This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our fourteenth and final day in Japan which took place on April 16, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
The day finally came. This morning was our last in Japan. Our Airbnb hosts came by to see us off at 10am and then we headed down to Hamamatsuchō Station one final time. We took the Yamanote_Line to Shinagawa Station and then the Narita Express to Terminal 1 of Narita International Airport.
Since we were flying United we obviously had difficulties checking our bags (never change United you POS airline) but were quite pleasantly surprised by how smooth Japanese customs and immigration was.
Once we made it through to the terminal we had one last Japanese meal (tonkatsu is so god damn delicious) and then hit the duty free shops for all that tax-free chocolate and booze we could handle.
We boarded the aircraft around 5pm JST and began the slightly less arduous flight back to SFO. It took a little over 9 hours and we actually landed at 10am PDT so we got to relive Saturday all over again. We picked up our checked bags, grabbed an Uber back to our apartment and immediately died of exhaustion.
This was, without a doubt, the best vacation I had ever been on. It was the perfect mix of new experiences, hectic sightseeing, relaxing detours, delicious food and great weather. It really had it all.
I knew Japan was going to be very different from North America but I still underestimated how much time and effort the Japanese people put into everything. From incredibly important things like how their trains run to essentially insignificant little food carts serving meat on the street. I never once questioned if something could be bad like I would in SF all the time. I don't have a memory of a single horrible experience with any of the places we went because they were all so consistent. We didn't pick only the best places based on Google searches and go there. We wandered for a good chunk of the time just trying anything that caught our eye and were never disappointed.
Well never is probably too strong a word. The only negative thing that sticks out in my mind was some hostility towards foreigners. Not aggressive hostility like yelling or shoving. Passive-aggressive hostility like ignoring us when we were waiting in line to place an order or one incident of being told they don't serve people who don't speak Japanese. I can understand not wanting to serve the stereotypical loud mouthed tourist but we all made a conscious effort to learn what Japanese we could and adapt to the culture we were surrounded by. But for some Japanese people that did not seem to be enough and they would have preferred not to have interacted with us. Now that being said I can count the number of incidents like this on single hand. I suspect there were a lot more passive-aggressive incidents where we unknowingly offended someone but they did not show it. 99.99% of our interactions with Japanese people were incredibly cordial.
Elsie and I will definitely be going back to Japan at some point in the near future. There is still so much we want to see and do. It has now officially been added to the list of places that I want to try living and working in (alongside Germany and Scotland) but this trip has taught me that I will need to significantly improve my Japanese first.
Japan is a place that everyone should visit once in their lifetime. It is a truly unique place on this Earth with experiences that cannot be equaled elsewhere.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our thirteenth day in Japan which took place on April 15, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
Today was our last full day in Tokyo. Tomorrow we have to check out of our Airbnb in the morning and head to the airport and back to reality. We had grand plans to go to Odaiba, check out the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, visit Joypolis, see the giant Gundam statue, view the Tokyo skyline from the observation deck of the Fuji TV building. It would be a magnificent sendoff for one of the greatest cities we had ever visited.
Then we realized we could go back to Harajuku Gyozaro (原宿餃子樓), eat more of the greatest gyozas we'd ever had and play arcade games in Akihabara until we passed out. Which is exactly what we did. Odaiba will still be here next time we visit right?
While Elsie and I had previously experienced the majesty of Harajuku Gyozaro for ourselves, Jarques and Tina had not yet had the pleasure. We arrived at the restaurant before it even opened to give you and idea of how excited we were for these gyozas. Once we got our seats we ordered 60 pan fried gyozas and six boiled ones with two orders of their delicious bean sprouts mixed with mince beef. The waitress actually didn't believe us when we said we wanted 60. She probably though "those damn gaijin cannot read the menu again can they?".
We devoured the delectable gyozas, got back on the subway and looped around to Akihabara Station. It seemed like no visit to Akhihabara was complete without a stop in Yodabashi Akiba so that was what we hit up first. After pumping some more money into the Japanese economy we headed back to our stomping grounds, the fifth floor of the Club Sega arcade. For the next two and a half hours we played all of our favorite games: Chunithm, Taiko no Tatsujin, Monster Hunter Spirits, Mario Kart.
When 5pm rolled around we pried ourselves away from the arcade and grabbed a quick bite to eat before taking one final shopping pass of Akihabara. Jarques also made one final stop at Club Sega where after ¥2700 he finally won his Dragonball Z figurine from the claw machine!
By now we were getting proper hungry and bogged down with shopping bags so we made a quick pit stop at our Airbnb before heading out for dinner. We hopped on the Ōedo line and rode it to Higashi-Shinjuku Station where Shinjuku Eastside Square and some conveyor belt sushi ("kaiten") resided.
We chose this sushi place because you placed your order via a tablet at your seat and then a few minutes later your sushi would be delivered right to you on a little train car. It was the greatest fucking thing I had ever seen and is the only proof I need that Japan is living in the future. Come next week I gotta go back to flagging down servers like a savage.
