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The Tohoku Expressway – Driving in Japan June 9, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “The Tohoku Expressway – Driving in Japan” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-bi

In February 2009, I had my second experience on the Tohoku Expressway, and my first driving experience in Japan.  It was a vastly different experience compared to the first time I was on this expressway.  This time, I was in a temperature controlled car with navigation and ETC.  Words cannot describe the differences in my experience.

For this trip, I went from Shinjuku, in Tokyo, to Nikko.  It’s about a 160km drive.  I decided to rent a car from a rental company near my apartment.  In front of the rental company, I tried to set the navigation system to take me to Nikko.  Unfortunately, they showed me five different routes and none of them were quick, or the best route.  I ended up heading to the Shuto Expressway, Tokyo’s Expressway system, on my own as I knew how to get there.  The nearest Shuto entrance was for the Yamate Tunnel, which is the fastest way to get to the Tohoku Expressway.  It is a brand new section of the Shuto, so the tunnel itself is still very clean, and very bright.  Once the tunnel ended, I had to face my first challenge in navigating the Shuto’s confusing system, a small junction to head a little east.  To give you a better idea, the Shuto is a series of “C” roads that run around Tokyo.  There are various connecting highways to go from the inner circle to the outer circles.  This was also my first experience to test the car’s navigation system.  Thankfully, the system knew the roads in this area and helped me find my way to reach the Tohoku Expressway.  The rest of my journey to Nikko was very simple and easy.  I made a side trip to Utsunomiya as well, and the navigation system worked flawlessly to get me to my destination.  However, navigating the streets can be nerve wrecking as you have to consider your actions as others on the road may or may not be patient with you.

Using the navigation system in Japan is both a blessing and a curse.  If you can’t read, write, or understand Japanese to some extent, you will be in a lot of trouble.  Obviously, in Japan, they don’t need English navigation systems as most foreigners take the train.  However, driving is sometimes fun and very enjoyable.  It is very important to at least have a Japanese native, who is capable of using the navigation system to help you.  Along the way, the system would give audible warnings of where to go, what lane to be in, and about toll booths that were coming up.  It made driving very simple and the audio prompts weren’t too intrusive.  With the navigation screen being in the dashboard, it wasn’t blocking my view as other portable systems do.  The only problem that occurred was passing through city limits, as the system would update me to tell me when I reached a new area.  This was okay, but sometimes the highway would cross in and out of an area and I’d get a few prompts.  Definitely not something I would care to hear often, but it was a nice addition.

The other important thing to have in Japan is an ETC card.  It is essential when driving on the expressways.  The first reason to get it is for convenience.  When driving up to a toll booth, all you have to do is enter the ETC lane.  When you enter the ETC lane, you just slow down to about 20kph and wait for the system to tell you, via a chime, that it recognizes your car and you can go.  The second reason is for the discounts.  As of this posting, weekends and national holidays are now 1000 Yen per trip, regardless of the distance.  Do note that some expressways are cheaper and each expressway is owned by a different company.  Travelling would probably end up being more than 1000 Yen.  If you are travelling late at night, you can also save a little money.  If you enter or exit the expressway after midnight, you will receive a discount.  If you use the roads via the regular method, you must pay the full cost.  Almost all car rental shops have ETC systems installed within their cars.  The only problem is getting a card on your own.  If you are a resident, this should be as difficult as getting a credit card.  However, if you are only visiting, you will be out of luck as an ETC card is used like a visa card.  If you are living in Japan, do your best to get one if you plan to do any driving.  If you are given the option to get one with your credit card, I’d apply at the same time as you never know if you’ll be driving in the future.  In the end, good luck and safe driving.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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Nikko (Part II) June 2, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Nikko (Part II)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-aV

After going to Rinnoji, it’s a short walk up a hill to reach Toshogu. Toshogu is the main attraction in Nikko. It is a large, fantastic, complex with intricate designs throughout. Upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll be greeted by the typical torii gate, but also a large pagoda. Rinnoji is a fairly traditional Japanese temple, simple. Toshogu is the polar opposite. The main pagoda has been likened to Chinese and Korean style temples. Lots of colour and various statues of animals adorn the rafters. This creates a very interesting style where people either love it or hate it. Many people have hated this because it isn’t “Japanese”, but that is a completely different argument altogether. However, upon entering the paid area of Toshogu, you’ll see a huge crowd of people gathering around a plain wooden building. It is very small compared to the surrounding buildings and it looks somewhat out of place. This is the famous Three Wise Monkeys (Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil) building. It is the most famous image of Nikko. Three Wise Monkeys are three monkeys, one covering his ears, one covering his mouth, and one covering his eyes. There are other carvings around the building featuring monkeys in other situations, but by far, the Three Wise Monkeys are the most popular. From here, you will see a few black and gold structures along with several carvings of various exotic animals.

