I enjoyed my October 2000 trip to Japan so much that I decided to go again! This time I traveled with my pal Jonathan (for his first visit), and we both had a fantastic time with Matt (extremely adjusted to Japanese life after three years) and his charming fiancee Kumiko. The theme for this trip was extremes, since we went from rural town to big city to magical lands of fantasy from one day to the next! Enjoy this year's Japan Journal, and be sure to check out the Ofoto links for lots of pics!

Day One: Travel

Jonathan and I are sitting in the International Terminal of LAX, trying to make ourselves sleepy by drinking beer. My watch says it's 12:50 PM, but it's 10:50 AM in Los Angeles where we are, and 2:50 AM tomorrow in Osaka. It's weird keeping three time zones in my head! The flight from Austin to Los Angeles was easy, and figuring out how to transfer to JAL wasn't bad, thanks to a very helpful, gigling JAL ticket counter girl. It's nice to fly JAL since I'm already seeing so many Japanese before we even get on the plane. There's lots of people listening to MD players, girls puling their hair back, and an older man in a suit doing stretching exercises, preparing for the flight.

It's 12:15 PM Osaka time, and we're traveling at 571 MPH with 5 hours to go. The JAL flight attendants are extremely efficient and friendly - each seems to have a specific duty that they carry out at the moment it needs to be done. There's even a girl who runs into each bathroom on the plane to spray air freshener with someone leaves! They're constantly coming down the aisles with full trays of water, coffee, and green tea. Our flight is made a bit more "interesting" by Sergei, a Russian flying to Nara for a semi-conductor conference, who decides to get his money's worth by drinking everything in site. He's seriously drunk now, calling for more "White wine!" in a loud voice. After at least 9-10 small bottles of wine, the flight attendants cut him off (as politely as possible). Jonathan and I pass the time watching movies on the seat back screens (including 101 Dalmatians and Treasure Planet) and playing a few of the video games. I read a book and listen to my iPod, trying to stay awake now that it's "daytime", but Jonathan is fast asleep. I've just been served a nice sticky bun and green tea. Overall the flight is comfortable, but I have to say JAL legroom is lacking - I have to put my carry on in the overhead compartment or I would have no room for my feet.

Sergei is snoring as we cross the International Date Line. They are a showing a stretching video to the passengers now, with exercises you can do while seated to keep the blood flowing. There's a little cartoon balloon that inflates to show you when to inhale and exhale, too! I just realized that it's around 11:00 PM back in Austin, but it kind of feels like morning to me, so I guess my time zone brainwashing is working.

Day Two: Osaka

We're here! Immigration and customs are really easy, though it's interesting to see all the workers wearing surgical masks (just in case, I suppose). Jonathan and I have no problem changing our money, so now our pockets are full of yen. We sit and have an iced coffee while we wait for Matt, and he arrives in just a few short minutes. We buy tickets for an express train into town, and suddenly we are speeding through the night, passing pachinko parlors and love hotels. It's good to talk to Matt and find out about the things he has planned for us to do!

We take a taxi to Matt's apartment - the taxi has automatic doors, doilies on the seats, and the driver wears white gloves. It's amazing to hear Matt speak with the driver! We arrive at the apartment, which is really cool - everything looks brand new (and most of it is!). Kumiko, Matt's fiancee, has left little welcome gifts for Jonathan and I - little boxes of candy with toys and train cards for Hankyu and JR lines. We leave to walk to a restaurant for dinner, and Kumiko passes us waving on her bicycle.

We eat yakiniku at a restaurant called Gyu Kaku, where the tables have a built-in barbecue pit full of hot coals, and we are served heaping plates of thinly sliced meat that we cook ourselves. I would never has guessed that we were eating tongue, along with pork, roast, Bi Bim Ba'b (a rice dish), along with plenty of refreshing beer. I'm amazed at the taste of shiso - a wonderful leaf that you can wrap a piece of meat in before you pop it in your mouth.

We say good night to Kumiko and head back to Matt's apartment for a night cap that becomes a small binge. We have a great time talking about life and drinking Suntory whisky, sitting in the cool night on the balcony watching the neon of Hotel Raffine across the street. Eventually we roll out the futons (brand new deluxe models for Jonathan and I) and fall asleep with no problem whatsoever.

Day Three: Osaka

I wake up much earlier than expected - I guess my body clock isn't quite set. Eventually everyone gets ready for the day while I watch a little TV, which seems to be a Japanese morning show like Regis & Kelly. They're explaining how to clean out and organize your reizoko (refrigerator) in great detail. The commercials are hilarious, too! They keep showing one for a "personal bug repellant device" - a little box that you wear on your waist. Matt makes single cup drip coffees for Jonathan and I, and then we're off.

It's kind of a dreary, overcast day, and we keep putting our umbrellas up and down. We walk to the train station and use our gift cards to ride to Takarazuka, where we first have a morning bite at Mr. Donut. We have donuts filled with a sweet bean paste, and something called Pizza Pops, basically donut holes filled with cold spaghetti sauce.
We walk to the Osamu Tezuka museum, our first attraction of the day. Tezuka is the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney - his cartoon characters are seen everywhere and known by everyone. The museum has a kind of Hollywood feel to it, with cement footprints and handprints of all of Tezuka's characters outside. The displays inside are really great, and we watch a funny movie in the theater, play some video games, and shop in the gift shop (which is full of special "birthday" merchandise, since Tezuka's most popular character, Astro Boy, was "born" on April 7th, 2003).

