culture, travel

travel log: tokyo (東京)

Ok. Now that I have a serious case of jet lag behind me, I am going to attempt to recap our awesome trip to Japan. Aside from the jet lag, I should be note that I was on the mend from a cold before departing for Tokyo, only to have something else get into my system. I had a week filled with an increasingly nettlesome cough. It was only after I returned from Japan that I found out that I have bronchitis. It’s nothing that some antibiotics and a lovely bronchial inhaler can’t fix. I plan to work through my travel log pretty much as I did with the travel log on Amsterdam — day-by-day notes and pictures. This time, though, I put my pictures into YouTube videos. I think they are best view full screen. Click the box in the bottom right corner of the video to enlarge to full screen. Simply hit escape to return to the normal view.

Day 1

Vowing not to repeat the passport scare/debacle from our Amsterdam trip, Carla made a point of leaving her passport in DC. I probably asked her three or four times about the passport in the weeks leading up to the trip, until I finally just pulled it out of a drawer and placed it a very prominent place on the desk on our home office next to my passport. I made sure nothing else came near them. They were safe.

Our flight departed at 11:20 am. I arranged for a car service to take us to Dulles, which picked us up around 8:30 am. Check in with ANA (All Nippon Airlines) was pretty uneventful. We had premium economy seats, row 18, seats H & K. The seats give you about four extra inches of leg room, and a little more pitch on the seat recline. Even with that, harkening back to our trip Amsterdam, both of us were cautiously hopeful that we would received an upgrade to business class seats. We inquired if an upgrade was available. Uhh…no. Just before boarding, we picked up some extra magazines for our 14-hour non-stop flight. The seats were nice. Each seat had a blanket, pillow, slippers, Sony noise-canceling headphones, and adjustable lower leg support and foot rest. There was a 7″ screen (I think) in the seat back that served as the entertainment and information system. One thing I’ve noticed on the Boeing 777 is that there is no overhead air nozzle. It got warm on the flight intermittently, and it would have been nice to be able to turn a nob to get some cool air. Oh well. The food was decent. The flight attendants were very nice and attentive. All-in-all, everything was cool and comfortable, but it’s funny how flying business class once on a long haul flight can spoil you. I’ve got to work on that.

We settled in for the flight. I looked through the entertainment guide to figure out which movies I would watch. The offerings weren’t that great, and I wanted to make sure that I had at least one winner to watch flying to, and returning from, Japan. Besides video entertainment, I was glued to the plane’s window while we flew over the Canadian Rockies and Southeast Alaska. There was a lot of cloud cover from western Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, so I tried to get a little nap.

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Day 2

If you know me, or have read things I’ve posted on this blog, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a nerd. I probably spent more time looking at the map of the flight path than I did watching movies or reading. The cloud cover didn’t break until we neared Japan. I saw Fukishima and Sendai on the map, and I was curious to see if we would fly over that area. We did not. Much like waiting for the end of a class or a long day, the last hour of the flight seemed to take forever. Finally, I could feel the plane descending. I don’t know if it’s the 777, but the landing was incredibly smooth. We touched around 3 pm. The plane crew was very methodical about disembarkment. First class, then business class. It was only after those two compartments exited were the curtains pulled back so we could deplane. It was all very orderly, and most seemed to be accustomed to the practice. We made our way to immigration and customs. Another smooth experience. I read about transportation options for getting into the city from Narita airport, which is about 40 miles north of Tokyo. I was a little concerned about getting around on the train with our bags, so we purchased tickets for the Airport Limousine bus — ¥3,000 (about $37) each — to Hilton Tokyo (Hilton was the sponsor of this trip that Carla won on Top Chef.), which is the Shinjuku area. The bus was clean and comfortable, but it seemed to take forever to get into the city, and then to our hotel. I was amazed by the volume of traffic on a Sunday afternoon. I guess that a city with a population of 13 million will always have traffic. We got to hotel a little after 6 pm. Check in was smooth, and we head up to our room. The room, a “deluxe king” was very spacious. We were both exhausted from the travel, so we opted for room service — a bento box and dessert. It was just what we needed.

