Day 1: March 29, 2012 Thursday
Our journey began from JFK and took us into the Land of the Rising Sun some 13-back-breaking-hours later.
At the airport, I could have sworn I saw Ninomiya-kun of Japanese boy band Arashi, and is known (to American audiences) for his portrayal as Private Saigo in the 2006 Letters from Iwo Jima and most recently Gantz.
Day 2: March 30, 2012 Friday
Maneuvering from Narita Airport to the heart of Tokyo was pretty simple and came with English instructions/speakers to aid. We took the Keisei Skyliner from Terminal 2 right into Ueno (40 minutes) without too much of a hiccup. However, once in the city, we were overwhelmed with signs, information in Japanese and the general bustle of the city. However, the people were helpful and understanding – even though it came down to signing.
Important directional words to remember:
Left: Hidari 左
Right: Migi 右
Front: Mae 前
Back: Ura / ushiro 裏/後ろ
Straight: Masugu 真直
Our first order of business was to find our lodge: Hotel Villa Fontaine Hatchobori 八著彫り (it’s also spelled Hacchobori). The map that the hotel provided was drawn by a blind person. We walked from one end of the street to the next, and then in circles. No one (by that I mean the locals) actually knew where this hotel was, much less heard of it. Best yet, I couldn’t use my funny Japanese-English on them (ie. love = lobu ロブ, chicken nugget = chi-ken na-ge-tto チケんナゲット). I had to resort to my one word Japanese (Kore wa doko? Where is this? これわどこ？) to save my sorry ass. Most times, the word/sentence comes to me AFTER the fact…three days later. A definite pat on the back.
When we finally found the hotel (at 7 pm: after walking circles for more than 30 mins in that little neighborhood), we were both sweating buckets, in the nice 40 degree weather. I was ready to choke someone.
Settling into our compact, but nice room, we decided to have dinner. After circling the neighborhood for a bit, we decided on a ramen restaurant (thank goodness for pictures). However, we didn’t realize we couldn’t just point and order. We had to order from a machine, with about 25 options to pick from. The options were all written in Kanji (Chinese words) and Hiragana. I can only make out the “important” Chinese words (like beef and even goat), but the rest escaped me (since they use mostly archaic Chinese words). I may know how to READ hiragana, but then the knowledge stops there. Knowing how to read sounds doesn’t mean you understand what it means.
Lucky for us, a very kind (yasashii 優しい) waiter, he led us straight out the door…
…to pick out our favorite picture, and helped us with the machine. Ant hill overcame, we were treated to a delicious and very filling “kon loh mien” dried ramen ラメン (ALWAYS my first choice), extra fattening pork (NOT my first choice) and heavenly boiled egg with gooey orange-y yolk (ALWAYS a winner).
I, surprisingly, couldn’t finish my dinner. This IS a first. I would have taken it back with us, but alas, we have no means of reheating it. We decided we needed a “short” walk after that and back-trekked from our previous circles. There we walked into Lawson’s, a convenient store (konbini コンビニ), and proceeded to buy gummies at 100¥. So much for being full.
Day 3: March 31, 2012 Saturday
I was knocked right out after my shower, but rose with a start at 3 am. Hubs stirred around 5 am and we decided to head to the Tsukiji Fish Market 築地, just one stop from the Hibiya Line (H10) outside our hotel. We dallied so much that we missed the auctions of the tunas that began at 5am in the market, but managed a nice leisurely walk around the very clean wet market. (As a friend of mine commented, “You can practically eat off the floor!”)
Of course, seeing with the eyes is not like feasting with the taste buds. We were bestowed with an array of food. It was almost heaven for me. (Cue singing angels) Not only were there fresh sushi to be had, there were an assortment of knick-knacks and what-have-yous at every corner. There were tea shops, benito flake shops/vendors, seaweed/kelp shops, cutlery/knife shops, geta 木屐/下駄 (traditional Japanese footwear) shops, tamagoyaki (grilled eggs) 卵焼きshops, household wares shops, and of course, meat, fish, fruits and vegetable stalls.
We were going to try one of the “fresh” sushi restaurants, but every one had queues lined up into the street. We decided to just have whatever we can put our hands and mouth on (which was much!).
