The Trip of a Lifetime
As a child obsessed with Godzilla and Nintendo, Japan has always been the “Holy Grail” of destinations for me. As an adult I still love video games, but maybe trend more towards western developed titles. However, I’ve been employed by a Japanese geotechnical construction company for the last 10 years and have had the wonderful opportunity to meet and grow close to several coworkers who call Japan home. I’ve loved learning about their culture and language while answering their questions about mine.
About three and a half years ago I was informed by my boss that our parent company wanted to take me to Japan as a show of appreciation for my dedication and hard work. It was a dream come true! I was ecstatic! I had my passport within the month… and then waited…
Now, I completely understand the delay. In my time with the company I’ve grown much in understanding and responsibility with respect to our little corner of the construction industry. Scheduling becomes an exercise in near futility when nearly every project is met by multiple delays before it even begins. Trying to find a window in between bid dates is just another form of aiming at a moving target with frequent postponements and addenda that require reanalyzing everything for changes that effect your proposal. While there were never any hard feelings, I’d be lying if I said I never felt any frustration about it. I mean, we did buy a house and move out of California during the wait. I even worked on two projects in other places I had never been to before in the meantime, Oregon and New Zealand (good thing I already had that passport).
My patience paid off and it finally happened. I’m pleased to share with you a little about my excellent trip. I’ll try to keep it light and simple, besides I’ve already forgotten most of the educational bits. It’s going to be pretty picture-heavy so hopefully you are reading this on a device that displays them correctly.
Welcome to Tokyo
Here is my room on the 8th floor of the Arcadia Ichigaya, it was much larger than I was expecting.
At night I loved flipping through the channels on TV and trying to figure out what was going on. I can’t really explain why I was so fascinated by the dramas, news reports, and variety shows that I had no chance of following, but it was great! The coolest part of the room however was the bathroom, particularly the toilet. This thing is incredible, and is really making me rethink my home toilet situation. I have two magical words for you, “heated seat”!
By the time we got to the hotel from Narita International Airport it was about dinner time and jet lag was rearing it’s ugly head. In an effort to adjust quickly we ate dinner and attempted to stay awake until a decent bedtime before crashing for the night, which was largely successful. In the morning it was time to open the curtains and begin taking in Japan. As I looked out the window into the strange new world beyond I noticed something curious across the street on the top of a neighboring building. Now what in the world is that? Gargoyles?
After breakfast it was time to swing by the corporate office to meet and greet before the part of the trip I might have been most excited for.
Prior to the trip I was asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to see so it could be added to the itinerary. I was very emphatic, there was nowhere they could take me that I wouldn’t be excited about, nothing they could show me I wouldn’t think was amazing. It would all be new. It would all be foreign. It would all be Japan. I only had one request, I wanted to see Akihabara. I wanted to purchase some video games I could only get in Japan.
It was… weird… Don’t get me wrong, it was also amazing. I could have wandered around there just checking everything out for probably three days. I did, however, underestimate how awkward it might feel dragging my boss around the nerdiest place he never knew existed for even a few meager hours. It still makes me chuckle inside when I think about it.
We checked out several stores, and had a tasty ramen lunch. The best part was that I found a few games to bring back, including all of the Dragon Quest games released for the Super Famicom (pilgrimage to Super Potato, check). I do wish I had taken more pictures while in the area. Oh well, there’s always next time, right?
After Akihabara we met with the president of our company and a few other guests for dinner. Fancy sushi place? Nope, Tony Roma’s! Yeah, you read that right. We had a great time, but I still find it funny.
Can’t Get Away from the Hard Hat
I’ve been involved with numerous deep soil mixing projects over the last decade, but mostly involving only one technique. This trip offered a nice opportunity to visit a couple different jobsites and see some of the other ways our parent company improves the soil for a variety of purposes.