After we all consumed an unhealthy amount of nigiri and were finally stuffed it was time to head back to our Airbnb. We needed to pack and prepare for our flight back to San Francisco, a place where we can't order great sushi via a tablet. Keeping the tradition alive we watched Rush Hour 3 while packing before finally crashing into our beds.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our twelfth day in Japan which took place on April 14, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
Today was probably the busiest day of our trip.
One of the must see attractions on our list was the Tsukiji fish market. The plan was to try some sushi from one of the restaurants around the market, specifically a restaurant called Sushi Dai if possible. However, Sushi Dai opens at 5am and, according to the Internet, if you lined up at 3am you would only probably get served within the first hour.
Being the insane tourists that we are, we woke up at 4:30am, threw some clothes on and started walking to the market because apparently none of the subways opened until 5am. We arrived at Sushi Dai around 5:20am and were greeted with a line of approximately 70+ people. Sushi Dai only seats 12 people at a time and their omakase ("chef's choice") meal takes about 45 minutes to eat so if you do the math we were looking at a three hour wait minimum.
Three and a half hours later we finally sat down at Sushi Dai for our meal. I can say, without hyperbole, that it was the most delicious, well prepared sushi I had ever eaten. The meal itself was only ten pieces of nigiri with a miso soup side dish but by the end I was totally satiated. The care put into the seasoning and presentation of each piece was nothing short of perfection.
Our omakase consisted of:
- Otoro - Just melted in your mouth.
- Red Snapper - Very clean tasting. Went down smooth but had a nice crisp taste.
- Cutlass Fish - Looked really slimy but was perfectly proportioned with the rice so it tasted great too.
- Sea Urchin - Basically the same as the cutlass fish. Looked too chewy for my palette but the seasoning and the ratio to rice was spot on.
- Chūtoro - Best fucking piece of tuna I have ever eaten on this entire planet. End of discussion. I could die happy after eating this.
- Clam - I'm not really a molluscs person. It was too chewy for me.
- Tuna rolls - Solid tuna rolls. Ridiculously high quality shredded tuna.
- Tamago - A perfectly seasoned cube of scrambled eggs. I usually dislike tamago because most places fuck this dish up and make the eggs too bland. I had never thought tamago could be this flavourful.
- Horse Mackerel - Solid piece of sushi. Nothing special to write home about but more flavorful than most sushi I've had in San Francisco.
- Filefish - Same as the horse Mackerel.
- Sea Eel - The one dish I did not like. It and the rice instantly fell apart in my mouth and in this case the ratio of rice to fish was not high enough.
- Chūtoro encore - We got to pick our 10th piece of nigiri and each of us picked the chūtoro. It was simply heavenly.
The meal did take us about 45 minutes and cost ¥4000. For the price it was easily worth it (I gladly would have paid double or maybe even triple) but when you factor in the wait I am not sure it is worth it. There were a dozen other similar looking sushi restaurants right beside Sushi Dai and I assume they were all using the same high quality fish from the Tsukiji fish market. The only difference would be the skills of the chefs and since I have only eaten sushi from one place I cannot compare. If (sorry when) I come back to Tokyo I will definitely be going back to the fish market but not for Sushi Dai. I will give one of the other places a shot. If you are visiting Tokyo and want guaranteed spectacular sushi then prepare yourself for a four hour line and head to Sushi Dai. Otherwise I do not think you could go wrong picking one of the places around it where you would be seated inside 30 minutes.
One thing I forgot to mention was that from the time we woke up to the time we were seated it was pouring rain and that did not diminish the line outside Sushi Dai at all. It was as crazy as we had read about on the Internet. So don't think some bad weather is going to somehow work in your favor. If you want Sushi Dai you are going to just have to put in the time and wait in line.
With our bellies full of sushi we turned our attention to the actual fish market. It opens to the public after 9am when all of the serious business has been concluded. Tourists can then swarm the market and ruin all of the nice fisherman's days. I actually felt really bad taking up any space. I got shoved by some employees several times because I was inadvertently in their way.
By now it was almost 11am and we had already been up for almost seven hours. We headed back to the Airbnb to take a load off our feet through a watching of Rush Hour 2 before heading back out for our next excursion.
Elsie and I had popped into a couple arcades for a few hours here and there but today was the day we were going to set down some roots and play every game we wanted. Jarques and Tina also joined us for our trip to the 5th floor of Club Sega in Akihabara. There we found every single game that we were looking for: Luigi's Mansion, Taiko no Tatsujin, Chunithm, the table flipper, Mario Kart, Gunslinger Stratos, Monster Hunter Spirits and more. It was heaven. Elsie and I spent the next five hours playing anything we could get our hands on. Including one ill advised claw machine where after Jarques spent about ¥1500 trying to get a Dragonball Z figurine and failed, I then spent ¥3000 trying to get it for him as a surprise and failed as well. Yes I am not a smart man.
By now it was a little after 6pm and Elsie and I had reservations for the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku at 7pm. As massive Monster Hunter fans this was one of the must see places in Tokyo. It managed to live up to the hype not because of the food (which was solid as we have come to expect in Tokyo) but because of the presentation. Everything looked and felt like Capcom and the food and drink were no exception. We ordered four Monster Hunter themed drinks including some where we got to mix the alcohol ourselves. When we ordered the "well done steak" they actually played the cooking theme from Monster Hunter when they brought it out and made us sing along. It was, without a doubt, the most fun I had at a restaurant on this trip.
