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Map of my trip

If you’re interested in the actual locations of the places I went to, you can check this map out.

This is part 2 of my blog post about my trip to Japan. Scroll down for part 1.

Day 8 – Osaka

Saying goodbye to Tokyo we went off to Osaka aboard the shinkansen (bullet train). Normally it would cost around $140 for a one way ticket, but that’s where having a JR Pass comes in handy. A JR Pass allows you to ride any trains or buses operated by the JR company…for free! However, it costs around $300 so you have to calculate the total of all the JR trains you’ll be riding to make sure it’s worth it. And it’s only valid for 7 consecutive days. As for the shinkansen ride, there’s nothing like going 200 mph across Japan. The ride was incredibly smooth with plenty of leg space. For some reason I thought it would be like an airplane but thankfully it wasn’t. One minor little issue is luggage space. There’s an overhead rack but for large pieces of luggage, the only spot is behind the last row of seats. And if you’re not careful you could block the people in the last row from reclining. Oh, and if you haven’t fallen asleep you can see Mt. Fuji about an hour or so into the trip. The hotel we stayed at was in Shin-Osaka (just north of Osaka). It’s only a 15 minute shinkansen ride to Kyoto. Normally that would be an expensive ride but that’s where having a JR Pass comes in handy.

With a good portion of the day taken up by the 3 hour train ride, we decided to spend the rest of it in nearby Osaka. We headed to downtown Osaka, an area called Namba. You may have seen pictures from Japan of giant mechanical and neon signs. Those are from this area in Osaka. We went to Den Den Town which is like a mini-Akihabara and Doutonbori which is like a tourist attraction of shops and restaurants. Doutonbori is a place with many giant mechanical and neon signs. It is also where we went to for dinner. We had our first taste of okonomiyaki. It’s kind of the signature dish of Osaka. I was worried about how it would taste; it doesn’t look too appetizing at first, but I was surprised. It was actually pretty good. The problem that occurred though was that I got full pretty quickly. I forced myself to finish it and I paid for it later :P.

Like a thick pancake stuffed with meat and seafood

Day 9 – Kyoto (Ginkakuji/Nanzenji/Heian/Gion)

Even though Tokyo has a couple of places to view cherry blossoms, the place to be is definitely Kyoto. Besides the cherry blossoms, Kyoto has a lot of shrines and temples and is practically the opposite of Tokyo. You could spend an entire week in Kyoto and not see everything. I tried to get to all the major landmarks in Kyoto before my time was up. Our first landmark was Ginkakuji, aka the Silver Pavilion. It is in the northeastern part of Kyoto. The street leading up to Ginkakuji has a small canal that’s lined with cherry trees. It makes for quite a photo-op! The temple was being renovated for a while but they recently finished their work a few weeks earlier. I guess they heard I was coming :P. The temple was nice looking but the entire area around the temple made it a very peaceful and beautiful place to be.

Ginkakuji-the Silver Pavilion

Right outside the temple is a shop you can buy these little pastries called cream puffs. They were really tasty and surprisingly refreshing. From Ginkakuji starts (or ends, depending on which way you’re going) the Path of Philosophy. It was named so because a famous Japanese philosopher walked along this path all the time. This path follows the same canal that lead up to Ginkakuji. Along its 2km length are hundreds of cherry trees. It was another spectacular sight. It made for a very nice stroll.

Blossoms by the canal

The Path of Philosophy ends near Nanzenji Temple. The entrance to Nanzenji has a huge gate to welcome you in. Nanzenji actually consists of multiple buildings. One building, called Seiryo-den, has a nice rock garden within. After Nanzenji we headed for Heian Shrine. But first, we stopped for a snack break at this little tea house near Heian Shrine. It’s called Kyoto Nama Chocolat Organic Tea House. Obviously from the name, they also sell these amazing chocolates. They had 3 types of chocolates: green tea, Austrian liqueur, and shochu (a type of Japanese liquor). I wanted to buy a box of them to bring back but apparently they started selling out when they were shown on TV. After our snack we continued on to Heian. It has a wide open courtyard with a large cherry tree near the back. In the garden around the outside of the shrine are some weeping cherry trees and a nice pond.

Very peaceful and relaxing

Heian Shrine

Our next stop was the Geisha district, Gion. Gion has lots of little shops and restaurants along its main street. Off of the main street is an area with some sakura that they light up at night. It gives a whole different look to the sakura and definitely should be one of the ways to see it. Right next to Gion is Maruyama Park and of course, more sakura to be seen. The main attraction of the park is this big weeping cherry tree that also gets lit up at night. There was a huge crowd around it taking pictures. It was hard to take pictures of the tree with all the people around but I was able to get some pretty shots of it.

The lighting makes it look completely different

Popular weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Day 10 – Nara/Kyoto (Fushimi Inari)

For my 10th day in Japan I went outside of Kyoto/Osaka to Nara. Nara has the world’s largest wooden building (Todaiji Temple) and inside is Japan’s largest Buddha statue. All that is within Nara Park where wild deer freely roam the park. The deer is one of the first things you’ll notice in Nara. They stay within the park area even though there’s nothing stopping them from going outside of the park. It could be that they know all the people handing out the food are in the park. And yes, you can hand feed them deer crackers that you can buy. Even though they are used to being around people, there are signs all around the park warning you that they are wild animals. They can bite, charge at you, kick you, and even head butt you which I experienced first hand :). What happened was I was feeding some deer when this one deer started to head butt me. Actually it was more like nudging me with his head, basically saying “Feed me!”. I was kind of glad that I ran out of crackers! Though that doesn’t stop them from following you around, thinking you still have food. Thankfully they give up after a while; otherwise I’d have my own pet deer right now!

Hello! Sorry, out of food!

The first place we went to was Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It’s famous for all the lanterns that they have. After Kasuga Taisha, we walked through the park to Todaiji. Todaiji is truly impressive. It’s a huge building and amazing to think that it’s entirely made of wood. Amazingly, Todaiji was originally larger in the past. The Buddha inside was just as impressive as the building it’s in. It’s supposedly the largest bronze statue in the world. We ended our trip at Nara Park with a visit to the second tallest pagoda in Japan at Kofukuji Temple.