There are several carvings of peacocks and some of elephants. Unfortunately, the elephants look nothing like an elephant, and several sculptures looked scary. Towards the back of the complex, you will see pretty much the same. There is a second area featuring the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, for which Toshogu was built. The cost to enter is expensive, so I never bothered to enter. There is another famous carving of a sleeping cat, but I didn’t feel it was worth the extra 800 Yen. The last place to visit within the shrine is Yakushido Hall. It is a small building which can have lots of people lining up to enter. Within the main room, there is a painting of a dragon on the ceiling. One of the priests/monks will give an explanation about the hall and how banging two sticks of wood in the right place will allow you to hear the dragon’s cry. He will demonstrate that if you away from the centre, the two sticks will sound like normal. However, when he bangs the sticks in the right location within the room, it will echo and resonate to sound like a dragon’s cry. It was a very interesting demonstration, but pictures and video aren’t allowed.

After visiting Toshogu, you can head over to Futarasan and Taiyuinbyo.  Taiyuinbyo is another mausoleum, but this time it was built for Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson.  It is smaller in scale, and it isn’t as busy as Toshogu.  It isn’t as spectacular, but just as intricate.  There are more Shinto gods guarding the area, and it’s location at the base of a mountain makes it very picturesque.  I personally enjoyed this shrine more than Toshogu, but I was let down a little as many things were undergoing renovations.  After visiting Toshogu, however, there isn’t much to say about these two shrines.  They are typical shrines without anything extremely new or interesting to talk about.

I would highly recommend that you rent a car when you go to Nikko. It is the easiest way to get to the distant locations, and you’ll have the freedom to head up to Lake Chuzenji. However, there are buses that head up and down the mountain to Lake Chuzenji, but you’ll be limited to when you can go. The road up to Lake Chuzenji is called Irohazaka. This road is famous among driving enthusiasts and street racers as it was featured in the anime/manga Initial D. The name is derived from the 48 hairpin corners that made up the original road. Iroha is the name of the 48 letters of the Japanese alphabet. Currently, there are two roads going to Lake Chuzenji. Both are one way. One heads up, the other down. Going up this road, there are two lanes. You’ll be able to see a few exotic cars and some motorcycles as they race uphill. Going downhill, there is only one lane, but you’ll see the same cars, only they’ll be going much slower than before. This road is also extremely famous in the autumn season as the leaves turn a bright red, orange, and yellow. It’s not uncommon for this road to be backed up, taking three or four times longer to travel than other season.

Lake Chuzenji itself isn’t that spectacular. Near the end of the uphill portion of Irohazaka, you can pay to take the gondola up to a lookout point. From here, you will be given beautiful views of Nikko, Lake Chuzenji, and Kegon Falls. Around the lake, you can do all of the normal things you would do at any lake. Swimming and taking a “swan boat” onto the water is popular. There are also many shops in the area that let you try Nikko’s famous food, tofu “skin”. Beware that during the winter months, most of the shops are closed due to the lack of visitors. The main attraction would have to be Kengon Falls. Standing at 98 metres tall, this waterfall is one of the tallest in Japan. Taking the elevator to the base of the waterfall is recommended as you may be able to see some Japanese mountain goats and you can have a better view of the falls. Note that in the winter months, it’s extremely cold, so dress warmly.

If you decide to spend a day or two in Nikko, hiking around Lake Chuzenji is very famous, and there are various hot springs in the area. Kinugawa is a famous hot spring resort town that is a short drive from Nikko. You may also be able to see a few monkeys running around. Beware that the monkeys can be aggressive, so keep a little distance and be aware of them if they are coming towards you.

Note:  This is part II of a II part series.  Please return to Part I for the first half of this post.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Nikko (Part I) May 26, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Nikko (Part I)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-aT

Nikko is a small town north of Tokyo. It is a famous destination for tourists, both Japanese and foreign. Located about two hours north of Tokyo, it is a good day trip if you are spending a couple weeks in Tokyo. It is also a good place to escape the city and enjoy nature. Nikko is famous for being a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are four main temples to see within Nikko, and a side trip to Lake Chuzenji. Ultimately, you don’t have to go to Lake Chuzenji, but it is a very nice, relaxing, place to visit.

Deciding which temples and shrines to visit isn’t a difficult task. They are all within a short walking distance of each other, and buying a ticket to visit all of them is strongly advised. From Nikko Station, I would highly recommend taking a local bus up to the shrines. This will take you to Toshogu. This is the main shrine, but, to be honest, it is a bad location to start. I would personally start at Shinkyo Bridge. This is a small wooden arch bridge that connects the modern Nikko, including the station, with the UNESCO sites. Unfortunately, I believe there isn’t a bus stop in the area. If you are up for the walk, it’s about one kilometre from Nikko Station to Toshogu. From the bridge, you’ll be able to visit a small shrine, but beware. There are steps leading from the side of the bridge to head up, but I was advised to head around. I never made it to this shrine because of a lack of time, but if you skip going to Lake Chuzenji, this would be a nice place to visit.

