Earlier this month we returned from our annual sojourn to Japan. It was a wonderful trip, and it helps explain why the ABL production line shut down for most of June.
While I\’ve got many a post in the hopper, today I\’m just going to commemorate our trip.
Getting to Japan from DFW is always a treat. Normally we fly into Tokyo and wend our way down to Osaka (by plane or train), but this time a connection in San Francisco took us straight to Osaka.
Where we were greeted by this:
I don\’t want to nitpick, but these guys don\’t look all that excited to see me. And nothing says, \”Celebrate the incomparable beauty of Japan\” quite like an airport runway backdrop.
Thankfully there was a much warmer welcome nearby:
We\’ve gotten in the habit of hitting the same kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi place on arrival to KIX, and it didn\’t disappoint.
While the grandparents are very excited to see the boys, we\’ve learned our jetlagged and energetic children are best in small doses. After a couple of nights, we left my in-laws\’ house for our first \”trip within a trip\”: Suzuka Circuit.
Suzuka Circuit is a motorsport race track, an amusement park, and a hotel, all rolled into one.
It gets busy during race events and on weekends, and once Japanese schools let out, it\’s overrun by kids.
However, there were no races in sight, Japanese schools were in session, and it was a Tuesday.
Would we have the same luck as last year, when the staff outnumbered the guests? It appears yes.
We were excited to see the same guy working the motorcycle ride as last year. Once again, he was able to break away from the rush of customers to take a picture:
3 different car rides and only 2 people…
All of the restaurants were open. Sort of.
The day was a perfect balance of, \”Awesome! No lines!\” and \”This is a little spooky.\” But the boys had a great time.
They even got a retired Honda engineer to advise them on building their own wooden car. He seemed pretty excited to have something to do.
The racing-themed hotel is really nice…
…and the rooms are awesome.
On our way back to the grandparents\’ house, we stopped in Nagoya to visit my sister-in-law and her family.
The Port of Nagoya Aquarium was really impressive.
Poor translations are becoming less common, so we need to celebrate them wherever possible:
The cousins don\’t have much shared language, but they seemed to get on smashingly.
A must-do in Japan is to eat at an izakaya. Just look around for a suspicious-looking stairwell down…
Only in Japan: not only do you get little sausage octopus men, but some artisan went to the trouble to give them different expressions.
The view from our Nagoya hotel (paid with points, natch). It was a convenient base to visit my sister-in-law and her family, but it was also convenient to a secondary objective (barely visible in the lower right corner).
We\’ve gotten used to early-morning jetlag jaunts:
And after killing a few hours wandering around, we arrived at the downtown Nagoya Yamaha store at open.
Why did we travel all the way to Japan to buy my son\’s alto saxophone for band next year? That is an excellent question and may warrant its very own blog post! Since it will hit two huge demographics (folks interested in marketing distribution channels and alto sax fans), it should have near-universal appeal.
Although these are identical models, the staff wanted my son to try out (at least) three of them to see which one sounded best. (They all sounded similar to me – shhhhhhh.)
Service in Japan is always amazing, even when you\’re buying something small and inexpensive.
When you\’re buying something more high-end, it hits a whole new level. My son was really impressed with the purchase process.
Sometimes, what you choose not to do is just as important. As we drove by, we debated how much we would need to be paid to get on this monster.
Another time killer was a visit to the Ninja Museum in Iga.
The missus and I were 100.0% sure this was going to be a garish tourist trap. That seemed to be confirmed by the missus being the only Japanese visitor there.
But we were wrong! It was really cool. There was a ninja weapon demonstration, a tour through a ninja house (lots of secret hiding places and ninja tricks), and a museum full of ninja kit and information. The boys loved it.
Ninja being ninja
Some people take the same picture over time to highlight growth and changes. My setting for this annual tradition is the worst Anpanman statue in Japan.
\”A rose by any other name would smell as sweet\”. I love you, Wal-Mart, even when you\’re called Seiyu.
And your cheap plastic toys are amazing.
Our annual agenda always includes a shopping run to Uniqlo. While Uniqlo is making a valiant attempt to be a (somewhat) upscale brand in the U.S., it is decidedly discount in Japan with a much broader selection.
We typically stock up on t-shirts for the boys\’ fall wardrobes – they are cool designs with an exotic flair (at least until Uniqlo sees more U.S. success…). And they cost $9.
My mother-in-law was a cooking machine during our visit, so one day we gave her a break and went to Ohsho, a really inexpensive but great restaurant chain. There are tons of great options – many of them priced around $5.
One of our many trips to an onsen (hot springs). Sadly there aren\’t any pictures from the inside, but this place was great. I\’m hoping to publish my Guide to Onsen sometime soon, which is eagerly anticipated by at least two readers.
Another annual tradition is a visit to a local all-you-can-eat yakiniku restaurant. The rough translation is, \”Can you eat all of the meat in Osaka?\”
You have your own burner to grill the meat.
The 1000+ year old Tada Shrine is a short walk from my in-laws\’ house, so every year we make a visit.
This year we were in for a special treat – we were there for a semi-annual Shinto ceremony where you walk through this magic ring three times. I did it and believe I have leveled up my luck and/or health for the next six months.
We were able to pick up some fireworks at the local Seiyu. My in-laws were surprised that fireworks are pretty much illegal (at least in / near cities) in the U.S., but I reminded them that at least we can buy semi-automatic assault rifles everywhere. \”When in Rome…\”
My mother-in-law is a great cook, and I did gain a lot of weight in Japan. Our takoyaki fest:
And our sushi fest:
We drove for an hour to get to this public swimming pool / onsen / restaurant. An hour drive to go swimming sounds crazy, but it was actually worth it.
This may be the perfect post-onsen lunch:
And beer from a vending machine is always a treat.
Our final grandparent-relief excursion was to Himeji Castle. I hadn\’t been there in over 10 years – they\’ve done a significant renovation in the interim.
My boys were in ninja mode during most of the visit. Thankfully, as befits a true ninja, they were not seen or heard by the strangers they were stalking.
Despite traveling around a good bit, we didn\’t take a single train during our visit to Japan. That may not sound strange to a non-Japanese, but it was extraordinary for Japan (the first and probably only time that will ever happen for us). It\’s akin to visiting the U.S. and not getting in a car once.
We have my father-in-law to thank – he lent us his car and encouraged us to drive everywhere. While driving in Japan is extremely expensive (gas is high and tolls are outrageous), it\’s decidedly less so when someone else is paying for everything.
Behold our ride: the Subaru Levorg (yes, that is the worst name ever – I think the Star Trek fan and the Francophile must\’ve compromised). It\’s unavailable in the U.S., but if it ever makes it across the missus wants it.
As we wrapped up the trip, we had to get some final hits of local Osaka comfort food at the airport. I ordered the takoyaki:
And the missus ordered okonomiyaki:
Since we were flying home from Tokyo, we needed to shuttle from KIX to Narita on Jetstar.
Jetstar was excited to give away stuff to anyone who would pose for a picture. Naturally, Japanese folks were too reserved to take part. Enter the Americans!
That\’s our ride home. (Hint: it\’s the one with the crappy service.)
While Japan makes for a challenging annual trip, we always have fun and really enjoy the time with the family. We tend to celebrate the differences between the U.S. and Japan, leaving us both eager to visit and eager to get home.
Thus ends my \”travel blog for a day\” – we\’ll be back to our regular scheduled programming next week 🙂