Monday, January 31, 2011

Days 4-6: The Great Tokyo Cycling Tour - A 6 Hour Cycling Marathon + Tokyo in a Helicopter by Night + The Kingdom of Dreams & Magic

Saturday, January 29

We now come to day 4. I wanted to see Tokyo and was wondering the best way to see it. Walking...hmmm...can't cover everything. Metro? Don't want to see the underground! Bus? You got to be kidding me! And then it struck me...why not cycle around Tokyo! I got together with a bunch of other people who were visiting and we were good to go.

I was the only naive cyclist in the group of 5 and also the youngest. One of the cyclists had around a decade of experience and is now the Global Director for Logistics in x company, another is the Director of an international distance learning university. They were all also hardcore cycling enthusiasts. One of them had actually come to India and done the Char Dham yatra on a bicycle! I on the other hand have not cycled for years but what the heck, what's life without adventure! Oh another has actually been to Ongole in Andhra Pradesh (his friend is a minister in the church over there).

Got up early in the morning and headed to our meeting point (a bicycle rental place). Took me some time to choose a bicycle. I was finally handed a shiny 8-gear professional bike. 8 gears! I have only ridden a cycle with no gears. We first took off for Sumiyoshi Jinja Shrine in Osaka. There is not much English information available for this shrine, but it's basically an old fishing village with the shrine dedicated to the sea god.

Around an hour after starting out (around 10am), I think to myself, how do I record this entire brilliant cycling tour experience through quaint little Japanese lanes, Japanese houses, through bridges and across rivers, a Tokyo that you would never  otherwise see. And then it struck me, why Google MyTracks! So I take out my Nexus One and start recording my tracks...the first time I have ever used this nifty little software, more on that later. The cycling was a bit scary when there were no cycling paths and you had to cycle on the road with other traffic but got the hang of it as we went on.

Our next stop was Tsukiji fish market. The Tsukiji fish market  is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. On any given week day, the market does business worth 20 million dollars. The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar, and from tiny sardines to 300kg tuna and controversial whale species. A sight here was that most of the seafood we saw for sale was alive from fish to turtles to octopuses to species I could not identify. It was sad to see that their life would end in a couple of hours.

We then cycled over numerous bridges (the names of which I cannot remember) and while seeing a couple of other Buddhist shrines (again cannot remember the names), landed up at Tokyo Bay. There were some tough slopes during this stretch which left me huffing and puffing. Also, there was this one particular shrine where it is considered lucky to climb it through a flight of around 100 steep steps. We all did this and it was exhausting. But once you climb up, between the skyscrapers, you come across this shrine and a serene pond with fish and it is so peaceful. It's like all the traffic has vanished. We cycled on and finally settled down by a small stretch of beach and where I finally got the chance to savor authentic Japanese cuisine. I had some vegetarian Tempura with rice. The taste was brilliant and I can now finally say that I have had a taste of Japanese food culture.

We then took a boat (it's now around 12:15am), and then cycled on to Zojyo-ji Temple and Tokyo Tower. The temple is very important as six of the fifteen Tokugawa shoguns are buried at Zōjō-ji. We went inside and were lucky enough to see a Buddhist ceremony in place (something like the aarti we have in our temples). The head priest was conducting it and so there were drums and chanting and bells and candles and the whole place was alive.

We then moved on to see the Imperial Palace. Once again we were lucky enough to arrive in time to see the changing of the guard at the palace. We finally headed back.

After the tour, I can say, if a city's infrastructure supports it, one should see the city by cycle. We saw numerous shrines, visited numerous parks, saw the headquarters of different companies, all in 6 hours. Essentially, we covered all of South Tokyo and saw people living their daily lives. At one stop, I remember a Japanese couple who were on a picnic giving us this seed which is supposed to very healthy and said to cure arthritis...can't remember the name. Also remember having this traditional Japanese dessert at another stop made of cherry, leaves and something...can't remember the name (which is why it is important to write down stuff the very same day you experience it).  Google MyTracks enabled me to track the entire route and export on to Google Maps and Google Earth.