After dinner we wandered around Shinjuku a bit looking for any stores that may have the Bloodborne art book that Elsie wanted or the Dragon Quest Builder's PS Vita that I wanted. After having no luck at a few places we realized it was already 10pm and decided to head home. Tomorrow would be our last full day in Tokyo and we needed our rest to be able to make the most of it.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our eleventh day in Japan which took place on April 13, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
All of the arcade games yesterday tired us out so much that we slept in and did not leave the Airbnb until 11:30am. Today we planned to head to Harajuku and visit potentially Elsie's favourite new store, KIDDY LAND. It was basically five floors of the cutest toys you could imagine. Snoopy, Funassyi, Pusheen, Rilakkuma, Disney, etc. Elsie had thought she had died and gone to heaven.
After she finished scouring the entire store, purchasing more than one would have thought was humanly possible, we had worked up an appetite. For lunch we made our way to a gyoza place that was recommended by our Airbnb hosts. Supposedly this placed served the best gyozas in all of Tokyo and after eating there I concur wholeheartedly. We ordered 24 pan fried garlic gyozas between the two of us and devoured them in under 5 minutes. If you find yourself in Tokyo you must absolutely go to Harajuku Gyozaro (原宿餃子樓).
After lunch we went in search of a pop-up cafe that was themed after one of our favourite video game franchises. However, we got distracted again and ended up inside a LINE store instead. There was just so much to see and do in Harajuku. Satisfied with our shopping at this point and still in the mood for some sweets and coffee we decided to check out Tokyo Station for the first time. A quick subway ride later we arrived and immediately became lost in the vast labyrinth that was Tokyo Station. After 20 minutes of wandering we finally found something of interest, a Pokémon Store at the end of a little alley. After buying some more Pokémon merchandise it was almost 4pm and because we were still having no luck finding any good coffee we headed back to our Airbnb to drop off our purchases and rest.
After an accidental three hour nap our appetites had returned and it was time for dinner. Elsie had spotted a yakitori restaurant near our Airbnb when we first arrived and we had been itching to try it so now seemed like as good a time as any. This place served some of the juiciest chicken I had ever eaten. We ordered nine chicken skewers and a plate of delicious grilled chicken topped with green chilies and a side of some native vegetable paste that had the perfect amount of kick.
After dinner it was already 9pm but rather than head home we decided it was time to try our hand at grabbing some random snacks from the nearest 7/11. After gobbling them all down we were finally stuffed. We got back to the Airbnb, threw on Rush Hour on Netflix and winded down until we finally crawled into bed at 11pm.
Tomorrow we are visiting Tsukiji fish market and plan on waking up at 4:30am to queue up at Sushi Dai for supposedly the best sushi in the world.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our tenth day in Japan which took place on April 12, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
Jesus Christ there is so much to do in Tokyo.
Today we planned to finally make our pilgrimage to Akihabara, the promised land for individuals obsessed with video games, manga, anime or electronics. If you have ever felt "am I the only one?" because of your love for geek culture then this is the place you visit to realize you are not alone. The area is absolutely littered with shops carrying merchandise that range from the most popular to the rarest and hardest to find in otaku culture.
After last night's robot insanities we ended up sleeping in until 10am. Before we could start our Akihabara shenanigans we needed to fill up our bellies with some lunch. Since we were in Tokyo, one of the greatest food stops on the planet, where do you think we chose to eat? Why Denny's of course! To no one's surprise at this point Japan even does Denny's better than America. I had the "Japanese steak" with avocado and wasabi mayonnaise. It was just as delicious as it sounds. The steak was more of a ground beef patty but it was seasoned to absolute perfection. Never had so much flavour come out of a Denny's ground beef patty before.
With Denny's surprisingly delicious lunch behind us we headed back to Hamamatsuchō Station, got on the Yamanote loop again and took it to Akihabara Station. Our first stop of the day was Yodobashi Camera's Akiba branch which was less than 100 meters from the station's exit. We had been anticipating our visit to this store ever since we set foot in Yodobashi's Osaka branch but we were not prepared for what happened next. We spent the next two hours meticulously covering every inch of all six floors. It was insane! Everything was so densely packed and this store had literally everything. Half of one floor was dedicated completely to building models ranging from elaborate train sets to World War II tanks to two foot tall robots! We had planned to buy some luggage while we were in Japan that we could use to store all of our purchases so we spent some of this time scoping it out. Even that section of the store was massive. It was easily a thousand square feet of luggage stacked eight feet high. The main purpose of this visit however was to visit the video game section and it did not disappoint. Wall-to-wall video games, art books, anime Blu-rays, even soundtracks to some of our favourite video games.
After we had created a comprehensive list of everything we wanted to buy (since we could not possible carry it all at the moment) we exited Yodobashi and grabbed a quick snack to recharge our batteries. It is still shocking how delicious and well presented all the street food is in Japan. So much care and thoughtful preparation go into everything.
