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Day 9: Tottori Part 1

When doing research on my trips, I occasionally stumble upon things that I absolutely must see in places I go to, even if everyone else is unwilling (and especially if everyone else is willing). I am somewhat regretful I didn’t make Al Amn, as Edmunds termed it “The best driving road ever”, even though it’s probably not necessarily true (since the Stelvio Pass likely beats it), but when I found that Tottori prefecture had … what it had, I realised I absolutely must visit. Of course, that will only come in part 2, so in the meantime, I must engage my cherished readers in alluring banter that will make browsing through a thousand pictures easier. I swear I’d have posted it all in one day, but I felt the first day had enough experiences to justify a post by itself, and day 2 will cover the entire reason why I went there. Of course, as many of my trips tend to, ours started by eating. We ate at a roadstop near the Sea of Japan where I expected to be able to find some decent fish.

The handwritten entrance sign was encouraging…

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The interior was somewhat rustic:

 

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The view was pretty nice:

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And the food was decent. Note that I say “decent”. Some years ago, while driving around Chiba, we randomly went to a roadside restaurant that sat on the side of the ocean. We were completely floored by their food – it was fresh, it was original and although the presentation was classic Japanese in its arrangement and beauty, it still felt like a mom-and-pop shop where the owners were cooking – and doing so very well. This wasn’t really the case here. The food was solid, but nothing out of this world; so in the end, it was just another diner at a huge parking lot near a highway (really, in retrospect, that should have been the most obvious giveaway).

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A view of the Tottori beaches:

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After lunch, we began our cultural program. Our first stop were the ruins of Tottori castle, complete with an interesting mansion built on its grounds. As is often the case with many castles, this one was surrounded by water, and by sakura (cherry blossom) trees which were approaching full bloom.

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The main road onto the castle grounds was packed with street vendors selling various local delicacies, none of which I had absolutely any interest in.

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In many cities, the castles have fallen into ruin, and very few cities actually have impressive castles (like Himeji does, for instance). Tottori, unfortunately, is no exception – so no actual castle remains. What I did want to see, though, was the Jinpukaku mansion, though. Built by the 14th lord of the Ikeda clan. Built to (possibly) house future Emperor Taisho during his tour of Japan in the early 20th century, it was a radical departure from the traditional Japanese architecture. We must remember that the Meiji period, which is when the mansion was built, saw an opening of Japan to the West, and an assimilation of various elements of Western culture. The demise of the samurais, the switch to Western clothing and so on all happened during this time, so, I suppose, during such a wildly “progressive” time, it is only natural that rather than looking like this (interestingly, note the Christian church in the background)….

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… the Ikeda mansion looks like this:

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When built, it was the first building in Tottori to be electrified, and it was a beacon of progress. Of course, being an imperial mansion, the grounds are impeccable:

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The interior is rather curious, as well. The most notable feature is that the mansion is done in a distinctly Western style… and yet all the floors are tatami mats. I suppose there were things even the modernists of the day were unwilling to surrender :)

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We climbed the mountain to the ruins of the Ikeda castle to see a pretty vista of the city of Tottori:

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On the way back, we saw a heart-warming sight.

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The little girl was tired, and her brother was carrying her on her back.

We went on to the Children’s Toy Museum, where I experienced something completely shocking. On arrival, we looked at the price board, and something nonsensical was on it. It was 500 yen for admission……. unless you’re a foreigner, in which case it was half price. I have never seen that. Typically, foreigners pay double (or more), but half? The man at the cash asked to see some foreigner ID from me, which I didn’t have, but he gave me the 50% off, anyway; in retrospect, I should have told him that if he thinks I look like a Japanese national, I would gladly pay the full price. :) Apparently, though, because they have received a tremendous amount of support from various countries around the world, they are looking to encourage foreigners to visit, and hence are discounting admission fees for them.

It wasn’t as varied as the Singapore museum, but it was interesting nonetheless:

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On leaving the museum, since it was approaching 5pm, we figured it would be best to head to the hotel (or more specifically, the ryokan – a traditional Japanese hotel). Hotels in Japan tend to generally be a lot more punctual on checkin/checkout times, and even more so with ryokans where breakfast and dinner are included: you really, really need to be on time there. So we went there, but not before I came across a lady walking a really, really old Shiba. I absolutely had to stop and chat, and this deserves a small digression.