If you have the necessary plug-in, just click 'Satellite' and you can see the route on Google Earth. The Google Earth would make more sense as Map shows everything in Japanese so you really can't understand where we sent so might as well see it on Earth and look at the sights. MyTracks also provided us with other details such as elevation, gradients etc...give it a shot. I used it for the first time and now love it.

In the evening I was supposed to go on a helicopter cruise around Tokyo...the helipad is really far away. It took me an hour to reach there by metro, then to wait another hour as weather was not too good, only to have the flight canceled. I rode back to my hotel room to finally have the 50 kilometre cycling marathon after effects kick in on the body. So finally settled for a warm bath in the tub, while sipping some Strabucks and listening to some awesome Japanese music on the 13inch TV in the bathroom. Pretty relaxing.

Crashed on the bed only to wake up next morning at 12:00.

Sunday, January 30

Not the best planned day. The cycling after effects made me get up at 12:00...and needed to rush in to see my 2 sights for the day. Google Maps failed me this time around. I had to go to see one of Tokyo's most famous shrines. As always, I took the train route Google maps recommended. What Google Maps didn't know and didn't tell me was that the train it gave me was a non-stop express train to Hanneda Airport (or was it Narita?). I realised the same when it skipped the next two stations and it was a good 45 minutes before the next stop came in an area unknown to me. Got down and wasted around 1/2hr trying to figure out how to get to where I want to. Finally decided to go back (another 45mins) and catch the train from the start.

It was pretty late by the time I reached Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon). The good news is that because I had delayed, I had reached there post sun set (the sun sets at 5:00pm approx here) and the temple looked beautiful. This is the oldest temple in Tokyo and according to legend, a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628 by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. The chief of their village, Hajino Nakamoto, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa, so that the villagers could worship the Kannon.

The temple also is accessed by going through a narrow street which sells all sorts of Japanese knick knacks. If you are ever visiting Tokyo and need to buy souvenirs and Japanese cultural items, this is the street to come to.

The next step was the Tokyo National Museum but skipped that as I had re-scheduled my helicopter cruise (which got canceled again!). Spent the evening in Roppongi Hills seeing all the shops. I love the boots people wear in Tokyo. If you are a woman, you need to purchase a pair of shoes from here.

Monday, January 31

The day I visit the Kingdom of Dreams & Magic...Disneyland Tokyo! The last time I went to Disneyland was way back in 1999 (Disneyland Orlando). Of course there is definite excitement going to the magical kingdom but I highly recommend visiting a Disneyland once as an adult. I chose to visit on a weekday as I thought the crowd would be less but it was still pretty full with lines to the popular attractions being as high as 60 minutes. I managed to cover every single ride and most attractions in the park and these are the ones I recommend:

Also, if you are a vegetarian, then Disneyland in Tokyo is the place to be! Plenty of vegetarian food. Now a little secret unknown to many...Disneyland Tokyo has special popcorn flavours that you will get only in certain areas of the park...for example, 'Honey Popcorn' is only available near the Pooh's Hunny Hunt attraction and nowhere else in the entire park. Disney does not advertise this but that's the case. They should make it sort of a treasure hunt, can be a good marketing tactic to botch up popcorn sales among kids. Each stall anyways had a unique popcorn mug based on the theme...sell it to kids proactively...can you collect them all? Should work.

So anyways, I took up the challenge to have all the popcorn flavours I could find and have the following flavours:

Caramel popcorn
Curry popcorn
Honey popcorn
Soy Sauce and butter popcorn
Chocolate popcprn
Soda popcorn

I skipped having the traditional salt popcorn and cheese popcorn,

I also found a restaurant that sells only crepes in the park (and you know how I love crepes). So, I had a crepe (can't remember the flavour, it was chocolate with another unique flavour). I wanted to come back in the evening to try the mango crepe, but by evening, the place had closed. So I settles for this restaurant that made waffles in the shape of Mickey Mouse topped with strawberry and caramel sauce and cream. Best waffles ever!