With Yodobashi out of the way we crossed over to the other side of the Akihabara Station and only got another 100 meters before we were distracted by our first Sega arcade. There Elsie met her nemesis, another Neko Atsume claw machine. Unfortunately our hero did not prevail this time but she vowed to return! We quickly browsed the other FIVE FLOORS of the arcade, fawning over all of the machines we saw, and planned to return after we finished our shopping. Little did we know how unlikely that was.
We exited the arcade and this time only walked 50 meters north until we were distracted once again. We walked by the Radio Kaikan building and saw that there was a K-BOOKS inside which could hold the elusive Bloodborne art book Elsie had been searching for. If you have read my day 9 article then you will know what I mean when I say this building is best described as Nakano Broadway part 2 except this time there are ten floors instead of four. I won't bore you with the details but, long story short, two hours later we came out of Radio Kaikan with bags of goodies and very tired feet. By this point it was almost 4:30pm and we had not strayed more than a couple hundred meters from Akihabara Station.
It was at this point we decided to head back to Yodobashi Akiba, buy everything we wanted (including the luggage), drop everything off at our Airbnb and then head back out for some dinner. After the quick pit stop we would jump back on the Yamanote loop, take it to Ueno Station and meet up with Jarques and Tina for a quick bite at Ameya-Yokochō market. One thing we were not prepared for was getting on the subway during rush hour. Holy smokes, I did not realize how unafraid Japanese people were of pushing and shoving to get on a train. It was like they were in a rugby scrum. Some people flew two feet and were barely be able to catch their balance. It was the most jammed packed I had ever been on a train car.
After we reached Ameya-Yokochō we found a nice sake bar that served delicious chicken skewers which we promptly devoured. Oh, one thing I have failed to mentioned is that it is apparently still legal, in some spots, to smoke indoors in Japan. So a lot of the bars we were finding were full of Japanese salarymen smoking and drinking their cares away after a long day.
After we finished eating and drinking our own cares away Elsie and I decided that we wanted to finish the night in Akihabara and hit up some arcades. As we were walking we came across a ramen joint and decided to partake in our first bowl of the trip. Good Lord it was just as heavenly as I was expecting. I cannot believe it took me ten whole days before I decided to try some ramen in Japan.
The first arcade we hit up was Game Taito Station, a five story building packed to the gills with arcade machines. It was here that Elsie found her calling, playing Chunithm all day every day. Chunithm is a rhythm game where you dance your fingers along a keyboard in time with the music à la Guitar Hero. Unfortunately we could not record any video at this arcade so I do not have any proof of Elsie's mad skillz! Jubeat was my rhythm game of choice and we discovered Gunslinger Stratos, a dual wielding light gun game which I planned to play much much more of!
After a couple of hours in the arcade it was already 10pm and we figured it was time to call it a night. On the way home we passed by the Club Sega arcade and decided to quickly peek inside to scout out what games we could play later in our trip. The fifth floor of Club Sega had literally every game we wanted. Luigi's Mansion, Taiko no Tatsujin, Monster Hunter Spirits, the table flip game, more Chunithm! I honestly think we could end up in there one day and not leave for at least six hours. But for now it was time to go home and sleep.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our ninth day in Japan which took place on April 11, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
On our first full day in Tokyo we had only one scheduled activity, reservations for the Robot Restaurant at 9:45pm in Shinjuku. We knew we would be out late tonight but the rest of our day was completely wide open. We decided that we would start out the day doing something we had not done much of on our trip so far, shopping!
First stop, the Kit Kat Chocolatory in Ikebukuro. Japan is super weird when it comes to Kit Kats. They are so popular that they have their own high-end retail stores where they sell all sorts of gourmet Kit Kat flavours and products. We saw ornate boxes of Kit Kats that costed over $100. We decided to try and find the most unique and/or strangest flavours possible. My personal favourite was spicy chili and passion fruit which mixed surprisingly well together.
Next we visited the Pokémon Center in Ikebukuro which was apparently the biggest one in all of Japan. Of the three Pokémon Centers we had visited so far it was definitely the best and had a flabbergasting amount of merchandise available. After Elsie finished purchasing a whole basket of merch (I dare you to ask her how much she spent) it was slightly past noon and we decided that it was time to grab some sushi.
The Pokémon Center was located in a building that was connected to the Sunshine 60 skyscraper, one of the tallest buildings in all of Tokyo. Sunshine 60 also happened to have a sushi bar on the very top floor (the 60th) so we knew exactly where we were headed for lunch. While we ate, we had one of the best views in all of Tokyo as well as some of the best sushi. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have eaten the greatest tuna nigiri in my entire life on this trip. It will never be the same again outside of Japan.
After we finished lunch we started on our way back to the train station so we could head to our next shopping destination, Nakano Broadway. Along the way we got distracted by a three story arcade (one of apparently hundreds here in Tokyo) that was filled with mostly claw machines. One of those claw machines caught Elsie's eye because it had a huge Neko Atsume plushie as the prize. ¥1100 later Elsie was the proud owner of said plushie with some of the best claw tactics I had ever seen.
