Three Days Out, Part III: Imperial Catbus.

This was our last day in Japan, which felt a little unreal. It was still drizzling from the previous night when we got up, and I felt pretty good, considering my lack of sleep and slight overindulgence. This was also to be our last run at cultural sites; first up was the Imperial Palace, and we were already in a rush. Nou-sensei had said we’d find a coin locker, but I guess we didn’t have the time.

The grounds cover a wide area, with a moat and a high wall surrounding, allowing access via a gate. It’s located in the city proper, which is apparently the source of some controversy. The palace is old, while the newer buildings around tower over it, allowing people to look down on the Emperor and his family (literally, but the controversy comes from the figurative sense, I think). I also think there’s kind of a space concern; the palace and its grounds take up a lot of room, and there’s no train or metro line that runs beneath. However, the Japanese adhere strongly to tradition, and the question of where the palace would be relocated is also a concern. (Besides, what would they do to the old land? Tear down the buildings? Fill in the moat?)

Anyway, I was first to reach the gate guards (who looked more like security guards), and I guess they assumed I was in charge, because they started asking me questions about the tour. I politely explained that my teacher was coming, and they switched to her for the tickets. We cleared the gate (plus a second, located on a right-angle path) and went inside the wall, then into a visitors’ center to await the start of the tour. The building had restrooms (available only before tours, not after), a gift shop (with nothing I wanted or felt anyone else would want), and… coin lockers. Free ones, no less. We gratefully stashed all but our cameras and umbrellas, were given audio players with English capability, and sat down to wait for the tour. They opened with a video (which looked like it might have been on VHS, based on the onscreen interface), then had us assemble outside and start walking.

A lily-covered moat on the grounds of the imperial palace. The rainy weather actually enhanced its atmosphere.

While it’s not the most impressive place I’ve seen since visiting Japan, it was still an excellent place for an excursion. I’ve been to the White House, and it has nothing on the Emperor’s digs. Old (restored) buildings and bridges are connected with well-kept modern roads, the whole area much larger inside than one would expect. A car would come by occasionally, and the guides would have us stop and get way over to avoid injury (or liability). The guides were also interested in keeping us moving; we made frequest stops to hear about the sights within the grounds, but in between, stopping was actively discouraged. (I took a few pictures on the move.) There’s a section of moat on the inside that’s covered in lilies, pagoda-style buildings set high on internal walls, and other features that make you wish you had an all-access pass to see. I spoke with one of the guides on our way out, and he referenced some old story about a number of samurai held in the dungeon and their escape. Unfortunately, I don’t know the story and couldn’t understand his brisk Japanese, and my instructor wasn’t much help when I asked her.

The voice on the audio player, by the way, was a slow-spoken English woman that took a long time to tell us what the guide could say in a minute or less. We in my group were amused, because the guide would call out the numbers in English, and Nou-sensei would call out the exact same thing immediately after, once for every time the guide would say it.

After the tour, we picked up our stuff, except Warren, who had a minor SNAFU — he must have dropped his locker key, so one of the guides had to confirm the contents of his locker before he’d open it. No big deal, though — we were on our way shortly after. This time, when we reached the metro station, we unloaded into some of their coin lockers, since we’d be back by later.

We had some time to kill at the metro station after that, and hadn’t eaten, so we were given a lunch break (something like an hour and a quarter). We split into groups again; this time, I accompaied Warren and Heaven, who wanted to get as close to Tokyo Tower as they could before we left the area. We didn’t need to ask directions, because the damn thing is RIGHT OVER THERE, so you just have to start walking toward it. We passed a number of restaurants on the way, and I even spotted a drink machine with something I hadn’t seen since we’d arrived in Japan: Dr. Pepper. I bought one and had opened it before fully realizing it, and it didn’t last long at all.

I’m really pleased with this photo.