Oh and in the evening I saw the Disneyland parade, the Cindrella castle gets decked up, and all of Disney's characters come to life in a parade. I distinctly remember I had missed this back in 1999 so it was lovely to complete that piece of the Disney place.

After a day living away from reality, I thought I would make a last ditch attempt at the helipad and behold, they were operating! So at around 7:30pm, I took a helicopter cruise around Tokyo. This is the first time I have ever traveled in a helicopter. While noisy and a shaky, the view is so great. The helicopter flew real low  which enabled me to see every detail. It flies just a couple of 100 metres above the sky Tokyo skyline. It first flew us over Disneyland, then Rainbow Bridge, followed by Tokyo tower and Roppongi. We went over the Ginza district, the stadium and the Tokyo SkyTree. Though still under construction, when completed, the Tokyo Sky Tree will be the tallest tower in the world beating Canton Tower, the tallest structure on an island beating Taipei 101 and the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa. Oh and we could also see the Imperial Palace (though we flew higher around this area). By the way, got a beautiful view of Mount Fuji from my office window on the first day at work, so kind of seen that.

Finally landed back and I made my way back to my hotel. It's now 1:30am and I need to to get up early for my flight and then reach Hyderabad and report back to work. Oh while coming, I saw the Social Network and Wall Street Money Never Sleeps. Enjoyed both movies...give them a watch.

Overall, a great trip indeed. Some new experiences, some new discoveries. The most important I would say is that to truly see a city and feel it's pulse, once must see it by cycle. First time I did it and I love it. I look to return back to Japan to cover a host of other things I want to do. Never imagined that Japan would offer so much.

Till we meet again!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Days 1-3: Entering the Empire of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 26

Happy Republic Day people!

After a mini-adventure getting my visa (somehow visas and passports never come to me without an experience, it's quite scary) and after a pretty comfortable flight....(I managed to get the extra leg room seats on both my incoming routes!), I arrive in the land of the Empire of the Rising Sun. The first thing to amaze me and you have probably heard this before, is the efficiency of this place...I just head over to the bus counter, purchase a ticket...get a bus stop number, go stand there at around 7:00pm. My bus is at 7:30pm...I am asked to return at 7:25pm. Back at 7:25pm and the loaders neatly arrange all our luggage at the platform. At exactly 7:30pm my bus to the hotel arrives. At exactly 7:31pm (I took the front seat so am seeing the clock), the bus departs. In that 1 minute, the loaders load the bags of all the passengers. Luckily for me, my hotel has a bus stop in it's name. If that hadn't been the case, buying a ticket would have been a hassle (the ticket vendor at the airport did not speak a word of English).

I arrive at the hotel and have my iPhone that I had pre-booked on the internet waiting for me. First time ever that I have been able to pre-book a phone while traveling, have the convenience of it delivered to my hotel the day I arrive and the icing on the cake? An affordable, unlimited 3G data connection on the phone. This is the first time I will be using an iPhone and 3G. Japan rocks!

I arrive at my room. Now the room size is normal, but I guess it is definitely large as compared to Japanese standards. Now the good part...while it may not be the biggest room I have ever stayed in, it definitely is the most hi-tech. The room TV has surround sound, plus there is another 13inch tv in the bathroom, double window blinds with automated controls for opening and closing, light dimmers, a locker in which I can plug in my laptop for charging, a very sophisticated and stocked up mini-bar with all the right glasses, a closet with automated lighting, a rain shower, a normal shower, a bath tub, and a lot more nifty gadgets in the bathroom (which I shall refrain from typing in an email). I have been in rooms with one or more above but never in a room with everything in it!