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Day 3

Naturally, the 14-hour time difference played havoc with our sleep, because night was day, and day was night. We both woke up around 3 am, and tried to drift back to sleep. Eventually, we got up and made our way downstairs for breakfast, which was included with our room. The breakfast buffet in the Marble Lounge of the Hilton was impressive. There was a mix of “traditional Western” breakfast fare, eggs, potatoes, bacon and sausage, as well as various cereals. There were also lots of fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries. What I really liked was the offering of more traditional Japanese items. There was rice, miso, fish, steamed vegetables, and small buns. I mixed up most days, but one constant was a low-carb defying enjoyment of two small donuts with Nutella and crunch peanut butter on the side. Yum!

While at breakfast, Carla and I were talking about the hotel, and how it appeared that a lot of Americans visiting Tokyo, particularly for business, stay at the Hilton. I noticed, at the table behind Carla, four guys that were speaking English. Two of the guys were black, and one look oddly familiar. I know…I know. We all know each other, right? While I was racking my brain trying to figure out who the guy was, another guy, black, walks by our table and backs up. He said the Carla, “Excuse me, but you look really familiar.” He put two-and-two together and connected Carla with Top Chef. At the same time he’s saying that to Carla, I’m looking at him thinking the same thing. He introduces himself as Alvin Chea. I snap my fingers and say, “Wow! Take 6, right?!!” Yep! Now it all becomes clear. The guy sitting at the table behind Carla is Claude McKnight. As I look around, I seem others from the group. We ask Alvin if Take 6 was in Tokyo performing. He told us that they did two nights at the Tokyo Blue Note, but were still in town to do a Valentine’s Day concert. He then asked if we would like to attend the concert. But of course! (grinning broadly) He asked us to write down our names, and they would leave tickets at the theater. Wow! How cool is that??

After breakfast, we were flying high. We planned on going to go to the observatory level of the Tokyo Government building, but it was too cloudy. Instead, we walked around the Shinjuku Central Park, which includes the Juniso Kumano Jinja, a Kumano-type Shinto shrine. We left the park with the idea of hitting the eastern part of Shinjuku. However, after walking past the station, we were both chilly. We stopped into a Starbuck, which are quite ubiquitous in Tokyo, for some tea. After warming up, we jumped on the Tokyo Metro and head to the Ginza area of Tokyo…a bit like Tokyo’s 5th Avenue. Speaking of the Tokyo Metro, this map quickly became our best friend, and it’s an essential tool for anyone visiting the city.


Click here for a printable, pdf version of the map.

We popped out of the train station and Ginza, and after looking up and around it occurred to me that this was “Times Square” of Tokyo.

Of course, the place looks much different in the day. Nevertheless, all the brand names still shine brightly in the daylight. Everywhere you turned, there was a designer’s name affixed to an entire building or storefront. We eventually made our way down to Matsuya Department Store, which was floor after floor of designer goods. We were reminded that it was the day before Valentine’s Day, and, as tradition has it, women buy chocolate for men. The first floor of the store had a huge area set up with a host of chocolate purveyors. I gave “the eye” to Carla to get in there. We would return later before exiting the building. At some point, we landed on a floor of the store where Carla found a beautiful sweater. She decided to purchase it, and handed the salesperson her Visa debit card. I pulled out my Japanese phrasebook, and learned that that store, and just about every other place in Japan, does not accept a debit card — even if it’s connected with Visa. Womp Womp! Somehow, neither of us brought a credit card.

