va • ca • tion
[a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In a few weeks, my wife and I are heading to Tokyo for a week. (It’s one of the three trips my she won while competing on Top Chef All Stars.) I had so much luck getting suggestions and recommendations from readers as we prepared for our trip to Amsterdam, that I thought that I’d try this again.
I have just started to do my travel research, but I would really appreciate you leaving a comment with your recommendations and/or suggestions for things to do, must see attractions, interesting places to go in the city, shopping, good day trips out of the city, and — of course — good eats. Also, if you’ve visited Tokyo and blogged about it, please share the link in the comments.
Oh…I am also curious about the language issue/barrier. Can I get by with English, or should I cram to learn some Japanese in the next three weeks?
Let me first thank all the people that provided recommendations for things to do and see, and places to eat in Amsterdam. There are definitely a lot of things to do in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it around to everything that was on our list, including a day trip to Bruges, Belgium. We will have to save those things for the next time. Nevertheless, we had a really nice time! Without further ado, here are my notes (which get a little thin toward the end) and photo galleries from the trip.Note: For the photo galleries, you can either click on “Show as slideshow,” or simply click on any of the thumbnails images to see an enlarged version. Use the arrows at the bottom of the picture(s) to can navigate left and right within the pop-up gallery. To get out of the gallery and return to the post, just click on the picture.
Our British Airways flight was scheduled to depart Dulles at 6:15 pm. Somewhere around noon, Carla approaches me, with a sick look on her face, and says “I have a sinking feeling that my passport is in the apartment in New York.” Zoinks!!!
I must admit that my first reaction was not a tempered one. “Why are you just now looking for your passport? I asked you and Noah a few days ago about them.” Carla’s suggested that the direction of my conversation is helping the situation. The panic in the air was palpable. It became clear that, barring the appearance of a passport fairy, Noah and I would have to travel to Amsterdam without Carla. The big, looming question was really whether she could get on a plane from New York the next day without paying British Airways a king’s ransom. Carla immediately got on the phone with British Airways. Apparently, there was trouble trying to make changes to her ticket, because it was arranged through Hilton’s travel office. (Hilton sponsored the trip on Top Chef, so we worked with their in-house travel office.) In the end, the British Airways agent suggested that we all go to Dulles, and, hopefully, one of the agents there could help Carla sort things out. So, we all piled in the car for a rather quiet drive to the airport. I didn’t want to provide any more non-constructive commentary.
Once at the airport, Noah and I went to one agent, and Carla went to another. Our agent bumped Noah and me up from premium economy seats to Club World seats (no lounge access, unfortunately) for the flight to London. Once checked in, we walked down to Carla. Fortunately, the agent was able to get her on a flight the next day out of JFK, and the fees were just $275. Whew! While I was sad that we wouldn’t fly out together, I was relieved to know that things worked out. With that, Noah and I gave Carla a hug and said goodbye.
Our flight departed on time from Dulles, and we arrived in London Heathrow around 6 am (GMT).
A little sidebar about the flight: The British Airways Club World seats were nice! The service was spectacular. The lay-flat seats with 10″ personal, swing-out screens were awesome. The food and wine was tasty. I appreciated even the smallest touches, like the personal toiletry kits that we received. Nothing like being able to freshen up and brush your teeth after an overnight flight.
After a short layover in London, we boarded our flight to Amsterdam. It was a short flight, and we landed in Amsterdam around 9:40 am (CET) — six hours ahead of Eastern time. (Read: It was 3 am to our bodies.)
I read quite a bit about catching the train to Centraal Station and then taking a tram to the hotel, but I opted for a taxi. It still amazes me that taxis in a lot of European countries are Mercedes Benz sedans. Anyway, twenty minutes and 35€ later, we arrived at our home for the week — the Hilton Amsterdam. Surprisingly, in spite of the early hour, we were able to check in. Noah and I were tired, but we forged on. We picked up 24-hour tram cards from the concierge, and walked over to the nearest stop. We took the tram in to outer part of the city center, walked around a bit, and then decided to jump on a canal tour. We had to wait for about 40 minutes until the next tour, we Noah and I walked around in Vondelpark. We jumped on a Blue Boat Company canal tour boat, and proceeded to nod off repeatedly. After the tour, we walked along the fashion district until we stopped in Brasserie Keyser for lunch. The service was incredibly slow, which given our jet lag shouldn’t have bothered us, but we would much rather sleep in the hotel than at a brasserie table. We jumped on a tram back to the hotel. Noah and I both passed out immediately when we got into the room. I woke up after and hour, and tried to stayed up as long as I could to get adjusted to the time. Noah didn’t budge.
Noah and I got up around 9. Buffet breakfast was included with our stay, so we head down to Roberto’s. Carla was due in around 11, so we planned to stay around the room until she arrived. I just happened to be online when I received an IM from Carla letting me know that she missed her flight in London because of a snafu with the airport tram. She was not due into Amsterdam at 2pm. Instead of heading out and coming back, Noah and I chilled out in the room until Carla arrived.
