Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Sunday, May 18, 2003 18:00:10
Asia Pacific 2003: 10 - Back to Victoria
Monday, May 12, 2003
Tour pickup this morning was at 8 AM. When I came down to the lobby, there was complementary tea, coffee and pastries on, so being twenty minutes early I had an unexpected breakfast. After 8 I began to worry, as no one had showed up late yet in Japan. I showed my tour voucher to the reception staff and found out I was in the wrong building in the hotel complex. It was ten past eight when I got to the right building, and the poor guide was having a fit. He had hypertension attacks for the whole time we picked up the other people for the tour, but in spite of it we still arrived early for our rendezvous at the final pre-tour stop.
It was nice that there were only six people on the tour - a couple of Aussies and the rest from the US. The tour was thorough, covering the Diet, (parliament buildings), the Akasaka Guest House - a baroque style palace used to house visiting dignitaries, and the Meiji Shrine. Emperor Meiji is the one who opened Japan to foreign trade. He was also father of Emperor Hirohito, who alone made the decision to end WW II after the A bombs. The shrine was built in his memory and covers about 80 acres in central Tokyo.
From there, we ascended the Eiffel Tower shaped Tokyo Tower - which is higher than the Eiffel Tower but sells the same tacky souvenirs. There was a great view from the top. We walked through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace where Edo Castle could be seen. Tokyo was named Edo before Japan was opened up for trade and renamed. Lunch was served in a restaurant in the Ginza shopping district. The Australian (John) and I found a pub to pass the shopping time in this area. Ginza has the most expensive real estate in Japan at around $106,000 per sq. meter. It peaked in 1991 at $318,500 per sq. meter, then dropped as Japan went into recession.
A demonstration of how cultured pearls were produced was held in the Tasaki Pearl Gallery, after which it was necessary to wind through four floors of sales counters on the way back to the street. My time back to the street may have set a new tour record!
This was followed by a cruise on the Sumida River from near the departure dock for Ogasawara then upstream to near our next destination, the Asakusa Temple complex. It was a short walk from the dock, and was very worth seeing. Once the temple area had been toured there was free time to prowl the Nakamise Shopping Streets. John and I did a tour of shops that sold cold beer, enjoying it as we strolled through the area. Finally we drove through the Akihabara electronics district before dropping everyone at their respective hotels.
There was some interesting trivia that came out during the tour. The average Japanese office worker makes about $US 44,000 per year, on which income tax is 20%. Monthly medical and pension plan contributions are required. Medical covered 80% of costs, but recently was reduced to 70% as part of the current cutbacks. An average worker receives two weeks holidays a year, but if more than 10 days are taken chances of promotion are greatly reduced. The government is encouraging companies not to penalize employees for taking their full holidays, but nothing has changed yet.
The people doing very well are the politicians. An elected member receives around $11,500 per month, and a cabinet minister $14,200. In addition there is a bonus of 5 months salary each year plus benefits and expenses.
Japan's population is around 126 million. Tokyo has a population of 12 million at night and 15 million during the day - over 3 million people commute in and out of the city every working day. While there are about 5 million cars in Tokyo, most people take the trains, which run every three minutes during rush hour. Major stations employ .pushers., who give people having trouble getting into crowded train cars a hefty shove to pack them in.
Car ownership is expensive, but even so there are about 77 million cars in Japan. Before buying a car it is necessary to prove to the police that you have a parking space within 2 km of your residence . A parking space in the suburbs will run between $250 and $350 per month and in Tokyo it could be $1,700 per month. The car must be inspected every two years at a cost of about $1,000 per inspection. The cost of driver training averages $2,600, and the toll expressways are very expensive as well.
Getting married isn't cheap either. The average wedding cost is $30,000, however guests are expected to bring gifts of cash. The average gift expected is $300. As a guide said, if you are invited to a wedding and don't go you lose a friend, if you do go you lose $300. The divorce rate is around 20%.
Japan has a very high suicide rate. Each year around 15,000 people are killed in car accidents, but over 30,000 commit suicide. In spite of this, Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. The leading medical cause of death is lung cancer, as in Japan most people smoke.
The tour made for a very full day. I was dropped at the hotel just before 8 PM, so I headed down to the restaurant area by the hotel and had a rack of lamb at the Outback Steak House, washed down by an appropriate quantity of beer. This helped control the craving I'm having for some Western style food!
A little after midnight I woke up to a lot of movement in the room. The bed was shaking violently - it took a few moments to realize it was an earthquake. Another one hit a few minutes later, then it was back to sleep. The paper said it was 5.4 on the Richter Scale.
