Friday, January 15, 2010

December travels

Things have been so crazy lately I haven’t had time to write updates. Anyway, here’s a recap of my December travels:

19-20: This year we went to Iwate for our Shidoka (BOE) end-of-year trip. Unfortunately it was snowing a fair bit on the 19th and there was an accident somewhere way ahead of us on the road, so the driving was slow and we had to cut some stuff from our itinerary. But even with the changes it was pretty much the perfect itinerary for a history/literature geek like me. ^_^

 We went to Esashi Fujiwara no Sato, a Heian Period “theme park” where you can try on Heian period clothes, play games from that era, etc. After that we went to Chusonji, a designated National Historic Site. The Konjikido—“Golden Hall” like Kinkakuji on a much smaller scale—was pretty crazy. Then it was off to the Hanamaki Onsen Hotel for a lavish dinner, followed by karaoke (nijikai) and chatting/snacking/drinking in Hosa’s room (sanjikai).

The next day we went to Denshoen, an outdoor museum with reconstructed traditional L-shaped houses. We couldn’t do any of the craft-making stuff (the bowls of water for spinning cocoons into silk thread were frozen solid!), but it was interesting nonetheless. After that it was off to the Tono Mukashibanashi Mura (Folk Village) where we learned about Tono folklore. Admittedly our next stop—Megane Bashi (a.k.a. Glasses Bridge)—wasn’t all that interesting, but I was glad we went because I got to try wasabi soft serve at the rest station near the bridge!! Our final stop was the Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum. I’d never actually read any of his works, but it was interesting nonetheless. For more photos/details, see my "Shidoka Bonenkai" Facebook album.

23: I had an uneventful return to Canada this year, thank goodness. Back in Canada, I actually had a lot of time for just relaxing—catching up on my manga reading, watching the Food Network, etc.—in between hanging out with friends and visiting family.

26-29: My family (mom, dad, brother and I) went to Las Vegas. Unfortunately a guy had tried to hijack a plane on Christmas Day, so a bunch of new regulations were put into place starting on the 26, in an effort to increase security. While we were in line for customs, for example, we were told that we could only have 1 carry-on item each (instead of the usual 2). Only my mother and brother had extra bags anyway, and we were able to stuff those into other bags without too much difficulty, but it was still a pain. Then our flight was delayed for 4 hours because they were doing extra security checks—like hand-searching all carry-on bags and doing pat downs of every passenger at the gate immediately prior to boarding.

It was a classic case of reactionary policies put into place without proper thought going into efficient implementation. I mean, they only had 2 security people to check every passenger on the plane, and Air Canada presumably hadn’t hired enough security guards since part of our delay was due to having to wait for the security guards to finish somewhere else before coming to our gate. But anyway, we made it to Las Vegas with enough time to do some stuff that afternoon/evening, so I guess it worked out OK in the end.

Our first stop (after checking into the hotel/resort) was the MGM. My brother and I are nerds, so we went for CSI: The Experience while my mom occupied herself at the slot machines (my dad would’ve enjoyed the CSI Experience as well, but he went with my mom to keep her company). It was pretty fun observing the crime scene and piecing together what had happened. (Although it was pretty simple.) Then we went for a walk down the strip—stopping at the M&M and Coca-Cola stores—and eventually stopped to have dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Planet Hollywood hotel complex.

For our second day, we watched two shows: Matsuri (a Japanese production based on festivals—“matsuri” means “festival” in Japanese) at the Imperial and Cirque du Soleil’s Mystére at Treasure Island. Before Matsuri, though, we had time to explore Caesar’s Palace (I bought more slightly odd stuffed animals at the FAO Schwartz) and to have a buffet lunch at Harrah’s (not so great).

I didn’t really know what to expect of Matsuri, but it was actually a lot of fun. For me it was even more amusing because I could recognize that something was like yosakoi and could appreciate how “Japanese” some things were. Like when they were doing jump rope tricks—e.g. three people skipping with individual ropes while skipping together with a big rope—I thought about all the jump rope practice/competitions I saw in elementary schools. They also did air taiko (stomping their feet to make the drum-sounds) which again was something familiar to me. It wasn’t an “awesome” or “amazing” show in the more literal sense of the words, but it *was* a lot of fun.

After Matsuri and before Mystére we did a quick look around the Venetian and went to the Mirage to catch the volcano explosion. After that we chilled in a coffee shop in the Mirage until it was time to head to Treasure Island for the show. Mystére was as excellent as I’d expected a Cirque du Soleil show to be. My dad had told me that there would be audience involvement, but my image of Cirque was always as something really artistic, so I didn’t believe him. Maybe it’s because Mystére is one of their first shows but it was a lot more comical than I expected. After watching Mystére, I thought “Well now I’ve GOT to see “Zed” in Tokyo!”

For our third day, my brother and I slept in while my mom and dad went to some preview for a timeshare resort. They’d gotten suckered into going by the promise of “free stuff” (buffet and gambling vouchers). It was supposed to be two hours, but ended up being three! My brother and I were late for the designated meeting time anyway, though, so the timing worked out perfectly—they finished just as we arrived. We took a shuttle to the Rio to use the free buffet coupons they’d just gotten. The line was crazy long and we had to wait for over an hour. The food was much better than the buffet at Harrah’s though, so at least that made up for the wait. My appetite has decreased a lot since moving to Japan, but if I didn’t eat much food food, well, I did eat a fair quantity of dessert. =P

After taking the shuttle back to the Strip, my mom and dad went to the Imperial to make use of the gambling vouchers while Nate and I checked out the flamingos and other birds at the Flamingo. We still had plenty of time to kill after viewing the flamingo habitat, however, so we decided to finally try our hands at a little gambling. We went to the penny slot machines and even though I didn’t know how the game worked, I at least managed to get $24 after putting in $8 (net profit of $16). Once I’d cashed out, we went to the Bellagio to watch the fountain show—highly recommended, by the way. The Bellagio was probably the prettiest of the hotels. The Christmas garden was really impressive—especially the polar bears made out of flowers (chrysanthemums?).

We were all pretty tired from two days of walking and more walking, so after a quick stop at the CVS Pharmacy to pick up omiyage (dice-shaped gummies! =P) we ended up stopping at Denny’s for dinner. My parents went back to the hotel but Nate and I continued on to the Luxor by way of Excalibur. (I wanted to take photos and my parents didn’t want me to go along, so Nate had to be a good brother and come too.) I was glad we went, though, because it was pretty cool—probably my second favourite, after the Bellagio. It seems pretty obvious, but I think we both thought it was pretty cool how it was still pyramid-shaped on the inside, too.

Our last day in Vegas was really just spent at the airport. I was amused to see that the rumours were true and that there were slot machines throughout the terminal so you could gamble right up to the time you boarded the plane. Thankfully our return was far less eventful than our arrival. No extra security checks or anything, so we departed on time. It was my first time flying West Jet, and I was pretty impressed.

The plane itself wasn’t as nice as Air Canada ones (there were TV channels but no movies, and the seats weren’t quite as nice) but the flight attendants were much more human. I’ve forgotten now, but I think it says a lot that I could actually remember the names of all of the crew members up to two days after the flight! The head flight steward in particular was pretty entertaining. Instead of just playing a recording, he did all of the (English) announcements and always threw in some sort of joke/off-hand comment. If it wasn’t for Aeroplan miles I would definitely prefer to fly West Jet over Air Canada.

And that was the end of my December travels. See my "Vegas, baby, Vegas!" Facebook album.