Generally, since I spent most of my time in the Osaka area and the Tokyo area, I have experienced exactly two reactions from people when I speak to them in Japanese. One is of utter disbelief (akin to the Russian joke, in which an Armenian comes to a zoo, looks at a giraffe, takes in its size…. shakes his head, says “nope, this can’t possibly exist”, and walks away), followed by a response in broken English. The other response, iconified in my glorious experience in the middle of the night in Ibaraki, a somewhat rural city between Osaka and Kyoto, went something like this. I was lost, and I flagged a passerby to ask where the city hall was, which would have oriented me towards where the train station was. So I asked her, in (and the intent is not to show off my Japanese skills, but to situate the readers) my relatively fluent, and even area-local Japanese, where this city hall was. She looked at me with the look of the Armenian in the Russian joke above, stuttered, “NOTTO-UNDERSTANDO” and ran away. So this has been my experience in Japan, by and large.

Peculiarly, my experience in Tottori was completely the opposite. First, when refuelling at a gas station, the attendant came over to chat. While the car was refuelling, we chatted about this and that, he told me about his sister who has a foreign boyfriend who speaks no Japanese, I commented that that’s kind of lazy of him, that the attendant happily agreed with. Most of my conversations with the inhabitants of Japan tend to be either transactional, where either I, or they, need something, such as in the case of buying things, accessing things, and so on; or singular-emotional, such as “what a beautiful tree! — Yes, ain’t it.”. This one here, though, was refreshingly pointless, where we could have been chatting about the weather, or anything, really.

So when I saw the woman pass by with an extremely elderly Shiba, I felt I had to inquire how old the dog was. Field research, so to say, as the dog looked to be extremely old. I literally walked about a block after I saw her, and I doubled back. Strangely (because, as I describe above, it IS strange in Japan), the woman neither ran away, nor got scared. We just started chatting about her dog, and Shibas in general. Turned out the dog was 15 years old, and until 14 was a healthy, active grandma – until old age hit at 15, and she became barely able to walk around. I told her I had a Shiba, as well, and our conversation went on for a few minutes. I appreciated it very much, and it made me feel like people in Tottori are… just nice.

Ending this parenthesis, we then set off to our hotel. I prefer to pick smaller ryokans, as you tend to find more personal, friendly service in these kinds of places, so I booked one that had only three guest rooms. It was located in Yoshioka-Onsen, an area southwest of Tottori city, which was powered by underground geysers and tourists. Strangely, this seemed to be a low season (despite it being sakura season), as many ryokans were shut, few tourists were on the roads, and all we could see was occasional elderly locals scuttling about. Our ryokan looked effectively like someone’s house (and it probably was, at some point in the past):

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The vestibule was quite typical:

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The owner welcomed us and showed us to our room, which was already set:

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Welcome sweets were provided:

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Prior to catching dinner, we went for a short walk to explore the neigbourhood (the middle car was ours):

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Came across a nice waterfall:

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After dinner finished, I felt I had to grab a few pictures of “yoo-zakura”, which is evening sakura – typically, backlit with ambient or artificial light.

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On the way back to the ryokan, I felt like I had to take some pictures of the deserted roads.

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As I was capturing some shots, an old lady was passing by. She saw me hiding behind a lamppost trying to take some of these shots, and (once again, unlike any other Japanese city I’ve been in) she walked over to me to check what I was doing (I mean, a foreigner, out alone in the dark, hiding behind a lamp post, right?). So since I didn’t want her to get a heart attack or something, I called out to her – “Night sakura’s quite pretty, isn’t it?” She got all happy, nodded, and walked off.

Puzzling city, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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Interlude: Random shots in Japan

I’m desperately trying to catch up with my travel notes before the trip to Myanmar (Burma) actually starts, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, since we’re leaving to the airport in 3 hours; so the notes on Tottori will come at some point. Here are some other random shots from here and there in Japan, simply because they looked nice.