Next we make a quick stop at the Takarazuka Review gift shop, in search of photos of women with mustaches! The Takarazuka Review is an extremely popular theater show where all parts are played by women, including male roles. The gift shop was full of posters, including a "Gone with the Wind" scene that was pretty funny. I noticed advertisements for the Review on nearly every train for the rest of the trip.

We take a train back to Osaka and have fun in Umeda Station, where I spent a lot of time during my 2000 Japan trip, so I recognized lots of things like "Big Man" (a jumbo television playing ads and music videos) and the excellent Miyazaki store. We have ramen and gyoza for lunch, then shop at Kiddieland, a huge collection of toy stores full of wonderful stuff, including many Disney toys not available in the US! There's so many toys that I'm overwhelmed and can't decide what to buy, but I end up with a set of small Mickey and Minnie robots.
Next we take a train to Osaka-jo, a huge castle from the 1600s (though the current version is essentially a concrete replica). We walk through the park and over the moat to sit on benches and stare up at the castle, listening to speakers play Auld Lang Syne, which Matt says is traditional music to say "We're closing". It's very peaceful under the trees, with a cool breeze blowing by. We spend some time trying to throw rocks across the moat - Jonathan nearly makes it! As we leave, we notice some older women who have come out in the rain to feed the many stray cats that live in the nooks of the castle walls. It's amazing to watch the cats grab some food and scale the wall to bring it to their kittens, and touching that these women would ride their bicycles in the rain just to feed them.

Japan 2003 Part 1

Back at Matt's apartment, we take a short nap, and then it's time for dinner with Kumiko's parents. Her parents are extremely nice and fun - we are welcomed and immediately sit down to a dinner that includes chicken (karage), potatoes, vegetables, and the best sashimi I've ever tasted (prepared from a special fish that her aunt sent just because Jonathan and I were coming!). During dinner, her mom keeps the beer glasses full while her dad keeps pouring sake, so we're all feeling fine! Everyone is impressed when I attempt a little Japanese, though they have a good time making fun of my American accent. Her dad asks the guys to sit at the kotatsu, a low table with a quilt and a heater underneath, and we enjoy some expensive scotch. Jonathan gives the family some gifts - Texas wine and some University of Texas T-shirts, which they put on and enjoy. Matt unveils Kumiko's engagement ring (which I have transported to Japan from Austin), and everyone is teary-eyed and happy (especially Jonathan and I). What a fantastic night!

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 1

Day Four: Okayama

We wake up to a beautiful sunny day, get dressed, and pack our bags, since we will be spending the night in Okayama and then two nights in Tokyo. On the way to the train station we get some canned coffee from a vending machine, which becomes our usual breakfast for the trip. We ride to Shin-Osaka, buy our shinkansen (bullet train) tickets to Okayama, and then have breakfast at McDonald's. The employees are so incredibly efficient and friendly that I'm amazed - we get a sincere apology that we'll have to wait two minutes for one of our Egg McMuffins!
We board the shinkansen, and have to stand for part of the trip, since we have non-reserved seats and the cars are full. Once we reach Kobe, we're able to sit down and relax for the rest of the trip, watching the scenery change as we head to the "country". Eventually we arrive at a bus stop in Okayama which will take us to where we need to go. We have time for a quick lunch of beer and okonomiyaki (prepared Hiroshima style), then wait on the bus. A boy offers us some candy just for the chance to speak English - Matt surprises them by speaking Japanese.
We'll be staying at Ushimado International Villa, which I think is owned by the city, so we take the bus to city hall to check in. Matt handles the whole transaction in Japanese, which is pretty impressive to me! After checking in, we begin the very long uphill walk to the villa (still carrying our luggage). While we're walking, a boy on a bike spots us and starts chanting "I love sex!" as he rides by, just to get a laugh out of the gaijin (foreigners, that's us). Walking through the city is fun, with beautiful views of the ocean, off-shore islands, and fields of huge cabbage and onions, but by the time we reach the villa, I'm exhausted! The villa is nice with an amazing view through giant windows, and we have the whole place to ourselves. I take a nap while Matt and Jonathan go exploring, and I find 500 yen in the couch when I wake up.

When Matt and Jonathan return they convince me to head back down the hill so we can ride bikes provided by the villa, and we also need to buy some groceries to make dinner in the villa's kitchen. Once we get down the hill, riding bikes through town is wonderful - we ride through narrow streets surrounded by wooden houses, waving at children who say konnichiwa to us, then riding along a concrete path by the harbor full of small boats. We pass a crazy old man peeing into the ocean, but he's still willing to wave hello to us!

Japan 2003 Part 2

We park our bikes and explore a great local temple, which includes an ancient three-story pagoda. It's amazing to sit and think that structure is older than America! We leave the temple and ride to a grocery store, where we buy tons of ingredients to make spaghetti for dinner (plus plenty of beer, of course). We ride back with groceries in our baskets, pushing the bikes up the worst part of the hill (which seems much easier to get up this time around). Matt and Jonathan do most of the cooking back at the villa, and after dinner we drink all of the beer and quiz each other on 80s pop hits. We discover a tape that a former guest has left in the VCR with a Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie on it, so we watch that (Devil Fish) before bedtime. I flip through a guest comments book and read that someone had spotted a centipede in their room last August, and about 30 minutes later Matt spots one crawling under my couch! After a good freak-out session, I calm down and we never see it again.