The first recommended temple to visit is Rinnoji.  From here, I would start at the gardens that are located opposite of the main temple.  The gardens are very beautiful, even in the winter.  While it is relatively small, and you can finish a quick walk through in about 15 minutes or less, the tranquility should be enjoyed.  There are various plants and lots of coy within the pond.  The moss covered gardens are also very beautiful and meticulously maintained.  The groundskeepers literally remove any debris and bad moss with toothpicks during the day.  I couldn’t imagine doing this work everyday.  While you are in the garden, there is also a small building holding a few artifacts.  I wouldn’t recommend this as most of the artifacts are in Japanese.  However, if you are visiting on a hot summer’s day, this would be a good escape from the heat.  Rinnoji itself is also magnificent.  The temple isn’t that big, but inside, there are 3 large gold statues.  You will be able to see Amida, Senju-Kannon, and Batō-Kannon.  I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but there was a Japanese guide giving explanations of the statues every so often.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand it enough, so I didn’t bother staying.  Towards the exit, you can also buy a few lucky charms based on your birth animal.

Note:  This is Part I of a II part series.  Please continue to Part II of this series.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

2008 A-style Grand Prix of Japan October 6, 2008

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Sports, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “2008 A-style Grand Prix of Japan” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-2G

September 28 marked the 2008 A-style Grand Prix of Japan.  The A-style Grand Prix of Japan is the Japanese round of Moto GP.  Moto GP is the premier league of motorcycle racing, equivalent to F1.  This championship is, in my opinion, much better than F1.  There is a lot of passing, and lots of excitement.  Going to a true Grand Prix, you’ll be entertained with 3 different races and 3 different racers.  There are 3 classes in Moto GP.  125cc, 250cc, and MotoGP Class.  The 125s are the entry level for world class.  Riders can be as young as 15 to a maximum age of 28.  This is to promote younger talent to rise through the classes.  Generally, good riders will start in 125, move to 250, and finally graduate to the MotoGP class.  It is very difficult as each class gets smaller and smaller. Going to a MotoGP race is an adventure in itself.  The race is held in Motegi, Tochigi Prefecture, about 3 hours North of Tokyo.  The track is nestled within the surrounding hills and mountains and it provides a good change in elevation.  However, the track can be a little boring.  Rather than have nice fast sweeping corners that allow motorcycles to pass, it’s a stop and go track that is better suited to F1.   While it isn’t the best track for motorcycles, it is still a great place to go.  I have been to 2 previous Grand Prix of Japan and I must say, this year was the best.  Previously, it took a long time to get to the track and a longer time to get home.  We got to the GP very quickly (almost record time) and returned home after the race in record time.  If you do go, try to get a packaged tour.  You tend to get free stuff and you don’t have to worry about driving when you are tired.

I took the Yamaha fan tour.  I was picked up at the train station, taken to the event, and got free swag when I entered the race area.  Last year’s package was very similar.  This year, I got a cap, T-shirt, scarf, and bag.  The bag was mainly to carry everything.  I also picked up a few other things.  If you ever go to an F1 race, the amount of goods available are greater, but not as nice (I think) as the Moto GP goods.  Unfortunately, the good things were sold very quickly and I couldn’t buy some things.  On the way back, we were greeted with more free things.  We got a free sticker to celebrate Valentino Rossi’s World Championship, and a free photo book highlighting the 2007 Yamaha Motor GP Season.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the year I’d like to have, but the pictures were amazing.  I’d say they didn’t make much of a profit, if any, with the tickets they sold. The Grand Prix of Japan is a very well oiled machine.  Everything runs very smoothly.  All of the vendors stay the same, yet provide new things every year.  Every year, I want to buy more and more things.  I just can’t stop myself.  I’m sure I’ll buy even more next year.  🙂

As for the race, the 125cc race was the most exciting.  The opening lap saw 3 accidents.  Two being in the last corner.  The 250cc race saw only one accident, but the rest was exciting racing.  Lots of lead changes in the beginning and a young Italian won the race.  The Moto GP class was the most exciting.  It was the first chance Valentino Rossi had to win his first championship in 3 years.  The opening of the race saw Australian Casey Stoner take the lead with Rossi falling back.  He always tends to do that.  Later on, he overtook Stoner and eventually won the race.  After the race, I ran down to the track to help celebrate Rossi’s victory and Championship victory.  The closest I could get was about 20 metres.  Needless to say, it was a very exciting and lively time.  The most fun I had in years.  If you are ever in Japan during the Moto GP, please try to go.  The whole event is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.  One small exception.  I’m a big motorcycle racing fan, so I believe I’m extremely biased.  😉

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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