Kyoto – Night 1

After a bit of rest, we decided to try a restaurant close to our machiya.  After about a 5 minute walk we stopped in front of a small place that at least from the outside looked inviting.  It was another teppanyaki but a bit larger than where we had lunch.  A boisterous group of Japanese tourist were on the far end and we took the 2 seats closest to the flattop grill.  There was the chef and what I assumed was wife, both of whom bowed when we sat down.  The menu was small but looked quite good.  We decided to share a few things starting with grilled shrimp and onions, and scallops with butter and enoki mushrooms.

The shrimp were perfectly cooked and the fresh scallions on top gave them a nice crunch.

The scallops were large and plump, but the real star were the enoki mushrooms, which were tender and bursting with earthy flavor.  Not bad for a combined $13.00!

We also decided to try the Ji-dori Korean chicken.  I was drawn to that as there is a California brand of chicken called Jidori and the taste was actually quite similar.  Grilled to perfection, topped with scallions and a hint of citrus from the squeezed lemon, it was delicious.

As we ate, an older couple came in who turned out to be from Philadelphia .  They ordered the specialty of the house – okonomiyaki – which is a savory pancake made with all kinds of goodness.  They said this was their favorite place to go when visiting and suggested we try that dish next time.  Done and done.  After Chris finished his locally sourced sake and I with my Asahi draft beer, we made the blessedly short trip to our home and rested up for a big day tomorrow.

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Oaska – Kyoto

After our walk around Osaka Castle, it was time for lunch.  Someone had suggested a spot on the main drag where we had come from so we headed that way.  Alas, when we got to what we assumed was the restaurant it was closed.  I wanted to try something besides ramen but most other places were also shuttered.  After about 20 minutes of aimless wandering, I was ready to try the first place we saw that was open.  Off one of the alleys, I saw a small teppanyaki that looked nice if a bit challenging to enter.

stevestuck

The restaurant was about the size of our Osaka hotel room, which itself wasn’t exactly large.  There was seating for 6 people and the chef bowed to us as we sat down.  The specials for the day were pork and ginger, or chicken.  I opted for the pork and Chris got the chicken. The chef took out a carefully measured amount of sliced pork and chicken along with some vegetables.  A few minutes later we had our lunch – delicious.

We looped back to the hotel to get our bags and took a cab to Osaka Station.  One of the more annoying things about my flight mishaps was that I missed my decompression day so I wasn’t thrilled about traveling again so soon. Fortunately, via shinkassen, Kyoto was only 15 minutes away from Osaka Station.  So, about 30 minutes later, we were already in another taxi en route to our place in Kyoto.

Once we got into Kyoto proper, it was readily apparent how different it was than Osaka.  The gleaming skyscrapers of Osaka were replaced with tranquil old homes along a riverbank and cobblestone streets.  We were staying in a traditional Japanese townhouse known as a machiya, with some modern touches.  I had found it on Airbnb, where it had excellent reviews.  It would be nice to get out of a hotel setting, especially in such an old city as Kyoto.

Our host had wisely given us directions to the machiya in Japanese as the location was a bit tricky to find.  The exact address wasn’t readily clear but a very nice neighbor decided to help us find it.  After about 15 minutes of false starts, I recognized a banner in front and knew we had found it.  Following instructions to remove our shoes, we went up to the small steps into the living room.  There was a futon couch in front of a flatscreen TV and a small dining room/kitchen – very nice and homey.  Around the corner was a steep staircase which led up to the bedrooms.  The low height combined with my heavy suitcase proved to be quite a challenge to navigate.  The master bedroom had a low double bed and there was a pull out bed in the adjoining room.

It was then that I realized a particular quirk of the home – the bathroom and the shower were on the completely opposite end.  Not only that but it was also in an area with no heat whatsoever.  Thankfully, the water for the shower (no curtain of course) was hot so at the very least I wouldn’t freeze to death trying to take a shower.

After getting situated, we decided to explore our new ‘hood a bit.  We were right next door to one of the shinto shrines so Chris walked up to the top (I was still not quite up to that yet) to snap some photos.