Since we were meeting a friend in Ginza later that morning, we decided to get some things for him too: red, huge and luscious strawberries, mouth-watering shrimp tamagoyaki, and some Japanese green tea. I even managed to use my crazy Japanese-English on them, asking them what to get for a present (pu-re-sen-to プレセント). Of course, we bought a ton for ourselves too (both to be consumed immediately and the rest to bring back to Joisey). It was fortuitous that we did that…
After having, what seemed like a feast of every taste imaginable, we made our way to Ginza, only to be presented with a slew of stalls selling ramen, tempura soba, oden, fried fish cakes and fresh sushi bowls by the side street of Tsukiji Market. We vowed to return the next morning.
We walked from Tsukiji (two subway stops) into Ginza, an upscale area of Tokyo with a number of department stores. Since it was still early (9-ish), none of the stores were opened but there was a surprising line outside two stores (which I later found out to be g.u. and Uniqlo). There were lines because not only was it their grand opening, they were also offering 10% off their products. I guess these people haven’t seen Black Friday sales yet. You won’t catch me up lining up for a miserly 10% on a Saturday morning.
Ginza 銀座 is named after the silver-coin mint established there in 1612 during the Edo period (Tokugawa shogunate 1603-1868). After Tsukiji burnt to the ground in 1872, the Meiji government used Ginza as a model of modernization: constructing fireproof brick buildings and better, wider streets. “Modern” European-styled buildings began to pop up, but was soon replaced. The few remaining olden buildings is the Wakō building with the iconic Hattori Clock Tower, originally built by Hattori Kintaro (founder of Seiko).
The Wako building was the agreed upon meeting spot with my old university friend. Since we were early, we killed some time first at an café across the street, Le Café Doutor, and then window shopping in the department stores (if I lived there, I would certainly be broke. Did someone say shopping?!).
After my friend arrived, it began to pour (the first of many rainy days in Japan and unlucky typhoon-like ones). Hurriedly, we rushed from one department store to another looking for food, but my friend found the Brasserie Ginza Lion 銀座ライオン, a German beer hall with a French twist in Tokyo, just a few blocks away from Wako. I had delicious yakisoba, but more importantly, had a wonderful time reconnecting with an old friend.
Soon after we finished lunch, the rain faltered a little. So we decided to continue with our sight-seeing of Tokyo at Tokyo Tower. We got there by the Hibiya Line (H05) and the moment we stepped out, it began to rain buckets. By the time we reached the Tower, (10-15 minute hike up the hill) it began to not only pour, but the winds were pelting us with big droplets of rain. It was painful, to say the least, and we weren’t sure if our tiny little brollies could hold up to the storm.
When the rain subsided a little (for mere seconds), we dashed back to the train station and called it a day. Back to the fortuitous part of the day. Because we were greedy, and bought all that loot from the Market, we didn’t have to brave the wind and rain for dinner. Instead, we sat in that night (missing our scheduled trip to Akasaka Palace 赤坂, Roppongi 六本木, and the Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba). That night, we had yamagoyaki, onigiri, kareage 唐揚げ, sushi and super sweet strawberries for dinner.
Day 4: April 1, 2012 Sunday
We woke up bright and early, ready to tackle the day, not wanting to lose another day to weather. Of course, it was also because we wanted to get to Tsukiji Market to try out one of the stalls of noodles. We might have been a tad too eager, and the stores weren’t opened yet (or it could have been because it was a Sunday). However, the sushi stores were opened, and there weren’t any lines. So we sat down for one of our more expensive meals in Japan: eating sushi bowls. Pictures were not allowed, but trust me when I say this, it was buttery-ily good. (I do not eat raw fish. I’m a fake sushi eater, eating only “cooked” sushi.)
Satisfied, we set our sights for Harajuku and Shibuya! Alternate Shibuya map First stop, Meiji Jingu (Shrine) 明治神宮 right in front of Harajuku Station (on the JR Line) and next to Yoyogi Koen 代々木公園 (Yoyogi Park). We took the Hibiya Line, transferred to the Chiyoda Line and stopped at Meiji-jingumae (C03). The subway Metro line in Tokyo is super easy (once we are able to read Japanese). 😀
The Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine) 明治神宮 is a Shinto (Japan’s original religion) Shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) and his empress, Empress Shoken (1849-1914) (both their tombs are in Kyoto). The Empress was later granted the title Empress Dowager (皇太后 Kōtaigō) when the emperor died in 1912. After his death, a resolution was passed to commemorate their virtues and his role in the Meiji Restoration. An iris garden in Tokyo, frequented by the royal couple, were then chosen. Construction began in 1915, completed in 1921, destroyed during the air raids of WWII, and then reconstructed in 1958.
