Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three Volcanic Islands - Aogashima, Bora Bora, Santorini 
Japan is a whole whack of islands - volcanic islands.  So, I thought I would talk about volcanic islands - really awesome volcanic islands - for fun. Places with volcanoes tend to have a lot of mystique or exotic-ness about them. I've been to a few and am going to cover Santorini from the Aegean Sea, Aogashima that just looks so cool from the air, and Bora Bora - a paradise in the middle of the tropical Pacific.  Both Aogashima and Santorini are still active volcanoes.

Aogashima - Off the coast from Tokyo

I recently heard about Aogashima and saw the linked photo below at Tofugu and Panoramio. Tofugu called it "Monster Island" from Godzilla fame, and why not with the forbidding cliffs of this island.  It looks wonderfully lush and the Flickr photos indicate it is kind of jungle-like in places.  Doesn't appear to be much to do here as it has a small town and a tiny population. Hiking seems to be the name of the game for outdoor activities here.  If you look at the small cinder cone in the middle of the crater, it looks cultivated and I wonder if they are tea bushes or something. One other neat fact is that the island falls under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan government - not bad considering it must be 500 km away (see the Google map that is attached).  This is probably a great place to go to drop off the map for awhile.

View Larger Map

Bora Bora - French Polynesia, South Pacific
Bora Bora is a name that brings visions of palm trees, white sand, gorgeous blue water, and luxury resorts in huts over the water of the lagoon.  Even though it is isolated in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific, it is very different from undeveloped Aogashima.

Bora Bora is a gorgeous place that I visited almost ten years ago now.  I think some of the smaller islands like Tahaa are more beautiful in some ways for sandy island type get aways, and Moorea has incredible rugged beauty, but from the air, Bora Bora is the undisputed beauty queen as the picture below shows.  The sandy beaches here are the best as they are derived from bits of coral and shell.  The sand is not sand so it also doesn't get as hot on the feet.  Tropical drinks, cabins over the lagoon, coconut trees and white sand beaches are how you could describe this paradise.

More information about Bora Bora and Tahiti

Cool bathroom sign in Bora Bora. Flickr/vgm83

Santorini - in the Greek Aegean With A Gorgeous Caldera
Santorini is a land of myth and gorgeous views.  The food can be pretty darn good too, but the atmosphere of the place is wonderful and inspiring.  I've been here twice as I lived in Greece for awhile and had a great time every time I have visited. Out of all of the three islands, this is the most touristy, with large beaches, great views of the caldera which cruise ships sail into, and towns that seem to perch on top of high cliffs.  There is a great deal of history here too with ruins dating back to the Minoan period from Akrotiri, the likely location of lost Atlantis.
More information about Santorini
More information about Akrotiri - Lost Atlantis?

Looking out over the caldera with cruise ships in it.
Orthodox Church in the town of Oia.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Observations About Tokyo and Why I Like Tokyo + Japan

