Thursday, 28 April 2016

Vegan at Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland is going to be an interesting experience for those well versed in Disney parks as well as Disney newbies like Nick and I. The queueing is unlike any other theme park we've ever attended but if you go in with a plan you're sure to have a fun day. 

The first decision you need to make is which park to visit. There are two Tokyo parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. Both are conveniently located in the same place right by Maihama station but they're worlds apart when it comes to rides. After watching some helpful videos on the Disney website we ascertained that Tokyo Disney Sea is the park with the scariest rides and therefor wasn't for us! I prefer something more mellow, think Professor Burps Bubbleworks not the Flying Carpet. I can get down with little rollercoasters but I prefer not to go upside down and I don't like that feeling where you plummet towards the ground leaving your stomach a few meters above you and Nick can't deal with things that spin... it was at this point that we wondered whether we should really be going to a theme park at all but we wanted to give it a shot as we were doubtful that we'd ever end up at any of the other Disney parks.

Nick has less patience when it comes to queueing than I do (weird given that he is the more patient one in almost any other situation!) so he did a tonne of research and read a lot of blog posts about how to get the most out of a one day visit to Tokyo Disneyland and I'm going to share what we learnt with you.

My first tip is to check the crowd calendar. Tokyo is the most populated city on earth and the Disney parks are only a short ride on the metro from the centre meaning that it's busy, busy, busy all the time. We were there on a yellow day (76) and we saw queues of 200 minutes for the most popular rides at peak times. Japanese school holidays are of course at different time of year to those in the rest of the world so don't assume it'll be quiet aside from during the July - August summer holidays!

Tip number two, once you've decided on an appropriate day buy your tickets in advance. You can purchase tickets from booths at convenience stores if you can read Japanese but if not I'd recommend getting them from the Disney Store in Shibuya.

Tip number three! Arrive early. Not 9am early, 7am early. You want to be in the queue outside with your tickets in hand by 7:30am at the latest. Yes, this means that you'll probably have to get up at 5am. Yes, it's totally worth it. If you don't arrive early you'll miss out on all of the Fast Pass goodness and your day will be considerably less fun.

This moves us nicely to tip number four, make a plan. You don't want to be left standing staring at the map you downloaded a PDF of on your phone wondering where to go first when the gates have opened because you need to get on it fast. People run. Disney have people everywhere smiling at you and welcoming you to the park but also telling you to slow down and to stop running. You can get away with a very swift walk! Your plan may well be different depending on which rides you're most excited about but here's a rundown of what Nick and I did. Firstly we fast-walked to the Monsters Inc ride to get a FastPass.

This is tip five, utilise Fast Passes. With queues often hovering around the two hour mark you're going to want to use the fast passes. For those of you who are not familiar these passes mean that you can skip the queue to your chosen ride. Use them for the rides with the longest queue times to get the most out of them. To get a FastPass head to the FastPass booth located by your chosen ride, put your ticket under the scanner and take your pass. You get a one hour window to come back and ride and you can get your next FastPass after two hours or the start time of your current pass has passed, whatever comes first. We got our Monsters inc FastPass at 8:05 and our window was from 9:45 - 10:45. As soon as we had our passes in hand we fast-walked to Pooh's Hunny Hunt. It's vegan because Pooh is a bear and it's a-ok for him to eat honey!

This was one of our top choice rides and it was SO fun. The wait at that time of the morning was only 30 minutes which was pretty amazing when you compared it to the queue times later in the day. I won't ruin the surprise of what happens during the ride but the Tigger section was super cool! After ticking ride one of the day off of the list we headed to the Haunted Mansion for ride two because we still had an hour before we could get a new FastPass or ride the Monster's Inc ride. It was super spooky and they have some really cool special effects going on in there - it's a little different to the much loved and often mocked Haunted Mansion ride on Brighton Pier that's for sure. We had a few moments to spare after riding the Haunted Mansion to soak in some of the Disney magic as we wandered over to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to get our next FastPass. BTMR was a ride that we were both excited about and we knew the queues would be long so fast passing was the only option to save our sanity. On the way over we saw that the queue times for Splash Mountain were already over 140 minutes but thanks to our research we knew a sneaky tip to get around that! 