Largest wooden building in the world

After spending most of the day at Nara, I took the train into Kyoto to Fushimi Inari. Fushimi Inari is famous for the hundreds of torii gates leading up the mountain. Some of them are so bunched together that it looks like it forms a tunnel. We spent so much time at Nara that it got late pretty quickly. We only went part way up before deciding to turn back when it started to get dark. It got REALLY dark as we made our way down, with only a few lanterns lighting the path. It got kind of spooky.

They've got big gates, little gates, old gates, red gates, just lots and lots of gates!

Day 11 –Himeji/Osaka

Today was a great day…and a bad day. We boarded a shinkansen and headed for Himeji. Himeji Castle has what some consider to be the best and most preserved castle in all of Japan. I had to see the castle now (as opposed to on a future trip) because starting mid-April it would have been covered in scaffolding and under renovation for the next few years along with restricted access. So I had to go see it now in its full glory. We arrived early, which would turn out to be a good thing because there would be a huge line later in the day just to get into the castle grounds. The castle was very impressive and when viewed along with the sakura, it became a very beautiful place to be. You could go inside the main castle building but there was a pretty long line to get in. Still, we waited on line and when we got inside, it wasn’t too impressive. I think it was partially because of the huge amount of people inside. It probably would have been better if there was a smaller crowd so you can take it all in, especially after climbing all the stairs to the top where it’s just a small room. The bad part of the day came when I injured my foot. There was a staircase made of large stones and on one step there was a gap between two stones. I stepped into that gap with the left side of my left foot and awkwardly stumbled down a few steps. And like most injuries like this it didn’t hurt at first until a few hours later when I started to hobble around. Sitting down obviously helped but as soon as I stood up, it hurt like hell!

A castle and its blossoms

Right next to Himeji Castle is Kokoen Garden. It’s a very nice Japanese garden. They have a bunch of small ponds with a lot of very big carp in each of them. It was a very pretty and peaceful garden. If I wasn’t in pain I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more :).

Big fish in a small pond (but very pretty!)

We headed back to the hotel around mid-afternoon but along the way we bought a cup of ice at a convenience store (yes, they were actually selling a cup of ice) for my foot. We rested for a bit while I iced my foot and then we headed out for Osaka. This time we went to the northern part of Osaka called Umeda. Right across from the station there is a Yodobashi Camera department store. Besides all the electronic goods in the lower floors, in the top floors are restaurants and a “Sweets Museum” which is just a bunch of dessert stores. We went to a steak/hamburger place and then had some mocha and cupcakes for dessert. At around this time my foot just stopped hurting for some reason. I guess the icing at the hotel worked! We took a look around the area, went to some more arcades (crane games!) then called it a night.

Day 12 – Kyoto (Sanjusangendo/Kiyomizudera/Arashiyama)

First stop was Sanjusangendo where there are 1000 human-sized statues of a goddess. The building is also the longest wooden building in Japan. It was an impressive place. Unfortunately they don’t allow pictures to be taken.

One of the more popular places to visit during sakura season is Kiyomizudera. It’s a temple in the hilly eastern part of Kyoto. You have to walk up a hill past many shops and restaurants to reach the temple. Some snacks of note that you can purchase here are a soy milk donut shop and a cream puff shop. At this point one of my cousins got sick and my other cousin (her sister) decided to take her back to the hotel. I felt bad continuing on while they headed back to the hotel, but there was no point for all of us to go back so I pressed onward. At the temple itself you get a great view of Kyoto as well as the many cherry trees surrounding the temple. The view plus the temple and the sakura made for a beautiful sight. Right below the temple you can drink water from 3 small waterfalls. The water comes from a natural spring and is considered to be “holy water”. Drinking the water is supposed to fulfill your wishes. I took a drink and all I’ll say is it hasn’t come true yet :).

Very popular place, not just for cherry blossoms

I think I'll need to take a shower in it for it to work

For the afternoon I went to the Arashiyama district of Kyoto which is in the northwestern edge of Kyoto. From there I got to see some more sakura and a bamboo grove. The sakura was seen a little differently here. You could see a lot of cherry trees on the forested hills in the distance. The Hozu River flows through the area and adds a little something extra to the scenery. I think it also brought with it cold air and wind because it got very chilly there. I ended my day a little early so that I could go back and check on my cousin.

The hills have...blossoms

Day 13 – Kyoto (Ryoanji/Kinkakuji/Nijo Castle)

My cousin felt a little better today but still not well enough to go around sightseeing. So they both decided to stay around Kyoto station and do a little shopping and just take it slow. So off I went by myself again. My first stop was Ryoanji. It has one of the most famous rock gardens in all of Japan. It’s supposed to be up to each person that sees it to interpret its meaning. I thought it looked nice :P. Honestly though, I’m surprised by all the rock gardens I’ve visited of how “clean” they’ve kept them. Not a single branch or leaf is on the rocks and with a cherry tree hanging over it, there wasn’t even a single petal on it. I then walked over to Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It isn’t actually made of gold, but covered in gold leaf. Surrounded by a pond, it was a very pretty scene. The garden around Kinkakuji was also very lovely.

If I squint my eyes, I think I see a cat playing with yarn

It's not real gold, that's why no one's swimming towards it

For lunch I met up with my cousins at Kyoto Station. We went to Takaraya Ramen. I read some good reviews of the place and was looking forward to having the bacon and cheese ramen. Unfortunately, the branch we went to didn’t seem to have that for sale, so I ordered the Takaraya ramen. That turned out to be really, really good. Personally I thought it was better than Ichiran in Tokyo.

Awesome, awesome ramen!

I parted with my cousins again and headed for Nijo Castle. Even though it’s technically a castle, it doesn’t feel like a castle. It has a moat and castle towers but the buildings seem like a really nice Japanese home. Its main building has survived for hundreds of years including the some beautiful hand painted sliding doors. Nijo also has a nice pond and garden.

Day 14 – The end

And so ended my second trip to Japan. Even though I spent 3 more days there than my first trip, it seemed to pass by more quickly. I think it was because I saw so much more on this trip. Each day was packed with stuff to do. We would leave at 8:30AM and wouldn’t get back until 10:00PM. It was fun having my cousins there even though I sort of became the tour guide but I kind of fell into that role because I was the one that planned every little detail of the trip and I had the GPS. I obviously enjoyed it immensely and I am already planning my next trip.I can’t wait! Fuji, here I come!