Thus began our unexpected Tokyo version of…

The first challenge was to find an ATM to see if we could withdrawal money. Thanks to the phrasebook, I was able to ask for the location of an ATM. A Citibank was not far away. For whatever reason, we didn’t try using the ATM, and decided that we should locate a TravelEx office. We jumped back on the subway and head back to the Shinjuku station. There was a TravelEx just blocks away. After waiting in line for nearly 30 minutes for one person to be helped, we received the news that we couldn’t draw Yen by using our debit cards. The woman at the window suggested that we find an international ATM at a 7-11 or a post office. We found both within blocks, but our cards didn’t work. We also noticed that there was a ¥10,000 daily withdrawal limit. That may sound like a lot, but Tokyo is expensive, and you can blow through ¥10,000 by lunchtime. Deflated, and a bit panicked, we went back to the TravelEx for suggestions on what to do. The woman suggested that we go to a Western Union to have money wired to us. Fortunately, there was a Western Union office in the area. Away we went.

We arrived at the Western Union office around 4 pm. I don’t believe either of us has used Western Union since college, so we took a little time to read through the paperwork. We got to the window, and were promptly informed that we could not wire money to ourselves, or each other. We would need someone else to wire money to us. Ugh! We stopped at a Mail Boxes Etc. next door and tried to wire money to ourselves through Western Union’s website. No dice. We walked back to the hotel, about 1/3 of a mile away, and tried it from the hotel. Again, no dice. It was getting late, so we head off to dinner at place called Kushiya Monogatari where you pick various pieces of vegetables and meat on skewers and fry them at your table. It was interesting for a minute or two, but it eventually became just grease on sticks and we lost our enthusiasm. Carla even got a little sick to her stomach from the grease. I’m sure the uncertainty about our cash situation added to the naseau. We walked back to the hotel.

Once we got back in our room, Carla got on the computer, using Google voice to call a friend Verlette (a very good friend, indeed), who also works her. Carla asked Verlette if she could get one of Carla’s checks; write it to herself; cash it; and then head to a Western Union to wire us the money. Fortunately, Verlette was agreed, and she eventually sent us a confirmation number. We slept a little easier knowing that the money would be waiting for us in the morning.

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Day 4

Though this is day four of our trip, it’s also day two of…

We get up, and have a rather leisurely breakfast, mainly because the Western Union office doesn’t open until 10:30 am. Around 10:15, we geared up and head over to Western Union. Carla presents the paperwork, and the women because to click away on her computer. Within a matter of seconds, her face goes a little stiff. Sensing the distress that’s about to follow, the woman softly tells us that she cannot give us the funds because the name on the transfer doesn’t exactly match the name in Carla’s passport. OMFG! Carla begins to ask a few questions, and her voice is starting to rise a bit. A woman waiting behind us, is trying to look anywhere but directly at us. The Western Union agent suggested that Carla call the person that wired us the money. Carla sharply replied that we’re from the U.S., and don’t have a phone. The agent really didn’t have much more to offer other than we needed to get in touch with the person that sent the money to fix the name on the transfer. We zip up and head back to the hotel. Carla gets on the computer, fires up Google Voice, and calls Western Union, as if she were Verlette. After a few laps around the track with the phone representative, it was clarified that in order to make a change to a transfer, you have to call from the contact number given at the time of the transfer. That would be Verlette’s number. So, Carla calls Verlette, explains everything, and asked if she can call Western Union to make the correction to the name on the transfer. Verlette calls it in, and everything gets fixed. We gear up, again, and walk over to Western Union. This time, after nearly 24 hours of back-and-forth, we were finally handed our cash. Whew! I’m exhausted, and it’s only noon.

Not to be outdone, we return to the department store to pay for Carla’s sweater, which we asked to be placed on hold. We walked through the basement level of the store that housed a sea of food merchants. Everything was on this floor; from hot food, bento boxes and sushi, to candy, pastries, tea, wine and coffee. It was truly amazing. We perused the floor for a while, and the left to visit the National Museum of Modern Art. There was a Jackson Pollock exhibit there, but we didn’t see it. That was really my fault. I’ve seen Pollock’s work in person so I wasn’t interested in seeing the exhibit. It was only after we got into the museum that Carla expressed interest. Oops. I kept offering to go back to change our tickets, but Carla said that it was okay. I felt bad.