Tip six, utilise the single rider queue on Splash Mountain. If you go up to the FastPass queue for Splash Mountain and say "single rider" you'll be funnelled into a special queue designed to fill any empty seats left by groups of three or five or whatever. It does mean that you'll be riding with some new friends rather than the ones you came with but I'd rather do the that stand in an unnecessary queue! 

Moving on, with our new FastPass tickets safely secured in my jacket pocket we headed back to Tomorrowland to ride the Monsters Inc ride. It was another fun one and again seeing the queue made us glad that we'd had the foresight to FastPass it. This wall is just around the corner from the store and it's where every single group of Japanese kids visiting the park takes a group photo! 

They're all more adorable than us because the majority of Japanese kids visiting the park with their friends will have some kinda coordinated outfit going on. Maybe they'll just have co-ordinating minnie mouse bow headbands or matching three-eyed squeeze toy alien hats but you'll also see groups in full on matching outfits. It's seriously one of the most fun places to people watch ever

We rode a couple of the rides that we weren't super excited about after Monster's Inc because the queues were so short that it was worthwhile. It's a Small World is something I'd heard of - apparently the song's a big deal or something, it didn't feature in my childhood as far as I can remember but any ride involving a tiny boat is good with me! We also checked out Snow White's Adventure which we enjoyed more than we thought we would. After that we checked out Tom Sawyer Island and rode the super sedate Western River Railroad before grabbing our next FastPass for Star Tours. 

After our super fun ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad we wondered whether we could FastPass and go again because it was so much fun but passes for it had already closed. By this point our stomaches were growling and we decided that it was clearly time for a snack and a sit down. This moves us nicely onto tip number seven, if you're vegan take your own food. Tokyo Disney have a whole load of allergy guides on their website but none of them are overly helpful for vegans as meat and most fish products are not allergens. They also state that if you have allergies that cannot be met by the park's allergy menus that you can bring your own food. Our bags were searched at the entrance and we had no issues at all despite having bags that were clearly stuffed full of inari tofu, onigiri, Clif bars, bananas (bad choice btw), Happy Date bars, Chip Star crisps and chocolate. I've heard rumours that there's a vegan cheeseless pizza on the menu at the Pan Galactic Pizza Port in Tomorrowland and that Eastside Cafe in the World Bazaar has a vegan pasta dish. The pizza option is intriguing for sure, although I can't see anything about it on the online menu, but 2000¥ for slightly dubious pasta with tomato sauce? I'm good with my own snacks thanks! Now if you're bringing a picnic you're meant to eat at the designated picnic ares just outside the park but we decided that we'd just eat one snack at a time on a bench inside the park whilst people watching. I don't think that our munching on onigiri was ruining the magic for anyone!

My eighth and ninth tips are pretty simple but take a reusable water bottle and wear comfortable shoes. There are drinking water fountains all over the park. Drinks aren't that pricy compared to what you'd pay at a UK theme park but why pay for water when you can get it for free? The shoes part should be a given but I can see how a pair of red glitter heels might seem like a great part of your Disney co-ord! Before you choose your cutest shoes keep in mind that Nick and I walked 13.6 miles during our day at Disney and in anything other than my Sketchers I think my feet would have given up long before the park closed.

Our FastPass time for Star Tours wasn't until 4:40 so we had some more time to check out some of the smaller rides. We hopped onto the Jungle Cruise Wildlife Expedition, rode the slightly dull Mark Twain Riverboat and I had a ride on the carousel. We then grabbed our next FastPasses for Buzz Lightyear - by this time of day there were none left for any of the major rides so we were glad that we'd decided that Space Mountain would have been too scary for us anyway. Star Tours was by far the scariest ride of the day, it's a simulator but hoo-boy did that thing drop us all the way from outer space into the sea in a terrifyingly real fashion. I gripped onto my armrest for the duration of the ride and then leant on a wall outside feeling a little queasy for ten minutes afterwards!

After checking out the carousel one more time Nick and I headed to the Dream Lights Parade which was super fun to watch. Because this is Japan and everyone here is wonderfully polite people stayed seated so that you could still see even if you were in the third row. Also, the floats are humongous so you can't really miss 'em!

After the parade there was time for a quick twirl on Dumbo's Flying Elephants before catching the Once Upon a Time show where they light up the palace with all sorts of cool lazers and some kinda movie featuring princesses and stuff. There were fireworks at the end too which were cool and I definitely enjoyed the magical feeling of the show.