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 2

Day Five: Tokyo

The villa has huge windows, so the sun wakes me up at 5:15 AM - I had no idea the sun came up so early in Japan this time of year! Jonathan and I clean up the kitchen and all of us make the long walk back to city hall, taking a different route down the hill this time. The scenery is just fantastic, and it's an enjoyable walk. We catch the bus to the train station, buy our shinkansen tickets to Tokyo, and have oyakudon for lunch. The train ride to Tokyo is long, but so relaxing, and we have a few snacks during the journey. We arrive in Tokyo at 3:30, which gives us plenty of time to have some big city fun before to head to the Tokyo Disneyland Resort. So, we put our luggage in a locker and hit the pavement.
We start by walking around the Imperial Gardens, looking over the moats and walking through the trees, which are simply beautiful, and eventually arrive at Yasu Kuni Jinja, a huge shrine dedicated to all Japanese war dead. We pass through the largest gates I've ever seen, walk through a small market, and eventually arrive at a fantastic museum, which contains everything from Samurai armor to actual Japanese Zero aircraft. After enjoying the museum, we head into Ikebukuro, a very cool Tokyo neighborhood, full of music and lights and trendy crowds. The streets are full of energy - someone hands me a flyer about where their band is playing, the arcades are noisy and full, and before we know it, we're at the Toyota Amlux building, a kind of automotive future showroom. We look at some cool concept cars and then it's time for dinner.

Japan 2003 Part 3

We eat at an izakaya for dinner- kind of like Japanese tapas (lots of smaller dishes of food that everyone shares). We have huge beers and tons of food, including ikayaki (grilled squid), which was one of my favorites from the 2000 trip. Two high school girls are eating at the table next to us, playing with their ketai (cell phones) and touching up their makeup. One of them keeps heating their eyelash curler with a lighter before using it! They notice we're watching and get embarrassed, which is cute. Izakayas are the best!

We walk back to Tokyo station, get our luggage, and ride the Keiyo line to the Tokyo Disneyland Resort! The moment we get off the train I hear Once Upon a Dream playing, and all my Disney reflexes kick in. It's a long walk to our hotel, the Disney Ambassador, but on the way we see the monorail and lots of cool shops, so it seems like nothing. The moment we hit the hotel lobby, a tiny girl runs over to grab our heavy bags, and the check-in service is amazing! After we get settled in our room, we go to Chef Mickey's (the only thing open) for a late night drink - it's very bizarre to drink in a bright yellow and red room surrounded by sketches of Disney characters (but I have fun seeing how many of them I can name). Back in the room, I watch a little of The Fox and the Hound in Japanese, then fall asleep.

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 3

Day Six: Tokyo DisneySea

It's Tokyo DisneySea day, so I wake up early, shooting some video of the monorail out our hotel room window while I wait for Matt and Jonathan to get ready. We leave the room and head to the lobby to buy our park tickets, and then start to walk to the park. Along the way we run into to Kumiko, who arrived in Tokyo last night and stayed with her cousin. We head back to the hotel to meet Yuu, one of Matt's former students who simply loves Disney so much that she took an all-night bus ride to Tokyo so she could spend the next two days with us at the parks! Once we're all together, we finally head to the park, still way ahead of official opening time.

I try to study the map of this unfamiliar park to come up with a quick touring plan, taking advantage of FastPass and trying to remember everything I've read on the web! Soon the gates open, and we run to Mysterious Island! Our first rides are fantastic, and Jonathan and I quickly learn that kowai means "scared" and yada means something like "I don't like it", since we hear all kinds of kids (and Yuu) saying it on the scary rides.

Japan 2003 Part 4

Tokyo DisneySea is an amazing park - it's hard to describe how immaculate it is! The various lands of the park are incredible and the rides are great. It's also cool how the park's pretend ocean fades into the real Pacific Ocean! We have a sausage gyoza bun for quick breakfast/lunch, and when we're finished I try to say "Let's go!" in Japanese, but I get one of my vowels mixed up and end up saying "Squid!", which gets lots of laughs. We also laugh at the Aquatopia ride, which Yuu tells us is romantic - it turns out to be a really pointless ride, but a great experience to joke about!

We watch three different water-parade events on the harbor, ride Indiana Jones twice and Journey to the Center of the Earth (the best ride) three times, and eat dinner on the Columbia, a huge make-believe cruise ship. The big laugh of the evening is the 600 yen pickles, which Matt orders just to see what they could be - it turns out to be about a third of a single pickle for roughly $5.00!

It's tough to leave the park at closing time, but somehow we manage and head back to our rooms. Kumiko and Yuu have booked the room next to ours in the hotel, and after a quick oyasumi, everyone is asleep.