It was raining as we left the museum, so we decided to stop off at the Matsuya Department Store to pick up some food. Since we were going to the Take 6 concert, we didn’t really have time to go out beforehand. It worked out well. We got back to the room, enjoyed the food from Matsuya, and chilled out before heading to the concert.

Though I’ve been a fan of Take 6 since they came out in the late 80s, I’ve never seem them perform live. I was really excited. Take 6 did not disappoint, either. The group did two sets. One completely a cappella, and the second with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. It was truly special, an unexpected, Valentine’s Day treat. Here’s a little taste of them performing live in Paris a couple of years ago.

I would definitely suggest trying to check out Take 6 in concert. They are touring now. Click here for tour dates.

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Day 5

This was a day that it paid to not be adjusted to the 14-hour time change, because we were up and out of the hotel at 4:30 am. We jumped in a cab on our way to the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is something that nearly everyone told us was a “must see” attraction of Tokyo. The market only accepts 120 people for tours each day, so it’s important to get there by 5 am for registration. And that we did. (When you look at the slideshow below, take note of the time on the clock in the cab. Yikes!) The market was really interesting. We got to see lots of flash frozen fish being inspected and, eventually, auctioned.


 

 

A couple of people that left comments for us, suggested getting sushi for breakfast near the market. After the tour, we wandered around the market area. In one of the small alleys on the market grounds, I noticed a small line of people outside of a restaurant. Remembering the advice in the Tokyo city guidebook I was using about finding good food, I saw a line for food, and we got in it. We had no idea what the food was. A couple from San Francisco, that recognized Carla, asked if this was the sushi place. We shrugged our shoulders. Once we got a little closer to the window (we were about 10 or 12 back in the line), we could see that it was, indeed, a sushi spot. The place was called Sushi Dai. I found out later that this is one the spots to hit for fresh, delicious sushi. I think my pictures do a pretty good job capturing the awesomeness of Sushi Dai, but Domenic Armato has a great write up about the the place on his blog Skillet Doux.

Like in Amsterdam, we bought one day passes for the subway. Taxis are really expensive, and traffic moves too slow. Subways are really the best way to get around Tokyo. With a belly full of sushi, we went back to the hotel to chill out for a little while. We got a chance to see most of the members of Take 6 in the lobby of the hotel as they were checking out. We thanked them for the tickets and a great evening. All of the guys were very nice, and incredibly gracious.

Eventually, we went back out and tried to find an area of Tokyo, near the Kundanshita station, mentioned by David Chang as being populated with a bunch of French ex-pats. There were supposed to be some nice bistros in that area. It became clear that Chang may have been a little bit off with his map or neighborhoods, because we wandered the streets for sometime looking for bistros and cafés. We stopped in a hotel to ask the concierge for suggestions. He didn’t have much, but we found a little place by Phillipe Batton called La Petit Tonneau. We stopped in for a bite. It was a cute little bistro. The food was just ok, but it was nice to get off of our feet.

After a little nosh, we made our way over to the Yasukuni Jinja shrine. In a word…Wow! I’ll like the pictures in the gallery below do the talking.

After walking around the shrine grounds, and across the street at the Kitanomaru Park, we head over to an area of Tokyo know for used books, Jimbocho. One side of the street, Yasukuni-dori, was lined with stores selling used books. Some stores were clearly high-end resellers, but most offered more affordable items. If you’re into books, even if they’re mostly in Japanese, Jimbocho should be on your Tokyo itinerary. It got late pretty quickly, so we jumped on the subway and head back to the hotel.

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Day 6

Another “must see” suggestion, made by so many, was a day trip to Kyoto. The weather looked good, so we decided to make the trip.

The nerd in me was in full bloom as we arrived in Tokyo Station. Say it with me. Shinkansen. Shinkansen! When we made our way to the Shinkansen platform, I felt like a little kid with a shiny new train set. My camera was at the ready. Fortunately, Carla played along with me (second video).