At this point it was time to squeeze in a few more rides before the park closed so we rode the Peter Pan Flight which was way more fun than we'd imagined it would be. We finally stood in the single rider line for Splash Mountain for a whole ten minutes before hopping into consecutive logs and riding the flume. It was without a doubt the best log flume I've ever been on, there were a couple of small drops as well as a larger one but there was plenty of time spent just bobbing around in the boat checking out the scenery which I enjoyed. Pinocchio's Daring Adventure was our second last ride of the day and I'd say that it's skippable unless you're a huge fan, we just chose it because there was no line! Lastly we had time to squeeze onto the last journey through the Haunted Mansion which was totally worth the second ride as I spotted some things I hadn't seen the first time around.

By this point we were beyond exhausted and totally happy to hop onto the train back towards Tokyo Station. We managed to do almost everything on our list, I never made it onto the Star Jets because the queue was never short enough to wait alone and it was too fast and spinny looking for Nick to even consider it. We also missed the Happiness on High fireworks but we felt that the firework display during the Once Upon a Time show was enough for one day so that seemed like a reasonable choice.

Overall I'd say that a visit to one of the Tokyo Disney parks would make a great day out for anyone with a love of kitsch visiting Tokyo for more than a week or big Disney fans who'll be in Tokyo for shorter periods of time. The rides were fun, especially Pooh's Hunny Hunt, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and Monster's Inc but the people watching was definitely my favourite part of the day.

I have a couple of questions for Disney fans! Firstly, do people co-ordnate outfits with their friends at any of the other parks? I feel like this must just be a Japanese thing as I see people co-ordinating with their friends all over the place here! Secondly, is popcorn a big deal at all Disney parks? At the Tokyo park we saw people carrying their own Disney popcorn buckets, presumably from previous visits, and as far as I can tell they're taken to get refilled at all of the fun flavoured popcorn stands around the park! I saw Monsters Inc buckets, Snowman buckets, Minnie Mouse bow shaped buckets. I even saw a triple layered pastel coloured popcorn bucket! Super kawaii!!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Viva Cats!

I left Tokyo exactly two weeks ago yesterday and as is usual for me I took a lil' blogging break whilst I was getting settled in my new space. Inawashiro feels like a different world compared to Tokyo, the pace of life is incredibly different as is the way I'm spending my days. Nick and I are volunteering at Japan Cat Network where we're managing a team of volunteers as well as their social media. On top of that I'm trying to work on fundraising ideas and community outreach but those have taken a back seat as I work on more pressing things; getting to know the cats, learning how to use Facebook and cleaning and tidying a mountain of things. This is the house we're currently sharing with five people, 23 cats and two dogs!

The house has three cat rooms filled with kitties with all sorts of different personalities, foibles, likes and dislikes and bonding with some of them is definitely a challenging process. Most of the cats here were rescued from the exclusion zone in Fukushima so we don't know most of their histories. It's clear that some had homes and families and we suspect that some did not. Nick and I have picked some of the most challenging kitties and are spending a little time each day trying to make friends with them. Each cat room has an outdoor space and some of the kitties love to sit and watch the world go by. These kitties are Peanut and Claude who are BFFs!

Sleeping arrangements at the shelter are interesting, for the first week Nick and I slept in separate bunk beds alongside another volunteer in a curtained off area in the living room. After someone left to travel around Japan we swiftly stole her space and have managed to squeeze ourselves into this area in the loft just above the living area. It's a cute and cosy space with absolutely no privacy at all! 

If I stretch out in bed my feet touch the feet of another volunteer and both him and the woman who sleeps in the curtained off area next to his need to walk past our "room" to get anywhere. It's cute though and I'm beyond appreciative of the free accommodation despite the um, challenges, it throws up but it turns out that 10 days is my breaking point for living like this. Day 10 was when I started plotting an overnight escape and today, day 12, was when Nick booked a hotel in Sendai because he's worried I may have some kinda breakdown without a break from our new living arrangements. I'm eagerly awaiting the end of my shift tomorrow and my day off on Friday because as well as a quiet, peaceful hotel room where you don't have to pick up other peoples socks, listen to their guitar playing or move their washing up to get to the sink Sendai also has a T's Tan Tan where I will be eating my bodyweight in food that I didn't have to cook for myself.

