We had in our first Japan post the beginning of our trip to Japan; We finished that post as we stepped onto the shinkansen (bullet train). But reviewing our pictures, there are a few things we left out and we don’t want to forget a detail! If you had never read part I of our Japanese experience back in February, here is the link. Japanese Experience Day#1
Standing in que for the shinkansen, you are never quite sure where to stand. There are red lines and green lines on the train platform. When buying a JR pass, you can travel five different days in a two-week time period on any JR rail line. The cost is $220 per person when you are a tourist. We really enjoyed the shinkansen and highly recommend it for a complete Japanese experience. The ladies in the JR office were wonderful; they spoke pretty good English and also helped me map out a trip to see the snow monkeys. The train schedules are a little intimidating at first and a bit complicated but the office is always there in Tokyo station to help. When you book your travel, you are actually given assigned seats. You present the pass travel booklet and your seat assignment ticket to get to the train platform. The trains pull into the station and they are very timely. Each station platform has the usual convenience food kiosks and vending machines. Japan takes vending machines to another level. Selling hot coffee, cold drinks, ramen, cigarettes, and alcohol. It was fun to see all the options and we tried many. I found I really liked green lemonade. It’s been many years since I saw cigarettes in a vending machine! The Japanese do smoke but they congregate in little enclosed boxes engulfed in smoke. Occasionally you would smell smoking in a restaurant. It is amazing how we get used to fresh air in Wisconsin where there is no public smoking anymore.
I loved watching the shinkansen attendants board the train. We were in steerage, buying just “regular class” tickets. But you could pay more for first class. The pics of the attendants walking outside the train were the first class attendants. Immaculately dressed and beautiful. Even though we were in steerage, our accommodations make the first class accommodations on a CRJ 700 paltry indeed. We had lots of leg room, an attendant girl came thru with a cart every 20″ offering beverages and snacks for sale. Our attendant wasn’t dressed as fancy but they were very tidy and pleasant. The train had its own version of skymall! The inside of the trains were completely immaculate, with no scratches, graffiti or wear & tear noted.
Laurel picked us up at Hachinohe Station we rode the Shinkansen train for over three hours to northern Japan. Tokyo is the world’s largest city and you realize that as you pass the city center to the outer edges of Tokyo. It goes on and on, apartment upon apartment building. A sea of humanity, every apartment building have its own community. There are single dwelling homes but you really didn’t see suburban housing like you see in America. It seemed like every residence had multiple dwellings. It was quite daunting how many buildings we passed, mile upon mile. Our train went very fast (over 100 miles per hour) and it was at least an hour before the urban city gave way to a more suburban environment. The houses generally were darker colors and it was rare to see a house of a brighter color. It was also rare to see aluminum siding, mostly you saw a wooden or slate/cement board type exterior. Almost all the roofs were a ceramic/clay tile and generally black or a dark color. Often you would see the japanese architecture in the roof lines and the fencing/patio/garden areas. As the train would go from the urban/suburban sprawl of the city to the countryside you would see terraced plots of land. The land was always deliberately in use as it was used for housing or commercial property or well-designed farm land. Frequently, you would see irrigation ditches cutting thru the farm land. Often in the urban areas there would be large golf ranges with high nets. There would be a building with driving ranges and they were up to four to six floors high and open to the nets. There were also many baseball fields. Frequently, there would be factories with common trade names on the outside of the plant. One thing that really struck as odd was the presence of electrical wires everywhere that cluttered the landscape and edged all the side streets. In America, we get used to seeing them buried in the ground.
Laurel picked us up in a city named Hachinohe (hatch in NO aye). It was so wonderful just to see her in Japan. We jumped into her car right away and she whisked us off to her air base. It was honestly our first time in a country that drives on the opposite side of the car and on the opposite of the road. We have to be honest it was very disconcerting being a passenger in the car your child is driving when she is driving on the wrong side. You want to correct them. It’s so odd turning into traffic or changing lanes. It just doesn’t feel right. Japan also walks opposite of what we are used to. So, when on a sidewalk, you walk to the left instead of the right. We were constantly wanting to fall back into our own pattern and had to remind ourselves to get in the “left” lane. Misawa was actually a nice sized town. I had pictured in my mind that it would be like Richland Center and have just one main street but it actually had over 20,000 people and felt like the size of Baraboo. There was a city government area, a train station, an older main shopping street and many shopping centers on the outskirts of town. But the far edge of town was all Air Force Base.
