Monday, March 15, 2010

Tokyo: Bright lights and gadgets abound…

March 6th –> 10th, by Jason

Our Delta Airlines (formerly Northwest Airlines) flight from Beijing to Tokyo went out without a hitch. Even breakfast was served, a nice touch and I guess I should’ve expected it, but I have lowered my expectations for US based carriers. We arrived a little early to cloudy/gray skies and drizzle at Tokyo Narita airport.

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We passed through immigration and customs without any issues (90 day tourist visa, free on arrival for US passport holders) and boarded the Keisei Limited Express train (unreserved seat, Y1090) bound for Asakusa, a neighborhood in the northeast of central Tokyo that would be our home for a few days. On board we met a Russian/Austrian lady that needed some help finding her station, and while I did my best to try and help a Taiwanese ex-pat living in Tokyo (an engineer for Dow) was more helpful to her. A quick walk, just under 10 minutes, and we were at Khaosan Tokyo Hostel, our new home. Luckily their February special carried over into March and it was Y2000/night (per person, of course) on Saturday and only Y1400/night every other night [which at Y90 to USD1 that is much higher than anything we’ve paid the last 5 months, but as we’d learn throughout the rest of our time in Japan this was cheap by Japanese standards.] I, of course, was excited to get out and back into the swing of things in Tokyo, excited to be back after my trip with Sonia two years ago. It was nearly 6pm by the time we were checked in and settled so the evening was spent coming up with ideas and grabbing dinner at a little noodle shop in Asakusa [which given the cool and rainy weather really hit the spot!]

A good start but a rainy afternoon

Our first full day was a Sunday, which is usually a good day to find the famous Harajuku girls out in display in the similarly named neighborhood of Tokyo. Off we went to Shibuya, first, to catch a glimpse of the one of the worlds busiest pedestrian crosswalk/intersections and also to see the Hachiko statue outside the subway station.

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At this point we were both starving and set out in search of food. One of the nice parts of Japan (and the culture’s fascination with electronics and gadgets) is that many restaurants have ticket vending machines with pictures [of course not high end places, but a chain noodle shop often have these machines] thus taking care of the language barrier for us and simplifying the job for employees. We picked a place near Shibuya station that is apparently famous because Wentworth Miller, the star of Fox’s Prison Break, ate there previously. The soup was delicious, salty and full of rich roasted pork taste and hit the spot in the cool/damp weather. Unfortunately we didn’t grab a picture of the picture of Wentworth Miller there, but you can find enough shots of him on Google on your own.

Next stop was to find the Harajuku girls, famed for being out on Sundays in their fun/stylish/outrageous outfits [again, just do a Google image search to get an idea.] On the walk over we conveniently found the Apple Store Shibuya, as part of our Apple world tour we had to stop in and grab a picture.


We made it over to Yoyogi Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo and where I’d previously seen these kids hanging out in their outfits. Unfortunately the cold weather and rain kept them indoors and so a sighting would not happen. One bit of advice for anyone heading to Tokyo is to check out Harajuku/Shibuya on the same day (obviously close to one another) and specifically to walk through the small side roads and alleys that run between these two areas. They’re less commercial and give you a great glimpse into how locals do their shopping in this fashion mecca.

A quick walk up Omotesando Rd and we were back on the train to our neck of the woods. The crap weather kept us inside most of the afternoon where I could upload pictures and Swiss could nerd out to some research on geo-tagging our photos. The project took a few hours spread across a few days, but he ended up with a script where he runs a command in a folder, enters the city and country and voila it automatically finds the GPS coordinates of that city and attaches them to each picture in that folder. Pretty sweet! We had a simple dinner at a local place and stayed indoors [ie. warm] the rest of the night. One thing we did spot on our search for dinner was this sign…


(the small sign) which is a nice and direct way to tell you to stay away if you can’t afford to eat there! :)

Attack of the children and nighttime views

Monday turned out to be a much better day. While still cloudy it was dry and also a little warmer and we could spend more time outside exploring the town. We headed first to Senso-ji Temple, one of the most famous sights in all of Tokyo (and Japan) and located near our hostel in Asakusa.

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During the walk up the pedestrian road (lined with shops) I was stopped by a group of Japanese school children [Swiss was off grabbing a picture.] They were out practicing their English on tourists as a class trip and asked me a series of questions from their script and then asked me to sign and put my country of origin on their sheet after which they presented me with a small origami present. It was very cute!

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Of course this didn’t end and we were eventually stopped by two more groups of kids [Swiss decided to spice things up for them, they had a lot of Americans on their sheets, so he answered and signed with Switzerland.] Swiss of course wanted pictures with me and the kids given my usual dislike for children but these kids were just so cute and nice [maybe it’s my love of all things Japanese that allowed me to forgive these children for being kids, or maybe I’m just finally growing up :)]

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Of course we were actually there to see the temple, which unfortunately was completely covered on the outside for renovations!!


But Swiss still managed to get his fortune there…

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and we got some pictures of the rest of the temple complex, which is quite nice!

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After this little side tour we headed off to Ginza, a major shopping district in Tokyo and a good place to see some store’s flagship display areas (ie. the Sony showroom and Apple’s flagship store.)Before setting off in the morning, though, we grabbed a to go lunch at the local Lawson 100 (a specialized version of Lawson, the local 7/11 type store, where everything costs Y105.) So after arriving in Ginza we headed in Mitsuya, the Japanese department store, which happens to have a rooftop dining area (outdoors, or al fresco if you will)

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After our inexpensive al fresco lunch we headed across the street to continue our tour de Apple stores around the world.


