Onigiri Dash in Hakata

When there is zero time between trains, what can you do for dinner? This was the question Reiko and I had as we arrived in Hakata Station, utterly exhausted from all the travel our trip entailed. We knew there would be another three hours ahead of us as we rode the Shinkansen back to Nagoya so going without was not an option. Like many other travellers in a similar predicament, we found a convenience store at the train station and picked up some supplies.

Grabbing and dashing some onigiri and "colourful" sandwiches. This is living.

Kujukushima Aquarium

Reiko and I both enjoy visiting aquariums. They're a relaxing way to enjoy an afternoon and have a sentimental feeling to them as well1. Today we made our way to the 九十九島水族館 (Kujukushima Aquarium) and enjoyed some of what the park had to offer … including the legendary Sasebo Burgers. The aquarium itself was nowhere near the size or splendour of the Nagoya or Osaka aquariums, but there was plenty to see and enjoy.

Like other aquariums around Japan, 

九十九島水族館 has the requisite number of tanks dedicated to tropical fish, sea creatures, and jelly fish. What's interesting about this particular place is that the dolphin show is performed on the roof. This is because the fish tanks don't go underground, which limits the amount of space that the dolphins have to build up speed for jumps and other activities. I feel bad for them … there just isn't enough room to move around in.

Outside of the aquarium there are a number of stalls offering all sorts of unhealthy foods and souvenirs to visitors, with most places offering Sasebo burgers of varying size and price. We managed to pick up a toy for Nozomi2 as well as a few things for the in-laws. By 3:30 we were completely exhausted, though, and ready to make our way back to Hakata Station where we would start the long journey back to Nagoya.

Today is our last day in Kyushu, but it won't be the last time we come here. I'd love to come back again next year.

Huis Ten Bosch

Day two of our trip to Kyushu, and there's no sign of the fun letting up. Today we went to a European-styled theme park nestled in the woods between Sasebo and Nagasaki to enjoy the atmosphere, see one of the past places Conan had visited, and otherwise have fun in a far, far away place. And have fun we did!

We arrived on the Huis Ten Bosch train before noon and made our way across the bridge to a land where people don't shy away from English1. The name Huis Ten Bosch is supposed to mean "the house in the forest" in Dutch, and this description isn't far from the truth. A thick wall of trees line the entire property adding natural-looking walls to the park without appearing too man-made. There are US Navy residential apartments less than 100 meters from most of the hotels, but you'd never know for the absence of military noise, lack of police, and the amount of time people spent staring at the gaijin outside of the expected zones.

The nice thing about this place is that it's good for people of all ages. There are lots of activities for kids to enjoy, such as running in an inflated ball on the water, dressing up like a pirate and boarding an authentic-looking wooden pirate ship, and playing the multitude of anime-related games that ring the park. This year's theme seemed to be One Piece, which included everything from full-sized characters standing at various points in the park, to a barge built like the famous ship that couldn't possibly sail the seven seas.

For older people, such as parents and 30-something hopefuls, the 3D art and various multimedia attractions are always a fun draw. Outside of the event itself, what we liked most about these attractions over the ones at USJ2 and Disney was the lack of ridiculous lines. Only for one show did we wait more than 5 minutes, and that was for a show that started at a pre-determined time. Everything else, while crowded, was an almost immediate entry. Because of this, we were able to enjoy a good 80% of the activities that were available in a single day. Restaurants, however, were another story.

That said, after a solid eight hours inside the park, we need a rest. We're staying at the Watermark Hotel in a huge room facing the water. Our luggage was waiting for us when we arrived, and the in-room amenities are better than expected. The one and only thing that could make this better, aside from a powered USB port somewhere, would be an onsen … which can't be found on this side of the island.

Here are some of the many, many pictures that we took at the park:

Vacationing Around Japan: Day One - Osaka

The skies are clear, and the attractions are darn-near empty. What better time is there to see some of the many great sites all around Japan? Reiko and I have been itching to travel around Japan together and, now that her birthday is just around the corner, this week seemed to be the perfect time to get out and about. That said, it wasn't one of those "spur of the moment" things … Reiko's been planning this for weeks.

Our first destination: Osaka (大阪). This is a city that I've wanted to visit for a while, as everybody who goes absolutely loves the place. We decided to take the Shinkansen from Nagoya in the early morning so that we could get the most out of our visit to Osaka, and it was well worth the effort.

First stop: 大阪城 (Osaka Castle)!