Along the way, we passed beneath a gate arch (which the vehicular traffic was also passing beneath), and the road eventually led to a temple. We were a little surprised to find it right there in the city, and figured we wouldn’t be able to get to the tower and back before our time was up (plus we wanted to eat), so we visited the temple — or, more specifically, we went in and looked around at the grounds without going inside. I got a pretty nice photo of the old temple in the foreground and Tokyo Tower rising in the background. It was around this time that my trusty 100円 umbrella finally broke a strut, which I had to snap off in order to get the thing to close without sporting a spike. It still worked, it had just finally started to break down (and I’m pretty sure it’s because I kept the thing wound pretty tightly when not in use).

On our way back, we poked our heads into a combination Subway/Family Mart. Warren and I wanted to see the menu differences, and they did have a nice-looking shrimp sub, but we weren’t there to eat. I did spot a cup of noodles I hadn’t seen in Osaka, though: Seafood Curry with Cheese. Again, I had it in hand and was at the counter with my wallet out before I fully realized it. Warren wanted to stop at CoCo Curry, a chain of specialty restaurants, and we’d seen one on our way up, so we stopped on the way back. The guy inside tried to seat us, but we honestly didn’t have the time, so we did a quick お持ち帰り order (except for Heaven, whom I don’t think ate lunch at all). I got a shrimp curry dish, priced down a bit because I asked for a smaller portion, while Warren got a regular-size kinoko curry. We hustled back to the station and realized we weren’t exactly sure how to get back to the meeting spot. They were doing some construction on the place, which didn’t help much. I finally asked for directions, and we learned we were one floor up from where we had to be, so down we went. Thankfully, we weren’t the last ones. We didn’t, however, have time to sit down and eat (nor was there a place to sit, for that matter). I was carrying the food, so at least I knew where it was. We headed to our platform and boarded the next train.

This was the chance that Warren and I had been waiting for. I handed him his tray, cracked mine, and Heaven graciously held the empty bag for trash while the two of us wolfed down our food. In retrospect, I could have gotten the regular size, and we could have eaten more slowly, but we had no clue how much time it was going to take. It was some damn fine curry, too, and came with a little packet of extra hot seasoning (I used a little, Warren used a lot). Warren became the keeper of the trash, since I’d carried the food, and we eventually reached Mitaka, home of the Studio Ghibli museum.

Let me preface this part by saying I’ve seen three Ghibli films, all Miyazaki: 千と千尋の神隠し (Spirited Away), 魔女の宅急便 (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and 崖の上のポニョ (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea). Studio Ghibli, however, has a large number of movies — more than I expected, based on the exhibits in the museum. As for the weather, the rain had largely stopped by this point.

The building is a sprawling affair, ivy-covered in some places, and with odd protrusions; it’s almost an exhibit in and of itself. There’s no photography permitted inside the museum, either, but you’re free to take pictures outside (which means after entering, you occasionally find yourself outside in a place where cameras are okay). There was also no trash allowed, and Warren was still carrying our lunch trash (because he hadn’t seen a damn wastebin since we’d eaten). They claimed they had no garbage cans inside, but that wasn’t exactly true; if you made it to the outdoor café, they had several.

The rooftop robot from 天空の城ラピュタ was both large and accurate.

Our first stop was their theater, in which they show exclusive short films; ours was called たからさがし (“Treasure Hunting”). A staffer explained (in Japanese) the origin of the movie and asked people not to take pictures, then graciously switched to English for the small group of us before they started the film. It ran about nine minutes, and was pretty cute. Afterward, we had the run of the place, and plenty of time. Most of us chose to climb a low, narrow (cramped) spiral staircase up to the top floor and work our way down. I can’t adequately describe it, really, since I don’t have the context necessary to cite examples. There was a rooftop garden and a life-size guardian robot statue from Castle in the Sky, the café, a catbus recreation area for kids… and a gift shop. The gift shop was aggravating. Too many people, and no one was really moving. I waited at least ten minutes to see four shelves on which the smaller items were displayed, and eventually gave up on seeing the last shelf because the two people blocking it never budged. I didn’t buy anything, and after we left, I learned they had Spirited Away film cels and the picture book on which Treasure Hunting was based. I honestly didn’t see either, or I might have at least gotten the book.

