Japan Trip 2015

It's rare that a trip can go so well that it surpasses your wildest dreams. For me, this moment happened when I was able to help a dear friend of mine mark the ten-year anniversary of his life's greatest trial. For him, the moment happened as he sat there with his hands on a steering wheel, realizing how far he had come on since his life was forever changed.

I went through a serious depression during the last few months of 2014. There were a number of unpleasant incidents throughout the year, but what really caused me to snap was the loss of both of my dogs. Rosco and Layla were the only constant contact I had for several years - I left the Marine Corps, I bought a house, I got a divorce, I changed jobs and moved to another state, and went through some relationship drama that was quite difficult for me to get over. They were the one consistent support I had throughout all these life changes. I lost both of them to two different kinds of cancer only a few days apart. It destroyed me.

Nothing mattered to me anymore. I couldn't go to work. I couldn't function. I couldn't think. I consumed more anti-anxiety medicines than food. My friends Adrian and Brindisi took care of me, letting me sleep on their couch for several days and looking after me since I couldn't do anything on my own. Eventually I went back home to the apartment I was renting at the time, but the silence haunted me. Gone was the pitter patter of paws, the snouty sighs that melts the heart of every dog lover, and the bright brown eyes that looked up to me with more love than a human can possibly express with such a glance.

I went home to silence, and that silence was a relentless ear-splitting scream that made me curl up and cry into my own empty arms.

Then came my friend Eric, and he pulled me out of that dark place. I first met him at Fraggle Rock, an event held at the beginning of spring each year to mark the start of car season in the DMV region (DC, MD, VA). It was my first event since moving to Virginia that winter, and it was where I met most of the people I'm still friends with today. Eric had a red Acura NSX, a pair of Google Glasses, and a quiet demeanor. We barely spoke that day, but eventually we ran into each other again and became friends.

Eric has had his fair share of difficult times, so he knew how to get me through mine. He got me onto an exercise program - and made sure I stuck to it - and helped me track my diet. I went from being depressed and out of shape to stable and fit. I rode the upward momentum and went on to do three Tough Mudders and a half marathon during the first several months of 2015. Part of this accomplishment is the fact that I'm a disabled veteran, so it took a lot of physical therapy to make this happen. But what started it all, and the person I leaned upon the most, was Eric.

 Five weeks' progress

Five weeks' progress

I wanted to show Eric just how much his support meant to me, and I had the perfect idea to do it. Eric is a huge anime fan. He's even a bit famous for his cosplay. But despite that, he'd never been to Japan. So, I told him we were going.

Planning the Trip

Eric and I each had things we wanted to do in Japan. I wanted to go to a baseball game and the Tsukiji Fish market. Eric wanted to go to a Hatsune Miku concert and Akihabara. We both wanted to go to a SuperGT race and do some sightseeing in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. We found a two-week time span that had everything we wanted to do, and we started making arrangements.

Getting tickets to events in Japan is often rather tricky. The SuperGT tickets required us to have a Japanese billing address, which we obviously didn't have. And the Hatsune Miku concert tickets were based on a lottery system - if you were randomly selected for tickets, you got them and were charged accordingly. If you didn't get selected, your card didn't get charged and you didn't get tickets.

Eric and I both entered the lottery for the Miku tickets. We figured we'd rather pay for two pairs of tickets than not have any at all. What's an extra $120 to help ensure you've got tickets when you're traveling halfway around the world for a concert?

But neither of us were selected.

Eric was crushed by the news that we didn't get tickets. Frankly, it didn't make sense. There was an entire section of seats set aside for foreign attendees, so how could neither of us get them? Turns out there was an issue with the lottery system and nobody was given tickets. We both got phone calls from the concert organizers apologizing for the mistake and offering us the tickets. So Eric accepted his pair and I declined mine and we both had tickets without paying double. It worked out rather well in the end.

The SuperGT tickets weren't so simple. The last time I went to Japan, the hotel I stayed at bought the tickets on my behalf, so the Japanese billing address wasn't an issue. This time around we'd be staying at a hotel, and this hotel wouldn't do the same for us. Enter Bob Bavasi and Michael Westbay of JapanBall. I bought our baseball tickets through them and it went very smoothly. When I couldn't get SuperGT tickets on my own, I turned back to them and asked them to get the race passes as well. After a few email exchanges they agreed to help, and we got our tickets.

 JapanBall to the rescue!

JapanBall to the rescue!

While this seems like a simple thing, it was actually a bit involved to get the tickets. So a very special thank you to JapanBall for making that happen!

We picked out our hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo. We were based in Kyoto for the first week of our trip, and in Tokyo for the second half. To travel between the two, as well as getting around in general, we'd need train passes. The best way to handle that is with a JR Pass.

Starting Our Journey

We flew non-stop from Washington-Dulles International (IAD) to Narita (NRT) on All Nippon Airways, Japan's largest airline. Their service was impeccable, as Japanese service usually is.

On the plane.jpg

Although quite simple, the food was really good. Maybe it was because the simplistic dishes allowed the food itself to be that much better.

ANA food.jpg

Our hotel in Kyoto was still a long way away, so we hopped aboard the Shinkansen. It was already dark when we got to Kyoto.

Kyoto Station.jpg

Tomake things easy we took a taxi from Kyoto Station directly to the hotel. Taxis in Japan are similar to those in the US, but with a few notable differences that show the extra care they have for their vehicles. The cars are typically much cleaner, the most obvious aspect of it being the lack of musky odor found in most US cabs. There are woven, white covers over the seats. The drivers wear white gloves. And just to cap off the that-much-better comparison, the rear doors of Japanese taxis open and close automatically.

After unloading our bags in our room and freshening up, we went for a stroll and found a restaurant right around the corner from the hotel. We ordered ramen, gyoza, and beer, and gorged ourselves on it. The ramen was the best I've ever had, and I can still say that to this day. It was a chicken broth soup with huge slices of pork, lots of scallions, and just the right flavors. 

Best Ramen in the World.jpg

Bellies full and weary from travel, we called it a night. The next day would be our first day of sightseeing and we'd need our rest to recover from the long journey and be ready for the next couple weeks to come.

Click the button below for Part 2 of this feature.