 

Living in the DC area, we are no strangers to high speed rail, Amtrak Acela, but the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” started it all. What was interesting to me was the frequency of the Shinkansen departures. In DC, the Acela departs for New York and Boston every hour. In Tokyo, a Shinkansen departed Tokyo station, for various destinations, about every 10 minutes. Amazing! I’d be interested to know how many Shinkansen trains the JR Line has in its fleet. There are different models, or series, of the Shinkansen, as well. I only saw the tell tale platypus-nosed model — the 700 Series. Carla and I jumped on the number 8 car of the train. That’s what one does with the Acela. There is no assigned seating. Proving that even in Japan, reading is fundamental, we realized that we were in a first-class car, and our seats were assigned in car 13. As the picture will reveal, Womp Womp! We went from plush two seaters to thinner, three-on-one-side, two on the other cars. Of course, my assigned seat was a middle seat. It wasn’t that bad, though. The ride was just a little over two hours to Kyoto.

Once we arrived in Kyoto, we made our way out of the station to meet up with Johnnie Hillwalker. He’s a 80+ year old guy who leads a private five-hour walking tour around some interesting sites in Kyoto. Apparently, I completely overlooked the part about his tours not being held in the winter. [Deep Sigh] (In fact, since returning to the States, I noticed that he doesn’t do tours on Thursdays, either.) On to plan B. Carla and I walked over to the tourist information office, but organized bus tours for the morning had already departed. There were tours in the afternoon, but they didn’t start until about 2 pm. We were standing there at 10 am. We bought an all-day bus pass for the city, got a map, and walked over to a café to get a cup of hot chocolate and map out our day. We would do our own walking tour.

The first top on our tour was supposed to be the Kiyomizu Dera Temple, but along the way we stopped to walk around the Higashi Hoganji Buddhist Temple. The size of the temple is amazing. We hit the road, following the map the best we could until we finally made it to the bottom of a street that let upward to the Kiyomizu Dera Temple. Now, when I say upward, think San Francisco steep. Up and up we walked. Once at the top of the street, you’re facing the temple grounds, which can only be reached by climbing a bunch of stairs. We could only chuckle (and wheeze). The temple building and grounds were beautiful and tranquil. Even with hundreds of tourists walking around it felt very peaceful. The view of Kyoto was amazing.

We checked the map. The choice was either to make our way to the Imperial Palace or the Kinkaku-Ji. In order to tour the Imperial Palace, you had to be on the grounds to register at 1:30. It was only abound 11:30, so we decided to forego the Palace and go to Kinkaku-Ji “The Golden Pavilion.” We descended the hill and waited at the bus stop. If you haven’t noticed already, Carla and I truly got the full Planes, Trains, and Automobiles tour of Japan. I think a scooter was the only mode of transportion with a motor that we didn’t employ. We transferred buses somewhere along the route and arrived near the gate to Kinkaku-Ji. The long walk to the gate only built the anticipation to see the Golden Pavilion. Once you turn the corner past the ticket takers’ booth, this beautiful golden building is revealed across a large pond. I think nearly everyone’s mouth was agape. Awe-inspiring is probably an understatement. I think it’s the combination of the golden building, as well as the beautifully sculpted garden and pond. I could have stood in place for an hour staring. After a few minutes, we started to walk around the pavilion and onto the rest of the grounds. There was beauty everywhere you turned.

We left Kinkaku-Ji and boarded another bus toward Nijō Castle. The scale of this castle was apparent as we approached and noticed a huge moat. Behind the moat is an enormous stone wall. We spotted a map at one corner, and we looked for the entry. It was 800 meters down one of the sides of the castle wall. That’s almost 1/2 of a mile. When we arrived at the gate, a sign indicated that it was closed and we would have walk to the next gate — about 1,200 meters away on the adjacent wall. The buildings and gardens inside the walls of the castle are gigantic and immaculate. As we walked along, we realized that there’s another moat within the grounds that surrounds an inner castle.