Massive plushie in hand, as well as an inordinate amount of other things we had purchased, we finally made it to Nakano Broadway. The best way to describe this place would be Pacific Mall on steroids. It is a massive shopping center full of tons of random independent shops carrying all sorts of anime, video games, figurines, really anything you could imagine. There was also one chain, called Mandarake, which had twelve different stores each carrying a specific type of merchandise. One of their stores was full of only Godzilla memorabilia for fucks sake! One had VHS of anime from the 70s! It was an absolutely mind blowing experience. After losing ourselves in Nakano for two hours it was 4pm and we decided to head back to our Airbnb and rest before it was time to head out for our night of debauchery.
I had heard of an amazing wagyu beef restaurant in Shinjuku called Yakiniku Blackhole. It was one of the very few things on my list that was a must try. Since we were in Shinjuku for Robot Restaurant we decided to give Yakiniku Blackhole a shot. While it was absolutely delicious wagyu beef it paled in comparison to what we had in Kobe. I thought coming to Japan would ruin beef for me in North America forever but, ironically enough, one city in Japan has ruined beef for me worldwide.
With our bellies full and about an hour to kill before the start of the show so we headed over to Golden Gai for a drink. Golden Gai is a collection of six small alleys packed with hundreds of tiny shanty-style bars, clubs and eateries. We wandered down one of the alleys looking for a place to drink (and got told that we would not get served at one bar because we were foreign) until we found the perfect bar for us. A little hole in the wall with just enough seats for our group and an awesome bartender named Yasu who actually spoke great English. After three whiskies we were all sufficiently inebriated and the time for Robot Restaurant had arrived.
It is really hard to describe the Robot Restaurant. From the outside it looked like the seediest Vegas show you could imagine. Tons of flashing neon lights. Helpers dressed in skimpy/gaudy clothing. Some of them looking like 1920s gangsters. It was all so surreal and that was just the entrance. Once you get your ticket and get past the bouncer you are brought up in an elevator to the third floor of the building. Here you are ushered into a waiting room that looks like something Cher threw up all over. I had never seen so many sequins in my life. Not a single inch of the room was spared from the sequins wrath. It was not clear what was real and what was not because everything was reflective. After about five minutes of waiting we were lead down a staircase to the basement where we could find our seats. Why we had to go to the third floor was never really clear but whatever it was time for the show to begin!
Picture a dark basement about 15 feet high, 80 feet long and 40 feet across with three rows of stadium seating on either side which seated approximately 150 people. The ground in-between the seats was the stage. There were no platforms just two large gates at either end with black curtains suspended behind them. These were where the performers would enter from. What happened next is what I imagine would happen if you told a 12 year old boy to plan a show where money was no object. Robots! Fireworks! Lasers! A panda riding some sort of rhino or something who the fuck cares MOAR lasers!!! Giant snakes fighting some sort of mecha-tank! Whew OK intermission finally. I can come down from this acid trip and OH WTF why are some Jabbawockeez impersonators covered in LEDs doing a laser dance show to Michael Jackson's greatest hits? Did I just see a robot wearing a rainbow afro go by on a Segway? Wait is that a guitarist strapped into a baby jumper? Oh good here come the 12 foot tall bipedal robots and Cher's unicorn to end the show.
Instead of thinking too deeply about what we just witnessed it was getting late so we headed back to our Airbnb to finally rest. We would need all the rest we could get to prepare for Akihabara tomorrow.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our eighth day in Japan which took place on April 10, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
We had finally reached the end of our stay in Kyoto. After the most delightful wake-up call from the elderly woman running the ryokan ("Good morning. Breakfast is ready.") we headed downstairs to partake in a traditional Japanese breakfast. It consisted of sesame tofu, a boiled egg, miso soup, fried sardines, various pickled vegetables, seaweed paper and some delicious white rice. After scarfing it down (Jarques and Tina were particular enamored with in the seaweed paper) we packed up all of our belongings, checked out of our ryokan and made our way to Kyoto Station for one final ride.
We got our tickets for the exact same Shinkansen that we took on our first day in Japan and began the reverse trip back to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. When we arrived we transferred to the Yamanote Line (a loop, similar to the one in Osaka, that takes you to all of the major stations and wards of Tokyo) and took it to Hamamatsuchō Station. We disembarked and walked to our Airbnb in the Minato district where we met our hosts Ken & Nico.
I have had pretty shitty luck with Airbnb over the years but I can say without hyperbole that this Airbnb is the greatest. There is no contest whatsoever. It is probably only 700 square feet but every inch is perfectly laid out from the tiny living room with the massive 60 inch TV to the quant kitchen with a fridge that complains to you when you leave the door open too long. Don't forget the heated flooring in both the living room and bathroom or the electronic bidet with heated seat that can gently shoot warm water at your butt on demand. Truly Japan is living in the future.