After Carla arrived — around 4 — we all walked out and jumped on a 16 tram to Dam Square. I heard that one must try Indonesian food while in Amsterdam, and I remembered hearing about Toko Joyce. We walked around looking for Toko Joyce. This involved walking up and down the streets of the Red Light District. Between the women in the windows and the near non-stop aroma of weed wafting through the air, the walk was quite an experience. It’s an understatement that the streets of the City Center of Amsterdam can be confusing. When we finally found Toko Joyce, but were disappointed to discover that the place was a take away, not dine in. That was my bad. Apparently, I didn’t read enough about the place to know that it wasn’t a dine-in spot. We changed gears pretty quickly, and walked around. We came across Blauw ann de Wal, which was recommended by a few people that commented on the blog. We popped in, but were told they were all booked for the evening. We made a reservation for the next day and asked for a recommendation. We were told to go to Restaurant Anna. After getting lost a few times, again, we finally found the restaurant. Unfortunately, they were also completely booked for the evening. The hostess suggested visiting their sister restaurant, Brasserie Harkema, which was about 7–10 minutes away by foot. She told us that the restaurant was a straight walk. I couldn’t resist quipping that nothing in Amsterdam travels on a straight line. She politely laughed. Off we went. The atmosphere at Brasserie Harkema was nice. The service was a bit spotty and the food was decent. After dinner, we caught a 16 tram back to the hotel.
I think that we all woke up intermittently in the wee hours, but I’ll say that we officially got up around 10 am. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then hit the street. We caught the 5 tram to Dam Square and walked to the Ann Frank Huis. It was rainy, quite windy, and chilly. As we approached the museum, we could see that the line wrapped around the building and ran down the side street. We were in the queue for about an hour and a half. (Note: If you visit, it is best to buy your tickets online. You will get to avoid standing in the long line.) Entry to the museum was 8,50 € for adults and 4,00 € for kids 11–17. It’s free from kids up to 10. The wait to get into the museum was well worth it. The tour was very interesting. I guess that it’s been a while since I’ve read the Diary of Anne Frank, because I thought the living quarters of the secret annex would be much smaller (not that it was enormous). After touring the museum, Carla and I both commented that we feel compelled to read the story again.
We were planning to visiting the Heineken Experience, but since the tour of the Anne Frank Huis took a long time, we decided to return to the hotel and rest before going back out for dinner at 6:30. We rested up and then head back out for dinner at Blauw aan de Wal. Our host sat us at the center table on the first floor, which is a small, rustic room with about six or seven tables. The walls are exposed brick, and there is a server area with wine and a dumb waiter. Apparently, there is more seating upstairs, but we didn’t walk around. Once seated, the host (I can’t recall his name), pulled up a chair and sat with us to explain the restaurant’s concept and the dining options. We all opted for the three-course prix fixe meal. It isn’t cheap, though — 55 €. The meal was fantastic, as was the ambiance. Our host paired each course with a great wine. I must say, this is a great place. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Amsterdam. After dinner, we walked a bit in the Old City Center — no really need to hit coffee houses, the contact high was strong enough. Eventually, we hopped on a tram back to the hotel.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we caught the 5 tram down to the museumplein area and picked up three 48-hour iAmsterdam packs. These packs gives us 48-hour transit cards and an iAmsterdam card. The iAmsterdam card provides admission to many of the major museums and a canal tour. We also gott 25% of many other attractions, including the Heineken Experience. We went across the street to the Van Gogh Museum. The exhibits were amazing! After the Van Gogh Museum, we walked to the Heineken Experience. I am not much of a beer drinker, but it was interesting learning more about the company and the process for making the beer. By the end of the tour, I happily enjoyed two cold beers.
After the Heineken Experience, Noah and I walked to the FOAM Museum (photography) and Carla walked to the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses. We met up after the museum tours and jumped on a 24 tram. We hopped off in the Albert Cuyp street market area so Carla could check out the bakery, Bakken Met Passie, that she saw earlier from the tram. Armed with fresh baked goods, we jumped back on the 24 tram and returned to the hotel. We were all pretty tired from day, so we decided to do something low-key for dinner. After deciding that the dining options in the neighborhood around the hotel weren’t that promising, we hoped on a 24 tram to eat at Burgermeester on Albert Cuypstraat (across the street from the bakery). The burgers were pretty tasty — so much so that I forgot to take pictures. I must admit, thought, that I had a hard time getting past not having fries, or at least some chips, to go with my burger. They did have a baked potato, but that seemed to be a bit much.
For the first several days of the trip, I was making an effort to jot down reflections of the day. Unfortunately, I didn’t make notes for the last few days of the trip, so this is where the trip notes get a little thin. Some of you are probably thinking, “Thank God!”