The Shrine is located in an evergreen man-made forest (120,000 trees of 365 different species were donated from all over Japan and overseas) covering an area of 700,000 square-meters (about 175 acres). The Shrine is divided into two major areas; the Naien (inner precinct housing the main shrine and a treasure museum of the royal couple) and the Gaien (outer precinct housing a large collection of murals, sports facilities, including the National Stadium and the Meiji Memorial Hall).
After that bit of walking, we strolled right onto Takeshita Dori and took in the hustle and bustle of Harajuku. We stopped at the Daiso ダイソ, Japan’s 100¥ store and got enough bags of gummies to last until the end of the year. We even stopped at Creative Yoko, a pet paradise, and bought the puppies some Japanese yam treats (which they seem to love). The street was lined with crepes stores, boutiques, cafés and restaurants, and it was packed with teenagers on that Sunday morning.
Then we were off to Omotesandou, Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, the next parallel street over. There was an Oriental Bazaar there, selling used kimonos, obis, and the likes. I was then on a mission to search for Kiddyland, a place known for toys and vinyls, said to be on Cat Street (pronounce Ka-to Dori). We searched high and low and after much run-arounds, a nice girl pointed it out to us, across the bridge!
Finding Cat Street was one thing. Finding Kiddyland was a whole different matter. Again, who can really go wrong with one straight road. Us, it seems. But we finally got there (thank goodness) and stood in front of a store with five (can’t remember) floors of toys. A haven for the 5 to 99-year-olds. We saw a few things, but held off buying anything since we were bound for Kyoto the next day.
Before leaving the store for lunch, I got a nice stair worker (they have such occupation! She’s there to tell people to watch their steps and to walk on the right side) to give me directions to a few other places we were heading to, including lunch. 😀
By then, we were starving and quickly rushed up Omotesandou to find our restaurant, Kyushu Jangara 九州じゃんがら, a well-regarded ramen store. (The store is very close to the entrance of Meiji Jingu.) It offers Hakata ramen: tonkotsu (pork bone) soup and extra-thin noodles, where you can choose from a combinations of several types of soups and toppings. The soups include the basic and simple “Jangara,” the fatty “Bonshan,” the median between the two extremes, “Kobonshan,” as well as the spicy “Karabon.” You can get refills on noodles if you call for “Kae-dama” (but no extra soup). Also, the “Kakuni” (stewed pork block) and “Chashu” (pork tenderloin), and “Aji Tamago” (flavored boiled egg), are excellent topping choices. I picked the Kobonshan (with garlic) and Aji Tamago, while hubs had the Jangara with Chashu. (Just looking at the pictures now are making me salivate…)
After our very filling and slurpingly-satisfying lunch, we decided to walk it off at Yoyogi Park, where we were promised by my dad to catch a glimpse of some hippies (the famed Harajuku girls). We did see some weird acts in the park: mimes, wanna-be singers, a kung-fu/comedic duo, and even Siberian Huskies and Malamutes dressed in maid costumes (must have been a get-together for the crazy owners – I’m one to talk). But no luck with the hippes/Harajuku girls that were supposed to be dressed to the nines on Sunday.
Since we could barely walk anymore after that, we took the JR Line to the heart of Shibuya and walked around some more; looking at their stores and finding Mandarake in the BEAM building (B2F) on Udagawa Street and Tokyu Hands. Mandarake is one of Tokyo’s largest vendors of used anime and manga-related products and have stores in Nakano, Shibuya, Ikebukuro and Osaka. We spent a few hot (air conditioning was optional in the building) hours in there, browsing the selection of vinyl toys and mangas that they have. Our wheels were turning, prices stored in our heads, vowing not to buy anything until our return from Kyoto. With that, and after visiting Tokyu Hands (boasting of carrying anything and everything in their 7-8 floors), we waved the white flag and dragged our broken hips and legs back to the hotel.
We had to “pack” to leave Tokyo for Kyoto the next morning. That night, we had 7-Eleven bento box for dinner after we discovered that the Izakaya was a smoking establishment.
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