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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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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