It was nearing 4 pm, and Carla and I are just about walked out. We leave the castle and board a bus headed toward Kyoto Station. We purchased Shinkansen tickets back to Tokyo, this time making sure to ask for seating on the side of aisle with just two seats. We gave ourselves time to find something to eat. After considering making a trek to the other side of the station to find a Shabu Shabu place, we opted for dining at a ramen place in the station. We hit the 8th floor of the station, and found several ramen restaurants. We wandered around to find the place with the most people going in and out. We came back to a place near the elevators. What was interesting about this place was the window displaying all of the dishes “fake plates.” Right next to the window was a vending machine. What you would do is locate the “dish” that you wanted in the window, and then find the corresponding dish on one of the buttons of the vending machine. You put money in the machine and then push the button. A ticket pops out of the machine, and you take it into the restaurant and place it on the table. A server comes to the table and takes your tickets. Within minutes, your food is brought to the table. Pretty cool. The broth for the noodles was good, not too salty. The pork was incredibly tender. The dumplings were tasty.

We boarded our train at 5:30 and arrived in Tokyo Station just before 8 pm. We jumped on the subway and returned to the hotel. Carla glanced at her pedometer and told me that we walked nearly nine miles that day. It was a long, but enjoyable day. Not bad, considering it started with a big whiff on the walking tour guide.

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For some reason, there’s a beeping sound during the playback on this gallery. Please click mute on the video, or simply turn down your speakers. Apologies.
 
Day 7

In spite of our feet and legs being worn down for all the walking in Kyoto, we woke up feeling ambitious. I read about a couple of sights in Kamakura, which is about an hour south of Tokyo. When I mentioned a giant buddha, Carla was all in. We had to take a couple of trains to reach Kamakura, and then a small local train to get to Hase station. We wound our way down a narrow street until we reached the Great Buddha and Kotoku-in. Forgive me for being redundant, but WOW! The Great Buddha statue is over 40′ tall and, reportedly, weights over 90 tons. I paid ¥20 to go inside the statue. After standing in awe of the statute for a while, we walked back toward the Hase Station, and made a right turn into the Hase-dera temple. This is probably the most beautiful and peaceful places we visited during our entire trip. Even in the winter, the gardens are gorgeous. There’s running/bubbling water all over the place. You ascend the temple grounds gradually. At each level there is a sea of little buddha statues. One of the walls has hundreds of buddha statutes on multiple levels. The buddhas got smaller on each level going toward to top of the wall. Fascinating. By the time we scaled the last set of stairs, we appeared to be at one of the highest points in Kamakura. We could see for miles. There was a lot more to see in Kamakura, but we had a few more things we wanted to see in Tokyo, so we walked back to the train station.

We caught a couple of trains from Kamakura back to the Shinjuku station, and then we jumped onto the subway to the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. There’s a shopping area in Asakusa called Kappabashi-Dōri, known for all types of kitchenware and restaurant supplies. David Chang, and others, mentioned a great knife store called Union Commerce. Carla was interested in purchasing a knife, so we had our eyes peeled. Before making our way to that part of Asakusa, I read about a tempura restaurant in our guide book called Daikokuya. We had not really had anything to eat since breakfast so we gave it a try. The restaurant was not the easiest place to find. Fortunately two women helped us find the place, literally walking us around until the crowded walks and alleys. We were excited. Then the food came. Let’s just say that it was not all that it was made out to be in the book. The tempura was not light and crispy and I had hoped. Instead, it was dark and a bit greasy. It was flavorful, but just too heavy. Were we not starving, we probably would have just walked away after a few bites. We left, bummed about the food, and walked down to Kappabashi-Dōri. We eventually found the Union Commerce, and Carla got he knife. We also wanted to buy some of those fake plates of food so common in the windows of restaurants. We found them, but the prices were out of this world. Oh well.