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 4

Day Seven: Tokyo Disneyland

Everyone wakes up early so Matt, Yuu and I can be at the Tokyo Disneyland park gates at opening time, but first we all meet for breakfast in the beautiful hotel lobby. Even though it's only a simple buffet breakfast, everything is elegant and wonderful - tons of juice and fruit (excellent pears), and cute pancakes with Mickey's face on them! Jonathan and Kumiko leave for a tour of Tokyo (since this was Jonathan's first trip to Japan, he needed to see the city rather than the Magic Kingdom), and the rest of us head for the park. It's a beautiful day with lots of sun, and we join the tons of Disney fans waiting for the gates to open, and eventually we're in the park.
Tokyo Disneyland is especially wonderful for me, because it feels like going back in time - it seems like Anaheim 30 years ago. Tomorrowland is so beautiful - all white and futuristic. The park is immaculate, of course, but the Cast Members are even more amazing. Disney employees are always great, of course, but combine that with Japanese politeness and professionalism, and suddenly you're treated like royalty! Every Cast Member is very friendly and helpful (and cute), and they even bow and thank us for each and every ride we choose to experience. For positions that involve acting, like the Jungle Cruise, I've never seen anything better - our Jungle Cruise skipper puts everything she has into ducking from headhunters' spears and dodging wild hippos, and she does it with that same enthusiasm 50 times a day.
I'm also really interested in the other cultural differences. Crowd patterns are very different from America, where everyone runs to ride Space Mountain and Splash Mountain first. In Tokyo Disneyland, it's straight to Pooh's Hunny Hunt, which easily has 300 people in line as soon as the park opens! The gift shops are also interesting, too, which are typically full of T-shirts in America. All the Tokyo Disneyland shops have more practical items, like school folders, desk sets, storage containers, and so on - most have no T-shirts at all!

Japan 2003 Part 5

We have a great time on the Haunted Mansion, which we're able to ride twice. I'm caught off guard by observing the American tradition of screaming in the stretching room as soon as the lights go out (in Anaheim, as soon as the Ghost Host says, "Of course, there's always my way!", the whole rooms screams in unison). I'm the only one who screams, and so it's pretty funny! It's fun riding with my new friend Yuu, who gets really startled by one of the pop-up ghosts in the graveyard.

The parade is fantastic also - it seems like the Japanese Disney fans really go out of their way to make sure they see the parade! So many people stop riding attractions during the parade, that we're finally able to ride the elusive Pooh's Hunny Hunt in only 20 minutes, and we still make it outside in time to watch the parade go by! It's our lucky day!

Unfortunately, we have to leave the park to head back to Osaka, so we gather our bags at the hotel and meet Jonathan and Kumiko at Tokyo Station, where we buy our shinkansen tickets, bento (boxed) lunches, and ride the train back home, spending the time talking, eating, drinking beer, and eventually snoozing. As we take a taxi back to Matt's apartment, it starts to drizzle, which is the first rain of our entire Tokyo adventure. We definitely had the best possible weather for Tokyo Disneyland Resort!

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 5

Day Eight: Kyoto

Today we sleep in until 9:00, and make our now usual walk to the train station, stopping at our favorite vending machine along the way. Today we ride to Kyoto, and begin our day by strolling around Kawaramachi, and very cool neighborhood with lots of shops. We stop at a camera shop to buy another Compact Flash card, because I've filled up my digital camera! Ready to take more pictures, we walk across the river and find the bus stop we need to go to Ryonji, today's destination. Waiting at the bus stop, the clouds looks ominous - a typhoon moved over Kyushu last night, and the remnants of the storm are all over the sky. Amazingly, it never rains!

We ride the bus to the temple, where we're planning to see one of the best Zen rock gardens in Japan. As we're walking up the path, we're approached by three young girls - one of them shows me her Kyoto University student ID and asks if they can give us a tour of the temple (apparently they receive credit for interacting with foreigners to practice their English). So, we follow the girls and begin our tour.
The rock garden and temple really are amazing - the garden is composed of 15 rocks, each representing something, and they say if you can count all 15 from where you are standing, you have achieved perfection (of course, we can only count 14 rocks!). At each stop along the tour, one of the girls recites a speech that she's learned about that location, but when we ask them questions, they typically don't know the answer. So, even though they aren't the most helpful tour guides, it's still fun to walk around the grounds with them. There is a beautiful pond filled with lillypads, and lots of interesting buildings and gates as well. We finally say good-bye to the girls and take the bus back to Kyoto Station.

Kyoto Station is absolutely huge - it's like a ten story shopping mall with a huge central area open to the sky. The longest escalators I've seen crawl up and up and up, eventually reaching the roof, where you can gaze out over the city of Kyoto and the surrounding hills. We do some shopping at an Osamu Tezuka store (similar to the gift shop at the museum), and when we're finished, we ride back to Osaka for a meal at Umeda Station.
Somehow, we've completely forgotten to eat today! It's about 5:00 PM and all we've had is vending machine coffee, so we stop for tonkatsu (pork cutlet) and beer, one of my favorites! It's a little early for dinner and too late for lunch, so we have about five waitresses hovering over us as we eat, but the food is delicious. After our meal to do some shopping at a book store and a CD store, where we spend a long time at the listening stations. I eventually buy a few CDs, which is tough because CDs in Japan are almost twice the price they are in America.

Japan 2003 Part 6

We leave the station and walk around Osaka, enjoying the bright arcades at night, overflowing with people and energy. We end up at a great sushi restaurant and eat some of the largest sushi I've ever had. I have some tuna, flounder, and eel, but Matt and Jonathan are feeling adventurous and try some of the wildest things on the menu. The restaurant is loud and fun - the staff happily yells, and they beat a loud drum each time they have to start a new fish for an order. Completely stuffed, we head back to Matt's apartment and meet Kumiko there to say good-bye, since we're heading home in the morning. We have a good time looking at pictures on my camera, listening to music, and before we know it, it's off to dreamland.

View photos: Japan 2003 Part 6

Day Nine: Osaka

We're all packed and ready to go, but we have time to walk to a great breakfast spot before we have to head to the airport. We pay for "unlimited bread" and really take advantage of it - a waitress keeps coming around with a basket full of freshly baked goodies, which we eat with coffee. After eating, we pick up our bags and head to the airport.