The first project was in the beautiful city of Isehara in Kanagawa Prefecture where shallow soil mixing was used as part of the site of a new highway interchange. The mixing attachment on the excavator is blending the soil with a cement grout pumped to it from the batch plant. This was a fun site to visit, the Project Manager was quick to point out my Nintendo controller belt buckle and even went so far as to reach out and push a button before mimicking Mario’s iconic jump. We were later told that in his free time he is a food-fighter, which is not the best way to say he engages in competitive eating. The first image that popped in my head was of someone who was a professional food flinger!
The next project we visited was in Tokyo, where the TRD method was used to install a cutoff wall. This machine is essentially a giant chainsaw that extends vertically into the ground. While the “chain” is running, grout is injected to be blended with the soil. During the mixing process the machine slowly crawls along the alignment to form the wall. While the mix is still fresh and fluid, steel beams are lowered into it at regular intervals to add structural support. I’ve had the method explained to me before, but it was another thing altogether to see it in person.
On Our Own
The next morning we had some free time to explore on our own, without an escort. We thought it would be fun to check out the Shibuya Crossing. Rumored to be the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection, over two thousand people can cross during a single rush-hour signal change. There was definitely not that many people there at mid-morning on the Wednesday we were present, but it was impressive nonetheless. There was also a cool statue of a dog!
It occurred to us after we had left, that we never actually crossed the intersection ourselves. Can you believe that? Leave it to dumb American tourists to seek out a famous intersection without setting foot in it. Add that to the list of things to do next time.
This is where it starts to get harder to select pictures to include without going overboard. I finally got the hang of just taking pictures of everything and worrying about it later. We took a bus tour that drove through Tokyo, stopping at two major attractions. The tour guide was funny and had some very interesting facts to share, most of which I can’t remember now… I do remember my favorite part when the bus drove through Akihabara. He explained what it was in pretty general terms, basically a place for anime and game nerds or something like that. He said, “So if you’re one of those freaks, feel free to come back later on your own.” I nudged my boss and added, “or drag your employer along with you.” We had a nice laugh about that.
Anyway, Asakusa was the first stop on the bus tour and there were so many things to take pictures of! Shrines, temples, a five-story pagoda, but my favorite was a really cool statue nearby that turned out to be of a famous kabuki actor apparently.
Tokyo Sky Tree
The second stop on the bus tour was the Tokyo Sky Tree. About three years old, the Tokyo Sky Tree has observation levels at 350 and 450 meters high. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the view of Tokyo from so high up. Buildings as far as the eye can see! I tried to get a good picture of the sunset over the metropolis, but the sky was too cloudy for something truly spectacular. The shot I did get still looks nice, though.
It was surreal to stand on the glass floor section of the 350 meter level and only see the city far below. The final shot of this group is of the Tokyo Station, where our tour ended.
A Change of Locale
The following day was somewhat less eventful, but highlighted by a two and a half hour ride on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. That was a cool ride! I recorded random sections of the trip which I stitched together to make a short video to share, you’ll find it at the bottom of the post. Alternatively, you can also see it on my YouTube page here.
After checking into our rooms at the Rihga Royal Hotel we walked around a bit and grabbed lunch in a tiny hidden restaurant we happened upon in an alley. It occurs to me now that not taking any pictures there might have been silly of me. It was a cute little mom and pop place where, no doubt, “mom” and “pop” also resided. Very simple and quite charming.
Fed and happy we went back to the hotel to relax and plan the next day’s adventures. For dinner we attempted “do it yourself” sukiyaki at the Kyoto Yodobashi next to the Kyoto Tower. That was a bad idea. We had no idea what we were doing and the results were less than stellar. It was fun and we had a lot of laughs, but is was far from the best meal I had during my trip.
Another Bus Tour
The first part of this bus tour included a stop at the Shogun’s Palace. I had previously learned about the construction and purpose of the “nightingale floor” that prevented intruders from sneaking in quietly, but what a neat experience to walk on the floor and hear the bird-like squeaks and chirps for myself. While the exquisite artwork and craftsmanship within the palace was quite beautiful (pictures were not allowed inside, sorry), my favorite part was the amazing garden outside.
