Friday, December 8, 2017

Bullet Trains, Nagoya, LegoLand, and Nagoya Castle

I don't know a kid who isn't wowed when a bullet train roars by, especially when he or she is standing on a station platform. The sleek nose of the train, the noise, the buffeting wind, and the sheer speed all combine to make it an awesome sight. Mimi and Kuri were bouncing up and down when our shinkansen (bullet train) arrived to take us to Nagoya.
On the inside, that sense of speed and granduer is greatly diminished. Riding the Shinkansen is comfortable and quiet, providing little evidence other than the blurred landscape to the speed. When you get on, all the seats are facing in the direction of travel.
However, if you're traveling with a large party, and you're lucky enough to find a group of seats in the unreserved section (it's cheaper), you can turn one set around to face the other. This isn't just a quirk. The shinkansen trains don't turn around. Once they reach their terminal destination, they simply just go off again in the opposite direction, with the seats changing direction.
Traveling south to Nagoya (about 2 hours south of Tokyo via shinkansen) allows for an awesome view of Mount Fuji. Fuji stays in the background as you move through semi-industrial sites (with a graveyard in the foreground)...
...and on into tea fields. Traveling on the Shinkansen is a excellent way to discover just how varied the landscape of Japan can be. It hardly all just cities.
Arriving in Nagoya we sought out our hotel, again by rail (subway). With three kids and a massive suitcase, I would've preferred a taxi, but we eventually made it. We stayed at the Tokyu hotel, which provided us with a massive (for Japan) room.
Freed of our suitcases, we decided to hit the city for a little dinner and shopping. Kuri came across an awesome Rolls Royce just outside the lobby.
As we walked the streets we marveled at the light show.
And attempted to create Abbey Road, only with three kids - Japan style.
We stopped off for dinner at an omrice shop (an omelet filled with rice). Omrice is a family favorite which we make at home, but something you really can't find almost anywhere in the states.
Getting around Nagoya was pretty easy once we figured out the massive, sprawling, underground stations (well, kind of figured out). Throughout the trip, Kuri insisted on holding on to his own rail ticket. Amazingly, he didn't lose a single one. 
Mimi liked to lead us to the trains and was charged with always finding us (or at least herself) a seat.
Later that first night we sought out one of my favorite Japanese stores: Hard Off. This shop specializes in used electronics, games, and toys. Like it's sibling Book Off, there are great deals to be had and amazing items to find that you'll never come across in the states.
We ended up getting Mimi and Kuri each a Nintendo DS and a few games, several of which will help them study Japanese. Yes, I know the DS is about 10 years old, but being able to pick up absolutely mint machines for fifteen bucks each, I simply couldn't resist.
Early the next morning we set off for Lego Land. After a 20 minute trip, we arrived at the station, facing only a short five minute walk to the park. There was even a giant slide down from the elevated walkway for those adventurous enough to try it.
Before we knew it, we were before the gates of LegoLand, Japan. None of us has been to LegoLand before, in the states or otherwise, so this was a big treat.
Mimi and Kuri loved the submarine ride...
...complete with both real and Lego fish.
The airplane ride was quite a bit of fun. Much like Kuri's favorite race car ride at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This ride clearly showed one key difference between my kids and most native Japanese children. My kids love to scream!
There was a boat adventure, complete with water guns (great for summer, but maybe not idea for November)...
...and lots of child-sized Lego mock-ups for the kids to explore.
The kids even got to meet Emmet.
Kuri got to spend some time building on his own...
...and wasn't shy about celebrating his creation.
The favorite section of the park for the parents, by far, was the mini land, chock full of amazing recreations of Japanese cities and famous sites.
Here's a nice shot of Tokyo...
...complete with bullet train. I genuinely wish that they'd offer kits for some of these specialized creations. The cars, and particularly the trains, were so unique, so authentic. It's a shame they're not available - Lego would've taken quite a bit of my money had they been.
This was my favorite shot from the mini land. At first glance, it looks almost real.
While the kids enjoyed the mini land, they're favorite attractions - by a country mile - were the driving academies. Mimi was able to take part in the main academy - driving on her own through a massive mock-up of streets and highways, complete with intersections and stoplights.
Kuri also got to drive on his own at the Jr. Driving School, though it was only around a small oval. This proved a bit of a revelation for me as I watched him set up racing lines through the corners and overtake on the straights. I'm not kidding. He really did take a racing line! I guess all those rides in the Porsche are having an impact.
After Legoland, we headed back to Nagoya and went out to a restaurant famous for wings close to our hotel. It had been a long day and Papa needed chicken and beer.
The next morning, our final day in Nagoya, we headed north a few stops to check out Nagoya Castle.
Papa, Mimi, and Kuri explored the castle as Mama and Mari (who had passed out in her stroller) hung out down below.
I think the primary take-away for the kids at the castle was the walls that surrounded and supported it. Built of massive bricks, and slotted together without any real mortar, there were a marvel to behold.
Well, OK, let me be honest. The biggest take-away from the castle for the kids was the "Soft Ice," or soft-serve ice cream. I have no idea why, but this is so much better in Japan than in the states - simultaneously creamier and lighter. When asked about their favorite part of the castle visit, Mimi and Kuri both replied, "Ice cream!"
After Nagoya Castle, we picked up our bags from the hotel and boarded the shinkansen once again for the last major event of our Japan adventure: a stay at a Japanese hot spring hotel (onsen). Stay tuned for the last chapter early next week!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Adventures in Tokyo - Bowling, Trains, and... NYC?