To get to Kansai International Airport, we first have to ride to Umeda Station, where we're supposed to catch another train to Kansai. At the first station, Jonathan realizes he doesn't have his plane ticket! It's a panicked moment, but we decide that Matt should ride back to his apartment to look for it. Jonathan and I stay at the station and wait, but when Matt returns, he doesn't have the ticket - it's completely lost. We decide to just go to the airport to see what we can do, but by the time we arrive, our flight has left. Here's where the frustration begins (but don't worry, there's a happy ending!). We talk to JAL, and they can't help us since the flight was booked through American Airlines. We try to call American Airlines (who only has an office in Tokyo), but they are closed. We have an 800 number for American Airlines in the US, but it's impossible to dial a US 800 number from Japan! So, we decide to stay at the hotel attached to the airport and see what happens in the morning.

We get a good rate on the hotel, which is a first class place. We are helped to the room by an adorable girl employee, who is all smiles - she carries our heavy bags, lets us into the room, and shows us how to turn on the lights and the air conditioner. Jonathan and I are so impressed that we try to tip her, but she just laughs and says, "No tipping in Japan!"

In crazy travel situations like this one, I always crave a hamburger, so Jonathan and I find one of the hotel restaurants and have great burgers and beer (and they should be good, for fifty bucks!). After dinner, we fall asleep, wondering how we'll get home tomorrow.

Day Ten: Travel

I wake up to the sound of Jonathan on the phone making arrangements - it turns out that there's no way we can get home out of Osaka, since there are only a limited number of American Airlines code-share flights on JAL. Jonathan heads to the lobby so the hotel staff can help him with options, and I get dressed and prepare myself for the day.

Our plan is to take a bus to Itami, Osaka's regional airport, then fly on ANA to Toyko, where we'll catch an American Airlines flight to Dallas, and eventually back to Austin. We manage to get bus tickets easily, and the ride goes well. It seems like everything is perfect when we reach the ANA counter at Itami, but we soon discover that our ANA connection is reserved to take us to Haneda, Tokyo's regional airport, but we need to go to Narita International Airport! The ANA staff checks their schedule, and the last flight to Narita is leaving in 20 minutes! It seems impossible to make it, but the staff really kicks in - they immediately take Jonathan's credit card and run away with it, while one of the staff escorts us (runs with us) all the way to the gate! At the gate, the credit card girl meets us so Jonathan can sign (everyone worked so hard that they were sweating!), and we make the flight! I can't tell you how incredible the service is - it seems like something like that could never happen in America!

Soon we're at Narita and the American Airlines ticket counter - they have our situation printed out and ready to go, and we're able to get new tickets with a minimal fee. Previously Jonathan thought he was going to have to spend thousands of dollars for another ticket, but the American Airlines Japanese staff is incredible - not only do they only charge the small fee, but they adjust for the exchange rate so our cost will be even cheaper!

We find our gate and have a quick bite to eat while we wait for our flight. Just before boarding, we get our seat assignments and see that we have been put in business class! It was incredible - truly a fantastic reward for our perilous day! We sink back in those huge plush seats, drink three glasses of champagne before we even leave the gate, and enjoy our entire flight home with great food, movies, and plenty of free booze.

When we get off the plane in Dallas, it almost seems strange to see Americans again - the first thing I notice is overweight people, since I don't think I saw anyone with an ounce of fat for the past week! Still, it feels great to be almost home, and after another quick flight, we're in Austin. It was a truly fantastic trip - it was fun to share it with a good friend as a fellow traveler, nice to see a faraway friend again, and fun to make new Japanese friends while I was there. I don't think Japan has seen the last of me.


Come Away With Me / Nora Jones : 3 of 5

I've had this CD on my wish list for a long time, ever since I heard Don't Know Why on the radio for the first time (and after Nora won all those Grammy awards, of course!). I'm glad I finally got the CD, but I have mixed feelings about it. First, let me say that the music is top-notch - all of the performance is phenomenal, and I love the understated production. I also really appreciate the cover of Nina Simone's Turn Me On, which is great. My only problem with the CD is that it's just so mellow - I like a little more variety in an album. The entire CD is great for having a drink and relaxing in the evening, but it would totally put me to sleep in the car - I love music that's good for driving, but this isn't it. So, this is one incredible album, but I can only listen to it during certain moods.

Astro Boy Vol 1 / Osamu Tezuka : 3 of 5

During my recent trip to Japan, my pal Matt introduced me to his latest obsession: Astro Boy. Astro is pretty much Mickey Mouse in Japan - he appears on billboards and trains, and there are all sorts of merchandise available with his smiling face. Matt had several English translations of the original manga (Japanese comic books), so I thought I would start reading them, too. The first volume was a lot of fun, mostly filled with one story about evil cyborgs created from the nervous systems of dogs (because a complete robot could never be evil). Astro is really cute and loyal, honest and true, and he manages to utilize his rear-end machine guns several times! The stories go by very quickly, but they're so much fun that I think I'd like to collect all of the books. Astro is cool!

Overwhelmed by art

Every time I watch Samurai Jack I always think the same thing - how can every single background of the show be such a work of art?! I'm still as impressed as ever with the animation, characters and story, but I'm just overwhelmed with the background art. The use of bold colors and shapes reminds me of the work Mary Blair (famous for designing It's A Small World) did for Disney - I wish I could paint something like that!

Disneyland Countdown: 22 days!

