To Recap: In May, 2012 I went to Asia on the “Three-Countries-Three-Weeks-Three-Kids” tour. The first stop on this once-in-a-lifetime trip was Shanghai, followed by several days in Seoul. Then it was on to Kyoto, Japan.
When I arrived in Shanghai and Seoul, I was met at the airport by my daughter or my son. They had been “in country” for a while and knew how to navigate through the transportation system and get to my hotel, so it was really a piece of cake. By the time that I went out on my own to wander for any length of time, I was at least partially acclimated and didn’t look like a total, 100% lost American tourist (despite the way I dressed).
Arriving at Kansai International in Osaka, my daughter was at school, so I got to figure out on my own how to get from Osaka to Kyoto on the train, get to my hotel by myself, and so on. It was an adventure and I loved it!
First of all, Kansai is built on an artificial island out in Osaka Bay. That’s pretty cool to begin with, especially to an airplane geek like me. Once there and through customs, it was not quite rocket science to figure out how to get to Kyoto, about 100 kilometers to the northeast. What confused me was that I didn’t realize there were different and independent train companies running all over the place.
Here in the US, there’s just Amtrak for long-distance hauls and various “metro” systems locally. If you get an all-day ticket for the metro system, it generally doesn’t matter if you’re on a subway, bus, or light rail. They’re all part of the same system, interchangeable. Not in Japan, apparently. There are multiple trains running between cities and multiple local metro options, but you can’t necessarily substitute one for the other. It’s not just a choice between an express or a local, or between a luxurious train and a commuter train. It’s a choice between Train Company A, Train Company B, and in some cases, Train Company C. Each comes with different stations, different tracks, different schedules, and different tickets. Once it clicks in and you figure it out, it’s not that big of a deal, but it does remind you that you should have left your assumptions at home.
Once I was on the train to Kyoto for the hour-long trip, it became obvious how valuable every inch of land was in Japan. This was also true in China and Korea, but it seemed to go to another level in Japan. Shanghai is crowded, Seoul is really crowded, but Japan has turned space utilization into an art form.
Perhaps one reason it seemed that way was the way that fields and rice paddies were cheek to jowl with huge metropolitan areas, and it all seemed to be one, huge metropolitan area. Everywhere I went in Osaka and Kyoto, I quickly learned not to be surprised if I rounded the corner of a busy city intersection and found a half-acre plot of some food crop growing. Space is not wasted there.
This was also true of the hotel room. In Shanghai I was in a “Western-style” hotel (which seemed to be more like the 1960’s or 1970’s version of Western, but close enough) and in Seoul I was staying in a hotel built by the US Army for military personnel and their families, so it was a lot like being in a Holiday Inn or an older Marriott.
In Japan, I was really in a different environment. The room and bathroom combined might have been 150 square feet, or it might have been closer to 125, but it was one of the “large” rooms in the hotel. Again, a very nice reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, which after all, was the point of the trip!
On the other hand, there were some nice, very non-American amenities included. On the near corner of the desk above you can see the pajamas that were laid out for me (and folded each day by housekeeping)…
It was fun to play with, I’m not going to lie, but I kept worrying that I would push the wrong button and need to be rescued. Thank goodness for that big, orange-red, “STOP” button there, just in case. With a variable-temperature heated seat, various combinations of water sprays, temperatures, and water pressure… Yeah, you don’t get that at the Holiday Inn in Sheboygan.
Following dinner where I finally met up with my daughter, I got to prowl the area around Kyoto Station. (My hotel was across the street — nice place, I liked it.) At night, Kyoto is lit up like a Christmas tree, as were all of the other Asian cities I saw.
Again with the huge tower in the middle of the city, complete with 360-degree views at the top. It’s no Pearl Tower, but impressive nonetheless and a great landmark to look for when I would get lost. (This literally saved me at least twice when I got off the subway at the wrong station inadvertently, and could tell as soon as I got to street level because the tower wasn’t where I knew it had to be.)
One thing a friend had told me about Japan was that you could buy anything in a vending machine. I found this to be eerily true. OK, I didn’t see any 747’s or cars for sale in vending machines, but I did see every sort of electronic device and accessory, thousands and thousands of different types of food and drink (hot, cold, or anywhere in between), beer, hard liquor, cigarettes and cigars, clothing (including hats & ties), sunblock and medicines, books, CD’s, DVD’s, cameras, batteries, memory cards, film, office supplies… It was quite amazing.
It was a very “Blade Runner” moment being out on the streets of Kyoto in the late evening with huge electric billboards and displays everywhere, only to find back alleys off of the main streets that were filled with glowing vending machines.
Then you would get the ones that were all total unknowns and wild-ass guesses (tea? water? flavored water or plain? alcoholic or non-alcoholic?) with a container of Welch’s Grape Juice all alone in the middle, a stranger in a strange land.
I learned that “Diet Coke” is actually “Coca-Cola Lite” in a very similar package, and really, really NOT what I know as Diet Coke. (Diet Coke is my caffeine substrate of choice.)
I learned that “water” is at least 50/50 likely to be flavored, even though it looks like just plain old water. In my three weeks in Asia I ended up getting water flavored with lemon, lime, peach, strawberry, orange, and watermelon. I’m sure that it said on the label what it was, but it said it in Chinese or Korean or Japanese. It is quite the surprise to expect “water” and get “peach-flavored water”. I learned to sip when I first opened a bottle to figure out what I had bought. It was a bit like eating Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans on the train to Hogwarts. You never quite knew what you would get next.