We saw that we were fairly close to the Heian Shrine so we made the short walk to the grounds, passing by several museums and historical centers.  The street was filled with tourists taking pictures, including some in traditional Japanese garb which helped with the illusion of stepping back in time.

The light wasn’t that great for pictures and it was getting colder so we ventured back to our machiya for some rest.

Osaka Castle

I woke up the next morning to sunlight streaming through the hotel window, which meant that the predicted rain seemed to have passed.  I felt surprisingly awake but knew a new wave of tiredness would catch up with me eventually. Chris has decided to return to Osaka Castle because the day before it was pouring so his photography was limited.  Since we were leaving for Kyoto later that day, I decided to suck it up and join him as it would be my only chance to see much of Osaka.

It proved to a wise choice as the weather was pretty much perfect.  Chris showed me the path he had taken before, weaving through a vast covered area of shops, many of which were closed due to the early hour.  Now for the first time I could finally see the cherry blossoms dotting the streets, with various shades of vibrant pinks and pale whites.

I wasn’t quite ready yet for the hour hike to get to the castle so we hopped in a cab, once again communicating through a series of hand gestures until the driver finally got where to go.  It was now about 9AM and as we pulled up to the entrance, a fleet of tour buses had already arrived.  The castle is surrounded by a vast moat, which was lined with the cherry tress in full bloom – quite spectacular.


The castle itself was actually fairly small but the surrounding grounds were beautiful.  By now, the complex was filled with tourists – mostly Chinese and out of town Japanese enjoying the blossoms.  A common setup was a woman pretending to drape herself in the branches of the blossoms.  We decided that wouldn’t work for our own portraits so went with a more traditional approach.

 

LAX – NRT Redux

LAX-NRT – Redux

Back at LAX for what I hoped would be the last time until my return. I once again took my seat on the Dreamliner. Take off was again smooth and quiet but all of us anxiously waited for the familiar sound of the landing gear retracting. When we finally heard that, people started applauding, knowing that there would be no more circling around Catalina Island.

The flight was relatively smooth except for the decent into a rainstorm at the airport. By the point, I just wanted to get the eff of the plane so it didn’t really phase me that much. Despite it being a large international long haul plane, the exit was at the far front, causing a major traffic jam for people trying to deboard. I was able to push my way through and made a bee line for customs. I picked up the pace even more when I was another large mass moving toward the customs area and secured my place in line before it started really getting bad.

A short 30 mins later I headed to the JR East Center to get my 7 day Japan Rail Green pass. The line was slow-moving due to a lot of people asking questions but I had come prepared with my exact route I wanted and was out of there fairly quickly. I had yet to get any yen but had read there was a Citibank ATM I could use, but of course it was broken. I decided I would just deal with it when I got to Osaka and made my way to the Narita Express to get to Shinagawa Station, which a local had told me was the best route to get the bullet train to Osaka as you don’t have to go downstairs.

I went to my assigned car and waited in line for cleaning crew to finish. The first thing I noticed that almost made me cry was the sheer amount of leg room the green car had. Best decision ever getting the green pass. The car was also almost completely empty whereas as the regular cars were jammed. The winds that had made my landing a bit more memorable than it should have also played havoc with the train. There was a notice that one line was stalled due to wind but thankfully my train was just a bit more bumpy.

I transferred at Shinagawa to the Shinkasen bullet train, once again a green car and once again fairly empty. Surprisingly though, there was actually a bit less leg room than the Narita Express due to a foot rest. The seat reclined so that made it there still be a fair amount of room. As the bullet train reached its top speed of 100 kilometers, it didn’t seem to be the smooth ride I was hoping to experience. The fast speed made any gradations on the tracks way more pronounced and when a fellow train zoomed by, the whole car jolted to one side. The combination of these things made my much needed nap short lived.

With 90 minutes to go to Osaka still, I had reached my usual long travel breaking point of 15 hours. This was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t have water or any kind of liquid as I had no yen yet. I tried as much as possible to push that out of my mind and reach a zen like state. I zoned in on the sing songy voice of the women pushing the carts of food and drink I couldn’t partake in yet as well as the whooshing sounds of the passing bullet trains. Soon, I was finally at Osaka Station and pushed my way through the throngs of people to grab a taxi.

