A brief aside regarding Japanese toilets.

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When I wrote the last few posts, I had originally intended to include a lot more commentary about the toilets in Japan.  Homer Simpson put it best:  They’re years ahead of us!

Rather than discuss it more here, I’ll nudge you to read Vanessa’s excellent post over at Leather And Abel about Japanese toilets.

While the toilets I encountered didn’t have multi-colored fountains or musical chimes, I did see toilets with warmed seats (delightful!) and toilets with a privacy mode that creates white noise to make it harder for the people around you to guess what you’re actually doing in the stall.

Have you ever used a high tech Japanese toilet?  Do you think the privacy button is really fooling anyone?

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Around the office, Tokyo Edition

Longtime readers of my blog know that I don’t really talk about my employment here.  However, my primary reason for being in Japan was to work in the Tokyo office for five weeks.  As a result, I spent a lot of time around this view:

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Our office is in the Otemachi financial district.  There are lots of very, very tall buildings here.

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Any series of posts about being in Japan should touch on the older style of floor-toilets.  This is what they look like.  In train stations, there are markings on the stall doors to tell you whether you have a floor toilet or a Western-style toilet.  I managed to go through most of my five weeks in Japan without having to use one of these logistically crazy floor squatters.   I was doing fine, until I got to a train station on the outskirts of Osaka.   When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

The problem with floor toilets for a Westerner like me, is that there’s no easy way to balance over the thing unless you take one leg entirely out of your jeans.  Even with partial disrobing, I had to rest a tiny part of my weight on the lip of the raised portion.  I’m just not built that way.  Don’t even get me started about how much taking my shoes off in a public restroom squicks me out.

I can tick the floor-squat toilet experience off my bucket list now.  I don’t ever need to do that again.

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This pop-up beer garden showed up near the office, but I never got a chance to stop in.  I also didn’t ever see people inside until my very last week.  Sapporo is pretty tasty though, so I’m sure that woulda been tasty good fun.

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One of the buildings near the office has a traditional smoker’s aquarium.  These never fail to make me laugh.  The ventilation system is top notch, though-  I walked past this thing almost every day, and I never smelled smoke from inside.

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Inside the office, there’s a Shinto altar to wish for good business, complete with an English explanation.  I thought this was fascinating.

 

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Also in the office:  Complimentary hot and cold running water, green tea, barley tea, and (terrible) coffee.   I had a cup of the hot barley tea nearly every day-  I had never been exposed to barley tea before this trip, and I really enjoyed it.

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On days that I was in the office during normal business hours, we usually ate lunch in the cafeteria at the basement level.  The value is excellent-  I usually got a tremendous amount of food for no more than about five Yen.   For example, this meat dish, with rice, vegetable, miso soup, and a beverage was 4.90 yen.

 

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Similarly this plate with what I thought was three chicken nugget type things.  Imagine my surprise when the third one turned out to be fish instead of chicken!

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I can’t really remember what this one was, but it seems to be a basic noodle-meat-veggie dish.   The little pasta salad at the bottom was tasty.

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This one was a sort of pho-like noodle bowl, with a rice piece that had a seaweed wrap.

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Of all the cafeteria dishes I had, this one was my absolute favorite-  I love eggs like crazy, and the other parts were delicious, including the rice hidden beneath the top layer.  This is the only dish that I completely finished-  most of the others had some leftover food when I was done.  I noticed that my colleagues from the Tokyo office did not have this problem-  they all ate significantly faster than me, and they all cleared their plates entirely.  I suspect there’s a cultural thing where not clearing your plate is seen as wasting food, but I have to stop eating when I’m full or I feel absolutely terrible.

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Most of my time in the office was evening shifts, which meant that my food breaks had to use restaurants in the immediate vicinity.    Near the office, I found a delicious Thai resturant, for some great Pad Thai.

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There’s also any number of Italian restaurants.   This one in the Otemachi Financial Center has pasta over a stunningly delicious meat sauce.

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That same food court area contains a Gyoza (dumpling) shop named New York New York.  They were one of the few restaurants I visited which had an English menu, even if the translation might need a little bit of work.  What the hell is hairy crab meat?!

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Gyoza are damned tasty, don’t you think?

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My colleague liked this flavor packet quite a lot.  I tried it on my rice, and was disturbed to learn that it tasted like miso and seaweed, not like chicken.

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New York New York had a fun little photo opportunity.  Yup, the Statue of Liberty has chopsticks holding a Gyoza.  Why not?