じゃあ また! Jaa mata!

Well here I am again. This is my second trip to Japan in as many years. I know there are plenty of other places around the world I can go to but I just love Japan too much. Plus I’ve only seen Tokyo and a few surrounding cities so there’s lots of Japan I’ve yet to see. For this trip I went with 2 of my cousins. I told them I was going again after my last trip and they wanted to go as well. This time I went back to Tokyo but also headed westward on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, and Nara. Also, I went during the most popular (and busiest/crowded) time of the year in Japan: sakura (cherry blossom) season. Hundreds of cherry trees blossoming at the same time is a sight to behold and that’s just in a single park! If there’s any one time during the year to go to Japan, it’s during sakura season. Well enough with the intro, on with the show!

Day 1 – Shinagawa

Once again, as with my first trip, the 14 hour plane ride was uneventful, which is always a good thing. As with my last trip I got the Suica & N’EX package. I highly recommend getting that if you’re going to spend a few days in and around Tokyo. The N’EX train took us directly to our destination, Shinagawa. The hotel I stayed at was the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It’s a pretty nice hotel and it wasn’t expensive either. I got a double room which is a little larger than a typical Japanese hotel room. Plus they have an aquarium that’s literally right next door, but we didn’t go.

Day 2 – Tokyo Anime Fair/Odaiba

So the reason I left on a Friday (arriving on Saturday), was so that I could attend the Tokyo Anime Fair! It’s held at the Big Sight Convention Center in Odaiba. The Fair is mainly for the various anime studios to show off their latest and upcoming anime. There was a HUGE line outside and there was just as long a line when you got inside the building. Thankfully the line kept moving so it wasn’t too bad. Once we got inside the convention hall it got loud and crazy! Much unlike most anime conventions, they don’t allow cosplaying. Big minus there. But they do hire their own models to dress up and promote their stuff so there’s some consolidation :). Each studio had their own booth and many of them were giving out freebies, mostly flyers and plastic folders.

Posing for the cameras

Wahhh?

After I got my fill of anime, I went to revisit the other side of Odaiba. I missed my chance to ride the Ferris wheel there the first time around so I made sure to do it this time. Went back through Venus Fort and then headed over to Aqua City, which is a shopping center. They have a restaurant floor where we had some ramen for dinner.

Day 3 – Asakusa/Hama Rikyu/Shibuya/Harajuku

One of the places in Tokyo I didn’t get to go to on my first trip was Asakusa. It’s one of the few places where you might consider as “old Tokyo”. The main attraction is Sensoji Temple. The street leading up to Sensoji, called Nakamise, was lined with various souvenir stores and snack shops. We had a bunch of tasty snacks including some fresh red bean cakes, sakura powdered mocha balls, takoyaki, and sembei crackers. Oh, and we saw our first cherry blossoms there too. The temple itself was under renovation so it was covered in a tarp but we were still able to enter it.

Tourists aplenty

From the temple we took a boat ride down Sumida River to Hama Rikyu Garden. The garden had a very nice flower field with a bunch of yellow flowers. In contrast to that were the skyscrapers in the background. We took a stroll around the garden, seeing some more sakura and a 300 year old pine tree. We then went to Harajuku to do a little shopping and also had some crepes. At night we hung out at Shibuya to check out that crazy intersection.

Nature meets the city

Day 4 – Chidorigafuchi/Yasukuni Shrine/Akihabara/Ginza/Shibuya

Today was the first day to really check out some cherry blossoms. The first place was Chidorigafuchi, which is the northwestern moat area of the Imperial Palace. There are about 1000 cherry trees along the entire moat. We walked through just a part of it. I wasn’t in this area on my first trip so I don’t know what it looks like without all the sakura, but I think it goes without saying that it looks amazing with the sakura! There was this one spot where there were some purple flowers around the grass and the pink sakura hanging over it. It made it look twice as nice.

Pink cherry blossoms meet purple flowers

The next cherry blossom location was Yasukuni Shrine which is just a couple of minutes away from Chidorigafuchi. The shrine itself was built to commemorate Japan’s war dead. The area leading up to the shrine had a bunch of food stalls and some people having picnics under the few cherry trees there. The majority of the sakura were in the shrine area. They were also holding an outdoor theater with singing and sword performances. They also had a snack stall where they sold some really good almonds covered in some kind of powder.

After taking a bunch of pictures of the sakura, we headed to Akihabara to do some browsing and shopping. But first, it was time for lunch and decided to go get some sushi. The place I went to was Sushi Zanmai. It’s a conveyor belt sushi place, a.k.a. sushi-go-round. There’s a conveyor belt that goes around the room while the chef makes the sushi and places it on the conveyor belt. What you pay depends on the color of the plate the sushi is on. The sushi was pretty good and it was also pretty cheap. The most expensive dish was about 600 Yen for two pieces of sushi. They had this nigiri sushi that was salmon with a mayo topping and it was soooo good! I wish I had some more sushi before I leaving Japan. After lunch we went shopping in the many toy/anime stores that are in Akiba. We bought plenty of stuff to fill our luggage :). One place we went to was a gatchapon store. Gatchapon are the small plastic balls with toys inside. Many of  them are either 100 or 200 Yen in price, but when 100 Yen (~$1) is a small coin, it’s very easy to spend a lot of money there.

Sushi-go-round!

With bags in our hands we went to Ginza for a quick look around. We went to the basement level of a department store where they have a variety of foods for sale. We didn’t get anything because we were still full from the sushi but everything looked really good. At night we headed back to Shibuya because we wanted to go to a ramen place I had read about called Ichiran. It had good reviews and rightly so! First, like many ramen places, you go to a ticket machine and pay for what you want. You take the ticket and give it to the waiter. You then grab an order form and you get to customize your ramen! You get to choose flavor strength, richness, whether you want a pork fillet, and how much of their “secret sauce”. I made my choices and boy was it good! It was the best ramen I ever had!…at that point :). It was just a tiny bit too spicy for me. Next time I’m just gonna get half of the secret sauce and see how that tastes.

Some really good and spicy ramen!