I had read in advance that not many cab drivers spoke or even understood a lick of English. What I didn’t realize was how difficult even trying to give a specific address would be. I had written it down for him and the driver kept staring at the address over and over again. I was well past my breaking point but was stuck with this taxi so all I could do was wait for him to finally know where to go.

Chris had mentioned in his blog that Osaka is a huge city and he wasn’t kidding. We crossed the river into what seemed to be their equivalent of 5thAvenue – with a Maclaren dealership no less and finally made it to the hotel. I had now been up for almost 21 hours and I was falling apart rapidly. Chris had gotten us a reservation at a place that served Kobe beef but I was so fried by that point, it simply wasn’t in the cards for me. Luckily, he told me about a decent ramen place across from our hotel – part of a popular chain called Ippudo where you could get a big bowl of ramen for $8.00. That proved to a godsend and soon after I was drifting off to sleep in a bed that didn’t exactly fit but would do just fine for now.

The Best Laid Plans..

 

It seemed like such a simple itinerary. LAX to Narita Airport in Tokyo – non-stop and a mere 11 hours.

The added bonus was that I was going to be able to take one of the brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Score right? Well, not so fast.

The day started out OK. Security was relatively painless and I got to the gate in plenty of time. Having done my research, I knew I had no choice but to get a United Economy Plus seat and according to SeatGuru, I had gotten one of the only coveted green seats – a bulkhead aisle. The main new feature at least aesthetically, on the Dreamliner are the large viewing windows that also have electric shutters on them. I was pleasantly surprised how smooth and quiet the takeoff was.

I settled in to watching something on my iPad and looked forward to getting to Japan. About 30 mins into the flight, it was becoming quickly clear something was wrong. We had slowed down and seemed to be circling the Southern California coast line. Slightly more alarming, thanks to those large windows and my seat near the wing, we appeared to be dumping fuel. Finally, the captain came on the PA and explained that our landing gear wasn’t quite going up as hoped. He said they were consulting the manuals and were also flying at angle to see if they could locate the problem. That plus our fuel now forming these huge trails in the sky made it pretty clear were weren’t getting to Tokyo.

After 90 mins, we had finished dumping out all of the fuel and were assured that the landing would feel normal. Fortunately, that proved to be the case although it was an unusual stop with no rear thrusters used at all – just a simple brake stop in about 5 secs. As we taxied in, there were a large group of concerned looking suits who clearly were trying to figure out who to blame for what was surely going to be an expensive error.

They told us to stay on the plane and await for further notice. Everyone in my immediate area scoffed at the idea that they were going to fix the issue with us on the plane. Sure enough, after a total of 3 hours on the plane, we were told to exit but to stay around the gate. By this point, I was also pretty sure this plane wasn’t going anywhere today. They put the new departure time at 4PM (I had been there since 10AM) To my amusement, I looked up the flight status and saw something you pretty much never do – a leg that indicated LAX to LAX, which had been generated when we went back to LAX. Next came the next expected announcement. The flight was canceled and we were to proceed to baggage claim.

When we got to baggage claim, they said to rebook we had to go upstairs. I decided the best course of action was to get up there as quickly as possible. That proved to be a very wise decision as I was the 4th person in what grew to be about a 200 people line. I was still trying to figure out a way to at least get to Narita, where they would give me a hotel room since the trains to Osaka would have long ended. Armed with frequent text updates from my diligent friend James about possible routes, I spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out a way to get there. When my last ditch effort via Delta didn’t work, I gave up and decided to take the next flight tomorrow morning, which was our plane’s new departure. Fortunately, I was able to get my same seat.

The Fates decided they weren’t quite done with me and decided to throw in a rolling earthquake that night at home. When it started, I yelled “oh perfect!” since I would have missed this having already been en route to Japan. I was also concerned about possible larger ones happening and then pretty much assuring my Japan trip would be a wash. I pictured the scene in 2012 where the plane takes off as the entire city of LA gets swallowed into the ground. That lead to a fitful night’s sleep but I was ready to try again.