First, a few shots from Suma Rikyu Koen – a park not far away from where I was, which I have only discovered now, and wish I visited some more.

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Continue reading

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Day 8: Japan – Oji Zoo

In keeping with a promise I made to a friend who complained that my writing was mostly about lounges, crusty airplane seats and wines at altitudes where no sane person can reasonably distinguish a Côte-de-Beaune from a grocery store-mixed one (as well as pretentious banter about supposedly belonging to a somehow different class of aluminium tube inhabitants simply because I sit closer to the front), I’ve been making a decent effort to vary the content by covering wider aspects of my travel (since contrary to common belief [and believe me, honestly, contrary to my desire] I spend time doing other things than sit in lounges and in planes).

So we made a small outing to Oji Dobutsuen (Oji Zoo, 王子動物園), a local attraction which features animals and a panda (which is how most Japanese know it – it’s the zoo that has a panda). It was fortunately far from sakura season still and it was still a few days too early for school holidays, so it was somewhat quiet. For those who care to know, sakura season floats year to year, and it’s usually extremely short – a few days at most – because anything outside of full bloom is considered less than desirable. I’ve not thought to document this, because I’m so used to it in a way, but there are “sakura forecasts”, where maps are made and posted in relevant locations (such as train stations, etc) which detail which locations a) have good sakura tree accumulations, and b) what phase of blooming they are in. These maps are religiously updated and people use the to go sakura-watching (hanami, 花見) and drinking copious amounts of alcohol under the trees; more latter than former, if anything. Continue reading

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Day 7: Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong – Osaka

So thus ended my (very) short stay in Hong Kong, and it was time to move onwards – to Japan, again. Much to look forward to there, since besides the usual dose of Japan, I had a few interesting side trips planned, plus, hey, it’s sakura season, so you can’t ever go wrong with that.

But that’s later. First, I had to get there, and my first trip on Cathay Pacific would take me there. When I was initially planning the trip, I had a few choices – instead of HK, I could have stopped by Seoul and used points to fly Korean Air in economy from Seoul to Korea… but after looking at my options, it occurred to me that only 30K of Avios points, which can pretty much be had with a single signup to an American Express card, would get me there from HK in first class. Since I consider points a currency with a limited shelf life, I figured, why not – plus, I’ve never flown CX before, and based on all I’ve heard, it’s truly a five-star airline. So I “splurged”, if that can be said of a free credit card and $50 in taxes.

Unfortunately, unlike Emirates, there is no chauffeur drive. More so, in Hong Kong, either based on some arcane fare non-discrimination law, or just general disarray (despite it being a really, really nice airport), your ground priority ends at the first class checkin counter. They have cool free-standing terminals for first class checkin, unlike the usual lanes and counters, but neither security nor immigraton has any priority lanes for elite or premium passengers. Continue reading

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Day 6: Macau

I arrived to Hong Kong late at night, and checked into the Intercontinental Grand Stanford. A very nice hotel that has extremely reasonable rates compared to the main Intercontinental on the harbour, and with some of the rooms, it even has somewhat of a harbour view! As mentioned in my NYC post, I had a limo scheduled from the Hong Kong airport to the Grand Stanford – a surprise to me, and a surprise to the limo driver (apparently) since he suggested I book it through the hotel, rather than the airline, from now on – since they “ceased service”. All I knew is it was back, and it was free, and that’s a wonderful deal since it basically adds 50 bucks to ticket value!

Checking in, I got the standard Royal Ambassador benefits, which included free minibar and a suite upgrade – but unfortunately, no club (and as a friend of mine later informed me, I should have negotiated for no suite access and club instead, since the Grand Stanford apparently has one of the best clubs in the Intercontinental chain – oops). The room was actually very nice, though being alone, it hardly made any difference; though to be fair, since I was meeting my friend, we were likely to have much better breakfast than the hotel would offer (and we did – more on that shortly). Continue reading

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Day 5: Burj Khalifa and Emirates Dubai to Hong Kong

Since I had very little time to actually visit anywhere, I packed my schedule to the gills (I think I keep mentioning this, but it’s important to understand that I neither had time for sleep, nor jetlag). I got home from yesterday’s trip at close to midnight, and I had to get up at 4am (!) to make it for my 5:30 tickets for Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, just in time for sunrise.