Day 5 – Mt. Mitake

Today was my hiking day. I went to Mt. Mitake which is one of the closer hiking spots to Tokyo. My cousins decided to stay in Tokyo to do some shopping so this was a solo trip for me. Immediately off the cable car is a great view of the surrounding area. The hike was a little more difficult than my hike at Nikko on my first trip. First off, the trail had a lot of ups and downs. The trail itself was more “natural” than the trail in Nikko. In Nikko they built a wooden path for you to follow. Here it was a dirt path with rocks and branches and an occasional tree limb you had to climb over or walk under. Besides the view, that trail would occasionally offer, was an area called the “Rock Garden”. It was a very picturesque place. It was basically a small stream with small and large rocks all over. Some of those rocks became stepping stones to cross the stream a number of times. At the end of the Rock Garden was a small waterfall. All in all, it was a relaxing side trip.

Picturesque scene from the rock garden

Very pretty scene

For dinner, we headed back to one of the restaurants I went to the last time: Jojoen. I noticed there was a branch right next to the hotel so it was perfect because my legs were very tired.

Day 6 – Ueno/Shinjuku

Today was all about the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. We visited 2 of the most popular places to view sakura in Tokyo: Ueno Park and Shinjuku Park. Both parks have over 1,000 cherry trees. Ueno Park looks like a completely different place, not just because of the sakura but because of all the people. There were hundreds of people all around the park viewing the sakura. If you were claustrophobic it may have bothered you but the crowds seem to add something extra to the moment. All these people in one place, to see one thing…well, a lot of “one thing”. Something that stood out were all the blue tarps that had been laid out for picnickers. Usually when a group wants to reserve a spot, a person in that group will arrive early in the morning and just sit (or even take a nap) on the tarp until the rest of the group arrives for lunch. With all the cherry trees in the park, it was like walking under a tunnel of sakura.

People saving a spot for their sakura viewing parties

Up close and personal

Shinjuku Park felt less crowded than Ueno Park but I think that’s mainly because this was a larger park with more open space. There’s a small entrance fee to get into this park but well worth the price. The park includes a small pond and different styles of gardens. The cherry trees have their own area as well. You can really see the different varieties of sakura at this park. It’s a very beautiful park and is probably just as nice without the sakura.

Cherry blossoms everywhere!

Day 7 – Akihabara/Yokohama

Today was kind of a free day. We enjoyed Akihabara so much that we decided to go back. We did some more shopping but one thing we did differently this time was go play some crane games at the arcades. I think I may have found a new addiction! I was able to win a couple of things and most of them only took 2-4 tries. Though, once again, it’s easy to spend a lot of money because they’re 100 or 200 Yen per try. I’ve learned that one trick is to use one of the claws to try to flip the doll into the hole instead of trying to pick it up with both claws. I could have easily spent the entire day playing these games. One little detour we took was to a cat café. Yes, a café…with cats. You pay per hour but you get to play with the cats as much as you want. If you’re not a cat lover obviously it’s not for you but I found it very relaxing.

Kitty!

Later in the day we went to Yokohama where we checked out the Cosmo World amusement park. And maybe not surprisingly, we spent most of the time at the crane game area :P. My cousins also wanted to check out the Ramen Museum so we headed there for dinner and got there just in time for the final orders of the night. The ramen was pretty good but the ramen at Ichiran was way better.

Konnichiwa! So I made this blog to talk about my first (but not last!) trip to Japan. I figure it’s probably the easiest way for me to talk about it. First off, I should say that I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a loooong time and finally had the chance to go. It was a solo trip and I stayed mostly in Tokyo, but went to a few places right outside of Tokyo as well. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did experiencing it! Well, on with the show!

The plane! The plane!

The plane! The plane!

Day 0 – traveling

My airline of choice was Continental. Actually it was really my only choice because they were the only nonstop flight to Japan. The flight itself wasn’t too bad. I had a window seat so that I could sleep against the window and also so that no one would climb over me to go to the bathroom. I was also able to get the front row of the economy class (bulk head seat) so I had lots of leg room. That, I think, really helped with the 13 hour trip.

I don’t think there were a lot of people on the plane. The front was obviously filled but I’m not sure about the back. When I checked-in online there were a lot of empty seats to choose from.

I spent most of the flight watching anime and listening to JPop and of course, sleeping! It was a pretty smooth flight so I got a good couple of hours sleep. Oh, for dinner I had grilled sterling silver sirloin steak with Japanese curry sauce, steamed rice, carrots, celery and pearl onions. Then after waking up I had chicken teriyaki on steamed white rice with mixed vegetables. It wasn’t bad considering it was in a prepackaged box.

Day 1 – Hotel Lobby

After traveling 27 hours into the future, I’ve finally arrived in Japan! First order of business was to pick up my luggage and then go through immigration and customs. This actually didn’t take as long as I thought it would. Probably because I was traveling alone and was near the front of the plane. Luggage came out relatively quickly and immigration and customs went smoothly. After all that, I had to go purchase my Narita Express (N’EX) train ticket and SUICA card. SUICA is basically like a MetroCard except it works like a proximity badge. You just wave it over the card reader in the turnstile and head right through. It’s great for anyone visiting Japan, especially if you’re not traveling to multiple cities. I could have gotten a JR Pass, which would have allowed me to ride any JR operated train for free. But after looking up all the fares of the trains I was going to take, getting a JR Pass would have cost me twice as much. If I was going to take the shinkansen to Kyoto and back, then it would probably be worth it.

From the airport to Tokyo took about 2 hours. I stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku which is just about 2 blocks away from Shinjuku station, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo. The hotel itself was pretty nice. The room was very small, though. But that’s pretty much typical with every Japanese hotel. I didn’t come to Japan for the hotels anyway so I didn’t really care.

Tiny hotel room

Tiny hotel room

By the time I got settled in it was pretty late. I had enough time to get some cash from an ATM, grab some yummy yakitori, and take a quick look around before heading back to the hotel. There were a few things I noticed about Tokyo, and I guess Japan in general, during my quick stroll. The first is all the vending machines. I had heard about it before coming to Japan but was still surprised at seeing them practically everywhere. And unlike in the U.S. where the prices in vending machines are way over priced, prices in Japan are pretty much the same as in convenience stores. Another thing I noticed was that practically everyone obeys the crosswalk sign. Even if there are no cars in sight, no one will cross the street if the sign is red, which was unbelievable to me.