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This is actually ramen noodles.   Everything I thought I knew about ramen was challenged in Japan, because the ramen there is amazing and flavorful and nothing whatsoever like the freeze-dried instant noodles I was familiar with.  This dish tasted fantastic.

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Sometimes, after a few days of unfamiliar (and often unidentifiable) food, it’s nice to just have something familiar.    Most of the places I ate alone involved a lot of pointing to get the desired food.  Subway had helpful visual choices, so it was more or less the same assembly-line approach to food that I was used to.

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This is a tuna-fish sub with a cookie and soft-drink.  This was almost identical to the meal I periodically ate in German Subway restaurants for the last few years.  Subway really doesn’t change that much from continent to continent.

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That’s enough food for right now, though.   Let’s take a little detour to meet this adorable pup, a little dog named Gran.

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Gran keeps watch over the Granpark building, which is where we had to go once during my trip for a meeting.

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The highlight of taking this meeting at Granpark was this pretty spectacular view from the eleventh floor.  Once more, you can see Tokyo Tower in the distance.  I promise I’ll get back to that in another post.

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This was another fun moment-  when we were on our way out, the building was having some sort of earthquake drill.  There’s a school in the vicinity, and all the children had been dressed in these little yellow hoods.  I’m not positive of their function, but if I had to guess, I would say that the hoods are to provide padding and protection in case an earthquake generates falling masonry.

Either that, or the children are all being trained to stand in for garden gnomes in their off time.

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Have you ever eaten at a Subway restaurant away from your home country?  Did you find it to be similar or different to your expectations?

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Sleeping and Eating In Kanda

My base of operations while I was in Japan was a MyStays hotel near Kanda station.  My room was thirteen square meters, with a very basic kitchenette.  I had a tiny refrigerator, some cookware, a microwave/conduction oven, a hot plate, and a regular sink.  Pots, pans, knives, plates, chopsticks, and so forth were all provided.

The hotel had a service in which they brought you new towels and such every day.  They also brought a new kimono-esque bathrobe every day, which I never wore.  By the end of my trip, I was fairly annoyed with this part of the service, because I really don’t need new towels more than every second or third day.  Still, it was good service.

The bed is a fairly typical hard Japanese bed with a futon-style mattress.  I actually learned to enjoy it pretty quickly, and I slept very well while I was in the country.

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When I arrived, I spent the first twenty minutes or so deciding where I was going to keep everything for the five weeks of my stay.  There are rolling drawers under the bed, which helped enormously. I used the desk drawers as underwear and sock drawers.

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I traveled to Japan with a backpack which held my laptops, a rolling small suitcase which could be used as carry-on luggage, and a wheeled Skullcandy bag which could be used as a duffel with a shoulder strap or as a wheelie bag.   The handle on the Skullcandy bag was terribly weak, and it because clear very quickly that using it as a wheeled bag was terribly ineffective.  Lesson learned:  If you need multiple suitcases for a long trip, always go for the four-wheeled variety.  They’re significantly easier to navigate up the street when you have a lot of walking between your train station and your hotel.  After this trip, I gave the Skullcandy bag to a colleague and streamlined my personal luggage collection quite a bit.

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The room had a built-in desk, along with a television, a little device which allowed you to stream movies for a small fee, and a combination vcr/dvd player.  There was ample power as well as a direct Ethernet plug.    The little fridge on the right side of the photo was incredibly cold, which left me with bottles of water that were frozen solid.  This was helpful, though, because it got very hot outside as we nudged into June.

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The bathroom in the hotel room was a step up from the rest of the room, and I mean that quite literally.  The floor level of the bathroom was about seven or eight inches taller than the rest of the room.  It’s rather a miracle that I didn’t injure myself while stepping down from the bathroom.

The hotel provided basic soap, shampoo, body lotion, and conditioner, as well as a variety of other useful things.   There’s a valve on the bathroom sink which directs the water either to the sink or to the bathtub/shower, depending on your needs.

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The tub is tall enough for even someone of my height to submerge rather nicely, and the water spigot has clasps at both bath and shower height, so you can choose to do either one. This is a pretty nifty design, for such limited space.

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The toilet is western-style, as opposed to the older trench style toilets that I’ll talk about in a future post.   This is a very simple one, compared to some of the higher end toilets I ran into while I was in Japan.  I did try the water spout a few times, but don’t see the appeal.  I never found it to be more effective than regular toilet paper.  It didn’t really clean me, it just made my butt wet.

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It took me a few days to figure out what the heck the toilet flush mechanism meant-  one way is half a flush for when you’ve only deposited liquid.  The other direction is a full flush for more solid waste.  I just think the thing is grinning at me, secure in the knowledge that I can never remember which is which.