Wiki Wiki Teriyaki : 3 of 5

I eat a lot of lunches at the Arboretum, usually at Thundercloud Subs (because they have the best tuna!). A new food-on-the-go place opened not too long ago called Wiki Wiki Teriyaki, but every time I thought I would try it, I was lured into Thundercloud right across the way. I finally ate there recently with Chris, Barron and Ryan, and it was pretty good. I had a rice bowl with chicken, which was really tasty and filling. They serve some good stuff like gyoza and even tonkatsu, which I'll have to try some day. The restaurant smelled a little funny, kind of like burnt rice, but it wasn't overpowering - maybe it was just a bad day. I guess I'll go back when I can resist the call of the sub!

Malaga : 4 of 5

Most restaurants in the warehouse district are pretty darn good, and Malaga is no exception. I went here with my friend Pam for tapas and wine, and everything was yummy. The food was really good, and the portions were pretty large for tapas - we couldn't even finish the calamari! The empanadas and artichoke dip were fantastic, too. I especially liked the wine selection, which they show off via their "wine flights", which are like mini-tastings. You get three partial glasses of wine for about $7.00 from various parts of the world, such as South America or Spain - it's a great deal and fun to taste different wines, and it's the perfect compliment to tapas. The interior was pretty simple, nothing spectacular, but the food more than makes up for that.


Magic Quizdom / Kevin Yee & Jason Schultz : 4 of 5

This is the ultimate Disneyland trivia book, created by one of the major contributors to the MiceAge website (which I always read, even though I generally don't agree with their negativity). It's sold by an independent press, but the quality is very good. The contents are what counts - Magic Quizdom contains some of the best Disneyland trivia I've ever read. Each chapter focuses on a different land of the park, and includes various levels of questions, which are then fully answered in several paragraphs, so you can truly read the answers like short essays. I thought I would read a few questions a day just for fun, but I ended up reading the whole book in one day - I couldn't stop reading! It's great to see minute details about 1950's park history thrown together with trivia about Captain EO, the Rocket Rods, and other more recent park events. There's even questions about the most recent ride closures and openings!

If I See You In My Dreams : 4 of 5

Another anime I rented on a whim, just because it looked like a cute story, and happily it was! This is definitely the genre of "romance anime", since there's really no action - just emotional turmoil (it's pretty much a cartoon soap opera!) The story is about a young businessman who has never had a girlfriend, and he runs into a sweet girl who has never had a boyfriend (ah, the fantasy life!). The plot winds around his attempts to get her name and phone number, which he keeps forgetting to ask for, and all kinds of funny situations where he ends up looking like a stalker, by no fault of his own. Eventually he tries to chase her car on his bike and ends up in the hospital, where things finally end happily with a Christmas Eve kiss in the snow. It really is a sweet story, full of just enough naive yumminess to make you misty-eyed and happy.

Another SportBrain success!

I'm proud to say that I successfully completed my third SportBrain challenge last week! This one would have been easy, but during my recent visit to Oklahoma City, I spent so much time on my butt (watching TV, going to movies, chowing down), that I had a few days that put me way behind schedule. I had to make up the time with several 20,000 step days in a row! I did so much "condo pacing" that I'm surprised there aren't ruts in my floor. It's amazing what that little piece of plastic on my belt can make me do.

I'm officially enrolled in Japanese I for the fall semester at ACC now - the class is really filling up fast, so I'm glad I got in! I'm really looking forward to learning more about the language - expect lots of Japanese words and phrases to slip into WEBmikey in the coming months.

I've been listening to all my Disney music lately (getting ready for my Disneyland trip!), and I just have to mention one of my favorite rhymes in A Whole New World from Aladdin:

I can show you the world
Shining, shimmering, splendid
Tell me, princess, now when did
You last let your heart decide

I love rhymes where two words match the syllables in another word! So clever!

Disneyland Countdown: 24 days!

The Muppets: On With The Show / GameBoy Advance : 4 of 5

I recently bought a GameBoy Advance SP for two reasons: first, it was just too cool not to buy one, and second, because I wanted to play the cool games featuring Disney and other cartoon characters (I'm basically only good at kiddie games!). This game features all of the characters from the Muppet Show in lots of small challenges - all of them are very easy, since I'm sure this was designed for younger players, but I enjoy them anyway. The graphics are fantastic, featuring wonderful colors and 3D renderings of the characters, and the sound includes lots of actual Muppet sound bites. The game also has a fun story line, too, since each game is really an act of the Muppet Show, and the two old guys in the balcony heckle your performance. A totally fun diversion!


Walt Disney's Nine Old Men / John Canemaker : 5 of 5

The only bad thing about coffee table books is that you can't read them on the go - you just can't lug a heavy book to lunch, and even worse, you can't read them on the potty. So, you have to make time to give them your full attention - I finally managed to devote some time to this fantastic book, which was a wonderful Christmas gift from my parents. Disney's Nine Old Men is a beautiful book, filled with fascinating facts and excellent images. Each chapter focuses on one of the famous animators, including a biographical section, discussions of famous scenes they were responsible for, and anecdotes about their time at the Disney studio. I learned so much from reading this book - it was incredible to think about these men, with such different personalities often in conflict, and how they managed to create such cohesive and beautiful works of art that are the Disney animated features. This book is an absolute must for any fan of animation history!