It took about an hour for us to unpack and settle in to our new accommodations. It still being quite early we decided to try to get a half day of sightseeing in and visit the famous Shibuya Crossing. We made our way back to Hamamatsuchō Station and took the Yamanote loop to Shibuya Station where we finally got to experience a crowded Tokyo station and its organized chaos. Easily tens of thousands of people whizzing about and us four gaijin standing there looking stunned. When we finally found the correct exit we were greeted by another massive throng of people who were either in line to walk across Shibuya Crossing or take a picture of themselves with the statue of Hachikō, the most loyalty dog on Earth. I have lived in or visited a number of metropolises in my life, including the largest in Canada, but the density of Tokyo really is on another level. I had never seen so many people in a single area and I am including conventions or concerts I have been to. It was mind blasting.
We made our way through the crossing and headed to Center Gai to find ourselves some food because it was approaching 3pm and we had not eaten since 8am. We came across a stand-up sushi bar and jumped in for a quick set of delicious nigiri. The maguro (tuna) really was something special. I cannot wait to hit up a kaiten sushi bar and indulge myself even more. After finishing our sushi we continued to wander around Center Gai and came across a gyoza bar whose menu consisted only of pictures depicting the various mounds of gyozas you could order. Having just eaten some sushi we "only" got a pile of 20 gyozas and some beer.
With our stomaches now completely packed we decided to walk some of it off and headed north to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. It was quite amazing to see a massive forest in the middle of this dense metropolis. By the time we got to the center of the park there was only greenery as far as the eye could see. One could easily forget that they were still in Tokyo.
With our feet now sufficiently aching we made our way back to Shibuya Crossing and posted ourselves up at the Starbucks that looked down on the crossing. Only when you see it from above can you really understand how many hundreds if not a thousand people cross all at once. It truly is breathtaking. After taking some pictures and time lapse video our stomaches began to grumble. We decided it would be best to drop off our bags at our Airbnb and set out on another adventure for more food.
However, our laziness and hunger got the better of us and rather than explore we decided to hit up a Mos Burger (similar to Super Duper Burger for those of you from SF) for a quick bite. Afterwards we went to a convenience store beside our Airbnb to pick up some beer and snacks to the consume while we watched the greatest movie about Tokyo, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
By now we were sufficiently inebriated that we climbed into bed to rest up after our exhausting first day in Tokyo.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our seventh day in Japan which took place on April 9, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
One of the first things we knew we wanted to try in Japan was to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan. We decided that our last day/night in Kyoto would be the best time so we could just chill and recharge our batteries before the insanity that is Tokyo.
The check-in for our ryokan was at 4pm so we checked out of our Airbnb in the morning, dropped our luggage off at the ryokan around 11am and went for one last walk around Kyoto. Elsie wanted to visit the Pokémon Center in Kyoto so we set off towards the Takashimaya department store. When we arrived it was around noon and both Elsie and I were hungry. It seems like the top floor of any commercial building in Japan is exclusively restaurants and this building was no exception. Since Elsie was going through pasta withdrawals we settled on a Japanese Italian restaurant which was OK. Copying Italian food does not seem to be a strong part of Japanese cuisine. After lunch we visited the Pokémon Center where Elsie loaded up on all the Kyoto exclusive merchandise she could find.
With our shopping hunger satiated we grabbed some coffee at Arabica (apparently Jarques' favorite coffee in all of Japan) which happened to have an English speaking barista who had emigrated from America. After chatting him up for a while we then indulged our sweet tooth with some french toast drizzled with chocolate, topped with bananas and a caramel affogato. It was heavenly.
With only an hour and a half until we could check-in to our ryokan we decided to listen to our aching feet and found a place to sit and relax while having a drink and playing some Monster Hunter X. After getting our butts handed to us by a ferocious Raizekusu it was 4pm and time to head over to the ryokan.
I cannot overstate how quaint and cute this ryokan was. It was run by an elderly couple and their children who were just so darn accommodating and patient. They also spoke the best English of any Japanese people we had met so far although they would not stop apologizing for their "poor" English. The mother showed us to our room where she performed a tea ceremony which consisted of the best green tea I had ever drank. Afterwards we settled down in our room and essentially went comatose until 7pm when dinner was served.
This dinner was without a doubt the most experimental meal I have ever had. It was a traditional Japanese dinner with multiple courses. The first course consisted of a piece of tofu, squid, sea bream and tuna sashimi followed by some bamboo shoots, sea snail, yuba and a green paste which had the same consistency as mochi. The second course was some sticky rice in a congealed sauce consisting of fish and eel. The third course was a piece of fresh grilled mackerel. The fourth was a tempura dish that was super tasty. The fifth was rice and miso soup with pickled vegetables. Finally, desert consisted of some fresh strawberries and grapefruit jelly. All of this was washed down by a nice bottle of dry cold sake. While I couldn't eat all of it (Japanese food can sometimes be too chewy for me) Elsie saved me and gobbled it all down without hesitation.
If you are going to visit Kyoto I highly recommend a stay at the Kikokuso ryokan.
After some more green tea to cleanse our palates it was time to try out a traditional Japanese bathhouse. A tiny little stone bath heated up to 45 degrees Celsius that opened up every single pore in our bodies. After about 15 minutes it was simply too hot so we toweled ourselves off and retreated to bed. We needed the best night's sleep we could get because tomorrow we head for the concrete jungle known as Tokyo.
