2 Weeks during sakura season 2014
Day 8: To Tokyo! - 東京
We checked out and our trek to Tokyo began! From Hakone, we grabbed a bus from in front of our hotel all the way down to Odawara station. The bus route is less scenic than the rail route, but its also a straight shot that takes you from the hotel straight to the Shinkansen station. The trip takes just as long, but you don’t have to transfer from bus to train to other train.
We made it to Tokyo and opted to take a cab from the station to the hotel. As much as I love the subway/rail system in Japan, when we can spend an extra $2 and get a cab (and have bags!) why not? We checked into our hotel early – around 1pm and liked what we saw. Our hotel was in the Meguro district, a mostly residential area south of Shibuya with a number of universities in the area. It turned out to be a good jumping off point for our Tokyo explorations.
Exploring Shibuya to Harajuku - 渋谷区
After getting off our feet for a while, we jumped on the hotel shuttle to the Meguro JR Rail station and headed north to Shibuya. If you have a JR pass, you can use that on the Yamanote Line, a popular rail route that runs in a loop around Tokyo. It hits many of the major sites including Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Ueno Park and Akihabara.
We exited the station and, for some reason, decided to head south. Turns out everything is north of the station. Despite that we did see a beautiful street before turning around.
We wandered north and walked through the busy Shibya crossing intersection. Past that we walked through one of the 7 story malls in the area before realizing the target was a much younger audience. We stumbled into a hole in the wall ramen shop for some more Hokkaido style ramen and beer. After eating, we went back to the Starbucks at the crossing in order to get a good viewing spot. To our surprise, we spotted Julius from Droolius two spots in front of us in line! Running into someone we knew from Orlando in the busiest intersection in the world was pretty amazing.
After touching base and making some plans, we grabbed a green tea and a cherry blossom donut from Krispy Kreme and headed north to Harajuku. The shopping side of that district was closing as we were getting there, limiting our options for the night.
Day 9: Harajuku & Shinjuku
We started the day right where we left off – 3 Yamanote line stops up from our hotel in Harajuku. The area is a lot more lively during the day since it is mostly for shopping and closes down by 8pm.
The Feel Harajuku - 原宿
On the walk over we passed by all the typical high end clothing stores you would imagine. Each with their own intricately designed buildings to draw attention. Walking the main streets you might think this is all there is the Harajuku.
We were on a mission to meet up Koichi, one of Marilyn’s coworkers from Booking.com. We found their location above an Armani Cafe (Armani has cafes?) and got a quick tour of their office. Not a bad location, and on a clear day you could see Mt. Fuji.
We grabbed lunch – a Tonkatsu place close by. Throughout the trip we confused Tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet) and Tonkotsu (a cloudy, ramen broth). The Tonkatsu was served with a bed of cabbage, which seemed like an odd pairing. The spicy mustard that came with it, along with barbecue sause and curry made for a warm and hearty lunch.
When we pressed the group for things to do in Harajuku a few suggestions came out: try a crêpe, see Yogogi Park and visit the Meiji Shrine. All were within walking distance, so we set out for them next.
Yoyogi Park & Meiji Shrine - 代々木公園
Yoyogi Park is a huge park that skirts the Harajuku district all the way up to Shinjuku. When you enter it off the main area, there are very large set paths to walk, and no cars allowed. The park is known for it’s interesting fashion scene which hangs out on the bridge from Harajuku on sundays.
We walked up some side streets to the park and shrine itself, entering through the north entrance. The Meiji Shrine resides on that side of the park, and was built in the 1920s – a full millennium after some of the other shrines we visited.
The shrine itself was less visually amazing than others like Fushimi Inari or Kasuga Taisha, but stands in stark contrast to the surrounding city. The shrine itself was much more open than others we’d visited, and could no doubt support the large population of Tokyo that visits.
Park Hyatt Hotel
We realized we were within walking distance of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel made famous in Lost In Translation. Having seen that movie more times than I can count, this was a good chance to see the amazing view in person.
Finding it was a little odd. The lobby for it is actually on the 37th floor of the Shinjuku Park Tower building, and takes up the top 14 floors. The top floor is the New York Bar & Grill – the hotel bar used in the movie. After 8pm this bar charges a $20 cover. We stopped by before sunset and were able to enjoy a cocktail before then. I ordered a cocktail with a sake base, optimistic they might do something interesting with it. Unfortunately what came out was a tiny, weak pink drink which I could have finished in a single sip. Marilyn’s was much better, but the $18 drinks prices are justified by the view more than the taste.
An Izakaya Visit - 居酒屋
After stopping by the hotel to change, we headed out for dinner in Shinjuku with Koichi. We were initially thinking about trying a shabu-shabu place, but ended up a izakaya. Izakaya are the equivalent of pubs in the US, but if they had sushi that was on par with a sushi restaurant on the beach.
Drinks here, and at every place we visited were extremely limited. Most places only carry one type of beer - usually Sapporo, Kirin or Asashi. The place we visited was a Sapporo place, but also had some sake and sake cocktails with fresh grapefruit.