Osaka Castle has a long history, and is said to have been impervious to attack. While history shows us that this was not exactly the case, the opportunity to examine for myself just how easily one could have taken the castle was a nice challenge. This was my second visit to a famous castle in Japan and, I must say, it was almost disappointing to see that the inside of the landmark had been completely updated. Luxurious elevators, spacious museum displays, hidden power and water lines, and automatic sliding doors on the top level for guests. It's almost as though the outer shell is all that remains of this testament to time. That said, it's still a great opportunity to learn more about Japan's past.

Completed in 1598, Osaka castle has a long history of being used in conflicts and later being restored.  The most interesting period, however, was in the first 22 years of the castle's existence.

Hideyori died shortly before the completion of the castle, but it was passed to his son, Toyotomi Hideyori.  Less than two years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Hideyori's armies at the Battle of Sekigahara, but let Hideyori remain in Osaka.  Fourteen years later (now 1614), Tokugawa attacked Hideyori during the winter.  Although Toyotomi's forces were outnumbered 2 to 1, they managed to fight off Hideyori's 200,000-strong army and protect the castle's outer walls.  Realizing Osaka Castle's strength lied in its moats, Tokugawa began filling up the outer moat, which left the castle essentially defenseless.

This didn't stop Hideyori, though.  In the summer of 1615, he issued that the moat be cleared once more.  Tokugawa, outraged by this action, sent his armies to Osaka Castle once again.  However, rather than simply lay seige to the castle, Tokugawa planned to eliminate the Toyotomi clan completely.

He quickly succeeded.

Five years later, the new heir to the shogunate, Tokugawa Hidetada, began to reconstruct and rearm the castle.  He had an elevated main tower (five stories outside, and eight inside) built, and assigned the task of constructing new walls to the 64 individual samurai clans.  The walls built 400 years ago still stand today and are made with interlocking bricks rather than mortar and other similar materials.  Many of the stones were brought from quarries in the Seto Inland Sea, and bear the family crests of the people who laid them into the walls.

All that in 22 years.

Since that time, Osaka Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, with the most recent renovations completed in 1997.  All in all, this is one of the places in Osaka that you do not want to miss if you have the opportunity to go.  There's lots to learn, lots to see, and lots to eat.

Next Stop: 大阪水族館 (Osaka Aquarium)

The next stop on our list was the ever-famous Osaka Aquarium.  Situated in Osakako, this aquarium takes up a massive eight floors and has some of the largest completely enclosed water tanks I've ever seen.

Reiko and I managed to get through the whole complex in about three hours, and we were taking our time.  The nice thing about this aquarium is that there's lots of windows and lots of space.  That said, you wouldn't want to go on a weekend or during any of the standard Japanese holidays.  These attractions are really enjoyable only if you're going while everyone else is at work or in school.  Anything else will turn out to be little more than a test of patience.

The Osaka Aquarium was not quite as educational as the one in Nagoya, nor did it have any outdoor attractions (that we saw).  However, to make up for this, there are an incredible number of fish and other water animals for people to enjoy.  Almost every tank was two stories or more, allowing people to see how the animals interacted with the land and sea, and there was nothing blocked from view.  If an otter was going to grab himself a fish from the bottom of the pool, then there was nothing stopping the crowd from seeing the animal catch its prey and devour it right in front of us.

But then … this is normal behavior at the dinner table, too.

I'll write about the food and the hotel in another post, as there was just too many food places to write about.  Perhaps I'll just pick the ones that we enjoyed … that should keep the post under 2000 words.  Have you been to Osaka?  What places would you recommend we see on our next visit to the Food Capital of Japan?

Back in Canada

After an enjoyable visit to Japan, I had a great flight back, and now I find myself at home and unmotivated to do the laundry or buy groceries.

I must say that the security at Kansai Airport was quite a bit more relaxed than that at Vancouver. After going through a metal detector and having my notebook checked for illegal substances, I was let through and that was that. No pat-down. No shoe removal. I didn't even have to take off my jacket. Heck, I could have easily smuggled 5 kilos of opium if I was into drugs. But it's all good, we clearly made it without any problems, and ahead of schedule by about 45 minutes.

One positive note about the flight was my seat being upgraded to business class due to the fullness of the plane. I was able to see why some of my friends enjoyed the treatment so much. The wider seats allow for more arm space. The larger leg-space allows for chairs that recline to an almost horizontal position. And, of course, the service was top notch.