I don't think we are prepared…
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our sixth day in Japan which took place on April 8, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
After a good night's sleep we were all ready for our day trip to Osaka. Elsie and I once again parted ways with Jarques and Tina with plans to meet back up in Osaka at dinnertime for some tuna belly. We made our way to Kyoto Station and hopped on the Thunderbird train to Ōsaka Station.
In a previous article I described Kyoto Station as a massive train station underneath a mall. Ōsaka Station is easily five times the size of Kyoto. Not only were the train platforms much MUCH larger, the station was actually underneath a 16 story building full of all sorts of shops and the top two floors were only restaurants.
We headed up to the 16th floor and found a great tonkatsu place. My tonkatsu had pork, salad, miso soup, rice, a little prawn and some other gooey side which I think was chopped up bamboo shoots in mayonnaise or something. Japan seems very big on "set" meals where the entree comes with lots of little side dishes. To top off our lunch we got a scoop of sherbet for desert. Everything I described above still cost less than $20 a person and left us completely satiated.
With our bellies full it was time to visit the attraction that Elsie and I were most excited for today, The Pokémon Center in Osaka Station City tower! A portion of the thirteenth floor was setup to sell only Pokémon merchandise and it was pretty crazy just to see how much there was. I knew Pokémon was big in Japan but the number of different products for sale was insane. We also got our first taste of Japanese arcades here. There were all sorts of Pokémon games that could be played and people were using some sort of RFID card so they could track their progress and come back later and keep playing. I can only imagine how insane the Pokémon Center in Tokyo is going to be. After buying much more merchandise than we should have (and picking up a shiny Ho-oh as a mystery gift for our 3DS game) we headed back down to the subway station to hit our next stop.
The Osaka subway has a line referred to as the "Osaka Loop" and as its name implies it makes a loop around part of the city. Along the loop are other train lines that shoot out (like spokes on a wheel) to take people to the outside parts of the city. We hopped on the loop, took it to Bentenchō Station, switched over to the Chūō Line, took it to Ōsakakō Station and got off where we could walk five minutes to our next attraction, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.
The Kaiyukan appeared to continue the Japanese tradition of not doing anything small or half assed because this aquarium was absolutely massive. It was a four story building with a gigantic tank in the middle which you circled by walking down a ramp around the tank. Along the outside edge of the ramp where smaller tanks to showcase specific species of fish but the main attractions were the two massive whale sharks in the central tank. One of them was over 12 meters long which makes it the largest sea creature I have ever seen in person. I have been to the Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto and the Kaiyukan dwarfs it. If you are ever in Osaka I would highly recommend a visit.
Once Elsie bought her obligatory plushie we left the aquarium and started walking towards the train station. The plan was to head back to Osaka Station, meet up with Jarques and Tina and hit up a izakaya place for some tuna belly. However there was one thing we did not know about the area around the aquarium. It was also home to the Tempozan, a giant ferris wheel. We took a ride and got to see the entire skyline of Osaka and even its neighboring regions. Also our carriage happened to have a diagram that was kind enough to point out the waste disposal plant that we could see from the peak. Good to know where all of that stuff goes.
With the ferris wheel behind us we took the subway back to Osaka Station and walked to Maguroya Nakatsu which was a izakaya joint that we had heard of through Mark Wiens. It is without hyperbole that I can say this was the best tuna I have ever eaten in my entire life. It was so good that I only managed to take a single picture because I was too preoccupied devouring the 15 portions that we ordered for the table. It was heavenly. If you are in Osaka you must go to Maguroya Nakatsu.
With food once again in our bellies we were ready for some more sightseeing and there was one last stop on our list for Osaka, the famed Dōtonbori. However, as we were making our way to Dōtonbori we got a little distracted. In Japan there is a chain of stores called Yodobashi Camera that typically cover a city block and are at least seven stories tall. We had been in one briefly in Kyoto but Elsie and I wanted to check out the game section of this gargantuan one in Osaka. I must do a bigger write-up on this once I have visited Tokyo but the Coles Notes on Yodobashi are imagine a standard department store like The Bay or Macy's but crank the density, the music and the lights up to 11. The organized chaos of this place was breathtaking. It was like one of our malls around Christmas but it was freaking April!
After prying ourselves away from Yodobashi we got back on the subway and took it to Namba Station which was a quick five minute walk from Dotonbori. We checked out all the standard things, the Nipponbashi Bridge, the Glico man, the giant crab. But all in all it felt like the most touristy trap thing we had encountered on our trip so far. On one of the streets we walked down there were dozens of people aggressively trying to shove flyers into our hands to get us to eat at their restaurant. For the first time in Japan we actually saw trash littering the street. The worst part was that there was actually very little street food. Most places to eat were sit down only and had massive lines. We much preferred finding our own hole in the wall type restaurants because in Japan it was so easy to just walk down a random alley and find a quaint little spot to eat.
