Tokyo Traveler Tales – Part 2: Tokyo and thereabouts

This is the second in a series of posts on my recent trip to Japan. Here is the itinerary of our trip to provide some context to the time we spent in Japan.
Saturday (Day 0): Flew out of US.
Sunday (Day 1): Arrived in Tokyo at night. Checked into hotel in Tokyo.
Monday (Day 2): Day #1 in Tokyo covering Sensoji temple in Asakusa, Shinjuku National Garden, Harajuku, and Shibuya Starbucks intersection at night.
Tuesday (Day 3): Day #2 in Tokyo – day trip to Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi (planned tour). Night stay in Shinjuku.
Wednesday (Day 4): Morning train to Narai-juku. Spend day in Narai-juku. Evening train to Kyoto via Nagoya. Night stay in downtown Kyoto.
Thursday (Day 5): Day 1 in Kyoto covering Nijoji castle, Kinkakuji temple and Ginkakuji temple.
Friday (Day 6): Day 2 in Kyoto covering Fushimi-Inari (Vermillion Gates), Nishiki market and generally exploring city by foot. Evening Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo. Night stay in Nihonbashi.
Saturday (Day 7): Day 2 in Tokyo (shopping focused) covering Ginza and Akhihabara.
Sunday (Day 8): Early morning flight back to the US.

 

In the first post, I talked about my motivation to travel to Japan and how we went about planning for the trip. In this post, I will talk about our time in Tokyo.

As you can see our Japan trip was bookended by stays in Tokyo. This was intentional. Since we were checking in and out of hotels on an almost daily basis, we didn’t have the luxury of shopping until the end of the trip. Japan offers so many interesting things to see and buy that we felt it deserved a day on its own and so we had to schedule a day in Tokyo at the end of the trip. This way, we didn’t walk around lugging it for the entire week. Of course, it is a different story altogether that I stole that day entirely for myself by spending it stationery, manga and electronic shops. More on that in a bit.

Day #1 – Asakusa, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya
We landed in Tokyo late the previous night so this was really our first day in town. My wife had done extensive research on how to get from Iidabashi where we were staying to get to other spots in Tokyo. So we picked up a day pass on the metro and started our sightseeing in right earnest. We started with the Sensoji temple in Asakusa.

 

Sensoji temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo founded over 1400 years ago. This spot was also a good quick introduction to the crowds in Tokyo. As soon as we saw the road leading up to the temple we were reminded of the hustling streets back in India. Specifically this. And yes, it was pretty crowded. This was also the moment we realized that cherry blossoms had not bloomed in Tokyo yet which was a bummer. We waded through shops peddling umbrellas and ninja toys and sweetmeats and sweets and meats to the temple. The temple itself was beautiful as was the garden next to it. It was also an interesting contrast looking at the temple with the Tokyo high-rises in the background. Old and new.

 

The Sumida river runs close by and we had read about cherry blossom trees lining up the roads next to it. So we walked in the hopes of spotting some blossoms. We did, but it was very few. What we did see was the unique building that can only be described as weird, the Asahi Beer Building with the odd looking flame on top. I swear, to us it looked like a golden radish. It is unmissable and uniquely weird.

 

We took the train to head to our next hanami at the Shinjuku National Garden. We got there and realized we were famished. Worry not as there was a Neapolitan pizzeria nearby where we treated ourselves to a fantastic margherita pizza.Food in, we walked to the garden which was packed for hanami with locals and tourists on what was turning out to be a pretty cloudy and chilly day. We walked through the length of the large park with the occasional blossom here and there. We were feeling bummed on the lack of quality blossoms when we happened upon this wonderful grove of blossoms at their peak. It was gorgeous.

 

We wrapped up and walked a bit and then took a cab to Harajuku. We weren’t sure what to expect to Harajuku but Takeshita street toon dispelled that doubt. What a crowd. Ranganathan street in Japan. Throngs of people, eating and shopping. We dropped into a large Daiso (much bigger than the ones in US) and the little guy picked up a gigantic cotton candy in rainbow colors. Rain started falling and we picked up an umbrella at a nearby store and headed to the train station. We were tired but wanted to finish off Shibuya intersection before heading back. The Shibuya junction was even more packed in a much larger scale compared to Takeshita street. Great sight at night. We took a train back to our hotel and promptly lost our way from the station to the hotel. A nearby Indian restaurant employee was helpful enough to point us the right way. Long way, many new things seen, tired and off to sleep.