We had one more stop. I read about a nice area of Tokyo called Daikanyama, which is known for having a lot of funky and eclectic clothing shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, it started to rain and got quite cold by the time we arrived in the area. After snaking through streets from the nearest subway station, Ebisu, we reached Daikanyama. I think the both of us started to run out of gas. We made an effort to stop at Eataly, where we picked up a selection of items to eat for dinner. It was clear that we weren’t going to find any funky shops or restaurants this cold, rainy night. We jumped on a different train, and made our way back to the hotel. As odd as it may seem that our last meal in Tokyo was Italian goods purchased at Eataly, it was alright with us. We were beat.

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Day 8

We debated whether we wanted to take the Airport Limousine back to Narita Airport. Mainly because it was such a long ride. We decided that we would take a train to Narita, and we had a couple of options. The most convenient choice was taking the Narita Express (NX), about 90 minutes from Shinjuku station. The cost for the trip was ¥3,150 each. The alternative was to take the Keisei Skyliner train from Ueno station. The cost of the Skyliner was ¥2,400, and the trip was only 36 minutes. The main drawback was that Ueno station was a ways from our hotel. Regardless of price, we opted for the Keisei Skyliner. We jumped in a tax to Keisei Ueno Station, which cost about ¥3,000. The cost was worth it. We had a pleasant ride through the city, and arrived in time to catch an earlier train to Narita. The train reaches speeds near 100 mph once outside the center of Tokyo, and was very smooth. We arrived at Narita and made our way through check in and security pretty quickly.

Still no upgrades of our seats. We switched to the other side of plane and sat in row 18, seats A & C. I took the window seat this time, so that I could photograph anything along the way. I grabbed some shots during takeout and while cruising over the Pacific.


 

It wasn’t long before we crossed the International Date Line and flew into the night of the day prior. The one up shot was that as we flew over Alaska and into Canada, the volume of stars visible from the plane’s window were amazing. I sat with my neck craned for nearly an hour staring at the night lights. The flight didn’t seem as long coming home, and before you knew it we gently touched down at Dulles about 40 minutes early. We had a pretty quick pass through immigrations and customs, and out to find our bags. I arranged a car service home, which was right on time.

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A Few Reflections

We had a really great time. Not taking anything away from our trip, but knowing what I know now, there are a few things I would do differently. I would probably spend only a couple of days in Tokyo. The rest of the time, I’d like to tour Kyoto, Kamakura, Yokohama, Hiroshima and Osaka. I would most definitely purchase a JR Rail Pass prior to entering the country. For the price of what we paid to travel to Kyoto roundtrip, would could take unlimited trips on JR Lines all over the place. We got buy with limited Japanese, but I would make an effort to learn a little more, particularly if you spending time outside of Tokyo. I would also spend a little more time researching good places to eat. We had a couple of serious dining duds and some mediocre food, and I know that we could have eaten much better had I done more research.

Carla and I thank all of the folks who gave us recommendations, suggestions, and tips. A lot of your input came in quite handy.

