Thursday, March 14, 2013

LA to Tokyo

One of the things we decided to do on this trip was to visit all of the Disney parks in the world during the year.  The next continent after South America and Antarctica is Asia, and we knew that the trip from Buenos Aires to Tokyo – cities which are basically on the opposite side of the planet from each other – would be far too much to try to do all at once. So we first flew from BA to Miami, where we spent the night, and then the next day we made our way to LA.  

Here Carter is checking out the awesome floor in the Miami airport. It looks like a galaxy! He's very interested in space these days, so this was a fun spot for him to explore for a few minutes. Right now he says he wants to be an astronomer when he grows up. :-)

We stopped in LA for a few days to go to the Disney parks there, but also to give ourselves a chance to do some shopping. If you have ever taken a long trip before, you probably know that, no matter how well you pack, you always know at the end of the trip exactly what you should have packed instead. After more than two months of traveling, we definitely knew better what things we needed to have with us, and we used part of our LA time to reorganize our luggage. We had ordered some things online (and our house sitter Michelle packed them all into a big box and shipped them to our hotel in LA), and other things we went out to buy. We spent a couple of hours at a Target and restocked our toiletries, medicines, socks, and so on.

Another thing we had to do was replace our glasses.  It turns out that DEET, the primary ingredient in most mosquito repellents, eats plastic. And enough DEET got on our glasses in the Amazon to essentially destroy the lenses. We both had to live with terrible glasses for an entire month until we could get to a Lenscrafters and replace them. (In case you're wondering why we couldn't do this in South America, it turns out that there's basically no such thing as same-day glasses there. It takes weeks to get a new pair of glasses, and so it just wasn't possible.) We also decided to get each of us a back-up pair, just in case.

I thought this was a cute picture of Carter and Doug reading the paper over breakfast.

And of course, we had to eat at In-N-Out Burger. :-)

After that business was done, we were free to spend time in Disneyland. 

We were last here on Carter's 4th birthday, and he remembers it really well. His favorite ride is Star Tours, and we rode it a lot. In fact, on our second day the park was so empty that we were able to ride just about anything we wanted with minimal waits. We didn't even bother to get Fast Passes for many rides that day, because the wait was less than 15 minutes.

 We also went to California Adventure (the other Disney park in LA) and visited the new Cars Land area, which wasn't yet open last time we were here.

We got there at 11:30 in the morning and the Fast Passes for the big Cars-themed ride were already out for the day. We couldn't believe it! The next morning, we went there first and stood in a very long line to get Fast Passes, and I was amazed that we had to do that! I mention this here because my perspective changed completely after Tokyo. :-P

We enjoyed some yummy treats.

And rode lots of rides. 

The Mad Tea Party ride is always one of Carter's favorites. 

And Pirates of the Caribbean (especially the LA version) is one of my favorites. More on this in a bit...

We rounded out our last Disneyland day at Toontown, which is a fun area with lots of play spaces for kids.

It was really interesting to be back in the US for a few days. We had a bit of culture shock, actually. In South America, people are very understanding of and loving of children. You never see children being scolded in public, and everyone seems to have an attitude that children are, well, children. If they are running around in a restaurant, well, that's what kids do. No worries. Everyone smiles at kids and greets them enthusiastically, and laughs when they run by or are loud, or whatever. Contrast this with American culture, in which your child being anything other than invisible can earn a parent glares and eyerolls from strangers. I can't even count how many times I've had the experience (in the US) of having someone on a plane or a bus say to me about Carter, "He was so good that I didn't even know he was there!" And I never know what to say to that, you know? The implication is clear: a good child is one who is essentially invisible. In all of our travels, I have never heard this from someone who wasn't an American. Ever. So yeah, the dirty looks when Carter wasn't 100% invisible commenced pretty much the moment we set foot in the US. It was such a shock to see the difference.

Another thing that is startling about the US is just how rude the people at Passport control can be. Many are very nice, but many are not. I've been a lot of places, and the US is the only country where the very first people you interface with are (almost always) rude to you. It must be incredibly intimidating to people who aren't 100% sure of the language, and who've never been to the US before.  I suppose that's probably the point, but still.

And oh, wow – portion sizes are insane! We ate in the hotel restaurant on our first night in LA, and each of us were served enough food for two people, maybe three. That venti coffee that I used to get at Starbucks on my way to work every morning now looks ridiculously big! It was definitely nice to have half-n-half with my coffee again, though. That doesn't exist in South America, and oh, how I missed it. That and a salsa bar on the breakfast buffet.

We took a day flight to Tokyo on a Friday morning. The time change to Tokyo seems like a really big one because you cross the international date line, but from LA it's actually less than the time change to Europe: Tokyo is seven hours "behind" LA – except that it's actually tomorrow, so it's 17 hours ahead, and that sounds so much more intimidating. But like when you fly from Europe to the US, you have one really long day. 