After wandering around for about an hour we found the one good thing about Dotonbori. A takeout gyoza stand which had some absolutely delicious gyozas but that really was it. Dotonbori felt like an even sleazier version of the Las Vegas strip. The greatest lie that tourists tell themselves when they come to Osaka is that they must visit Dotonbori. In my opinion if you visit Osaka you should skip Dotonbori and make better use of your time.
By now it was approaching 9pm and we were at least an hour away from our Airbnb so we got back on the subway which took us to Osaka Station and grabbed the Thunderbird train home. Tomorrow we check out of our Airbnb and try our hand at a traditional Japanese ryokan.
This article is a post I originally made on Facebook about our fifth day in Japan which took place on April 7, 2016. On the 1 year anniversary of our trip to Japan I decided to repost it here on my blog. The original post has been edited/cleaned up a bit but its spirit remains.
Since yesterday was the most exhausting day of our trip so far everyone slept in this morning. I don't think any of us was even conscious let alone out of bed before 9am.
We woke up to what sounded like someone dumping never ending buckets of water right outside our window. A quick glance at the weather report revealed that it was going to rain all day across the entire Kyoto region and not just a little bit of rain but a ton. Multiple times throughout the day over 10mm of rain would fall in the span of a single hour.
We had planned to take a day trip to Osaka but since that was would involve a fair bit of sightseeing (and therefore walking around in the rain) we decided to call an audible and visit Kobe today instead. Our pilgrimage for the best wagyu beef could be done with just a little amount of time spent in the rain. Or at least that was the idea.
Since we did not have any concrete plans for Kobe other than eating some wagyu beef the group decided to split and meet back up in the evening for dinner. Jarques and Tina took the Skyroam and set out a bit earlier than Elsie and I. We were still quite tired and had to drag ourselves out of bed and down to Kyoto Station to find a bite to eat.
This was our fifth day in Kyoto and we had been through Kyoto Station probably a dozen times by now. Every single time we walked through it we seemed to find another new corner. It was absolutely massive. It is like someone built a huge train station underneath a shopping mall the size of the Eaton Centre in Toronto. This morning we stumbled across a long corridor flanked with dozens of small restaurants. One of them was a nice soba place where we were sat and had our food in front of us within 10 minutes. We had shown up a little before noon and eat and paid within 25 minutes. It was astounding. The efficiency and quality of small independent restaurants in Japan is mind boggling. I had yet to have a bad experience.
With our bellies full we started to look for a train that would take us to Kobe. This was where I had a "fuckin' duh" moment that is so clear in hindsight. The Shinkansen (bullet train) lines are separate from the regular local trains because, well, the Shinkansens can go a hell of a lot faster. Google Maps was telling us it would be a long journey (over an hour) so we thought we had to get reserved seats but those directions were for the local train. When we got to the ticket counter and said we wanted to go to Kobe with our JR passes the agents pointed us to a Shinkansen that would get us there in only 27 minutes. The only problem with the two different types of trains is that they take you to two different stations in Kobe. The Shin-Kobe Station is a bit further north of the local train stations so if you wanted to get to downtown Kobe you would need to walk 30 minutes or transfer to the subway or a bus.
This did not matter for us because we were headed for the Oji Zoo which was outside of downtown Kobe and relatively close to Shin-Kobe Station. Our goal was to see Red Pandas in person for the first time in our lives. Now remember earlier when I said we chose to do Kobe over Osaka today because there would be less walking? Well that would have been true if we had decided to hop on a bus to the zoo instead of walking 30 minutes to get there at the exact moment the rain reached its heaviest.
We soldiered on through the rain and reached the zoo with our clothes soaked to the core. But all of our frustrations melted away when we realized the zoo was completely empty and we had absolutely free reign of the place. Most of the zoo was outside but since it was raining the majority of animals had been moved inside their enclosures and we could walk right up to the glass.
We got to see Tan Tan, the giant panda, chillin' in his tire and chomping on bamboo. A koala that was being played with by a zookeeper for a photo op. Red pandas whose fur was soaked but still came out and played for us. Sea otters who gave zero fucks about the rain. All in all it was a great experience. The only negative was the guilt I always feel from going to a zoo and seeing some animals in what seem like cruel conditions. This time it was the bear paddock. Instead of having the bears outside they were locked up in cages no bigger than a jail cell. We witnessed one bear clawing at the ground and another rubbing its head against the door that led outside. I love zoos for the opportunity to see animals that I otherwise would never get a chance to see but when the animals have a much worse life than if they were living in the wild it is hard for me to justify it.
When the zoo closed we set off for downtown Kobe and met back up with Jarques and Tina. It was time for what we came to Kobe to do, yakiniku with some A5 grade Kobe beef. Jarques found Koushiya which will go down as my favourite restaurant in all of Japan. We got our own private dinning room and spent the next two hours grilling up the best meat any of us had ever tasted.
With our pilgrimage complete we headed back to Shin-Kobe Station and caught the bullet train to Kyoto where comfy beds waited for our tired bodies. It was time to rest up for tomorrow would be our trip to Osaka and its famed Dōtonbori district as well as some delicious tuna belly.