A couple of days into our Japan trip we decamped from Shinagawa and headed over to Sumie's brother's house to spend some serious time with the cousins. Here we are about to head out from Shinagawa. As you can tell, Kuri is still entranced by the trains out the window.
Sumie's brother, Shu, and his wife, Kayo, have four kids, so it was a bit refreshing to be in a house again in which there's the traditional level of chaos. Our first night was a laid-back affair, which eventually devolved into Shu and I enjoying a bit too much Japanese whiskey after the kids had gone to bed. As such, no pictures.

I'd always loved the Tokyo neighborhood Shu and Kayo have chosen (around Gotanda and Meguro). This love only blossomed the following morning when, walking to the station, I looked to my left and saw a Doughnut Plant transplant from NYC. I did not even talk to my wife and children. I simply made a 180 with Mari's stroller and headed back for the nearest crosswalk.
While many of the flavors were different, it was still chock full of Doughnut Plant goodness. The kids and I decided to act like hobbits and dig into a second breakfast.
Fully satiated, we then took the first train ride of our trip, heading for the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Museum.
Here are Mimi and Kuri, perhaps more relaxed than they would've been during rush hour, on a Ginza line car from the 1950s.
And here's Mimi in front of one of the first subway cars in Japan.
The museum had a lot of fantastic exhibits. One of the kids' favorites was a cutaway of a train that let them grab hold of the controls.
But this being Japan, it didn't stop at just pretend. There were a number of simulators for different subways. One even had simulated motion so you could feel the train rocking. Both Mimi and Kuri had a chance to get behind the throttle and miss the stopping point at the train platform by several hundred yards.
Mari was a bit too young for the simulators, but she loved the many models on display. "Papa! Denshya! Papa! Train!"
Following our museum visit it was time for lunch. The surprise discovery of Doughnut Plant that morning, and the fact that Tokyo station was on the way home, inspired us to attempt a mini-NYC day. We sought out, and amazingly found, Shake Shack.
Mimi was pleased.
Both kids were excited. After all, they both knew that Shake Shack means custard shakes will be on tap.
I have to say I was pretty impressed. I've eaten at a number of these outside of NYC and never felt they were quite up to snuff. This one, though, hot damn. Or maybe I just really, really needed a Shack Stack (burger topped with a portabella mushroom stuffed with gruyere cheese and fried - yeah, that's healthy).
Back near Shu and Kayo's place we decided to do some shopping. We just happened to bump into Kayo, who then offered to lead us back home. The kids got to experience her amazing, two-child, electric bicycle. I've been wanting one for here in Marin ever since. This picture occurred a few minutes after Kuri, who insisted on going for a ride, chickened out after about 100 yards. He's not the most adventurous type, my boy.
While shopping we were able to pick up something very special for Mimi: a randoseru, the traditional Japanese backpack for elementary school kids. She'll be wearing this to her Japanese Saturday School proudly. It was amazing just how much our kids look like Japanese elementary school students with these on.
Back at Shu and Kayo's it wasn't all play. Unlike us, their kids were still in school and there was homework to be done. Mimi worked on her book project alongside her older cousin, Shuhei.
Asuka, who is roughly the same age as Mimi, took the desk for her studies. In the midst of a trip, it was rather nice having this bit of "regular" home life to balance out the adventures.
The next day, Sumie's parents decided to invite some of the extended family out for a bit of bowling. Mimi, as you can see, takes her bowling rather seriously.




Kuri, on the other hand, is a bit more laid back.
We all had a great time save for Mari, who was still adjusting to the time difference and all the new people. Perhaps you noticed in the picture above that she's holding a bottle. It was the sports drink from this same bottle that she managed to pour on the floor. And it's the same sports drink her father managed to step in without knowing just before he bowled, resulting in a catastrophic slip that landed him square on his right knee, which had nerve damage for the rest of the trip. Ah, traveling with infants. You never know what's going to happen.

After bowling the kids had time for some games. This one was a four player take on air hockey that, from time to time, would dump and additional 10 mini pucks onto the "ice." Kuri and Shuhei narrowly beat out Mimi and Asuka in several highly contested rounds.
And, of course, we had to play a bit of Taiko.

We closed out our cousin adventures at a yaki niku restaurant (Japanese BBQ done with thin meat over an open fire at your table). The food was wonderful, but as you can see, even before setting down to eat, the kids were feeling the effects of all the excitement. Kuri was sound asleep by the time we left the restaurant.
It had been a fantastic week with family and friends in Tokyo. As all of us were now finally getting past our jet lag, it was time to move on, via bullet train, to Nagoya, Lego Land, and beyond. More on that in the next installment.