So day 1 is essentially landing in Tokyo and being in awe of the efficiency and technological superiority.

Thursday, January 27

Breakfast is not included in my room package, so I open the menu to be shocked, 2 slices of toast are going to set me back by Rs. 600! No way I am spending that much. I resort to having the thepla I have packed from home. Head on to the Google office for my meeting...lunch time...go hungry. The canteen however has the most unique drinks I have ever seen and ones exclusive to Japan. Strawberry tea anyone? Unfortunately, the Japanese taste does not suit me. The chocolate drinks tastes funny and so I resort to coffee which again I find it hard to intake. I desperately need water at this stage and the closest I see in the vending machine is 'Vitamin Water.' So I take a bottle. Excellent. During the day, I have another. And then a third. My colleague on the right (from India) goes, 'how many are you having?' I go this is my third, what, it's healthy, water with added vitamins. Better than soft drinks.

At that time, my colleague from the Japan office on the left goes...uuuhhh...yes it's healthy but that's not just water with vitamins...essentially heavy exercisers use it. It's got highly stimulating nutrients. I recommend you stop after the 3rd bottle or you are going to start jumping and dancing on the table and through the night! Oops...I then settle for some excellent hot, corn Knorr's pretty cool. You select it in the vending machine, and the machine prepares it and then dispenses it.

After the day's business comes to a close, we head to a restaurant called Tamakairiki Now this restaurant specialises in 'Sumo dining.' Essentially, it serves the exact food that sumo wrestlers have. The restaurant is very traditional. You sit in a room on the floor with low tables. Now sumo wrestlers have something called Chanko-nabeand this is exactly what is served to us. Chankonabe is a Japanese stew (a type of nabemono or one-pot dish) commonly eaten in vast quantity by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight gain diet. It contains a dashi or chicken broth soup base with sake or mirin to add flavor. The bulk of chankonabe is made up of large quantities of protein sources (usually chicken (quartered, skin left on), fish (fried and made into balls), tofu (or sometimes beef) and vegetables (daikon, bok choy, etc).

It's essentially a big pot with everything above thrown in, heated and stirred. Obviously, I go hungry peers love it. We then head to a karaoke bar. Here is the cool part, we take a taxi and as we reach our destination, the taxi doors automatically open wide when the chauffeur presses a button! Coming back to topic, karaoke has originated from Japan and even today is a strong part of Japanese culture. This is my first ever karaoke experience and though being absolutely naive in English music, manage to sing a song or a group, it's a lot of fun!

Friday, January 28

Another day of theplas for breakfast. Another day of knowledgable meetings. Luckily, my peer from India has now identified an Indian restaurant called 'Moti' and we head there for lunch. Awesome vegetable curry and naan. Head back to office for some of the best team events I have ever attended. There is a 'Ramen TGIF' at office today. Some top chefs arrive who cook the Ramen style of noodles. Now this is not the commercially available Top Ramen noodles which I never knew. Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish. It consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat- or fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork, dried seaweed, kamaboko, green onions, and occasionally corn. Almost every locality in Japan has its own variation of ramen, from the tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen of Kyūshū to the miso ramen of Hokkaidō. 

Not your average, plain joe 2 minute noodles is it? The cafe is full and the chefs cook the noodles in style (like a bar tender making a drink). I can just watch, can't eat (again!).

Work till late evening and before heading back, stop by a Starbucks. As many of you may know, I never tale coffee. My only exception is when I travel, I make sure to have the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato. By the way, in Japan, when you pay cash, you do not give it to a person in hand. It's considered extremely disrespectful. The cashier will have the cash tray out in front (something like a tipping bowl that you see at a Dunkin Donuts) and you put the cash in there which the cashier then collects. Back to the room. Theplas for dinner.

It's now been 2 days of using the iPhone and an Android is the clear winner (ducks to avoid the shoes from iPhone fans reading this email).

Tomorrow looks to be an exciting day, stay tuned for more!