Animated Classics of Japanese Literature: Botchan & Student Days : 2 of 5

I just rented this DVD out of the blue one day while digging around on Netflix. The disc contains two supposedly classic tales of Japanese literature presented as anime, although the quality of the animation is much more Speed Racer style (very limited movement, simple backgrounds, and so on). The stories are interesting - the first is by far the best, focusing on a high school teacher who leaves his small home town to teach in the big city, where he is harassed by his students and other teachers. He eventually returns home to the old woman who looks after him, which is a very touching moment. The second story is rather shocking - it's about a student who tries his best to do well in life, but is always bested by his slacker brother, who even steals the girl he loves. At the end, he just walks into a river and drowns himself, and that's it! I have no idea what moral this "classic" story is teaching, but it was pretty disturbing for a cartoon.


The Love Bug : 4 of 5

Two-disc special editions are always great, so I was happy to see this treatment for The Love Bug! While I'm sure I must have seen this movie in the past, I actually remember Herbie Goes Bananas much more, so watching the original was like something totally new. I didn't remember that Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins played the villain, and I certainly had no idea that sad little Herbie attempts suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge! The movie is funny and has some great over-the-top scenes, along with some nice special effects and beautiful matte paintings to get across than San Francisco feel. The bonus material is excellent, with a great documentary including lots of behind the scenes stuff (such as how they rigged Herbie so a stunt driver could control him from the back seat), plus a segment on Love Bug Day at Disneyland, where they held a contest for decorated VW bugs, and actually drove them down Main Street in a parade! This is a nice DVD set - it's always fun to rediscover a Disney classic.


Boba Fett 2: Crossfire / Terry Bisson : 4 of 5

I thought that this series might start to waver a little, since this second volume takes place completely after Episode II, but it actually got better! It's really fun following young Boba, our favorite 10-year old bounty hunter. First he has to escape from Count Dooku, which is helped by an invasion by the "good guys" (Jedi and Clone Troopers), and Boba is taken aboard a transport to Bespin (here comes Cloud City!). There's some great scenes here, since is Boba is faced with thousands of Clone Troopers who are all duplicates of himself! He makes his first friend, who helps him get away once they reach the planet, and ends up back on his ship Slave I, off to collect his dad's fortune. They're doing a great job of bringing the Star Wars universe to life!

Princess Nine Vol 1 : 3 of 5

Yes, Mikey's into yet another anime series! Aren't you surprised? Princess Nine is really fun, since it's another one of those plots you would never see in American cartoons. Who would ever think of a cartoon series about a girls high school baseball team? They aren't secret agents or robots and they don't fight crime or invading aliens - they just (gasp!) play baseball! Their principal fights for girls' rights in baseball tournaments, their coach is a drunk, and they are slowly putting together their team from various misfits. Of course, they have rivals, and the school's star tennis player is the biggie, since she can't stand baseball (I predict she will become part of the team). It's all a wonderful tale of determination and inspiration - play ball!

Saint Saens Mountain

Lately I've been listening to lots of classical music on my iPod, since I'm on kind of a crusade to hear all of my MP3s at least once. I've rediscovered a lot of great stuff - especially Saint Saens. I just realized that one of his works is used in the Space Mountain music!

MTV's Spider-Man is getting better, mainly because they are taking advantage of the computer to do all of the things that would be impossible (or extremely difficult) in traditional animation, including lots of moving camera, amazing diffused lighting, and tons of fast zooms and pulls. Each episode I've seen has at least one "Wow!" moment, so I'm keeping it on my TiVo wish lists!

Disneyland Countdown: 28 days!

Crazy For You / Zilker Summer Musical : 4 of 5

The Zilker Hillside Theater is always a fun experience, as long as you avoid ants! My pal Ernesto arrived several hours early to stake our claim with his blanket, so we had fantastic seats for their latest production, Crazy for You. The show is a reworking of an old Gershwin musical, with even more famous Gershwin hits added in. Everything about it was wonderful! The singing and dancing was really amazing, with huge tap dancing numbers with 15 or more people on stage. I loved all of the songs, and was happy to hear the lead do a fine rendition of Someone to Watch Over Me, one of my favorites. Add a bottle of wine and cheese and crackers, and you have one fine evening at the theater!

Mickey Premium Ice Cream Bar

It's time I put something else on this page besides gals, and what could be better than a yummy ice cream treat? There are lots of special foods that I enjoy at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, such as cinnamon churros or New Orleans Square fritters, but nothing can top the ultimate snack - the Mickey Premium Ice Cream Bar. It's just an Eskimo Pie or a Dove Bar type of treat on a stick, but shaped like Mickey's head. It's so great to bite into one of those ears on a hot day. It would be great if you could buy these at the grocery store, but I think they would only taste special at the Disney parks.

Oklahoma City

My annual summer trip to Oklahoma City was relaxing and fun. Mom cooked up some delicious food - I got to eat meatloaf for the first time in years, and it was fantastic! My parents and I saw a couple of movies, and also got to see a great IMAX feature, Coral Reef, at the Omnidome Theater. The Omnidome is quite unique for an IMAX theater - most of the film is projected on the ceiling, and the seats are designed so you can lie back and rest your head. It was a great movie with lots of beautiful scenes. We tried to find Nemo, but I think he must have been hiding.