A Few Observations About My Tokyo From My Trip
  1. Most people are very polite and try to help you in Tokyo if you ask for it.  It is every man for themselves on a crowded train though.
  2. Coughing not always covered up.  Lots of people wearing the face masks, but lots don’t.
  3. Not everyone is a super cool dresser like the stupid guide books always say.  Dressing nicer always works to your advantage though.
  4. No soap in train station bathrooms, or hand dryers.
  5. Not all types of snacks and snack foods are in all the convenience stores, you’ll have to check each chain and store to find some items.  Hunting is required to find some limited edition Kit Kats, Goota Noodles, Gundam Cup Noodles (when these are available), etc.  Remember many snacks are seasonal or one time promotions that may have passed.
  6. I helped people by returning runaway hats, dropped scarfs and documents a few times and they were thankful.
  7. On the trains people played with Cell phones, PSPs, read manga, and read books in this order from most common to least common.
  8. Before the stores open, lots of stores have security / storm shutters down and it makes the neighborhoods look deserted / abandoned prior to 10 or 11 AM.
  9. Lots of narrow streets and navigating is hard.  Use Google Maps to orient yourself and pinpoint locations before you arrive in Japan.  Small shops with just a street address you cannot pinpoint on a map can be very hard to find.
  10. Akihabara is a very busy district – not half empty or for otaku only.  It is a hive of activity.
  11. Lots of character mascots for everything.
  12. Train stations and train lines have particular songs / chimes for their announcements.
Why I like Tokyo + Japan
  1. I watched Godzilla movies when I was a kid.
  2. I was hooked into watching anime by and Japanese Pop Culture by Full Metal Panic!, Cowboy Bebop, and Love Hina. Gundam Seed, the Gundam reboot, was pretty darn good too and helped to seal the deal.
  3. The Japanese have always had predisposition to mega projects and I like this a lot.
  4. They have F-15 fighters and Aegis Destroyers (see Zipang for a cool anime).
  5. They invented the Giant Robot and Astroboy.
  6. They built the NEC Earth Simulator and K Supercomputers.
  7. They do really big urban megastructures that I really like the Tokyo City Hall, Shiodome, and Roppongi Hills megaplexes. Tokyo Skytree looks fun too. Lots of cool architecture to photograph and wander around in.
  8. They do other really big megaprojects like the Tokyo Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (G-Cans), and Tokyo Geo-site projects.
  9. Akihabara and anime pop culture.  Too many catchy jpop songs from anime.  The model figures are pretty darn cute and so detailed.
  10. Japanese video games like Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and all of the stuff you played in the arcades in the 80's and 90's or earlier (look out - it is the Space Invaders!).
  11. Lots of cool tech comes out of Japan.  However, that doesn't mean they have a lock on high-tech.  See the iPhone as an example of a Japanese cellphone killer.  Japanese telecoms are now introducing their own smartphones, even though Japanese cells were a decade ahead of everyone a decade ago.  If you look for anime character goods, you'll find tons of cases for iPhones.
  12. Japanese vending machines.
  13. Japanese convenience stores or konbini (outstanding selections of snacks and other convenience products - even though you can't get an aspirin).
  14. Japanese gashapon.  Gotta like these capsule toy machines with decent capsule toys.
  15. Japanese are pretty good at robots, even though it was an American robot from iRobot (they make the Roomba) that got into the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. But they know how to take down the alien war machines in the War of the World remake with Tom Cruise.
  16. I like Japanese cars.
  17. RAMEN... so good...
  18. Lots of other tasty Japanese food.  Okay, I'll mention sushi - the international smash hit. And Japanese style curry and gyudon (Japanese beef bowl).
  19. Brainwashing from a lifelong exposure to asian and Japanese pop culture.
  20. There's other good reasons, but lots of cool things just happen there, so pick a reason.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 08 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 15 - Yokohama Ramen Museum

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 16 -Tokyo Tower

Day 8: Wednesday - Shiodome To Odaiba We Go!
November 03, 2009
Departure day has arrived.  Checked the bags at the hotel so I could wander around unencumbered.  Caught a JR Train to Yokohama.  I needed to get to the Shin-Yokohama station as the trains didn’t stop there from Shinagawa and had to transfer to get there.  A middle-aged Japanese couple helped me get on the right train and it wasn’t a difficult trip to make.  I was thinking of switching over to the subway, but they said stay on the JR Lines and it is cheaper / easier.  From Shin-Yokohama Station it was pretty easy to get to the Yokohama Ramen Museum.  The directions from the museum website are pretty good if you start from the right exit which is clearly numbered.  I misread the directions, but managed to correct myself pretty easily.  The museum opened at 10:30 and I got there at 10:15 in good time.