Expecting pub fare, we were amazed at the quality and freshness of what we tried. This included a fresh sashimi plate, gyoza, lightly cooked mini octopus, pork skewers, tofu and a tuna bowl. This plus all the beer we could drink was under $30 each. The cost of just the sashimi in the US would’ve been more than that.
Day 10: Ueno Park & Akihabara
We missed the cherry blossom bloom in Kyoto, but were lucky enough to catch them in Tokyo where is happens slightly earlier. We seized the chance to visit Ueno Park, a large public park in Tokyo.
Ueno Park - 上野公園
On the opposite side of Tokyo as we were staying (as far as the Yamanote line goes) is Ueno Park. It’s not as dense with trees and shade as Yoyogi park, but is famous for its hundres of cherry blossoms that line the paths.
We took the train down, expecting a crowd, but the actual crowd was incredible! It was shoulder to shoulder throughout the park. With rain expected for the rest of the week, and the cherry blossom season already short, everyone was taking advantage of the clear day. The amount of blossoms was amazing at this park – turning the entire field of view white with blooms.
There were street vendors with all variety of food next to business men and women taking their lunch breaks. We tried a number of treats including a pork skewer, a chocolate covered banana, some fried chicken and some beer to wash it down. This was more comfort food than exploration, but hit the spot.
Akihabara - 秋葉原
One train stop down from Ueno Park is Akihabara, the center of otaku culture in Japan. The area is famous for its multiple large arcades (some 6 floors), video and anime stores as well as electronics galore.
Without a goal in mind, we started browsing stores that looked interesting. On a given street we’d see stores at street level, as well as a stairs up to others hidden away. We wandered through an arcade watching people play games I’d never seen before. Looked through a few game and figurine stores at characters both muscular and skimpy and eventually headed out.
Akihabara was one of the few let downs of the trip. I imagine 15-years-ago-me would’ve enjoyed it more, but today-me was more concerned about the maid cafe hostesses being harassed in the streets. Oh yeah, there are a lot of maid cafes there.
Cocktails at Bar Ishinohana
Not wanting to leave Tokyo without trying some classic cocktails, we stopped by Ishino Hana Bar, a small classic cocktail bar in south Shibuya. We’d end up stopping by again the next night with some friends, eventually trying out 7 cocktails between the two of us. Our of those about 3 were amazing – including the Kurosawa, a whiskey cocktail I reordered the next night.
We also stopped by Goodbeer Faucets in the same part of town. This small pub catered more to the English crowd, but had the largest selection of Japanese beers of any place we came across on our trip.
Day 11: Ghibli Museum - 三鷹の森ジブリ美術館
When we decided to go to Japan, the first thought wasn’t “when?”, “how much?” or “where?” but “We have to go to the Ghibli Museum!”. Even if the Akihabara district was a let down, the Ghibli museum ended up going beyond our expectations.
As much I’d love to write about the experience, one of the highlights of the experience is the feeling of childlike exploration you get going through the disorganized museum. If you do want to go, I recommend doing as little research as possible. We made our way through the entire place twice, gawking at the smallest details.
If you do want to go to the museum, you’ll need to make reservations ahead of time – up to 3 months. When you show up, you’ll exchange your voucher for a real ticket, granting you access. The ticket itself is a cell from a Ghibli movie – mine was Ponyo eating ramen!
To keep the experience personal, no pictures are allowed inside. The only pictures spots are the roof, where a giant Robot Soldier stands, and the outside cafe. The cafe had one of the best beers we’d tried, as well as some delicious ice cream.
In terms of souvenirs, there aren’t many places that I’ll fork over cash at. The gift shop to the museum features many unique items only available there. I ended up with two shirts, some cookies, a CD, a canvas bag, some movie cells, a museum guidebook, map and even more.
Afterwards we stopped by a Tonkotsu Ramen shop in Harajuku for the fattiest ramen we tried during our stay there. This place was right at the Harajuku Yamanote intersection and amazing. I felt drunk on pork fat after I left.
A Traditional Japanese Dinner
Following our amazing Ghibli museum visit, we stopped Bar Ishinohana for another drink before heading to Shibuya for a traditional Japanese dinner with friends. This was the first restaurant we visited where we needed to take off our shoes as well.
You know those restaurants where you need to sit Japanese style on the floor rather than in chairs? This was one of those. To our surprise, most places that offer this style of seating have a pit under the table for your legs should you want to sit with them down. Secrets were reveled that night!
The food and drinks were also amazing, albeit in small portions. They did have a wide sake menu there and offered a tasting of 3 different sakes at a reasonable price. We decided to just order 4 tasting all with different sakes and try them all. If you can try 12 different sakes in one night, do it.
Day 12: Ginza, Kabuki, Iron Chef - 銀座
We’d heard good things about the Ginza district, and knew we wanted to at least walk around the area some. We decided to take it a little easy on this day to recover from our late-night sake fest, and attempted to stay out of the rain.
