Sunday, July 12, 2015
About a year ago, the social worker at the hospital asked Emma about getting a wish. As a chronically ill kid with cystic fibrosis, she was eligible to receive a wish from Make a Wish. He asked her what she would like to do for a wish...and it could be a shopping spree, meeting a celebrity, being a *thing* (enter thing here...superhero, socialite, wizard, etc.) for a day, or going on a trip. She kinda shrugged and said, "I dunno...". I helpfully suggested, "Go to Japan?" Her eyes lit up! "Yeah...go to Japan!" OK, that reads like there was jumping and hysteric joy, but she's so laid back, those who know her will see her still sitting there...smiling, but yes, laid back.
So, the wheels started turning. Now, not to reflect poorly on Make a Wish, but our representatives had a few issues being organized and available, so it was weeks or months of radio silence after the initial contact. One of our reps didn't drive. The other one was very ill for several weeks. So communication was not their strong suit, but it's a volunteer position and sometimes life just happens...and we understand that.
The big send-off party happened a couple weeks prior to the trip, held at a local conveyor belt sushi place (who waived the bill for us! Thanks, Sushi Hana!) and the MaW volunteers brought this enormous cake. The photo doesn't do it justice--this was a half sheet cake. It was very chocolatey and delicious! Unfortunately, we were so full, we couldn't possibly eat any, so we took it home with us. Now, a half-sheet cake serves 20-40 people, depending on what you consider a "serving size". There were 10 in our group, so we could have gone with a quarter-sheet cake and still had leftovers...and we had leftovers for days, then froze the leftovers of the leftovers. :)
Emma invited her besties, Emily and Emma....yes, they're the 3Ms.
The volunteers brought her flowers, balloons, and a backpack full of goodies for the long flight. There were some games, drawing materials, and a Make a Wish t-shirt. The rest of us got Make a Wish buttons to wear on our clothes to identify us as a Wish family, which we later discovered is not as well known in Japan as it is in the US. Our guide later distributed several fliers to people at places we visited.
After a doctor visit and a lot of packing, we finally set off on our trip.
We were picked up by our shuttle driver at 5 a.m. This is what 5 a.m. looks like...
The kids all piled into the van with all the luggage...smiling! At 5 a.m.!
First stop...the airport! Of course....what were you thinking? The pub? Anyway, we got there early and camped out at our gate, and just before we boarded, we discovered this billboard right there at our gate!
We flew into Vancouver, BC and boarded an Air Canada flight to Narita, Japan (about an hour outside Tokyo). It was a 787 and Kelly was thrilled to get to fly on one of the new planes. He could *almost* tell you the production number of the thing (#231 off the line or whatever).
On the back of every seat was a touch screen with dozens of movies (new and old), games, progress maps of the flight, and much more. International flights meant free headsets for everyone! You could bring your own, of course, because it's a standard issue headset. They've upgraded that technology, but still have the seat belts from 1963.
We arrived in Narita and after an extensive wait through baggage claim and customs, we were met by our Make a Wish local with whom we would spend the rest of the week. I'm guessing he was in his mid 40s, very fit and professional-looking. He carried a briefcase with him everywhere and walked very fast. His English was pretty good, but as we find with many foreign English speakers, studies are focused more on reading and writing and not as much on pronunciation, so we occasionally had to resort to using a translator on his phone. Watching him text in Japanese was fascinating! The language has thousands of characters, so I have no idea how they organized those into a 10 key pad...crazy!
We hopped on a bus for the one-hour trip into the city. Despite it being the middle of the afternoon, there was very little traffic. Unlike Seattle, which is at a stand-still for most of the day, we sailed through narrow 2- and 3-lane freeways, surrounded by towering apartment buildings (most were 8-10 stories tall) and arrived at the hotel. We checked in, with the help of our guide, and figured that if we can just stay awake for a few more hours, we can get ourselves on local time fairly quickly.
Our first dinner in the hotel was weird and disappointing, but at that point, I didn't care so much. It was a buffet style, but very little of it was kept in hot or cold storage the way the very strict US health regulations demand. That was one of the first unusual things we discovered.
The hotel room was half Western and half traditional Japanese. There was one large room with the shoji screens, a low center table and chairs with the bamboo floors. This was a NO SHOES zone. The closet doors to the right housed sleeping mats, sheets, pillows and blankets, which the kids used at night. Yes, there was an ashtray--all the rooms are smoking rooms. Thankfully, the rooms are kept to a much higher standard of cleanliness, so it didn't *smell* like a smoking room.
The genkan is the area where you leave your shoes and slippers. When you come home, you pull off the shoes and wear your house slippers before stepping up into the house--sometimes it's a big step, but often in apartments and hotel rooms, it's just an inch or so...just big enough to catch your toes on!
Shoji screens separate the main room from the Western bedroom. They also had shoji blackout screens for the windows (yes, there's glass, but this was in place of curtains).
In the evenings, this room converted into the kids' sleeping area.
Western beds for Western adults. We just aren't trained to sleep on the floor...sorry.
Our view out the window...the building at the lower left that looks like a race track is actually a driving school where you can learn to stay in the lines and park before they let you loose on the streets. What a great idea!!
First impression of Tokyo...it's SO CLEAN! There was almost no litter anywhere! I ended up with a couple of theories about this. First, they're very proud of their clean city, so they work harder at keeping it cleaner. Garbage cans are not as readily found as in the US, so people pocket their garbage until they find a place to dispose of it. Secondly, it is considered rude (by some) to walk around eating and drinking. You just don't see people doing it. If you're not walking around with disposable materials, you're less likely to litter. They usually have recycle bins next to the zillions of vending machines around, and I guess it's common for people to buy the drink, consume it, then toss the container in the garbage right there.