It was pretty long for Carter. He's done Europe-to-US time changes before, so it was nothing new for him. We'd hoped he would nap on the flight, but he didn't. Instead, he crashed at the airport while we were waiting for our shuttle bus to the hotel. He slept the whole way to the hotel, through check-in, and didn't wake up until… 1:00 am! And then he was awake for the rest of the night. A few days later, he's still waking up around 5:00 am, but he's going to sleep around 8:00, so he's slowly getting adjusted.

Here's something I had forgotten about: Japanese toilets! If you've ever been to Japan, you know what I'm talking about. ;-) Even the ones in the airport bathroom were high-tech:

On our first day we headed into Tokyo to meet up with a friend of mine who was there on a business trip. We took trains to the Harajuku area and then had lunch at a ramen bar that a friend of hers had recommended. One of the really fun things about Japan is that it's so very different. Other than the language, the cultural difference between the US and Latin American or European countries isn't all that huge in comparison. Everything in Japan seems complicated and strange at first, but the people are incredibly nice and so ready to help, and that makes it a lot easier. Some of the signage around Tokyo is written in English as well as Japanese, which really helps.

We went into the ramen bar and were directed towards a vending machine in the corner. On the vending machine were pictures of different dishes and prices, and all of the writing was in Japanese. It took us a moment to realize that we were supposed to order from the vending machine! After we all fed in bills and pushed buttons to place our orders (somewhat randomly, because they all looked like bowls of noodles, really), we handed our receipts to a server who then placed our orders. We then had to wait for seats to open up at the counter. I wasn't sure what I'd ordered until the dish was set in front of me, but it was very good! 

We got bubble teas after that, which was also an experience, since all the shop signage was in Japanese. It's amazing how far you can get with pointing and making gestures. Bubble tea is pretty common in the US, but in case you haven't encountered it, it's a drink that comes in many different flavors (not all of them tea; many are juice-based) with tapioca balls added in. It comes with a really wide straw that you use to suck up the tapioca balls, which are sweet and chewy. Bubble tea is really fun, and Carter loves it.

Carter was starting to crash, so we said goodbye to my friend Rachael and headed back to the hotel. We had an early dinner and then Carter went to sleep, and I went down to the lobby to meet up with another friend (also named Rachel, coincidentally), who has been living in Japan for several years. We ended up talking for hours and having a great time. It was the first time that I got to meet up with people I knew on this trip, and it hopefully won't be the last!

The next two days were devoted to Disney! 

Tokyo Disneyland is interesting because it's the only Disney park in the world that isn't actually owned by Disney. It's licensed, but it's not actually a part of the Disney system (whatever that means). And so even though it looks the same and the rides are similar, many things are different. For example: I decided to start Carter a Disney pin collection on this trip. If you've ever been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, you know about the pins. They're highly collectible and people wear them on lanyards, trade them, and so on. We bought a lanyard and some pins in Disneyland, with the idea that I would buy him pins at each of the parks we visited. Except that they don't do the pins at Tokyo Disneyland. I looked in every shop, and finally asked someone, but no – it's not a thing they do here. We'll be at Disneyland in Hong Kong in a couple of weeks, and I guess I'll find out then if this is just an American thing, or if the lack of pins is just a Japanese thing.

Another difference is the number of people who visit the park. We've been to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando on Thanksgiving day, and it's a madhouse. The lines are insane, and even with Fast Passes, it's hard to ride much. That is an average day in Tokyo. Doug and I visited Tokyo Disneyland about eight years ago. It was a weekday then, and we were shocked at the number of people who were there. By mid-afternoon we could barely walk around the park for the crowds, and we finally left. We wondered if it would be the same this time. It was.

There are no annual passes at Tokyo Disneyland, and despite the fact that there are two parks, there is no such thing as a Parkhopper pass like the ones you get in LA and Orlando. No, you buy a ticket for the park that day, and that's it. And seeing the crowds, I understand why. It's the only way they can control the numbers. On our morning in Disneyland, we were there when the park opened, and we decided to first go and get a Fast Pass for Space Mountain. The line for Fast Passes was as long as the line had been for the Cars ride at California Adventure, and the standby line was already at two hours by the time we got our Fast Passes. This picture below shows the line for the Fast Passes!

We managed to ride a few other things with half-hour waits – which seemed great at the time, though we only had a single wait that long during our three days at Disney in LA. We even waited half an hour to ride Pirates of the Caribbean! That's a ride I'm used to walking on, usually. After we finally rode Space Mountain, we went to see if we could get a Fast Pass for Big Thunder Mountain, and they were already out for the day. By 1:00, all of the Fast Pass rides were maxed out, and the standby waits were two to three hours long.  I haven't waited in a line that long since the late 90s, and the idea of doing it with a five-year-old is definitely not appealing! 

The obligatory castle shot: 

Despite the crowds, we managed to find plenty of things to do.  Carter got a lot of attention, which was really cute. Perhaps anglo children aren't very common in Japan? I'm not sure, but he definitely got lots of curious looks. On multiple occasions he was at the center of a group of Japanese school girls, who would giggle and say things to him in English. When he responded, they would giggle and squeal like he was a pop star.  It was really funny to watch!