I typically develop really painful headaches on a long flight. Both due to tight quarters, as well as the lack of movement. This return flight, however, was incredibly smooth. At the end of the 9 hour flight I came off the plane feeling refreshed and relaxed. Which is a heck of a lot better than I have ever felt when coming off the large passenger vehicles.

Depending on the price differences, I might just start springing for the better seats. When travelling for an hour or two, economy is fine. But when going over an ocean, I want to be a little more comfortable.

Thanks, Air Canada! I don't think I'll mind flying so much in the future :D

Sitting in Kansai

This will be my last post in Japan. The net connection is really poor, so I'll need to keep this brief. Of course, I can't really complain seeing as how it's free …

I wish there was a way for me to stay in Japan. I really enjoy so many things about this country, and it's very hard to be away from Reiko for so long. I know that I can't truly do my line of work from a remote location as there are some situations where the internet just isn't the same as sitting in a room with someone and working out some solutions.

Yet at the same time, part of me thinks that there really isn't a problem working with reduced human interaction. Lord knows that 70% of my job is trying to figure out what somebody actually wants, despite what they wrote down (the two are seldom the same). It's times like this that I think about methods and possible arrangements that would let me get what I want, while still satisfying the needs of others. Unfortunately, there are none.

Reiko and I are saving for our upcoming wedding. At the same time, we have a few trips to make this year. And on top of that, are our living expenses. Everything costs money, and unless I were to find something remarkably decent in Japan with my limited language skills, we need to think about the best ways to afford the goals. I'll be taking some language lessons at Langara in a few weeks to get a jump-start on Japanese. And this will be in conjunction with the certifications I'm studying and earning.

The fortune I received at the Shinto shrine in Inuyama said that I would have a lucky year, with a good chance of profit. Hopefully this will prove true so that in a year's time, Reiko and I will have very little to worry about.

Last Day in Japan

Today's my last full day in Japan, and Reiko and I have spent most of the time sitting in traffic.

Well … that's not true, but it certainly felt like it at some points. On the plus side, there isn't anyone else I would rather be stuck in traffic with. We played with the stuffed animals that we had won at the local arcade, and listened to some theatre music on her CD player. Of course, we also ate some of the food that we had bought before leaving. So it wasn't too bad at all.

I was a bit surprised to find that the postal office's ATM's have been closed for the last two days. These were the only ATMs that I could withdraw money from, as they're the only ones connected to the international lines. A few of my friends use Citibank when trying to draw money internationally, so perhaps I'll open one of those accounts when I return to Canada. This will give Reiko and I a singular location to save money for our trips and upcoming wedding.

We did manage to pick up the requisite JR rail passes that I'll need tomorrow and put them on my MasterCard, so it's not an absolute necessity for me to access money. I still have about 4,500 yen on me (approximately $45 CDN), so it should be plenty for the few things I'll want before leaving Japan … namely coffee.

I'm really going to miss this country. I've finally gotten used to the flow of traffic (being the opposite of most westernized countries), and many other aspects of this great country. The endless mountains are another thing that I'll miss. Sure, Vancouver is surrounded by mountains, but they're just not the same. The mountains in Japan have trees and life all around them. The mountains around Vancouver are rock and snow.

I'll be looking forward to my next trip here. I'll be buying the plane ticket as soon as possible, so I wonder how soon I can make the purchase for a ticket in December … then again, would I really want to wait that long? I don't know if I could get time off in August and again in December … but perhaps I'll ask really nice at work.

Either way, I'm really going to miss this country. I'll work extra hard to earn enough money to come back as often as possible. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to find some great extra work that will let me move to Japan for several months while working remotely on the projects. It all depends.

My fortune said that this year would be great for personal business. Let's hope it's true.

Meeting The Rest of the Family

Much like the title of this post suggests, today I met more of Reiko's family. Reiko's eldest sister came for a visit with her husband and two young children, and we had a pretty good time enjoying a light afternoon snack and posing for some photos. As this trip comes to a close I'm finding it hard to turn my thoughts back to Canada.

The last two weeks have been quite a bit of fun. Reiko and I have visited so many places, and there is still much left to do when it comes to planning our upcoming wedding. While the counter on the side might show over 500 days, these things need to be planned well in advance. I think that I might just setup another site to track all the things that Reiko and I have had to do in order to marry. It could be useful for other Canadian / Japanese couples that have questions or concerns about what needs to be done and what to watch out for. Lord knows that Reiko and I have a bit of an idea, but there are many things that we likely haven't considered when it comes to us living and working in other nations, and even changing nationality.