Pro Tip: If you need cash, and Japan is largely a cash-based society, go to the ATM at 7-11.
Also note the yellow brick road....that's the dividing line between pedestrian and bike lanes. Keep to the left when walking, biking, or driving.
Oh, and smoking is not allowed on the streets. You can't walk down the street and smoke. They have designated areas for smoking like this one:
Our first tourist stop was at Tokyo Tower, which was designed after the Eiffel Tower, except it is inexplicably orange (OK, it has to do with FAA regulations or something, although that was back when there were probably fewer tall buildings around it).
The Japanese love their mascots! This tower has this pair of adorable mascots, introduced in 1989 for the tower's 40th anniversary; older brother in blue and younger brother in red. No idea why the older brother has a band aid on his head.
Waiting for the tickets to be purchased to go up the elevator.
Look out below! A viewing window from the first level. It's a thick piece of glass, but if you're afraid of heights...yeah. Oh, down below is a whiskey bar, so that's comforting.
View from one of the windows; the city goes on like this in every direction.
Ben plays a balloon game with some young people shooting a promotional video for ooVoo (a web chat channel like Skype). Huge language barrier, but no FUN barrier!
Then we went down and had some serious RAMEN for lunch at a cafeteria downstairs (unfortunately, they all had pork in them, so I had a seafood pizza). Our tour guide shed his blue shirt--two shirts was too hot.
Walked across the bridge to the Imperial gardens, which used to be home to the rulers of Japan.
300 year old black pine and red pine trees.
Waterways into the gardens where goods were brought in.
J-World Tokyo! Conveniently located in the mall next to our hotel.
They had these things everywhere. For $1.50 or so, you could get a little figurine to hang on your cell phone, backpack or jacket...or whatever. They had cats, dogs, figures from different anime series, Stitch, Minions, Snoopy....
They also had drink machines everywhere...almost on every corner. This is a fake one inside J-World.
Kelly was the first to pick up one of these and it instantly became a family favorite--especially Benjamin. Pocari Sweat is like Gatorade, except it only comes in one flavor--sort of a sweet grapefruit or Lychee flavor. It's not as sweet as the American variety, for sure! It's refreshing and runs about $1, so when you're on the go and thirsty (especially when it's so hot and muggy), it's great to grab a bottle of Pocari Sweat.
This is on the steps outside the mall next to our hotel. In the mall is one of many Family Marts. These are on almost every block around Tokyo, almost like Starbucks in Seattle. Coincidentally, just outside of this frame is a Starbucks.
In an Anime store...everything your character needs to create a new look! Emma found a jacket for one of her new favorite anime characters and bought the jacket. She wears it all the time now.
And the Animate Cafe!
With cute cut-out seaweed to add to your rice:
Went to a French Maid Cafe and had lunch and tea. We weren't able to take photos of the French maids, which was too bad--they were SO CUTE in their little maid outfits. Apparently people had taken photos and did terribly rude things with them...so I understand.
There was some loss in translation with the tableware. Extra large forks and spoons and undersize knives....
The cake was some kind of spice cake with a whipped cream frosting--not very sweet, but it appears that not-too-sweet is a theme in Japan. Earl Grey tea with a baby spoon to stir.
Traveled by rail almost everywhere. That's why there's no traffic issues! There are idiot-proof safety gates at some stations (not all).
Here's a map of Tokyo's rail system.
Notice, again, no garbage.
Shibuya to see the Hachiko statue, which was one of the things on her checklist.
Our guide took us to a special display that discusses the history of the dog and the making of the statue. The placards were all in Japanese so he translated for us.
Then shopping in Shibuya 109!
The world's busiest crosswalk in Shibuya:
Shopping in Takeshita Street
University of Tokyo for a look at a newer statue of Hachiko and his owner, Professor Hidesaburo Ueno.
And the family together with Hachi & the professor.
Visiting Akihabara...more shopping at the Anime stores.
Lunch at Yoshinoya...yum! This is Japan's answer to fast food...includes miso soup, rice, meat, and veg--super fast and super cheap...and it's delicious!
Then, as a stroke of luck, on our way to see the shrine at Senso-ji, we run into a bunch of Boy Scouts on the train! Our tour guide did some introductions, and Ben got to talk to them a little. Their leader spoke quite a bit of English and said they were on their way to see the Tokyo Museum of Science and Nature...very much like the things that American Scouts do. Our guide gave some information about the Make A Wish Foundation to the leader...that could be a great community service project they could do in the future.
We went to the shrines at Senso-ji. This is the entrance. Impressive!
There are just a few shops on the way to the shrines...we did a bit of shopping, including getting...not kimonos, but the summer weight yukatas. Emma also got a pair of sandals that she's been wearing for the last several days...she LOVES them!
This was our favorite shrine...for medical miracles!
This is a giant shoe that people touch for good luck. Emma was able to leap; I boosted Ben. I reached down and touched a piece that had fallen off.
Visiting the Cat Cafe! For about $7, you can sit and play with cats for an hour.
Breakfast at Yoshinoya: salmon, egg, rice, soup...yum!
Sad to leave
Getting a special bag of goodies from the flight attendants! We saw one of them on the way there and on the way back! She was super sweet and brought Emma a big bag of chips, dark chocolates and other things.
Arriving in Vancouver after a long day of travel...and it was only 10 a.m.! Cammie took a short nap while we waited for the last leg of the trip.
Tired. I may go back and elaborate on some of these things, but for now...just tired. I've been a little under the weather, so it's time to take a bath and sleep.