is tall (they claim to be the tallest observation tower in the world) and you can take an elevator 350 M or 450M up to an observation deck (with shops and restaurants).  The view of Tokyo and the Kanto plain is amazing.  You can see all the way to the Kanto mountains and, on a good day, Mt. Fuji.

From the lookout deck, Skytree (Tokyo) Tower
From the lookout deck, Skytree (Tokyo) Tower

The haze was situated on the plain and sadly, the views to the far south not great.  However, we saw all of Tokyo from the tower and it is worth the experience….on this very crowded day, we waited about 1 hour for a elevator ride using the express service….it’s a bit more in $$ but otherwise one has to wait for 3 to 4 hours for a ride up.  Not appealing on this hot day (89F; 100% humidity).

From the tower we headed back to Asakusa for lunch (by subway this time).  Negotiating the subway system in Tokyo takes some doing.  Be on your toes, read the signs well (they ARE easy to read) and make sure you are going in the direction you want to go.  Thankfully, since I spent time in Tokyo in 2008, the signage is much better (for us)  and includes English in most cases.

In Asakusa we found a place that served katsu (chopped, fried chicken and pork) for Natascha.  You can get many different kinds of items, but this restaurant served primarily chicken in all of its forms….legs, cartledge and the more typical grilled, fried, and marinated.  The restaurant had seats for maybe 12 people…the cook was the owner and you

Natty enjoying the lunch crowd of 3.
Natty enjoying the lunch crowd of 3.
Interior of the restaurant.
Interior of the restaurant.

were within a few feet of his kitchen, watching the whole thing.

After a long lunch (because of the heat), we made our way to Ueno park.  The short train ride (15 minutes) on the Ginza line drops you off at the base of the park; we walked up to find an exhibition on Bhutan!

Bhutan in Japan!
Bhutan in Japan!

What?!  We had to go in.  In the exhibition, the curators included historical garments and thangkhas, as well as a wide variety of woven goods including clothing, blankets, etc.  The videos of the people really struck us as we saw the places and maybe even some of the people we just left!  How cool!

Painting of Taktsang.
Painting of Taktsang.

The heat finally got to us, and we all decided it was time to head back to the hotel.  The quick subway ride to Asakusa and then into the swarm of humanity (sometimes pushing your way past folks) onto the quiet street we called our temporary home.

We have one more full day in Tokyo before our return flight on Tuesday PM.  Our plan is to visit Shibuya in the height of evening and finish our trip with a wonderful meal in that spot.

On To Japan!

Our flight to Tokyo was, thankfully, uneventful…aside, of course from the early morning wake up call and jaunt to the airport (3:45 AM!).  We landed in Narita (a very quiet airport…really, very little noise even with hundreds of people around.

We made it quickly through immigration and caught the Keisei Limited Express to Asakusa.  I have stayed in a few places in Tokyo and I really like Asakusa.  Historically, this area was an entertainment district during the Tokugawa Shogunate and remains a center of attraction for Japanese folks to this day.  Literally thousands of people crammed the streets.  We arrived during a political rally as the streets near our hotel were all blocked off for the speeches of candidates.  They stood on a bus with a platform on top….they traveled around the city on this bus and spoke from loudspeakers to a huge crowd.

After making our way through this dense mass of humanity, we headed through the grounds of  Senso-ji temple past vendors in stalls leading into the temple proper.  We wandered, a bit, trying to find this small, traditional Japanese hotel…or Ryokan.  I had the street address, but the problem is that once off the main thoroughfares, all signs are in Japanese….I know a fare bit of Kanji, and these signs were all written in traditional script.  Well,  hmmm.

We Made it to Japan!

So, we turned to Apple Maps.  I keyed in the address and it popped up the hotel and location with walking distance and a direction arrow….EXACTLY what I needed!

(An aside about cellphones and WIFI in Japan.  Just about anyone’s cell phone will work in Japan.  When I first arrived, only GSM phones worked and cost a small fortune.  I rented phones in 2008.  Now, TMobile (my provider) allows for free texts and free data at 2G speeds.  In a pinch, the service works well enough to grab data for maps etc.  I just turn the data off when I am not using it (past experience here).  As far as WIFI goes, Japan is getting better, BUT it’s hard to find free WIFI in the country.  A new app I downloaded, NTT Broadband, works at finding you find free access…it helped me more than once during this short trip.)

Back to the story: We found the spot about 300 feet down a very small street.

The Entrance to the Ryokan
The Entrance to the Ryokan

The place could not be any nicer and centrally located….steps away from the vendors and the temple.  Our check in was seamless.  If you travel to any part of Asia and are looking for a way to expedite your travels and book rooms, is really a great booking web site.  Every time I have used them I have had no difficulties at all.  You get a receipt to present to the hotel with the details of your stay.  It works exactly as you imagine it would…no issues.

After I found out that Natascha and Halle could travel with me, I extended the trip by a few days and added this side trip to Tokyo.  I booked these traditional rooms as a way to experience Japan with Halle and Natascha.  They can

The small room…tatami mat and all!

speak about the room and whether or not they enjoyed it!

As you will see in the photos, the rooms are small, with a futon on a tatami (rice) mat.  The futon leaves a lot to be desired; those used to sleeping on pads in a tent will have no problem.  Those looking for more plush surroundings should look elsewhere.

The hotel  and rooms are very quiet, even though they are packed into a very small space….Halle and Natascha are next to me (302 and 303) and I cannot hear them at all.  On the top floor, the hotel includes a hot bath for guests….the small space is really wonderful and includes a room that looks exactly like an onsen.  Halle and Natascha enjoyed a first night in the tub together.  More details in the next post.