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But that’s enough about the hotel room.  I wanted to talk about three restaurants in the vicinity of Kanda station.  There were dozens of restaurants within walking distance of my hotel, and the variety of food I ate while in Japan was actually kind of amazing.

The first restaurant I experienced in the area was Bar Beco 2.

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I think the full name of the  place is actually “Pizza and Steak Bar Bec 02,” but we just called it Bec 02 for simplicity.

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Bec 02 is a tiny little slip of a restaurant at the intersection in front of Kanda station’s south entrance.  The entire downstairs of the restaurant is walled by these old wine crate sides.

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They have tiny amazingly delicious steaks.   The meats I ate in Japan were often delicious, which is stark direct contrast to the lackluster steaks I encountered throughout most of Europe.

The name of the place says Pizza and Steak, though, and I stopped here several times during my stay for these adorable tiny pizzas.

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Another delicious restaurant near Kanda station is Hiroshima Okonomiaki Big Pig.  We stopped here for lunch one day in my first week before heading into the office.

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The restaurant is a tiny affair with room for about a dozen people.  You have a small wooden bar in front of the cooking surface, and your food is served on the cooktop.

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Okonomiaki is a savory pancake filled with other stuff.  It’s not unlike a savory crepe.  There’s a lot of different varieties and they’re very tasty.

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I cannot for the life of me remember what all went into this one, but it was delicious.  The brown glaze on top is cooked soy sauce, I believe.  There are noodles and the pancake portion itself.  The portion was fairly large, and I did not succeed in finishing it.   Very tasty!

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The third restaurant I’m going to talk about in this post is actually a chain of fast-food restaurants which can be found all over Japan.  This is Matsuya.

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Specials on offer are frequently posted outside the door.

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You make your selection by putting coins in this machine and pressing a button.  You are then given a little card which the counter-person will take from you when you sit down.

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The decor is more or less what you’d expect from a fast food restaurant in Japan.  Bright lights, plenty of places to sit, and fast, efficient food.

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At each table, there’s a selection of spices and sauces, along with a tray of chopsticks.

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I chose a sort of beef over rice dish.  The brown sauce was spicier than I expected, and the rice was delicious.  The miso soup was just miso soup.  I don’t really like miso soup, so I left that alone.

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I had no earthly idea what this little device was during my meal, but I found out later from a colleague in the local office that it contains spices.  I’m glad I didn’t try it!  I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to burning-hot spice.

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This was another 23 of the original 489 photos from Japan.  There’s lots more to come!

Have you dined near Kanda station?  What sort of food did you have?

Arrival In Japan

From May 10th until June 13th of this year, I was in Japan.    In those five weeks, I took nearly 2500 photographs.   I have since parsed them down to 489 that are going to show up in this blog.   I’m not going to post them all at once, though, because I actually like my readers (both of them) and I don’t want to overload you guys.

Besides, some of them are kind of silly, like this snap of the screen on the back of the airplane seat during my twelve and a half hour plane trip from Detroit to Tokyo-Narita Airport.

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We landed in Tokyo on Sunday morning a little before lunchtime.  My first visible sign that I was in Japan was right outside the plane window. The guys handling luggage were all wearing safety helmets.  Japan is just full of people in safety helmets while doing their jobs.  I have a whole bunch of other safety helmet pictures for another post later on.

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Thank goodness there’s plenty of English in the signage in the airport.  I don’t know a lick of Kanji.

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One of the first things I needed to do in the airport was to find the post office.  I had previously arranged to rent a wi-fi device so that I would have data throughout my trip.  This device is about the size of a deck of playing cards, and it gave my phone Internet access for the rest of my time in Japan.  The WiFi Rental Store had reasonable rates and delivered it right to the post office, charged and ready to go.   This was invaluable for finding my way around, especially on that first day.

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The next order of business was getting on the express train that took me from the airport to the city.   When I was waiting to board, the seats all rearranged themselves so that they were facing forward when the train started moving again.  This picture is halfway through the little automated seat rotation dance.  High tech train seats are neat!

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The train into the city was very high speed, and I had a nice view out of the windows during the ride to Ueno station.   I’m pretty sure this is a rice paddy, but I’m not positive.

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I think this was the Sumida river.   I landed on a very pretty day.

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In Ueno station, I changed to the regular trains to get closer to the hotel.  This is the Keihintohoku line, which is one of the lines I used most frequently while I was in Tokyo.   The train system in Japan is fantastic, and I was able to get around the city very easily, with only a small amount of confusing lostness.