During our first week here I totally lost my cooking mojo. Despite having an oven for the first time in almost a year I wasn't really feeling it in the kitchen and all I ate for about a week were Clif bars, 7/eleven onigiri, bread (from a mix), tofu scramble and bananas. I think the new living sitch' combined with the increased workload just made me reach for anything quick, easy and delicious. After a week I reached out to my Twitter pals, got them to toss some suggestions my way, and headed to the second nearest supermarket which is much better than the closer one and, really, what's an extra five minutes added onto a 40 minute journey? Our walk to the supermarket consists of fields, quiet streets and the odd house here and there. In winter when the mountains are covered in snow the area is a lot busier, apparently it's the same in summer when Lake Inawashiro draws an influx of visitors that rival the crowds of winter ski and snowboard freaks but currently we're in-between seasons so it's almost eerily peaceful.

We found a lot of fantastic things at the supermarket; fun veggies, accidentally vegan pancake mix, sugar syrup, miso, tots (you can't even get tots in England!), macaroni and more. Within a few hours I'd whipped up some garlicky tomato sauce for spaghetti which was deliciously simple. Next Nick made pancakes from the mix which were uh-mazing, better than most of the pancakes I've made from scratch but that isn't saying a lot as Nick is the pancake queen in our house.

Nick also whipped up an amazing mac and cheese sauce starting with a simple oil based roux and adding soy milk, miso, nooch, garlic powder, dijon mustard, salt and pepper. It was perfect and creamy and we'll definitely be making it again. 

Since then my kitchen mojo is well and truly back with a vengeance and I'm eating similarly to the way I used to eat at home - loads of carbs, not enough veggies, more than the occasional dessert, lots of yumminess. I made Okonomiyaki, whipped up a dip based on the crock cheeze from the Uncheese Cookbook, veganised a box mix gingerbread cake using applesauce, roasted potatoes with thyme and salt, made a coleslaw with a simple mayo, soy milk and lemon juice dressing, and whipped up the Marbled Banana Bread from The PPK for a fellow volunteers birthday. Of course I sometimes fall back on my favourite packet ramen from Natural House fancied up with some pak choi and oyster mushrooms after a long day of tidying, cleaning, cat petting and dog walking but sometimes that's as much effort as you can put into a meal and that's a-ok.

There are two dogs living at the shelter, Addy and Chacha. They've both been here for five years now and whilst they love the company of volunteers they are very much in need of a forever home. The constant changes and lack of stability that come with somewhere being solely run by volunteers can't be good for them. They need to be adopted together because they are best friends in the truest sense of the words, where Addy goes, Chacha goes and they really do make the most adorable pair. 


Addy and I celebrating a volunteers birthday! She didn't get any cake.

And then of course there are the cats, if I'm completely honest I've been too busy using my limited time (the time not spend hauling stuff out from underneath tarps, putting on load after load of laundry, scrubbing, cleaning and tidying) playing, stroking and petting the cats to take many pictures. I don't keep my phone on me at all times and when you're heading into a cat room with a basket full of food bowls in one hand and a hoover in the other the last thing on my mind is my camera! I have taken a few shots and hopefully, when the majority of the tidying and organising is done, there'll be more time for both cat pictures and fancying up the cat rooms to make their lives here even more fun.


Chibi and Tart



Just like Addy and Chacha all of the cats have been here for at least five years, there's one group of five, a group of six and then a group of 12 very frightened cats. They're all looking for homes but I keep hearing differing things about whether we'll adopt to places outside of Japan. Socialising some of the cats is hard, there are cats in Room B, where the 12 frightened cats live, that still run from me as soon as I enter the room and there are cats in there that'll take a treat from my hand. Penny (pictured above) will let me stroke her if I approach slowly whilst she's sitting on the bed but anywhere else? Hell no! She'll give me a good claws-out whack on the hand if I try to stoke her whilst she's wandering past me as I read or if I try to give her a little tickle behind the ear before feeding time. I'm learning that cats are even more complex than I thought and that I'm at once desperate to make them all my friends and scared of getting too attached. I'm looking forward to what the next six weeks holds and I'll be getting back to my regular posting schedule asap!