Near the time we left, I found an ingenious place to store one’s umbrella (which I didn’t need too badly, since mine was pretty dry by this point). It had numerous umbrella slots, with a clasp around each. You closed the clasp and removed a plastic key, and when you wanted the umbrella back, you reinsterted the key and the clasp would open. Never seen anything like it.

The best room in the place showed animation in fun ways, like rotoscopes and a rotating wheel of figures lit by a stroboscope so it looks like they’re moving. It also had benches and soft music, making it an ideal place to relax. By the time I reached it, most everyone had left the museum to wait except for Josh and me. Josh thought he’d seen the whole place, but I pointed out a couple rooms he hadn’t walked through, so it was good he stayed longer. Still, we left earlier than our original set time, hoofed it back to the station (it was about fifteen minutes each way), and went back to our hub station to pick up our bags from the locker. From there, we switched to the Shinkansen, and were off to Osaka.

The ride back was uneventful. Josh and I sat beside each other, as we’d become accustomed to. I polished off the last of my leftover snacks, inclusing one of my boxes of Giant Pretz and the free “sauce mayo” noodle snack I got for free at the 7-11 on opening day (all of which I shared with Josh and Warren). Josh had been saving his money all day, since he was at the end of his cash, and I’d suggested one last run to Rairaitei for a goodbye bowl of ramen. He only had money from reminding two people on the trip they’d borrowed money from him three weeks before and it was time to pay up. We kept an eye out for Mt. Fuji, since it had been shrouded in clouds the last time we’d been by, but the overcast day again prevented us from seeing it. A few more train transfers and a walk back from Kawachi-Eiwa, and we were, for all intents and purposes, home. They even gave us our old rooms again, and we quickly recovered our luggage.

I’d been talking up Rairaitei from when we got back, and had invited everyone to come this time, not just Josh and Warren. The only person to decline was Tenesha, who said she doubted they’d have anything not pork-related, but the rest of us got settled in and then hit the street.

There was no rain whatsoever by this point, and most of us were hungry. It’s a quick walk, especially compared to the walk to Kindai, and I kept a good pace. Our friend Katsunori (not to be confused with the Kindai student of the same name) wasn’t working, nor was the thin-faced cook we’d seen the last two times, but the girl we saw on our second visit was there, and she was good to us. We all got seated at the counter in a line, thanks to one patron who moved down a couple seats when asked by the staff. I ordered the katamen with pork like the last time, but now that I could see it on the menu, I got the upsell version with extra pork. Josh had just enough for the regular ramen (no upsell) if four of us gave him 10円 each (Mike, Warren, Heaven, and I supplied him with the pittance he needed). Warren got the same, and Heaven got something else. Mike, Ashe, and Rosemarry were going to each order the pork slices, but they only had two orders’ worth left for the night, so the three ordered what they and left and shared. Technically, Rosemarry ate one by herself, since she’d been saying how hungry she was, while Ashe and Mike (who had said he wasn’t very hungry) split the other. I powered down the ramen, making happy noises the whole time, while Josh agreed that the ramen there was pretty damned amazing. He’d had the pork the last two times, and had said it was the best-tasting thing he’d eaten in Japan, but after the ramen, he upgraded the restaurant to the best place he’d eaten in Japan, even more so than any of the yakiniku he’d had. We left in staggered groups, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I was full and happy.

I still had my mini-composition to write and turn in, since it had to be handwritten in Japanese, but I’d already come up with the sentences I’d need; I just had to translate them and make them work together in paragraphs. That and some creative repacking were my last two activities of the night, and when I was finished, I conked out for a few hours. Saturday was departure day, and we had to be downstairs at 5:40 am.

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