Finally, just for fun…

A Few Cultural Observations

  • cash is KING in japan. don’t even think about going to japan with debit cards or a small budget. you can find inexpensive food, for sure, but just getting around can be expensive.
  • i would suggest bringing US dollars to japan, or at least traveler’s cheques. the conversion rate to yen is much better in japan. we got hosed on conversion by the travelex at dulles before departing for tokyo. cash out your yen before leaving japan, too.
  • lots of flip phones, and more Android smartphones used than iPhones
  • people are constantly on their phones — texting and games
  • a lot of people — men and women — have charms on their phones
  • not a lot of trash cans. i suspect that has something to do with people not walking and drinking and/or eating
  • vending machines are everywhere
  • the yellow strips (straight and rumbled) for the visually impaired over everyone in the city. i thought that was pretty cool.
  • perhaps because it’s winter, but people wear a lot of dark clothing
  • a lot of young women wore very short skirts
  • a lot of women wear very high heels. this was noticed even when we were touring hilly shrines or areas with stone paths
  • women in japan appear to spend quite a bit on beauty — makeup, hair and clothing
  • lots of women were pigeon-toed, or at least walked that way
  • almost everyone covered the books they were reading with paper book covers
  • a number of people run in japan. not running like jogging, but people in full work attire just pick up and start running — presumably to make a street crossing sign or hurrying to the train station. it seemed completely random, but you would consistently see or hear the rapid click clack of shoes on the pavement
  • there appears to be no chivalry in japan. men will go through doors first, not offer up seats on trains to women
  • although there are words for excuse me in japanese — sumimasen and gomen nasai — it appeared that no one feels the need to use them. lots of people simply push or nudge you out of the way; particularly on the subway
  • lots of masks were worn. probably about 40% of people on the subways wore masks. maybe about 20-30% of people walking around wore masks
  • it’s surprising that a city as large and cosmopolitan as tokyo was not more culturally and racially diverse. i was struck by the homogeneity of the city. black people were scarce
  • pastries, particularly french pastries, and sweets are very popular
  • traffic always yields to pedestrians in the crosswalks at intersections. this is a shock coming from dc, where cars will damn-near run you over in a cross walk. apparently jay-walking is a big no-no
  • a lot of restaurants were hard to find because so many of them are above street level. a lot of buildings would have six or seven floors of restaurants.
  • the number on buildings in tokyo make absolutely no sense. they are not sequential
  • street signs often appeared to be optional — even on major streets
  • coming out of an exit of a tokyo metro station (A1 versus A7) could result in you being 15-20 minutes away from your intended location/direction. fortunately, all the stations have large area maps with exits clearly marked, as well as listings of featured destinations near each exit. a number of neighborhoods had maps at major intersections, too
  • japan gets rail transit — full stop. the country does rail transit way better than the USA. the rail transit infrastructure is vastly superior and more reliable than anything found here. new york’s subways could possibly rival japan’s metro in terms of the number of rail lines, but the efficiency, reliability, and cleanliness of the tokyo’s metro cannot be rivaled by anything in the states
  • i appreciated that taxi drivers wore suits, did not have the radio blaring, nor did they stink up the cab with scent trees
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11 thoughts on “travel log: tokyo (東京)

    • You’re more than welcome, Dom. I’m a big fan of your site.

      No worries on the recommendations. I was actually checking in on your blog while we were there. Things just got a little funny when it came time for dinner. We want to go again, and we will definitely have a better plan.

      I was envious of that tempura that you picked up at Narita.

  1. Karyn says:

    Matthew, thank you for sharing your experiences. I was wondering what you and Carla would choose to do when you solicited suggestions from your readers. I’m so happy you chose to go to Tsukiji and the restaurant supply area. (The plastic food was so prohibitively expensive, I only bought a few picked vegetables!) I hope you and Carla go back and are able to spend more time next time.

  2. Heather says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog…and pleased you enjoyed your trip!  Brings back many memories of my trip to Japan…the trials and tribulations, including how it took me over an hour to figure out how to exit the Shinjuku station (w/ my train ticket…glad I saved it!), and then wandering the streets of Tokyo at night, trying to find my hotel :) 
    Travel = adventure!

  3. All I can say is wow!!! You had some awesome pictures and with your words I felt likeI was on the journey through Japan with you. You gave me some great insights seeing that I want to travel there some day soon. The money, the metro….all great tips. It was especially funny to see Carla running for the train..OMG…lol. All in all it seems like you guys did alot and enjoyed yourself seeing that you were somewhat winging it. And dont call yourself a nerd…you are awesome!! Carla will have to lend you to me when I go there…I enjoyed every moment of this blog. Thanks for writing it and thank you and Carla for sharing…  )

    • Thank you Shakena! I appreciate you reading the blog and leaving such a nice comment. We did, indeed have a great time on the trip.

      If you are planning a trip to anyplace I’ve ever been, feel free to shoot my questions. I’ll do my best to help you out.

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