We walked through the glass doors of Roberto’s for breakfast and were greeted by the chef. It was quite clear that he recognized Carla, and he doted on her quite a bit. Meanwhile, Noah and I went about our business of foraging for waffles, bacon and fresh fruit. The chef brought us a plate of Oliebollen, a fried dumpling that is traditionally eaten in the Netherlands at New Year’s Eve. Now that our bellies were warm and full with these Dutch treats, we bundled up and head out for the 5 tram. We hopped off at the Rijksmuseum, which is the Dutch national museum. The museum is features works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hal, Steen, and many others masters. In a word…Wow!
It was raining when we left the Rijksmuseum. What should we do next? Something indoors would be ideal, so we decided to visit the Hermitage Amsterdam. Naturally, the trip to Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t attempt to take every form of public transportation. Well…not really, but it sounds adventurous. We ended up on the Amsterdam Metro because the walk between the tram stop and Hermitage was a bit far in the rain. I couldn’t help but chuckle as we descended into the station, and the first sign overhead admonished patrons to be on guard for pickpockets. Duly noted! We got off the Metro and got turned around, yet again, on the streets of Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to me, we walked right past the Ice Bar. Once we got back on track, we found the Hermitage Amsterdam, and got a chance to view some great works by Van Dyck, Rubens and Jordaens.
Once out of the Hermitage, we had a decision to make about what to do for New Year’s Eve. Carla and Noah were clearly beat from a lot of walking, standing, circling (associated with getting lost). Carla and I are not what you would call revelers/partygoesrs, but we were torn about hanging out. Noah was indifferent. We were told by more than a few people to be mindful of random fireworks. Apparently, folks in Amsterdam are quite fond of pyrotechnics, including shooting firecrackers, Roman Candles and other explosives rather indiscriminately into the air (read: crowded spaces). With that in mind, the notion of going back to the hotel, ordering room service, and watching fireworks from our window and on TV became more appealing. We were not disappointed. The fireworks in the Oud-Zuid (Old South) neighborhood were insane! We heard and saw miscellaneous fireworks being shot off throughout the evening, but at midnight…we were treated to nearly an hour of fireworks!
Here’s a video that I shot from our 5th-floor hotel room.
When we were planning this trip, I thought that it might be a good idea to cut the trip short by a day. My concern was that things would be closed on New Year’s Day. Nothing like being on the ground to see that concern come to fruition. Amsterdam was practically a ghost town on January 1. Almost all the museums (except for the Anne Frank Huis), restaurants and shops were closed. We used this lack of touring options to attempt getting back on Eastern time. The three of us stayed up most of the night before and then slept in. We didn’t go downstairs for breakfast until 11:30. We were treated to a different room in the restaurant that overlooked the canal, as well as more Oliebollen. That was a pleasant start to the day. We chilled out in the room for a while after breakfast, and then decided to walk through the Jordaan area of town. We were told that this former working-class neighborhood now has an eclectic mix of people, and features a lot of art galleries and funky shops. We knew that we would be window shopping, if you will. We took the 5 and 10 trams, and got off in Jordaan near the mosque. We walked up and over a few times, but there wasn’t much to look at. I suspect one has to be there during normal working hours to get a feel for the funkiness. Also, given the amount empty wine, Champagne, and beer bottles, the residents of that area had quite a party the night before.
Not deterred, we slowly walked around, taking pictures, making our way back over toward the Old City Center to get to one thing that we absolutely knew would be open — the beautiful, art deco/gothic Pathé Tuschinski theater. Yes, we went to see a movie in Amsterdam. We saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Noah and I enjoyed the movie. Carla fell asleep a few times, so I suspect she’ll need to “see” it again. We actually timed seeing the movie so that we could take the evening canal tour at 8 pm. It was raining, light but steady, so we were a little concerned about how much we would be able to see from the canal boat windows (if they weren’t fogged up). Fortunately, the rain let up just enough so that we could pull the windows back on the boat and see the sights. The tour lasted about 9o minutes. Amsterdam is absolutely beautiful at night, particularly when viewed from the canal. After the canal tour, we head back to the hotel and ordered room service. We, again, endeavored to stay up all night to realign our bodies for the time change. Noah fell first, Carla hung in there until about 2 am, and I stayed awake the whole night.
There is really not much to say about this day. We were up and in a taxi at 5 am for a 7:30 flight from Amsterdam to London. We had nearly a three-hour layover in London, which we used to grab breakfast and a nap. Much to our surprise, when we approached the gate to board the flight to Washington, all three of us were bumped up to Club World seats. Woot! Perhaps a sign that we had a good trip was me hitting a Royal Flush on the poker game on my video console.
So there it is. Seven days in Amsterdam, give or take. We had a really nice time, and I look forward to the opportunity to return to see and do more things. I am sure the city is beautiful in the spring. Until then, I’m on to planning our next trip. Tokyo, perhaps? Stay tuned.