Jedi Quest 6: The Shadow Trap / Jude Watson : 4 of 5

This series continues to be fascinating, especially with its tight integration into the Star Wars universe. I've heard that anything that has to do with the saga has to be approved in some way by LucasFilm, to be sure that it doesn't contradict with anything in the existing stories (or stories on the way). In this volume, the Jedi Master Yaddle plays a big (and shocking) role - you may remember her as the female "Yoda species" in some of the Jedi Council scenes in the movies. It's great to see her character used in such a dramatic way! My only complaint with the book is that every story keeps boiling down to the same villain, Granta Omega. I like having an evil baddie lurking in the background, but this guy is everywhere. Once again, there's great Obi-Wan and Anakin interaction, especially since they're trying to repair the rift in their relationship from the last volume!

Titans, go!

I'm totally impressed with Teen Titans, Cartoon Network's latest show! Besides the fact that I've always enjoyed these teenage heroes (with Robin as their leader), they've designed the series in full-blown anime style. I couldn't believe what I was seeing - speed-line action backgrounds, comedy-relief "baby" versions of the characters in funny situations, and even those silly little vein-popping lines on the forehead to show frustration! It's definitely tongue-in-cheek, but with a semi-serious plot. Top that off with an awesome theme song by Puffy AmiYumi (diving even further into the Japanese thing), and you've got me hooked!

Disneyland Countdown: 30 days!

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines : 3 of 5

Like most people, I enjoyed the original Terminator. Terminator 2 was kind of a disappointment for me, since it was so long and overblown (you can search for my scathing review of the DVD here on WEBmikey), so I wasn't planning on seeing Terminator 3, but it was the best choice for an outing with my parents while visiting Oklahoma City. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit - true, it's same thing all over again, but without James Cameron trying to turn it into Shakespeare, it was pretty entertaining. Of course, the effects are great (thanks to tons of CG work), and having a female Terminator is kind of fun (since time travel only occurs in the nude), though she does much more acting with scowling than her two tiny lines. I hope this story has finally run it's course, but at least I had a good time with what should be the final chapter.


Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden Vol 1 : 4 of 5

Yet another anime series I'm getting into, and this one is loaded with tons of semi-sexy fantasy stereotypes, including kawaii 19-year old live-in maids and huge chested school teachers flirting with students, with robot warriors thrown in for fun. Despite all of that, Mahoromatic is one of the best cartoons I've seen in a while! The situations are laugh-out-loud hilarious, the character designs are as cute as can be, and the stories are actually touching. Mahoro is a combat android who decides to spend the rest of her functioning life as a maid to an orphan high school student. That's about all you need to know about the plot - just imagine any ridiculous situation that could happen, and it does. But through it all, the characters are truly charming, and I can't wait to watch them grow as the show progresses!

Tokyo DisneySea DVD

As you may know, I've bought quite a few DVDs full of amateur home movies of the Disney parks - they're always really fun to watch, and sometimes the quality is fantastic. Recently I bought another DVD that a fan made of Tokyo DisneySea, which I thought would be fun to see after my recent visit. Let me say that I was totally blown away by this DVD - it's a completely professional work, with excellent detail of the entire park and most rides, plus cool extras that even include scanned park brochures that you can page through with your remote! If you are at all interested in Tokyo DisneySea, email Ted right away and ask how you can order the DVD - it's ichiban sugoi!

Disneyland Countdown: 32 days!


Happy 48th birthday!

Yesterday was the 48th birthday of Disneyland! It's so amazing to me that such a special place opened in 1955, which still makes so many people happy today (it is the Happiest Place on Earth after all!). Happy Birthday, Disneyland! I'll be seeing you in 34 days! (By the way, that's Walt in the picture walking through Sleeping Beauty's Castle a few days before the park opened.)


Matilda / Roald Dahl : 4 of 5

After recently seeing the movie, I bought this Roald Dahl classic (which I've discovered is one of the last books he wrote) to read on my recent trip to Oklahoma City. Even though it's a "long" story for Dahl, I easily finished it on the flights up and back - it reads really fast, and maybe even faster with the movie fresh in my mind. The writing is wonderful, of course, and so are the illustrations. The most amazing thing to me was how close the movie is to the book - nearly identical in many respects. There's really only one new scene in the book, and the only major difference in plot is Miss Honey's extreme poverty (which isn't in the movie), along with a few elongated scenes for cinematic purposes. But this review is about the book, not the movie! The book is fantastic, heartwarming, and everyone should read it. How's that? I'm completely enjoying discovering this amazing author!

Interesting Spidey

I'm not sure what I think of the new Spider-Man cartoon series on MTV. The style is definitely unique - computer generated animation "flattened" to 2D, with the most bizarre color palette I've seen in an action cartoon. The first two episodes were pretty good, once you get past the weird rubbery characters. They seem to be following the movie plotline, since Spidey wants to smooch Mary Jane after every fight. Not exactly your typical nerdy Peter Parker! It's always nice to see a classic hero presented in an "adult" style, so I guess I'll keep watching it.

Disneyland Countdown: 36 days!


I love a parade!

A few weeks ago I had a cookie craving, which for me usually means a bag of Mother's Cookie Parade! I love digging into the bag of mixed delights - chocolate chip, chocolate cream sandwich, white plain cookies (to cleanse the palette, I suppose), and iced animal crackers (my favorite of the bag). It's such a yummy mix of cookie goodness, but I think I mainly like them because of the name. What could be better than a cookie parade?

I called Disneyland Vacation Planning today and arranged for them to make my Fantasmic balcony reservations for my upcoming trip, so now I don't have to make any frantic reservation phone calls! What an incredible service! I've never seen information about it published anywhere, so I'm glad I heard about it by reading the discussion boards at LaughingPlace.

Disneyland Countdown: 37 days!