 

Day #2 – Day trip to Mt. Fuji and Hakone
The second day was dedicated to a tour to Mt.Fuji. We boarded the tour bus at a nearby hotel and were taken to a bus depot not far away where we had to jump into one of a dozen or more tourist buses headed in different directions. We settled down with twenty odd folks on a trip to Hakone and Mt.Fuji. The bus had to take a circuitous route due to an accident and the guide entertained us with stories of Japan and their culture. We found out that a recent cold front had dumped a ton of snow at Mt.Fuji and we were lucky that the tour was open. We were not going to go as high as we had originally hoped though. We reached Fuji in a couple of hours. The snow capped Fuji was a sight to behold. Would have loved to go farther into the park. We then were taken to a nearby restaurant for a traditional Japanese meal. We had signed up for a vegetarian meal and were given a melange of fruits and veggies in a platter. It was tasty.

 

From there, we drove to the banks of Lake Aashi where we took a ferry to the other side of the lake to then take the ropeway up 1800 feet to a shrine. It was cold and snowed in but what a gorgeous sight up and down. We made our way back to Shinjuku bus depot around 8 at night and then to our hotel. We were famished and tired. A quick google search told us that “restaurant Muthu” was not far and we walked over to get an average and overpriced but definitively vegetarian meal before calling it a night.

 

Day #7 – Ginza, Akhihabara
We got back to Tokyo on Friday night from our trip to Kyoto (more on that on my next post). We had reserved a furnished apartment in Nihonbashi and after a comedy of errors (on my part), we settled down at our place later than desired and pretty tired. We didn’t do much that night.

 

The next day was our last full day in Japan and we had a ton of shopping to do. So without further ado, we stepped out only to notice a nice little stationery shop 25 steps from our apartment. I loaded up on some basic notebooks and inks, went back to the hotel, dropped things off and restarted our day out. We took a train to Ginza where we saw people, massive stores and more people and more massive stores. We walked around soaking it all in on our way to the stationery Mecca of Itoya.

 

So I can spend another 500 lines describing Itoya but I won’t bore you with it. I will keep it simple. Suffice to say, it is an analog tools lovers paradise. It has pens, pens and more pens. And paper- normal, premium, extra premium. Notebooks, inks, craft material and so much more. We spent the next 3.5 hours in Itoya just exploring the 8 floors of stationery awesomeness. Itoya also boasts a 12th floor Cafe called Cafe Stylo which has a healthy vegetarian menu which was a blessing for us. We also hopped across the street to another Itoya where the little guy and I spent time crafting our perfect notebook. We picked our notebook cover, elastic, paper type and quality and metal studs. We also selected some text to go in the front. The kind folks at Itoya asked us to come back later in the evening to pick up our handcrafted notebook. We got out and took the train to the other dream destination in Tokyo, Akhihabara.

 

Akhihabara is a different kind of a beast compared to Itoya. It is the entertainment and electronics hub of Tokyo. It offers the dazzle of anime and manga to its devotees. It also offers some massive electronics stores like Yodobashi Camera. We had to pick up some manga collectibles for some relatives and went hunting at Mandarake– an 8 floor building filled with geeks and their super expensive toys and comics. After 2 hours of walking around manga stores amidst many many girls and women, all in school girl uniform, we went to Yodobashi Camera.

 

Yodobashi Camera is an massive 8-floor store filled to the hilt with electronics of all kind and folks hawking them to great effect. We checked out the hundreds of camera lenses, smart phones, Bluetooth speakers and so much more. We had to leave soon to head to Itoya to pick up our notebooks. We rushed back to Itoya, picked up our notebooks and then upon the advise of the smart wife, went hunting for a rare specimen- a vegan Ramen place T’s Tan Tan. After 30 minutes of hunting and lots of walking, we landed at our ramen place, deep in the bowels of the Tokyo train station. The ramen was spectacular.  It was a great way to finish off our trip. We headed back to our apartment and started packing.