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I only experienced true rush hour once or twice while I was in Japan-  my hours in the office were mostly night-time hours.  I think it’s fantastic that during rush hour, there are subway cars where men are not allowed.  Given how crowded the train can get, I can see why this would be more comfortable for women than a coed car.

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Finally, after a very long travel day, I reached Kanda station.  Kanda was my home base for the entire five weeks I was in Japan, and the happy little dog on this store’s sign was always good to see when I got off the train.

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I was in Japan during festival season.  There had been a festival on the street during the day before my arrival.  I missed that, but caught another one later in my trip. I’ll talk about that one in another post, because that’s even more pictures.  This is from the festival I missed- it was sitting on the sidewalk near my hotel, waiting to be transported back to wherever they keep it when it isn’t festival time.

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Finally, I reached my hotel.  The Hotel Mystays is a chain throughout Japan, and they have great extended stay rooms.  The little green card with the penguin on it is a Suica card, which is good for most of the train and bus systems in Tokyo.   It can also be used in some convenience stores, which is very handy.

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This is an electronics and department store in Akihabara.   It’s about eight stories tall, and was kind of amazing inside.  If ever I doubted I was in Japan, this building is a sure sign that I was really in Japan.

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Speaking of signs that you’re in Japan, if you go to Shinjuku, you might run into Tokyo’s tourism ambassador, Godzilla.   (Gojira!)  Apparently, this is a life-sized Gojira head and claw on top of the Toho building.  I was pretty stoked to see him up there!

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More signs that I was really in Japan:  Crowds like this!

On a side note, one thing that I love about crowd photos is that I always notice something fun in them a long time after the photo was taken.  For example, I didn’t notice that guy’s epic yawn until just a moment ago.

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I took this picture just because I liked the Japanese poster for Inside Out.  But again, check out the random guy stink-eye in the bottom-right corner of the photo!

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When I went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which I’ll talk about in yet another post, I walked right past this fantastic bike rack set-up.  I’ve never seen one set at an upward angle like this, and I thought it was a pretty genius use of space.

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I also was unfamiliar with the concept of a “Sumimasen” button.  Sumimasen is what you would say to get someone’s attention or to pass by someone politely.  It translates to “excuse me.”  In many restaurants, there’s a button like this which is used to signal to the wait staff that you would like to place your order or pay the check.  This photo was taken in a Denny’s restaurant (to be seen in another post, naturally) and it was my very first exposure to the button.  Once again, this is a brilliant concept that I’d like to see used in American restaurants, where you sometimes need a signal flare to get the wait staff’s attention.

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Apropos of nothing, this building just makes me bust out in Charlie Brown jokes.  After all, it’s a Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!

This was seen during my train ride out of Tokyo in the third weekend.  Naturally, I’ll be talking about the rest of those trips in other posts.  Are you beginning to sense a pattern here?

 

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Something that never stopped being funny to me-  American celebrities doing random advertisements in Japan.  Here’s Tommy Lee Jones and his very black coffee drink.

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Another thing that was very commonly seen in Japan-  giant animated creatures on buildings to denote what sort of establishment they were.  This giant moving crab was obviously fronting a toy store, right?

Kidding, kidding.  I know it’s a seafood restaurant.

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This is the Ricoh building in Ginza.  I went out to Ginza to photograph this building because my research about the area had brought me to the conclusion that it was a very popular landmark and many people go there to photograph it.

When I told Amelie, she thought it was pretty funny that the only reason I wanted to go to Ginza to photograph this building was that other people had done so, and that it’s supposed to be famous.

In hindsight, she was absolutely right.  It took me forty minutes to find this building, and it really wasn’t worth the schlep.

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This is what the street running alongside Kanda station looks like at night.  One of the lessons it took me a few days to learn was to always look up-  Tokyo is a very crowded city, and there are often businesses and restaurants on the upper floors of a building.

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Another Japan custom that was kind of interesting-  in some restaurants, you do take off your shoes.  Often, they have little shoe-locker cabinets to put your shoes in before you go further.

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There are shrines and temples all over the city.  This one was about a block away from the hotel.  I didn’t stay here for long, but I’ve got lots of pictures of other shrines.  (For another post, of course.)

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One of my favorite things about Tokyo is the way that the temples and shrines are nestled in the middle of modern skyscrapers and city life.  They just blend into one another in places.  I think that’s kind of fascinating.

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This post contained 26 out of 489 photos, so there’s only 463 remaining to go in future Japan posts!

Have you ever been to Tokyo?  How did you like the train system?

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Minneapolis is not Japan.