UPDATE: I remembered a few other little things that kind of surprised me. Every single restaurant provides a wet nap for you! Including fast food restaurants like McDonalds. They really are quite hygienic over there. You may have heard that people there wear surgical masks, not to keep from getting sick, but because they are the ones that are sick and don’t want to spread it to other people. And one other MAJOR thing I noticed was when I was in an elevator and I pushed the close door button…the doors actually close!

Typical vending machine

Typical vending machine

Day 2 – Passion

I spent most of today in the heart of Tokyo. First stop was the Imperial Palace East Garden. The garden (obviously from the name) is on the eastern side of the Imperial Palace. You could visit the Imperial Palace itself but you need to schedule an appointment. The entire Palace area, including the garden, is surrounded by a moat that’s filled with huge carp and geese and turtles! The garden itself was pretty nice. The highlight is probably the Japanese pond area with the lovely landscape.

Basking in the sun

Basking in the sun

Pond at the East Gardens

Pond at the East Gardens

Next stop was the otaku capital of world: Akihabara, a.k.a. Akiba, a.k.a. Electric Town. This is the place to go for electronics, toys, games, and anime. I didn’t have anything particular in mind to buy so I did a lot of window shopping. After a quick look around it was time for lunch. I already knew where I was going for lunch before I even arrived in Japan. It was at a little place called @home café. It’s a “special” kind of café. The kind where the waitresses dress up in maid outfits. These maid cafés are actually all over Akiba. Unfortunately, they don’t allow you to take pictures inside the café. Instead they charge you ¥500 to have your picture taken with one of the maids. And I gotta say…it was worth every Yen :). After lunch, I looked around Akiba some more, bought a few things, and then headed off to my next stop…

Akihabara

Akihabara

Ginza. The 5th Avenue of Tokyo. Where you can look at a bunch of stuff that you can’t afford. And that’s pretty much what I did. I did buy some really tasty baumkuchen at the Matsuzakaya department building. I then went to the basement of the Mitsukoshi building. It was just wall to wall full of snacks and desserts. Cakes, cookies, chocolates, gelees and a bunch of other tasty looking foods. A lot of it looked like it was from Europe though. After that I got hungry and it was time for a delicious tempura dinner.

Looks so good. Wish I bought some!

Looks so good. Wish I bought some!

Day 3 – Simple and Clean

Today was a pretty fun day. First, I woke up at 4 AM so that I could get to Tsukiji Fish Market and watch them sell huge pieces of tuna. It’s actually more interesting than it sounds. Watching them auction off a $10,000 piece of tuna every few minute is quite a thing to see! And if you want to have the freshest sushi, Tsukiji is where you want to go. I went to get a sushi breakfast at a place called Sushi Dai. Like most of the restaurants within the Fish Market area, it was really small; it could only fit like 10 or so people at a time. But It was also one of the more popular restaurants. So popular that it took around 45 minutes at 6AM just to get a seat! And the sushi definitely lived up to the hype! It was soooo good! And I think it was about ¥2,700 for 7 pieces which isn’t bad considering you’re getting some of the freshest sushi ever. After an incredibly delicious sushi breakfast, I headed off to Odaiba.

Tons of tuna

Tons of tuna

So fresh, so good!

So fresh, so good!

Odaiba was a lot of fun. There are plenty of things to see and do, at least for me anyway. I saw Asimo at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and some other neat little science stuff including a replica of a part of the International Space Station. Afterwards, I headed over to Palette Town to see Venus Fort, MegaWeb, and the giant Ferris Wheel. Venus Fort is supposed to be modeled after Venice. Personally I think it looks like Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. There isn’t much to do there except more shopping so I just walked right through and headed to MegaWeb.

Me and Asimo

Me and Asimo

Caesar's...I mean Venus Fort

Caesar's...I mean Venus Fort

MegaWeb is basically a Toyota showroom but they show cars from their past as well as some cool looking concept cars. They also had some games and rides too. One ride was an electronically driven electric car that took you around the building. Meh. You could also test drive one of their many Toyota cars on this pre-determined course. One of the games they had was a safety simulator where they tested how well you drove but also on how far you drove in a set amount of time.

The highlight of MegaWeb

The highlight of MegaWeb

Right outside MegaWeb was the huge Ferris wheel. I wanted to ride it later at night but lost track of time and couldn’t. Oh well…next time. And next to the Ferris wheel was a huge arcade with an emphasis on multiplayer games. This place made me wish I had some people with me. There was this one game that seemed a little out of place. You can actually fish for goldfish in this large tank. Not sure what the rules are or what you win but just seemed really weird.

The fishing for goldfish arcade game

The fishing for goldfish arcade game

Panda ride???

Panda ride???

Next up was Joypolis in Decks Tokyo Beach. They describe Joypolis as an indoor amusement park. It’s got 3 floors of rides and games. It costs ¥500 to enter but then you’d have to pay for each individual ride. You can also buy a day pass or a night pass and not have to pay for each ride. I arrived late enough to buy a night pass for ¥2,500. The first ride I got on was called Spin Bullet. It’s basically a mini roller coaster that also spins you around. At one point it actually takes you outside of the building into this plexiglass enclosed area where everyone can see you. It was a fun ride. Another ride was called Halfpipe Canyon. Two riders stand on this snowboard and the ride starts swinging the board side to side on the halfpipe. When the riders reach the top of the halfpipe, they can hit panels with their feet that causes the board to spin. It looked really wild! Speaking of wild, there were other rides called Wild Wing, Wild Jungle Brothers, and Wild River Splash, where you “ride” and airplane, jeep, and raft, respectively. These were the kind of rides where you sit in front of a large screen and the platform you’re sitting on shakes and rocks around. There’s a pre-recorded guide that talks to you over the loud speakers but obviously in Japanese so I had no idea he was saying. But essentially for all 3 rides, something goes wrong and your vehicle goes off course and a “wild” ride ensues. There were a bunch of other rides that would take a while for me to describe so you can read about them here: http://tokyo-joypolis.com/english/index.html.

When it started to get dark I headed over to Odaiba Park. For the time being, the main reason to go to Odaiba Park is to see the giant 1:1 Gundam mech that was built there! That thing is huge! It was pretty cool to see too. There were a lot of people there, just to see this thing. After taking my fill of pictures, I called it a night.