Misawa Air Force Base tour
Misawa seemed very much like other Air Force bases we had been to before. The government must get a deal on creamy, light yellow paint because they paint everything that color. The base has a pretty good-sized population and has many of the typical military base things such as, a PX, commissary, a few restaurants, military offices, security and they had Laurel’s media building for Armed Forces Radio and TV network. We got there at about 4pm on a friday afternoon so we got to have a tour courtesy of Laurel. Cool to see the TV news room/stage, the radio studio where she works every day and she showed us how the satellite feed comes in and how they put their own commercials and local news over the satellite feed. The DJ working the afternoon shift invited Marty and Laurel to be on the air with him for a few minutes. They did a quick interview talking about our trip and what was going on back home. We were able to meet a few of her co-workers and see her office. It is really gratifying as a parent to see your child in their work environment and to see the favor and regard her co-workers seem to have for her.
Our Base hotel accommodations
Laurel then took us to our base hotel accommodations. There actually was a couple of hotels on the base. Laurel was able to book our room with the help of her commanding officer. Luckily, her officer seems to have a little “pull” around Misawa! We were booked into the Admiral’s suite, a five-room suite including a full kitchen, dining area, living room, office room with computer, bedroom with a very large bed, bathroom with tub and shower and a separate toilet/vanity room. It truly was quite the swanky place to stay. It was one of the nicest beds I have ever been in and I have been in many very nice beds in the last two years. There also was a full massage chair in the bedroom. I speculate that they put the massage chair in there so the Admiral would have no reason to request a “massage”. The chair was fully computerized but it unfortunately only spoke in Japanese. We had a lot of fun playing with the controls. It massaged all the way from the back of your calves all the way up to the neck. It was very intense in its massage and could be actually quite painful. After sitting in it for over 30″ I felt like I had every muscle worked to a pulp and quite tenderized. The next day, my back was so sensitive, I felt like Marty had beat me with a base-ball bat. But the best thing was the wonderful Japanese toilet with the bidet function and heated seat. We were so tempted to take the seat and stuff it in our carry on. Seriously, considering how we can get one for our house.
Ramen noodle supper
After getting settled in to our hotel room. Laurel took us to one of her favorite restaurants. We got to sit at a traditional, low Japanese table. Marty and I are just not that flexible anymore! They served us a BBQ flavored ramen noodle bowl. We both have gotten pretty good eating with chopsticks. It was the best ramen I had ever had with great broth and flavor. The decor was traditional Japanese decor, lot’s of red and gold accents with the usual shrine artifacts and buddhist knick knacks.
Karaoke fun in Misawa
After eating supper, Laurel took us to a traditional favorite for everyone alike in Japan. Karaoke! We entered the building and got a room. I have seen Karaoke in America in many types of locales but never where you get a secluded room that holds about 5 to 10 people. You pay a flat hourly fee and you get unlimited drinks in that time period. We had like 50+ drinks to choose from. Then you get to pick your songs on the computer. The room is designed with a sound proof door/walls, with a table with booth seating and a TV. Once you picked your songs, the karaoke video would play and you would get to sing along with the video. Japanese videos are truly funny to watch. They were very sappy, kitschy actors in bad 1980’s styles. It was really great to see Laurel’s friends and how they seemed to be family for her.
We honestly slept in Saturday morning. The jet lag was catching up with me. But eventually we got up and Laurel took us grocery shopping. She took us to the store called “Universe”; a chain of grocery stores commonly found in shopping centers. It was so completely interesting to see how normal everyday groceries were so completely different from what we are used to. They had some of the nicest, freshest produce. I really don’t know where we get our produce in America but I have noticed in my past travels to Canada and now to Japan, that other countries have the best looking fruits and vegetables. Their colors so bright, the fruit so large and ripe, the variety of vegetables way more than what we have available. They take their mushrooms seriously; there had to be 10+ varieties; all fresh and in perfect condition. Often you would see usual products on the shelves but then they would have items we just don’t have like packaged seaweed. There was lots of variety of fish as well. The complete row of sake was a bit overwhelming. They had more bottles of sake than we have in most wine selections. Laurel bought all the ingredients for the supper she was planning on making to celebrate Mardi Gras. She invited many of her friends to her apartment. She often loves to make a special recipe of food and have friends over. For that evening she made homemade gumbo. It was absolutely wonderful! Time with her friends was wonderful and it was so nice to see her have many good people in her life. Check out the video on this link that shows images from grocery stores in Japan. A fascinating video.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
Another restaurant Laurel took us to was very common in Japan and kinda like their version of McDonald’s. It was essentially fast food sushi and they had a conveyor belt that actually brought out your sushi to your table. You actually ordered the sushi and other entrees on the computer screen at your table. Periodically, there would be samples of sushi floating along on the ‘sushi train’ and you could see them and decide if you wanted to order them. You would place an order and the conveyor belt would bring your plate of sushi out from the kitchen. You would grab your plate and then eat it. Once you were done with your meal, the waitress would come to your table and count up the number of plates you had. Each color represented a different dollar amount. It was such a fun and unique idea for serving food. I think it actually would go over quite well here in America.
We will try to finish up the rest of our trip in the next installment. And try not to make you wait more than a week to read it!