I left the hotel quite early to make sure I make it on time. I’ve mentioned before that the parking lot for the Dubai Mall is enormous, and here’s proof of that, listing the empty spaces at 5am in the morning:

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That’s 6,268 parking spaces only in the Cinema Zone. There are two other parking areas (Grand and Fashion), totaling to just over 14,000 parking spaces. This is in comparison to about 1,000 parking spaces in the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal, or about 67 spaces in the Montreal Trudeau Airport which always seem to be taken.

Of course, nobody comes at 5am, so here’s a shot of something you will likely never see unless you’re as insane as I am:

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Continue reading

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Day 4: Back to Dubai

On this day, more adventures awaited! Opulence of Dubai, more eating, more malls, and of course, what adventure would be complete without a visit to the Burj al-Arab for afternoon tea?

Leaving the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, I headed off back to Dubai. I was resolved to follow my plan for this day, which had me visiting things more or less by the minute – with directions between each. Continue reading

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Interlude: the cars of the Emirates

Since my interests tend to revolve around cars, planes and watches, it should hardly be a surprise that any trip will discuss at least some, if not all, of these. I didn’t have time to explore watches in great detail on this trip, so it will just be a footnote, but cars in the Emirates definitely deserves its own post.

I should footnote this post by saying that it’s hard to justify posting any cars of the Emirates, because unlike any regular city, where you’d see something fancy and admire it, in the Emirates, anything less than $100,000 on a car (in North American pricing) seems to be pedestrian. As a result, there are so many “impressive” cars that it’s complicated to single any of them out – so I tried to go for ones that had at least something notable about them.

A Dodge Charger is one of these, seeing as Dodge does not sell this outside the USA:

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Continue reading

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Day 3: A day in Abu Dhabi (including Grand Mosque, Masdar City and others…)

Day 3 started on arrival to Dubai International Airport. Not to sound grumpy, but zero ground service was offered. No golf cart to pick me up. No welcoming. Nothing. The VIP on the flight got a military and UN welcome, but I got nothing. That’s relatively annoying. On the upside, immigration was ultra-quick – the security guard zealously guarding the gate marked “Fast Track – Business/First” looked at me suspiciously and asked, “Business?” and I replied, “First.” – he stepped aside, let me through, the immigration officer burped, “Welcome to the UAE” and I was on my way. Thanks to Steven Harper for allowing Emirates to fly to Toronto so that I can skip paying $92 for a two-day visa.

Exiting the terminal, I was excited to see my Sixt representative and see what car I’d be getting. Seeing as I am Sixt Diamond, I had high hopes. I exited, looked around, saw many men with placards with names on them … except mine. I looked around some more. Nothing.

I phoned Sixt. They asked me to go to across the street and wait 10 minutes in front of National Car Rental (?!). This was certainly profoundly annoying. Eventually, a man drove up and, apologising profusely, took me to the rental office (since Sixt is located in Terminal 1, and my arrival was to 3). Continue reading

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Day 2: Emirates First Class New York – Dubai

Since I’m flying premium on Emirates, I am entitled to their limo pickup service, which is excellent – considering my flight is out of JFK (Kennedy) airport, it’s easily a $65 ride from Manhattan. The only problem is … I assumed it worked like Uber where the guy calls when he is close by. So I was the good citizen – expecting a pickup at 8:20, I checked out around 8 and just camped in the lobby of the hotel for a good 20 minutes, progressively getting more and more irate because no driver showed up; when I finally went outside to look, I saw a Lincoln with my name on it. Apparently, the doorman was supposed to tell me but didn’t – and the driver sat there waiting for almost an hour. Wonderful.
As always, though, nothing bad ever happens without something good: when I was angrily browsing around Emirates’ website looking for the contact info of the service, I noticed that they reinstated their Hong Kong limo service which they suspended on Feb 28: so now, I will get limo pickup in Hong Kong, which is completely awesome.