Japan's defense to North Korea

Japan's defense to North Korea

Day 4 – Deep River

Deciding to take a break from the big city I headed up to a place called Nikko. It’s about a 2 hour train ride north of Tokyo. Nikko is a place for people who enjoy nature and the traditional side of Japan. Basically a complete opposite of Tokyo. There are a number of shrines and temples around the main area of Nikko which were very nice. The detail in the wood carvings on the shrines was amazing. I also got to see the sacred horse and the mausoleum of a famous shogun. But the highlight for me was heading over to the Okunikko area. The road leading to that area is a very winding road with several sharp turns. I headed up to the Yumoto Onsen area and saw Yudaki Falls. It was a beautiful thing to see, slightly offset by the fly fisherman standing at the base of the falls.

Yudaki Falls

Yudaki Falls

From Yudaki Falls started the Senjogahara Plateau Nature Trail. The entire trail is about a two and a half hour hike that follows along the Yukawa River. The trail was incredibly peaceful. Nothing but the sounds of the river, birds…and huge bugs. Luckily they weren’t the biting kind; just the annoying, buzz around your ear kind. This is the first time I’ve gone a long hike and I’m glad I made this my first. Not only did it have some beautiful scenery but almost the entire trail was on a boarded path. It made things a lot easier and I’m sure my feet would have hurt a lot more if it wasn’t. The trail goes through Senjogahara Plateau which is this wide open area with nothing but grass and you can see all the surrounding mountains. It was quite a sight. I also got to see a wild deer eating grass, which was cool.

Senjogahara Plateau

Senjogahara Plateau

What are you looking at?!

What are you looking at?!

As I headed down the trail some more the river started getting more rapid. Eventually the river went to Ryuzu Falls. It isn’t like other waterfalls where it drops straight down. This one had a bit of a slope to it but it was still just as amazing. From there I got on a bus to Lake Chuzenji and got to see another waterfall, Kegon Falls. This one was the most impressive of the three.

Ryuzu Falls

Ryuzu Falls

Kegon Falls

Kegon Falls

By now it was time to head back to the train station and back to Tokyo. This was definitely a very peaceful and relaxing, but also tiring, side trip. It was nice getting out of Tokyo for a day.

Day 5 – Sanctuary

I had also spent most of this day outside of Tokyo in a very rural city called Kamakura.

Kamakura is an hour outside of Tokyo. It’s kind of the Kyoto of eastern Japan. It’s got lots of temples and shrines located throughout the city. I got to see a couple of the more popular ones. The first temple was Hasedera. The first thing you see entering the grounds is a nice little pond with fish and lily pads. There was also a small cave that had these statues that looked like they were made right out of the wall. At the top of a set of stairs was Hase Temple itself. Inside the temple was a large statue of a goddess. Outside of the temple was a great view of the entire city.

Hase Temple

Hase Temple

View of Kamakura from Hase Temple

View of Kamakura from Hase Temple

After Hasedera I walked over to Daibutsu. Daibutsu is the giant Buddha statue of Kamakura. It’s the second largest Buddha statue in all of Japan. It was quite impressive. For a small fee you can go and take a look inside the statue where they provide a brief description of its construction. Off to the side of the statue, hung on the wall, are supposedly the huge sandals of the Buddha.

Great Buddha

Great Buddha

Buddha's sandals

Buddha's sandals

Next I made stops at Hachimangu Shrine, Kenchoji Temple, and Engakuji Temple. At Hachimangu, there was actually a wedding going on. What kind of stood out was that it was between a white guy and a Japanese woman. Inside the shrine people were tossing coins against this wooden pedestal, clapping their hands, and then praying. Not really sure what the meaning of it was.

At Kenchoji Temple I saw a lovely Zen garden and the temple bell which is considered a national treasure. There were some very impressively large wooden buildings and structures.

At Engakuji were more shrines and temples that were just as impressive as the previous ones. It had its own temple bell that is also a national treasure. Engakuji offered some great views as well.

Peaceful Zen garden

Peaceful Zen garden

National treasure

National treasure

As the day started to wind down I headed back to Shinjuku and had dinner at a place called Jojoen, which was recommended to me (arigatou ソフィー ちゃん!). Jojoen is a yakiniku restaurant, meaning they bring you the raw meat and you cook it yourself on a grill at the table. I ordered a plate of beef and some curry udon. Thinking back I should have ordered some more beef cause it was really good! The udon wasn’t bad either. And for some background music there was a Japanese lady playing the xylophone. To finish off the meal I had a heart-shaped, green tea ice cream.

Do-it-yourself yakiniku. Tasty!

Do-it-yourself yakiniku. Tasty!

Day 6 – Tokyo NIGHTS

Another fun day (though I think I could say that for every day I’ve been here :) ). Shibuya’s the place to go if you want to do a little shopping. Lots of department stores and various shops all around. I was able to buy a few souvenirs and check out a music store. Shibuya is probably best known for the large crosswalk right outside the train station where hundreds of people cross at a time. I got there pretty early in the day so the streets were relatively empty. You can get a good view of the crosswalk from the 2nd floor of the Starbucks that’s across the street from the train station. I had a Matcha (green tea) Frappuccino that was surprisingly really good. Also pretty well known in Shibuya is the statue of a dog named Hachiko. The story behind Hachiko is kind of a sad one so you might want to get a hanky. Hachiko would wait at the train station for his owner to return from work everyday. But then one day his owner suffered a stroke and passed away at work. Hachiko, however, would still wait everyday at the train station expecting his owner to return. He did this for years until he passed away as well. The statue at Shibuya station has become a popular meeting spot for people since practically everyone in Tokyo knows where it is.

Large crosswalk at Shibuya

Large crosswalk at Shibuya

Hachiko

Hachiko

After Shibuya I headed north to Harajuku to do a little more souvenir shopping. But before that, I went to a little crepe store and bought myself a deliciously refreshing chocolate ice cream/chocolate cake crepe. Boy was that good! I went over to Kiddy Land and bought some stuff for my younger cousins then went to Oriental Bazaar and bought some souvenirs for the older crowd. I also bought myself a nice yukata. After I was done with the shopping I headed back to the hotel to drop off the bags. But my day wasn’t done just yet.