The next stage for Reiko and I is the trip to Ontario to meet much of my immediate family. For the moment, this is planned to be during the Japanese Golden Week, which is the next time that Reiko can get enough time to visit Canada. To add fun to this equation, Reiko and I will be meeting in Toronto instead of Vancouver. Hopefully we'll land at the same airport, and within a decent amount of time from each other. I'd feel terrible if Reiko had to kill a few hours in Toronto before I arrived. I'd rather land a day before and spend the night sleeping on those airport benches (assuming they'd let me, of course).

Hopefully my family will be able to set aside some time to meet with Reiko this spring. However, if we can only really meet during evenings, then I can show Reiko many of the sites in Southern Ontario. Niagara Falls will have thawed by the time we arrive, and I've always wanted to try that rotating resteraunt. I don't think we'd go across the Rainbow Bridge to the US, though … the Canadian side is much more interesting.

This will be my first time back to Ontario in almost five years. I wonder how much has changed.

There will be some new family that I need to meet, as well as some others to reconcile with. It should be interesting to say the least. We'll likely only be in Ontario for three days before flying back to Vancouver and spending two days together before Reiko needs to return.

Long distance relationships are incredibly hard. Both Reiko and I knew this well before we started a relationship, and we had even discussed the difficulties beforehand. I have less than two days remaining in this country, and I really don't want to go back. My apartment feels cold and empty without Reiko. She was only there for a few days this past summer, and in that time enough of a mark was left that it can't be filled with anything else. And while MSN is a nice tool to help us keep in touch, it's just not the same as being in the same room.

MSN can't transfer touch, taste or smell. Without these crucial senses, the other two are just a tease. Yet despite these limitations and difficulties, I wouldn't want to be with anyone else.

To everyone that might be having a long distance relationship and finding it hard to keep going, I can only wish you luck with the venture. Don't think about how long it will be until you can meet again, always talk about how short the wait will be. Rather than talk in months, talk in weeks. Anything that can make the time seem less will help both parties. If you can make a relationship work with the distance, then the fruit of that labor will last a good long time.

Ganbatte ne.

Happy New Year!

Today was the first day of 2007, and it was quite an enjoyable day.

As you can see, Reiko wore a kimono for the new year and we enjoyed breakfast with her family as well as made a trip to a shrine in Inuyama. We didn't do any of the Shinto prayers (since neither of us are Shintoist), but it was enjoyable to visit the temple and see all the people. I can see that this is one of the few times of year that temples make the largest amount of money. Everything cost some amount of money. The only things that were free was the air and the pictures we could take.

After all was said and done, Reiko was happy to exchange the kimono for some regular clothes. While women look great wearing the robes, they're really very tight. I was able to see this first hand, and unfortunately, Reiko had to cut her breakfast short. I think we made it up with dinner, though.

I'll be posting the pictures from today in the gallery (New Year 2007), so feel free to look.

There are only a few days left until I must return to Canada. So I'll be enjoying the rest of this time as much as possible. Tomorrow I get to meet Reiko's eldest sister as well as the rest of her family. It should be fun :)

New Year's Eve

I wonder if I should change the name of my categories….

For the moment, "at Home" means in Vancouver, while "in Japan" is just that. However, as more time passes, I find that Japan feels just like home. So many things here are familiar to me, and I've even been accepted into Reiko's family. How could I think of the place I stay in Vancouver as a home when I'm the only one that lives there?

Well, perhaps this is just another sign that I'll really enjoy all the time I'll spend in Japan over the next few years. This is, after all, where I plan on spending most of my adult life.

Today (being New Year's Eve in Japan) Reiko and I spent some time at her home preparing some foods for the family dinner we'll be having January 1. Reiko and I baked a great cake with lots of cream and some fruit. It looks soooo good, and hopefully the rest of the family will think so as well. There's quite a bit of cream on that cake, so it's almost like it was made in Canada :P

Afterwards we looked at some of Reiko's photobooks. It's pretty amazing how little I know about her past, considering how we've spoken so much about so many different things. This is, of course, a positive thing as it means that there will be many things that we can learn about each other over the next few years. She was very attractive from a young age … I don't know how I was lucky enough to find her.

Of course, I'm not complaining in the least.

I should go. We're right now watching some New Year's shows and afterwards we'll do the countdown. This is one of the first times I've ever stayed awake to midnight on New Year's, and I'm sure it will always be one of the best.

See you next year!