We headed to Nihonbashi Yukari for an early lunch, a restaurant on the north side of the Ginza district, by a chef what won multiple times as a challenger on Iron Chef including the 2002 tournament. The restaurant has opted out of the Michelin program, although many think it would well be deserving of a star or two. We scheduled our reservation through the very helpful concierge at our hotel and when we walked through the door, wondering if I was in the correct place, all I heard was “Adam-san!?”.
The meal was delicious - and one of the more memorable meals outside of our ryokan. An egg custard appetizer, followed by a sashimi and tempura (or pork belly) main plate, accompanied by soup and followed by a house made ice cream. Not a bad lunch at $30.00.
The Luxurious Ginza District
If you could make the Mall at Millenia (Orlando Mall famous for its high end brands) into a district, you’d get Ginza. Walking down the street you see all the big name stores you’d image Apple plus every purse/bag/watch manufacturer. Aside from walking through the Apple store and browsing a floor of a mall in the area, we weren’t too interested in the area. The rain might’ve dampened our spirits, but at least it drove us to the south end of Ginza for our next stop – a kabuki show.
A Traditional Kabuki Show - 歌舞伎
I’ve seen a number of live performances, but the format of Kabuki was new to me. First off, what is Kabuki? It’s classical Japanese drama, performed entirely by men. An entire Kabuki show typically includes 3 acts and takes upwards of 3 hours (including breaks). If you’re only interested in a single act, you can acquire a single act ticket, which allows you an unspecified seat at a specific show. Full tickets to a show might start at $40, while single act tickets are closer to $12 a person.
When you get a single act ticket, you’ll receive a ticket number. Just before the showing, you’ll line up by your ticket number (think Southwest Air) then be let into a small balcony in the theater for people to grab the best seats they can.
The show we ended up seeing focused around political intrigue and would be too difficult to explain without a few paragraphs. What hit me most about it was the very slow pace of the storytelling. At 90 minutes it was a long show for containing only 3 separate scenes. The story and acting kept us interested, but by the end I was straining to stay focused.
For $5 you can buy an audio commentary which was well worth it. It isn’t a translation of what is being said, but more a way to follow along the high level points and explain the motivations of the individual characters.
Day 13: Tsukiji Fish Market, Robot Restaurant
The Tsukiji Fish Market is most famous for its tuna auction, held every morning around 6am. Beyond that though is a thriving fish and goods market that stretches about 5 blocks by 3 blocks.
Tsukiji Fish Market - 築地
We weren’t planning on heading to the tuna auction, so we woke up late (7:30) and headed over to the market for some breakfast sushi. The most popular sushi places have a 2-3+ hour wait, so we headed to one on the same block that was more in the 15 minute range. We had a delicious omakase breakfast including sea urchin, fatty tuna and enough others to (mostly) fill us up.
Afterwards we wandered around the market checking out the various goods there. We had hoped to see the wholesale market too – the one famous for its fresh fish, but we only skirted the edges of it rather than be run over by the dozens of carts. Outside in the public market, one place was cooking scallops and serving them there, which were delicious. Another was shucking some of the hugest oysters I’ve ever tried and serving them raw. We’re talking 3 bite oysters here.
Other than that there were restaurants for most Japanese cuisine. Unlike Ueno Park, there wasn’t street food but instead small counter restaurants. After seeing a number of markets in Kyoto, this wasn’t as amazing at it probably would’ve been had it been the first. There was more focus on seafood, of course, but one can only eat so much.
When it comes to the crazy side of Japan, we knew we wanted to do something. We’d seen shrines and a lot of natural beauty, but nothing on the cheesy side – and that’s what Robot Restaurant is.
Nestled in a district filled with love hotels, Robot Restaurant is what Americans think Japanese entertainment should be. Teppanyaki, the Japanese style of food where a chef grills your food right in front of you, was started in the 1940s to introduce foreigners to Japanese style food in a non-intimidating manner. We felt this show had a similar goal of catering to foreigners.
The show itself was… interesting. The amount of lights, loud sounds and scantily clad women was more than I could have imagined. What kind of show was it? It started with 12 women taiko drumming, followed by my favorite song from Nausicaa being sung, followed by robot battles and dancing thown in.
If you go, I recommend drinking heavily – you’ll enjoy it more that way.
Day 14: Back to Orlando!
Even though we were set to leave on this day (Saturday), our flight wouldn’t leave until midnight, leaving the entire day open for exploration. We decided to take it easy, staying somewhat close to the hotel where our bags were stashed.
Ippudo Ramen - 博多一風堂
One place I absolutely wanted to go to while in Japan was to an Ippudo Ramen, a Japanese ramen chain that has spread to New York, China and elsewhere.
Famous for its Hokkaido style ramen, our meal was delicious and fresh. Coming in on a Saturday morning in the Ebisu district, we were surrounded by families out for a well priced lunch sitting alongside businessmen stopping in for lunch at the counter.
I’d like to say I have a good idea of which ramen we had was the best on our trip, but in all honestly they were all delicious. The Tonkotsu was surely the most fatty and difficult to digest, but all were satisfying.
At midnight we took off back for Orlando, saying goodbye to Tokyo and Japan.