Soooo good on a hot day

Soooo good on a hot day

I left my hotel and went to the western side of Shinjuku to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, or Tocho for short. I think Tocho is the tallest building in Tokyo. Tocho has two towers, each with an observatory on the 45th floor. You can get a great bird’s eye view of the city from up there. I went up to the south observatory and took some nice pictures. After taking up the view, there was one last place I wanted to shop at. Bear with me as I geek out a little. I walked over to the Square-Enix store, not too far from Tocho. If you don’t know, and I’m guessing most of you don’t, Square-Enix makes video games. Their store sells various character goods, CDs, games and a bunch of other stuff that you probably don’t understand so I’ll just end it with that.

Tocho

Tocho

View from the top of Tocho

View from the top of Tocho

Day 7 – One Night Magic

A little back story for today. I had actually planned to go climb Mt. Fuji at night so that I could watch the sunrise in the morning. The problem was that I had done so much walking the previous days that my feet and legs hurting so much that I knew I wouldn’t have made it to the top. If I had done this on the second or third day I probably could have done it. But at this point it would have been stupid and dangerous for me to even try. So sadly I didn’t go. Oh well, there’s always 3 years from now :).

So after some rescheduling I had my day set. For the morning I went to go get my inner otaku out :). West of Shinjuku lies Ghibli Museum. If you don’t know what Studio Ghibli is then stop reading this right now and go away. Your kind is not wanted here :P. If you’re still reading this then I’ll assume that you know about Studio Ghibli and are a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. I still remember watching my first Miyazaki film. It was Princess Mononoke and I was actually able to watch it at the theaters. To my surprise the theater was actually packed and there were a number of kids there too. I’m sure their parents weren’t expecting to see some of the more graphic scenes in the film! Hell it was the first time I saw an animated character’s head get cut off by an arrow! Though I think I can say that I owe Princess Mononoke for my anime otaku-ism. I saw a few things before that but Mononoke was just so amazing that I started looking for other anime. I probably would have never seen great shows like Cowboy Bebop (still my favorite!), Macross Plus, and GiTS: SAC. Anyways back to the museum…you have to pre-purchase your ticket before heading to the museum, which I actually did before even leaving the U.S. The museum itself is actually kind of small; if you rush through you could probably see everything in an hour, though I took my time and spent about 3 hours there. It really is a museum for people who are fans of Miyazaki. But it also had a section for people interested in how they made animation in the past using some very cool demos. Unfortunately they don’t allow pictures to be taken inside the museum but they don’t have that restriction outside so I took a lot of exterior shots. After doing some rather expensive shopping in there gift store I headed back to the hotel to clean up.

Ghibli Museum

Ghibli Museum

Robot from Castle in the Sky

Robot from Castle in the Sky

With half the day left I went to Roppongi. Roppongi has 2 relatively new shopping complexes. One is called Tokyo Midtown and the other is Roppongi Hills. Each has its own art museum but I skipped on those. I mainly took a look around the complexes and the surrounding area. When it got to dinner time I already had a place in mind to go eat. It’s a place called Sarashina Horii. I only knew about it because I saw it on TV (thanks Anthony Bourdain). Their specialty is soba noodles and once again, I have to say that it was delicious! I don’t think I ate anything in Japan that I didn’t like! After filling my stomach with soba, I headed over to Tokyo Tower. It’s basically the Eiffel Tower of Japan. You can ride the elevator to the top but it costs ¥1,420, which seemed a bit much to me so I only went half way up for half the cost. It looks great lit up red and blue at night.

Delicious soba at Sarashina Horii

Delicious soba at Sarashina Horii

Tokyo Tower lit up at night

Tokyo Tower lit up at night

Day 8 – COLORS

Since I had planned to be at the top of Mt. Fuji this morning, I had to figure someplace else to go to. I decided to go to Shinjuku Park. It was just a few blocks away and I thought I could just take it slow for today. Turns out it wasn’t so much of a breather for me. First problem was trying to find the entrance to the place. This wasn’t a typical park. You actually have to pay to enter it so it wasn’t an open area that you can walk right in. Unfortunately for me, I turned right when I should have turned left so I ended up walking all around the outside of the park before I found the entrance. Second problem was…it was closed! I then remembered that the day before was a holiday (Ocean day). And in Japan, parks, theme parks, landmarks and the like are open on national holidays but closed the next day. Kind of makes sense if you think about it. So after wasting about an hour or so I thought I’d just do a little shopping and then head back to the hotel and take a much needed rest.

Since I have a little bit of space here I thought I’d mention the Tokyo train system. It’s nothing like what it is over here. First of all, it is completely clean. Not a hint of urine anywhere! Second, every station is air conditioned. And for the subways it has to be because for certain subway lines you actually have to go several floors down in the station! Another thing I immediately noticed was that every train was on time. When I say on time I mean it’s never late but it’s never early either. It always arrives on the minute. And try to avoid rush hour, unless you enjoy feeling like a sardine.

Rush hour in Tokyo

Rush hour in Tokyo

Back to the main story, after resting up at the hotel I thought I’d go to the happiest place on earth! Or at least it’s next door neighbor. I went to Tokyo DisneySea, which is right next to Tokyo Disneyland. I decided to go to ‘sea’ instead of ‘land’ because ‘land’ seemed slightly more geared towards kids. DisneySea is looks really nice. They put a lot of effort into the details of everything. The first ride I went on was Journey to the Center of the Earth. It starts off slow but with loud sound effects. Then the last 5 seconds gets really fast with a drop that I was not expecting! Next up was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This was one of those sit and look rides. You sit in this “submarine” and look out through the portholes, all the while a story being told to you in Japanese. It was okay, but not something you go on multiple times. Next ride was StormRider. This was a theater-seating ride that shakes and tilts. Like the “Wild” rides in Joypolis, only larger. And again, the story was in Japanese, but it was still entertaining. Right next to StormRider is a ride called Aquatopia. It’s a ride on water. It follows a set path and at certain points it starts spinning you around. There were actually 2 courses you could go on; a dry course or a wet course. Since I didn’t have any spare clothes on me I opted for the dry course. I took a look over at the wet course and the only reason it’s called the wet course is because at one point a hose gets turned on you. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same. The best ride I went on was the Indiana Jones ride. You sit in this jeep that takes you through a fixed path. It gets relatively quick while twisting and turning and even goes through this pitch black tunnel.