I know y’all are waiting for my Japan posts, and I promise they’re coming.  I have some other stuff that needs to be posted, though, so I’m going to alternate between Japan and not-Japan for a bit.

About four months ago, I spent a few days in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  My primary reason for going to Minneapolis was an Information Society concert.  InSoc started out in Minneapolis, so this was a hometown show for the band.  They had family members, former group members, and old, old friends in the audience.  It was an amazing show.

The gentleman front and center in red is Kurt Harland, who does most of the lead vocals for the band.  The gentleman in the white coat on the left side of this photo is James Cassidy, and the man in white on the right side is Paul Robb.  Those three have been with the band since the band’s formation in the early 1980s.  The two in back are more recent additions.

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I gave myself an entire extra day before the concert, though, because I hadn’t ever spent more than 24 hours in the city, and I wanted to look around.  From the airport, I took the light rail into the city center, and I walked the three short blocks from the train station to my hotel.  On the way to the hotel, I passed Mary Tyler Moore.  I do love random statue sightings.

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One of my favorite things about Minneapolis is the ingenious way that the city has responded to being insanely fricking cold during the winter-  the downtown area is threaded with these Habitrail-looking tubes that connect the buildings.  The places where the tubes intersect the buildings often contain shops or restaurants.  The network of tubes is so large that there are entire mapping apps you can put on your phone to help you route around them without having to go outside.  They’re great fun, and walking through them feels a little bit like you’re on a space station.  They are the last, best hope for warmth.

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Given my love of tall buildings, it should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I tried to go up the Foshay building.  The elevator was out of service, however, and I wasn’t able to finagle another way to the top.

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The doors to the elevator were certainly snazzy, though.  This totally looks like something out of Ghostbusters.

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Minneapolis has dedicated candy stores… nifty!

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There’s also a lot of street art.  Many of the utility boxes were painted in pretty or interesting ways.

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Many cities I’ve visited have had rental bikes.  This is the one place I’ve ever tried them.  The rental rate was very reasonable, and I was able to cover several miles without burning too much time by using the rental bikes.  I only dropped the bike on my foot once during the entire trip!

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This is a picture of the Minneapolis skyline from the Walker Art Center, which I’ll talk about in another post.  The Walker has a bunch of really great things to see, and I took many photographs there.

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On my trip back from the Walker, I noticed the marquee on this theater.  Alas, the Neil deGrasse Tyson show was two days after I left Minnesota.

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They’re building a new stadium.  It looks nifty.  And so, so huge.

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I read somewhere before my trip that Big Brain Comics was a great classic comic store, so I wandered in while I was in town.  Nice store, decent selection, friendly staff.

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Next door to Big Brain Comics is the Day Block Brewing Company, a very nice place to stop for lunch and a cold refreshing drink. (It was really hot outside.  This drink was super refreshing!)

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Next up on my day wandering around the city, a stop at the city’s Stone Arch Bridge, overlooking the old mill ruins.  The bridge was completed in 1883, but the construction isn’t all that different from the one in Regensburg.  I guess an arch is an arch.

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Speaking of things that reminded me of Germany…

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The famous First Avenue has been serving up fantastic live music to Minneapolis since the 1970s.  This isn’t where Information Society was playing- First Avenue instead had a sold out They Might Be Giants show going on at the same time as my show.

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I’m so jealous of anyone who lives in a city with a concert hotspot like this.  The outer wall was just covered in amazing band names from previous shows.

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I didn’t know who this fellow was when I snapped the photograph, but my love of random statues pushed me to learn about Sid Hartman.   He’s a local sports journalist who’s been covering Minnesota sports since 1945.  He’s 95 years old, and he hasn’t retired.

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Speaking of statues, I saw this one on my way over to the comics store mentioned earlier.  I forgot to write down where it was, however, so I haven’t the foggiest idea who sculpted this or what it’s called.  It’s nice, though.

Edit: My genius art-loving girlfriend informs me that this is a Botero sculpture called “The Dancers.”  This is good to know!

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My hotel room was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve ever seen-  when I looked behind the curtain to see what kind of window view I had from my room, I discovered that it was a separate lockable door going into a small ballroom type space.  There was a bunch of stacked up chairs, a covered bar, and an upright piano in there.    On another weekend, I might well have had a wedding reception just through that hotel room door.   Weird, huh?

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On my way out of Minneapolis, I saw Aviator Snoopy and Woodstock.    I love these two, but I really don’t know why Woodstock needs tiny goggles.

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Have you ever been to Minneapolis?  What did you think of the Habitrail tubes?