We even had lunch at the Blue Bayou, which is one of my favorite amusement park restaurants. There is one in LA, and it's special because it's inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The LA version of the ride is different from the Orlando version in that it starts in a Lousiana bayou. You drift past houses and boats, and by the Blue Bayou restaurant, which looks like it's set outside at night in New Orleans. The LA ride is my favorite version, and I had forgotten that the Tokyo version is set up very similarly. 

Riding It's a Small World, which is the same as it is everywhere else, except that in the last room (where all the kids are dressed in white) all the singing was in Japanese, of course. 

And the tea party ride.

There is the same Mark Twain steamboat that circles Tom Sawyer Island.

We ended our day at Disneyland with a couple of hours exploring Tom Sawyer Island, which is always a favorite of Carter's.

We stayed at the Hilton Tokyo Bay Hotel, which is one of the hotels that surround the parks. 

The monorail circles the park and there are several stops, so we could just cross the street to pick it up and ride it to the park entrances each day. 

Our room had a view of Disneyland, which was fun. We could see Space Mountain, and it was lit up really spectacularly at night. There were supposed to be nightly fireworks, but sadly, they seem to have been canceled on the nights we were there. We would've had a great view from our room, too.

The hotel definitely caters to families. This kids' play area is in the lobby across from reception.

On the second day, we went to the Disney Sea park, which is reportedly the most expensive amusement park ever built. And it shows! That peak you see in this picture was a volcano that erupted every few hours in a fantastic show of fire and smoke.

I've seen quite a few attempts at recreating Italy -- in Las Vegas and Orlando, to name a couple. But this? This was stunning. It was so authentic that Doug and I just stared. And it didn't look "Disneyfied" at all. It was incredible!

I mean seriously, look at this! 

There were even gondola rides through an area that looked like Venice. 

Another fun thing about both of these Disney parks is that there are popcorn carts everywhere with crazy flavors of popcorn. You can buy refillable containers and go from cart to cart all day. There were the classics, like caramel and chocolate, but also things like black pepper, curry, strawberry, and my personal favorite, milk tea. Carter loved trying all the different flavors, and we even got him to order the popcorn by himself by the end of the first day.

The crowds in this park were intense. By mid-day, the most popular rides were out of Fast Passes, and the lines were insane. We walked past one ride for which the standby line was five hours long. FIVE HOURS. I've waited three hours to ride roller coasters back in the day, but I seriously can't imagine waiting in line five hours. How good could it be?

Oh, and the food lines, OMG. There was one sausage bun stand that always had an incredibly long line, every time we passed. It looked to be at least half an hour long!  We ate in an Italian restaurant near the front of the park and had no wait, but in the back of the park where the really popular rides are, it was ridiculous.

Even the lines for the kiddie rides were 45 minutes long, and so we spent a good hour in an area called Ariel's playground. Carter ran around and played and had fun.

After that, we decided to look for some chocolate. We bought some and sat in the main square looking out over the facsimile of Portofino's harbor, and I thought, "Wow. This is actually our life right now." It's amazing how quickly we've gotten used to this traveling, living in hotel rooms and waking up every morning to a new adventure. It's become our new normal, and every now and then I remember that this is so not normal, what we're doing. It's magical and amazing, and we're living our dream. Incredible!

In the entry plaza of the park is a stunning fountain with a giant globe slowing spinning. We stood and looked at it for a long time, and marveled at how far we've traveled already, along with the places we still have to go -- and then ones we won't get to see this year. The world is somehow very small and incredibly large, all at the same time.

For some reason, Carter really wanted his picture taken in front of this bush. I'm still not sure why!

The next morning, we headed to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto, our next destination.

Carter was really excited to ride the "bullet train" at last.

And now we're in Kyoto! We've taken today off and have just hung out in the hotel -- which is just as well considering that there was a sudden cold snap in Kyoto and the high temperature today is in the 40s. We have tours set up tomorrow and the next day, so we'll get lots of sightseeing in. Stay tuned for more in a few days. :-)


  1. I wish I had known you were at disneyland cause i could have driven up to see you...i gots me an annual pass...i love this blog! keep it coming, have fun and be safe!

  2. Am so enjoying your travel log. You know you might think about writing a book about this. Take a trip with a small kid for a year kind of book. Things to avoid. Itineraries, etc. I think it would definitely sell. I find this fascinating (and I'm terribly envious!).

  3. I love the part about Carter and the school girls. When we were in Kyoto the ubiquitous groups of school girls stared and giggled at us (probably because 1)we weren't Japanese and 2)Dad, Steve, and Derek are all 5'11" and taller). (Derek has lots of trouble finding shoes big enough in Japan.). The school girls would also come up to us and say, "Hi!" and a few other phrases to try out their English--then they'd walk away giggling. We were as amused as they were.