Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Samurai grounds in the Land of the Rising Sun

Hello, there. Tis’ the Samurai.

I thought I’d jot down my recent vacation experience here, for memory and record-keeping purposes mostly. I had to break it up into three parts, as the content ended up being way, WAY too long for one post. So here we go.....

French Novelist Gustave Flaubert says "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." I’ve taken it to mean violent and original in your personal work, things you are actually passionate about, and I agree.

I've obtained a monotonous day job so that I can devote myself to creative projects on the side. However, spending tons of day job hours trying to put some structure in a completely chaotic and immature office environment for 2 years begins to take its toll. In addition to having to fight these things in the small ways that I`m allowed to, lack of better technology makes it so that a theoretically 5-minute task ends up taking the average length of an episode of "Law and Order". A break from all of this begins to scream for request. I've been at this place long enough to get a week`s vacation, and I've finally saved up enough money to go somewhere. It`s usually at this junction of resources that someone prepares a trip to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Miami, California or something of the sort involving beachside bars, water that isn’t actually just raw sewage, and people that speak, at least, the average popular rapper’s grade level of English. A place that offers maximum comfort and relaxation, which is fine. It was my turn to choose.

So I went with Japan.

Prep time.

I had been talking with about tour packages to go on. The moderately priced ones were only 3 and 4 days long, taking me to three different countries or some shit. I didn’t take one of those, but they did end up helping me find a good hotel. Of course, the trip planner I was working with was constantly trying to get me to buy the more expensive hotel rooms and flights, but overall she was kind and helpful.

My friend Amanda helped me find what I like to call the "Magic Ticket" online back in February. The average round trip airfare from New York to Japan, especially Tokyo, costs about $1,400 - $1,500, so I chose Osaka for landing in and would just go to Tokyo later. I found round-trip tickets, both direct with 13 and 14 hour flights, for $1189 ($1,144.00 after I showed the Best Price Guarantee program on Priceline that someone else was charging a competitive price for the same open ticket they had). The flight was in May.

Research online showed me that people in Japan relied on the 3G service of their cellphone for most to all of their technological actions. There are occasional laptop users here and there, but not enough for companies to supply a bevy of free Wi-Fi spots. So, I found a company that would rent you a portable Wi-Fi device to carry around with you (which, as it turned out, I needed more than I thought I did), and would send it to the airport or your hotel for pickup.

Non-driving Japanese citizens train or bike it everywhere, like New Yorkers. However, the train structure and pricing is somewhat different than here, and continually taking the train from place to place can get expensive, especially if you’re traveling from one part of the country to the next (I’ll explain later). So I picked up an Exchange Pass in New York, which is only for foreigners, and packed it to take to Japan where you exchange it for a Japan Rail Pass at a JR Train Station. Also went to a small kiosk on Avenue of the Americas and 53rd street and 6th Avenue to exchange U.S. dollars into yen, which I found to be cheaper than at the airports both in New York and Japan.

In between February and May, I should’ve (re-)studied the language a bit before departing. I was told that there was enough of an English speaking portion of society for me to be just fine. There wasn’t, but I’ll explain later. Anyway, time went by and May came.

My flight took off from JFK International Airport in Queens. Now, understand, I haven’t been on a plane since traveling to Las Vegas about 80 billion years ago. My last memory of the plane experience was an empty red eye flight with a movie screen at the center of the fuselage, and plugging a pair of supplied headphones into your armrest to listen to whatever movie the crew decides to show you. Not anymore.

The seats on China Airlines have small touch screen monitors in front of you with a media system that allows you to view films from a moderately large and modern selection, see the path the plane is taking from Point A to Point B, play video games (which were terrible in quality), show you videos about the place you’re flying to, and a few television shows.

There were remotes in the arm rests with buttons to call the stewardesses and control the media while doubling as a video game controller.

And the back of the chairs had USB ports and a place to plug in your laptop was beneath you. Before, best thing about flights was the view out of the window and free alcohol, but now every seat can be your personal office. Too bad each seat was also the size of a pack of cigarettes.

On the departing flight, I watched “Warm Bodies”, “Chronicle”, “Django Unchained”, and half of “Oz: The Great and Powerful”, I tried tackling “The Life of Pi”, the novel, but it took way too long to get to the actual story. Anyway, the anticipation of stepping foot in Asia slowed time down, and 14 hours felt a little like an entire day. The views out of the window were still beautiful, even when they were pictures of nothing. But we landed in Osaka:

At the customs desk, people were wearing white face masks and I immediately asked myself what the hell I got into and why the airports let me into this country without some sort of forewarning of a viral outbreak. Actually, many citizens just wear this to regulate or stop the transfer of germs all over the place. I think. In Kansai International Airport, I spent a bit of time trying to locate the kiosk to pick up my portable Wi-Fi at by asking some people. Simple things like "where is this place?" Don't translate amongst employees who have to talk to travelers all the time for some reason, but we worked through it. Additionally, this was my fault because the e-mail confirmation I printed out at home clearly said to pick up the portable Wi-Fi device at the “JAL, 4th Floor desk” and I went to the 1st and 2nd floors to find it. Also, for some reason, these were posted on all of the elevators:

That done, I went to the JR Train Station to switch my Exchange Pass for a Japan Rail Pass, and I boarded the JR Haruka train to Kyoto.

Now, it is worthy of noting: on the way to the Kyoto train station, the JR Haruka arrived at a stop in Shin-Osaka. There, I spotted a tall black guy, walking in panicky circles and talking to someone on the phone. For no reason other than idiocy and fun times in my head, I decided to keep a black person count for the duration of my Japan trip. They will be noted in the rest of the Japan series.

Before boarding and after I got the Japan Rail Pass, I asked about the JR Haruka to Kyoto, and the train station worker gave me a specific time and train, which I thought was the ONLY one I could take to Kyoto. When I got downstairs, I was just told to board a random train going there. Riding in the night, looking at how close the residences were to the train, occasionally crossing through the streets and seeing bright neon signs of Kanji off in the distance, is really the part that pushed the reality that I was in a new land....and also that I probably should’ve somehow schedule this train trip in the day time because it startled me a little when coupled with the fact that I didn’t have internet access at the time and had no real sense of where I was going. The train stop was Kyoto. The New York state of mind is thinking that the train was just going to drop me off in some other part of Kyoto nowhere near my hotel. Luckily, there is just one train station for each town on the Haruka trains.

Arriving at my stop, I got out into the massive Kyoto Train Station,

and arrived to the sight of a large, flowing crowd, people driving on the left side of the road, and sound of electronic bird chirps. Extremely tired, eager to get to a toilet and needing a shower, I walked out the station still amazed that I’ve made it to another country, and of course walked about 5 blocks in the opposite direction of the hotel. Standing in middle of a busy block like an idiot with a suitcase and messenger bag for 4 minutes, I finally found some youthful fellows with internet connection to look up where I was supposed to go on Google Maps.

Hotel Kyoto Vista.

(That's a day time pic but this part of my trip was still at night) My room was excellent. A single bed with the light switchboard for the entire room, a television with a moderate amount of cable I loved my room, a shower with some sort of strong mist spray mode that made it like taking a shower in the heavens themselves. My T.V. brought me silly Japanese commercials, detective shows and a large amount of Sumo Wrestling competition coverage. However, it sucked that there was no smoking allowed. Also, the entire room was approximately the size of the average American bathroom, but eventually that became part of it`s charm. I considered venturing out into town that very night, but was way too tired. So then, the next day was the start of The Samurai’s travels in his spiritual homeland, and I will cover it in 2 more posts......

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Return of the Samurai

New blog posts are coming within the next two weeks.