 

The next morning, we took our train to Narita and headed back home. In the last and final post of this series, I will describe our experiences in Kyoto.
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Tokyo Traveler Tales – Part 1: Motivation and Preparing for the trip

We just got back from a week long trip to Japan and as requested by friends, I am writing down as much as possible about the overall experience. This is far from comprehensive and there are many excellent articles and websites devoted to this.
Why should you read this?
Here are some reasons that come to my mind. We are a small family looking to make a budget-conscious trip to a far-away land where people have different customs and etiquette, not to mention a language that we quite don’t understand. We are also vegetarians and as I will explain later, it is quite hard to get good vegetarian food in Japan. We have a nine year- old who we had to consider when we made specific plans on places to visit and things to try and many of you have young kids and understand that problem. With all that in mind, I am putting to words, all that we could think of about this spectacular trip.
Why Japan?
Japan has been on top of my bucket list for a long time. The reasons are varied – I have heard and read about their approach to simplicity as a philosophy. Zen is quite fascinating. They also offer a stark contrast of two cultures- a technology driven economy that has been at the forefront of many of the very pillars of innovation we lean on today. But yet, they are also one of the largest purveyors of analog habits with pens, pencils and paper. From movies to books, I had heard about the legendary honor that Japanese have long lived by and wanted to see it in person. Beyond all of that, the cherry blossoms have been calling to me for a very long time. With that in mind, and with the help of friends who travel to Japan periodically on work, we set out planning this trip.
I will now share all that we did to prepare ourselves for the trip and the things we learnt later that we should have done in advance of the trip. In future posts, I will share specific experiences visiting places.
Preparing for the trip
  1. Japan, as mentioned before is different in many ways and it all starts with the visa process. For citizens of US, a visa is not required. For everyone else, a trip to the Consulate is the best way. We went to the Consulate in San Francisco. The form is super simple. Only requirement is that you have a planned itinerary with a flight ticket. You can get away with blocking a ticket and then cancelling it after the interview but we ended up just reserving our actual ticket prior to the Embassy trip. Visa costs are very affordable ($7 if you are an Indian citizen). It takes a week to process the Visa and you need to get back to the Consulate to pick it up.
  2. We reserved all the hotels via Orbitz. Things to look for while making a reservation – if you prefer a non-smoking room, make sure you confirm you are booking one. Unlike the US, many Japanese hotels offer smoking and non-smoking rooms. Locations can be tricky. Look up the Japanese public transit maps (Google Maps is pretty good with it) and try to pick a place close to public transportation. Given how much you will rely on it, it helps to be close to a station or a bus stop.
  3. Take cash. Lots of it. Unlike most other countries, many, many shops and vendors in Japan still take only cash. Trickier still, we couldn’t use our US credit cards to reserve train tickets especially Shinkansen which tends to be around $100/person/trip (Tokyo to Kyoto for an adult on Shinkansen was ~$130 on an unreserved coach). Cash is the king. We observed that the Travelex booth in airports was offering a much lower conversion rate (94 yen/ $) than the hotel we stayed (104 yen/$). So I would recommend picking up dollars from the ATM machine(103 yen/$) and converting it at your hotel. Another alternative we used was directly use our ATM cards in 7-11s and Japan Post ATMs. The conversation rate offered was pretty solid.
  4. Pack nice walking shoes, a small umbrella (or buy one in Japan- the options are insane in terms of size, quality and prints), your basic medicines and a nice backpack. We walked a lot and it rained on and off during our trip. We packed light since we were going to be checking out of hotels in the morning and off sightseeing during the day. We couldn’t lug heavy luggage around town.
  5. Make yourself familiar with all the public transit options in Japan- especially Tokyo. While the system is super friendly and simple to use- some background research helped. We had to change trains going from point A to point B and knowing where to switch and what line to take in advance was super helpful. Large signs are in Japanese but there is English in smaller print. Metro maps are also offered in English.  Also pack a nice camera- Japan has so many remarkable places to see that a camera is a must.
  6. Make sure you can get WiFi on your phone. I am on ATT and utilized their Global WiFi service ($40 for 30 days) which allowed me 200 MB of cellular data but more importantly, access to ATT’s partner WiFi networks in Japan which was hugely useful. Most hotels offer free WiFi but when you are in the streets trying to navigate from one place to another, having WiFi on your phone will be super useful.
  7. We opted to fly into Narita airport which is a good one hour away from Tokyo central. If you get an affordable option to fly into Haneda instead, take it. Haneda is much closer to the city locations. Also, if you are vegetarian make sure you request the meal choice in advance. We made the mistake on one leg of our onward journey on Asiana Airlines and they had absolutely nothing for vegetarians.
  8. One thing we didn’t get to do was to stay in a Ryokan, which is a Japanese style Inn. They are usually a little more expensive than hotels, but since we were going during the cherry blossom season and did our booking late, rates were quite high and so we had to skip this.
In the next post, I will talk about all our experiences in Tokyo with trips to Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akhihabara, and Ginza.
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