The museum interior is a recreation of 1950’s Showa era Japan, a very nostalgic time for many older Japanese as it was the beginning of the hard working, but boom years of prosperity.  Instant noodles were also invented in 1971 at the Nissin company.  The museum has a really nice ambience with real noodle shops from around Japan showcased there.  The noodle guys will yell out of their shops to attract people too.  Yummy smells, authentic background sounds and music, and the vintage visuals round out the experience.  Even the snack stalls have vintage pop and stuff to buy and eat.  A toy shop has vintage toys and candy too.  Ate tonkotsu ramen at one of the shops and it was tasty, but the broth wasn’t as rich as I thought it would be.  Nice gift shop here upstairs, but the make your own Nissin Cup of Noodle store was gone.

Took the bullet train back to Tokyo so I even got to ride the Shinkansen for 15 minutes to get back.  It cost 1200 yen or something, but it was worth it to get the smooth ride and the extra time.  At Shinagawa I transferred to the Yamanote Line to goto the Tokyo Tower.   It was a beautiful clear day with sun and blue sky and lots of people were out walking.  They were launching Pokemon Black and White and I picked up a little Pikachu cardboard hat for my daughter for free.  After walking in the park and seeing the Tokyo Tower up close I headed back to the hotel and picked up my bags. 

Getting back to the airport was easy by taking the Narita Express.  I wanted to pick up some Sake at the duty free but didn’t as I did not have a safe way to transport the bottles for the transfer flight to home.  I need to buy some wine transporter bags to avoid this problem in the future.  It was a great holiday in the end and I had a wonderful time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 07 (Travelogue / Tips)

Day 7: Tuesday - Tokyo Disneysea We Go!
Nov 2, 2009

Slept in a bit.  Up by 7:30 AM, ate at McDonald’s again and off to Tokyo Station to transfer to the Oeido Line to Mihama by 9 AM.  From here you can walk to Disney, but if want to go to Disneysea, you want to take the Disney monorail for another 240 yen to save time.  Waited 20 minutes at the front gate in another line to buy tickets to get in to Disneysea and then I had to orient myself.  Wish I had a guide to Disneysea.  Blew the fast pass as I should have grabbed one for Journey to the Center of the Earth first and lined up for the Indiana Jones to wait it out.  Instead, I did Storm Rider, which was cool as the lines were shorter.  It was really crowded at the fast pass for Storm Rider was 12:10 when I was in at 10 AM, and then the next pass for Indiana Jones was for 7 PM.   

CRAZY, so I knew my day was kind of shot as half of Tokyo must have been here.  In retrospect, I assumed it wouldn't be that busy as I thought that lots of people would be working, but it was a nice long 4 day weekend if you took the Monday off as Tuesday was a national holiday.  I wasn't thinking too clear on this. DOH!

The park was packed with people.  I would say it was kind of like a super unpleasant Disney experience with all the lines for everything.   I had a 2.5 hour wait for the main ride I came to see, which was Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Journey was pretty cool and the waiting areas are well decorated to distract you, but not enough for 2.5 hours.  Fortunately I had a PSP to kill the time, while the Japanese were using cell phones and Nintendo DSs.  I guess I would hate to see the park if it was even busier.  The place is actually relatively compact & swarms with people when crowded.  The Captain Nemo Mysterious Island setup is pretty cool with the erupting volcano.  They did splurge on the sets.

Given the main shops were mobbed, it was like Disney at closing time in the States.  Had some tasty curry at Arabian Nights then walked around the grounds some more in the dark and left at 6 PM.  I was glad I brought drinks and snacks with me as there were lines for all the food except ice cream as the day was cool and overcast with a slight hint of rain every so often.  I was glad to see the Mysterious Island and Journey, but I would want to try and buy tickets in advance somehow and get there for opening or within a half hour of opening through the turnstile to get to the rides.

The Halloween extravaganza was on at the time and it was busy for a weekday between Sunday and a Tuesday that was a national holiday.  Shortest line up that day was for 40 minutes just to take the ferry boat.  The gift shops were a little disappointing as they were more cute than themed by attraction.  No good souvenirs for the Mysterious Island except for some pipes and nautical stuff (but generically nautical – no miniature Nautiluses).  It is about a 15-20 minute walk to Disneysea from the Train Station.