Aquatopia

Aquatopia

"Erupts" during BraviSEAmo

"Erupts" during BraviSEAmo

Oh and I have to mention the popcorn! There were several popcorn carts spread throughout the park, each selling a different flavor of popcorn. They had sea salt, black pepper, chocolate, strawberry, and curry. There may have been more but that’s all I saw. For me, sea salt tasted like regular salt so that was good. Black pepper, however, didn’t really appeal to me. And I usually like black pepper on my food but for some reason it didn’t taste right. Chocolate, obviously, was great! It seems like you can put chocolate on any snack and it makes it better. And surprisingly, strawberry was really good too! It was really just a strawberry flavored candy coating on the popcorn, but it was still good. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try curry.

Chocolate popcorn! Yum!

Chocolate popcorn! Yum!

As it got later at night it started to rain. But there was still one more thing I wanted to see before I left and that was BraviSEAmo! BraviSEAmo is a show they put on in their harbor area. It’s one big water, fire, and fireworks show, all in the water. The show actually starts off with Mickey on a boat speaking Japanese, which just sounded really weird. Anyways, the show was pretty spectacular! The pictures I took don’t do it justice. It needs to be seen in person.

Fire spirit setting fire to lake

Fire spirit setting fire to lake

Water spirit

Water spirit

Day 9 – Eclipse

Today was a pretty special day. Special in that something was going to happen that doesn’t happen often. A solar eclipse passed over parts of Japan this day. I didn’t really plan on this at first. I didn’t even know this was going to happen until 2 months ago. Just a happy coincidence. The only unfortunate thing was that the Tokyo area was only getting a partial eclipse and it turned out to be a cloudy day. Luckily, every now and again, some thin clouds passed through the sky so that I could just barely see the sun. I did all of my eclipse watching in a city south of Tokyo called Yokohama.

Eclipse through the clouds

Eclipse through the clouds

Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan and it just so happened to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of it opening its port to the world. They had a couple of events going on relating to their anniversary but it was nothing to write home about. And it was all in Japanese so I didn’t learn much about the history of the city. There were plenty of other things to see there. I strolled through Yamashita Park, which is right next to the ocean. Got a nice ocean breeze coming in. Near the end of the park was Marine Tower. You can go up the tower and get a nice view of the harbor and city. Came back down and walked through Motomachi (lots of expensive name brand stores) and headed towards Chinatown. It was mainly shops and restaurants one after the other. I bought a couple of snacks and took the train back to Minato Mirai. The Minato Mirai area has an amusement park called Cosmo World and one of the tallest buildings in Japan, Landmark Tower. The amusement park had a couple of fun rides and various games to play. They had a whole bunch of claw games. I was able to win myself a box of Kit Kats :). There was even a roller coaster that at one point has you heading into a tunnel underground! They also had one of the largest Ferris wheels in the world. And I should take this time to point out this strange fascination/obsession with photo booths. Almost every single arcade I went to has a couple of these booths around, usually being used by Japanese girls. I guess they think it’s very kawaii!

Vanish rollercoaster

Vanish rollercoaster

Cosmo World Ferris wheel at night

Cosmo World Ferris wheel at night

For dinner I took the train to Shin-Yokohama and went to the Ramen Museum. Yes, they have a museum for ramen, albeit a small one. They had a history of ramen and the tools they used to make ramen in the past. If you wanted to try some ramen yourself, you’d head into the basement of the museum where they recreated a section of 1950’s Tokyo. There were multiple restaurants and I got to try 2 of them. And you know my response already…wow was that good ramen!

Replica of 1950's Tokyo in Ramen Museum

Replica of 1950's Tokyo in Ramen Museum

Day 10 – Flavor of Life

This was museum hopping day. The first museum was located within Ueno Park. The park itself was pretty big. Big enough to have its own zoo. Though I skipped the zoo because of various people saying it wasn’t that great. The park also has a lot of cherry blossoms and is one of the more popular spots to go when they bloom in the spring. The museum I went to was the National Science Museum. It had your typical flora and fauna exhibit. Then getting into some aviation, automobile, printing, and space. They also had a hands-on science experiment area dealing mostly with physics stuff. It was pretty cool. There was a dinosaur and fossils area as well. The next museum was located in Ryogoku. The Edo-Tokyo Museum dealt mainly with the history of Tokyo. I learned a lot about Tokyo’s history there, from it’s farming days to modern times. I spent a good few hours there.

Japanese armor

Japanese armor

Aritfacts from the 7.9 earthquake in 1923

Aritfacts from the 7.9 earthquake in 1923

Since today was my last night in Japan I thought I’d treat myself to a nice dinner. And one of the best restaurants I kept reading about was Kozue, located in the Park Hyatt hotel. This was going to be my one big splurge in Japan and boy was it a splurge! The food was good but I think I learned that the really fancy restaurants just aren’t for me. I guess I prefer something more simple. But like I said, the food was still pretty good so if you’re looking for a fancy meal, great atmosphere, and a great view from the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, you may appreciate Kozue more than I did.

Day 11 – Apple and Cinnamon

This is it. Last day in Japan. Obviously I couldn’t do much since I had to check out of the hotel by 11:00 and had a 4:35 PM plane to catch. I spent that morning packing all my clothes and souvenirs.

This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. As I said at the beginning of this, I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a while now and I wasn’t disappointed. Actually the one thing that I’m disappointed about was not being able to go up Mt. Fuji, but I’m already thinking about coming back in the summer of 2012 and it’ll be the first thing I do. I originally planned to go to Kyoto as well but figured I’d make it easier for myself since it was my first time to Japan and I was going by myself. But to make up for this, I’m already planning on going back next spring, just in time for cherry blossom season.

I hope you were able to get a sense of how much fun I had in Japan and maybe even got you thinking into going yourself. If you are thinking of going and have questions about Japan, feel free to ask me.

Oh, and if you’ve read this far and are wondering about the weird titles for each day, don’t give it a second thought. I’m just amusing myself :).

Oh, if anyone’s reading this, please leave a comment. Arigatou gozaimasu!

じゃあ また!

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