After which we headed over to Sony’s showroom just around the corner to check out their cool latest toys [3-D television was sweet, and ask Swiss about playing PS3 in 3-D HD!]


A quick 15 minute walk and we were over at Tokyo Station [the epicenter of Shinkansen (bullet train) travel in Japan] where we bought our ticket to Kyoto for Wednesday, only (I kid) Y12,710 (that’s right! over USD 125!) So of course I looked later, a JR Pass makes more sense if you plan to ride the bullet train more than once in a trip to Japan, but alas we were only making one bullet train trip, so a single ticket was indeed cheaper (plus JR passes do not allow you onto the Nozomi, the newest/fastest Shinkansen, boo!! If we’re going to splurge on a train trip, we’re certainly going to ride the latest/fastest train.)

We headed back to our hostel in search of haircuts. [It’d been since January 29th that either of us had gotten a haircut and I know I was certainly due!] Of course the friendly folks at our hostel recommended a place only a 10 minute walk from our place and off we went. Now let me preface this by saying that we saw a place earlier in the basement of Tokyo station that was essentially a Y1000/10 minute haircut place and we were both a little skeptical about that, so we skipped that to head back closer to home. Sure enough the place we were recommended was another branch of that same Y1000 haircut place and we decided to give it a shot (we didn’t know where else to go!) In normal Japanese fashion you pay a machine and get a ticket, of course employees don’t handle cash! [From what I can tell Japanese companies believe this improves efficiency] I of course let Swiss go first (hahaha) and was soon in the hot seat right next to him. They of course have a barcode reader at each station to scan your ticket and a timer to countdown 10 minutes time, although I don’t think they follow it super strictly. Instead Swiss guessed the system allows them to alert interested haircut victims customers how long the wait may be.


Neither of our stylists spoke much English (not to criticize of course, I have a 10-15 word Japanese vocabulary!) but with pointing and gestures we both walked away with decent haircuts (at prices much lower than the average salon in Tokyo, or SF for that matter!) So if you’re in desperate need for a cheap haircut in Tokyo, they’re worth checking out:


We relaxed a little back at the hostel then headed out to Shinjuku neighborhood for a night time view of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building (45th floor!) which is highly advised because of the nice view and also the price: free!

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Of course the other reason to visit Shinjuku is for that iconic view of Tokyo lit up in neon signs. We wandered around the neighborhood and enjoyed the sights…

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and stopped in this “Western” themed place to splurge on a big plate of Japanese beef, and it was good!


A little stroll around the area to walk off dinner and it was time to head back home.

8am…well, more like 9.30am Sushi…

So the Tsukiji Fish Market was definitely on our list of things to see and since it was going to be closed the day we were leaving (at first thought it’d make a great last morning breakfast) we decided to go on Tuesday. Specifically, we were going to see the market and then head to Daiwa Sushi, which is consistently mentioned across the internet as having one of the best chef’s tasting menus (but no small breakfast at Y3,500!) So upon arriving in the area we set out in search of an ATM. This is Tokyo, should be no problem, right?!? Well, there’s a few problems with that statement: 1.) There aren’t ATMs on every corner; 2.) If you do find and ATM, there’s an even smaller chance that it accepts foreign cards; 3.) If you have an ATM card with the Mastercard logo (in Swiss’s case that’s a yes) it’s most likely not taken at places that do take foreign cards. Needless to say the ATM at 7/11 (which takes foreign cards, but not Mastercard after Dec. 14, 2009) did not work so we ended up in the lobby of a Marriott where the concierge told where there is a Citibank (which does take all sorts of cards) The whole ordeal took us around an hour after arriving in the neighborhood and now we were ready to eat!

Of course we did not arrive at 5am so we did not see the tuna auction (which is again open to the public, except mid December through mid January) We did take about a half hour walk through the aisles and stalls to check it out:

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Even after seeing all that we were ready to eat, so off it was to Daiwa Sushi, in the same area. We had the delicious tasting menu, which you can see all the pictures of up on flickr, but I’ll show you a highlight, the tastiest tuna (and squid) ever!

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Afterwards it was off to Ebisu, across town, to attempt to visit the Yebisu Beer Museum. We made it there successfully but unfortunately they’d remodeled the place since last time I was there and now the whole place had been boiled down to one large room on the history of the beer brand and a bar where they served whole glasses of their beer, but not the tasting menu like they had previously. Disappointed, we headed home and Swiss vowed to boycott Sapporo and Yebisu beers. [And in his defense he’s right, it was a stupid move to change the museum that radically and it’s now rather disappointing and not worth the visit, in my humble opinion.]


We headed home where Swiss did some laundry then we went to the sento, or local bath. The water was quite warm and we couldn’t take it for very long, but for only Y410, also a very inexpensive and very local experience.

For dinner we headed over to Sometaro, in our local neighborhood and a place I’d been to with Sonia a few years ago for do-it-yourself Okonomiyaki. They were delicious, just like last time!

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As you can tell from that last picture the weather turned cold that night and we had a rain/snow slush to enjoy on our walk home!

Wednesday morning would be spent packing and hiking to Tokyo station where we boarded the bullet train to Kyoto!


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