In the morning breakfast was delivered by room service, then I headed off to the correct building for an 8:15 pickup. Today's destination was the city of Nikko, nestled well up in the mountains. The bus was packed. It had tightly spaced seats and as all seats were taken there was assigned seating. Fortunately I had an aisle seat with an arm rest that went up, so was able to stretch my legs out into the passage way. I was rather upset to find that I'd forgotten to bring both my video and digital cameras - it was a beautiful day, and the temples at Nikko were the most spectacular I've seen this trip, built in forests of huge cedar trees.
A surprise while driving the switchbacks into the mountains was that there are monkeys in Japan. We came across three different families of them by the road. They are apparently quite a pest, as they will break into places to steal, or sometimes will attack people for their food. They get lots of snow in this area, but monkeys and snow somehow just don't seem to go together!
The forests here are very much like in B.C. with fir, pine and cedar trees covering the mountains. The one way road has 22 switch-backs going up to Nikko and 26 coming back down. As there are 48 letters in the Japanese alphabet, so each of the 48 curves has been assigned a letter to identify it.
Temples in Nikko were first founded in 766, then expanded by succeeding generations of Buddhist high priests. Although the prestige of Nikko fluctuated with the fortunes of Buddhism in Japan over the centuries, it was always considered a very holy place. An overnight visit to Nikko is part of schooling for all Japanese students.
After visiting the main Buddhist temple at Nikko we took a drive around Lake Chuzenji, where we stopped for a late Japanese lunch. A lot of embassies in Tokyo have cottages on the lake, which are used to escape the oppressive summer heat of the city. At this altitude it is much cooler than Tokyo in July and August, but apparently packed with people.
This was the only tour I'd been on that didn't see everyone back to their hotel by bus. We were dropped at a downtown railway station and given instructions on how to find our way to the station closest to our hotel. I had no problem, as I'm getting onto the rail system quite well. Tonight it was after 8:30 PM when I got off the train and stopped at TGI Friday's for a hamburger dinner on the way home.
Wednesday, May 14, 2005
This morning I was underway before 8 AM, with the first stop Mount Fuji. I remembered my camera, but the mountain was socked in. I couldn't even see the side of the road as we wound our way upwards! The bus had wider spaced seats and fewer people - there were about 10 in the group. We drove to the end of the road at Mountain Station 5 (of 10 stations), which is 2,400 meters up the 3,776 meter mountain. There was still ample snow at that altitude. The weather cleared a little, but never enough to see far - we had to take the guide's word for it that the view from here is spectacular. Apparently there is a Shinto Shrine at the top of the mountain, and in climbing season (July & August) a post office operates up there.
We then headed for the mountain town of Hakone where we had lunch at a lakeside restaurant before taking a cable car to the Owakudani Valley, or valley of Hell. The valley is a volcanic crater full of belching steam and smelling strongly of sulphur. An area specialty is the black hard boiled egg, cooked in boiling water escaping from the ground. It didn't taste any different than any other hard boiled egg, though.
We bussed back down the mountain where we boarded a mock pirate ship for a cruise down the length of Lake Hakone, where a famous Shinto Shrine is located in the lake. The area is beautiful - azaleas of many colours were in full bloom.
On the way back down the mountains from Hakone we had a near miss when a trailer truck heading up hill towards us passed another truck on a curve. The bus driver jammed on the brakes, and the oncoming truck desperately cut in front of the truck he was passing, missing the bus by inches. There was screaming from some of the women on our bus!
Originally I'd arranged to return to Tokyo by bus, expecting to be able to see lots from the road, however the expressways are largely fenced by sound barriers so I changed my itinerary to return by bullet train. It meant getting back in 36 minutes instead of 2 hours. The bullet train hits a top speed of 300 kph! It really is impressive. The early return allowed me to get some emails I had on floppy disc off, but didn't give me time to answer ones inbound before the business centre closed.
Tonight I opted to have a splurge dinner in the Kobe Steak House in the hotel, but after looking at the menu where the set meals started at $200 and went way up from there, I opted for a local BBQ restaurant where a filling and delicious meal was reasonably priced.
Thursday, May 15, 2005
For the first time in days it was an easy morning, so I slept late, clearing out of the hotel on their free shuttle bus to the station at a little after 11 in a rainstorm. After a sandwich, pastry and tea which took care of the last of my yen I boarded the comfortable Narita Express train to the airport.
Narita Airport has good English direction signs and lots of information booths, making it easy to get around. There was no problem finding Northwest Airlines, where a helpful agent tried unsuccessfully to get me an upgrade. He also informed me that the flight was close to full, and that all exit and bulkhead seats were taken. At the gate they blocked off the seat next to mine to give me two seats together. Sitting sideways worked well enough to make the 8 hour flight bearable.
We arrived in Seattle early. After a tedious three hour wait my flight to Victoria left on time. Marilynn drove me back to the apartment, where I got a couple of hours sleep before heading off to see our newly born grandson, Braden Walker Tregear. We'll be in Victoria now until the first of July.