Can you guess what day of the week this bus tour occurred?
The next stop on the tour was to the Golden Pavilion, which is located in an incredibly scenic area. Aside from the pavilion itself there was also a 600+ year old bonsai tree shaped to resemble a sailing vessel.
The final stop on the tour was to the Emperor’s Palace. This was by far the most securely guarded point of interest we visited in Japan (if you disregard the airport). Our group was closely monitored to make sure nobody got separated. While still beautiful and impressive, I kind of wish this had been our first location to visit as the natural majesty surrounding the Shogun’s Palace and the Golden Pavilion captured my eye better. Regardless, there was much to marvel at and take pictures of.
After the bus tour we trekked around Kyoto on our own, just walking in whatever direction caught our fancy. We learned to navigate the local bus system and racked up an impressive 25,000+ steps for the day according to the pedometer on my phone. Below is one more blast of pictures taken during our self-guided wandering.
I loved being in Japan! Overall, I found everyone to be incredibly respectful and polite. It was amazing to see so many things that dwarf the age of my home nation by many centuries. The food was delicious and the culture, fascinating. The only part of the experience I really took issue with didn’t even have anything to do with Japan, American tourists. On both bus tours we seemed destined to be accompanied by people I’m ashamed to share a country with. Rude and disrespectful to the guides of the very tours they paid to participate in, I was appalled.
There was one other downside, but it’s pretty minor considering all of the great experiences I had otherwise. We could not find a single can or bottle of Mt. Dew in any vending machine or convenience store we passed! I told you, pretty minor. I made do with what I could find and was always strangely excited to try a different drink from the next vending machine, so much so that I’m baffled at the cans and bottles of funny drinks I didn’t photograph. And yes, I am well aware of Pepsi’s presence in the US. I just loved the foreign presentation.
While we’re on the topic of vending machines, America, you need to step your game up. These things are everywhere and they are so cool! Reasonably priced too!
It was Saturday and time to go. Fortunately, we have an upcoming project in Guam. Already being in Japan made it extremely convenient to hop over there to meet the people we’ll be working with and discuss the path forward as preparations are being made. Before our scheduled transportation left Kyoto we had some time to check out the view from the Kyoto Tower. I’ll save those pictures for later as I’ve already got too many in this post as it is.
We traveled back to Tokyo the same way we arrived, took another train to the airport, and headed for Guam. After a long day on the rails and in the air, it was about 2:00 AM before we reached our hotel but I didn’t care. I needed this!
Sunday morning I awoke and opened the curtains to check out my new surroundings. Holy crap, we’re on the beach!
With a whole day to kill before our scheduled meeting we took the opportunity to scout the area for potential crew housing options, grocery store locations, material suppliers, and lots of sight-seeing. We basically circled the entire island in a single day, which is no great feat given its size. On the north end of the island is the Guam National Wildlife Refuge which is simply breathtaking! We visited the beach, saw a bit of the jungle, and found a nearby cave.
As we continued our drive around the southern end of the island we were able to visit Talofofo Falls, near the site where one of the final Japanese WWII soldiers (Shoichi Yokoi) was captured in 1972. That’s a pretty cool story I would encourage you to look into if you like strange history. He survived unseen in the jungle for nearly 28 years after the war had ended. The location is now a tourist attraction.
All Good Things…
I had been very excited for this trip for a long time and still, any expectations I might have had were far exceeded by the actual experience. I always look forward to opportunities to travel and see new places, but it will be a long while before anything tops this. As this overdue and overlong post draws to a close, please enjoy the final sunset of my stay in Guam. It’s a lot more pleasant than the nasty snorkeling sunburn I enjoyed while making the long trek home. If you ever have the opportunity sit in airplane seats from Guam to Narita, Narita to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to San Francisco while sunburnt, politely decline. Sunblock is your friend, use it liberally. Thanks for reading!
Bullet Train from Tokyo to Kyoto
Play nice, everyone!