Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back by popular demand.

One of the attractive things about the company I work for is that, in addition to getting national holidays off, I also get two weeks of summer and winter vacation. Last summer I moved house, and I had pneumonia over winter vacation, so for this summer vacation I decided to take a trip to Tokyo. Lucky for me two of my friends from work also wanted to come along, so for once I didn't have to travel alone.

After a few days of restful loafing around at home our small band of travelers met at the local station at the eye-leadining hour of 9:30am on Friday. After arriving at JR Osaka station at 9:45, we didn't leave JR property again until we exited Tokyo station some 10 hours later. We had good traveling weather, as it was sunny and warm (though we were in air-conditioned train cars the whole time.) Unfortunately Mt. Fuji was doing it's "the only clouds to be seen are hiding Mt. Fuji" routine. All 550km of transit ended up costing about $23 per person as I bought a "Youthful 18 Ticket" for $115 which gave us 5 individual days of travel, 3 of which we used on the way up. The down side was that we had to use local trains (no expresses/shinkansen) I guess they call it what they do 'cause you've gotta have some youth to take such a round-about travel plan.
A mural depicting the history of the Tokyo station area.

We arrived in Tokyo a little before 8pm and took the loop line to Shibuya. Amazingly, this was my first time in Shibuya. I somehow managed to miss it on my last two trips to Japan. The first thing we did was track down a capsule hotel. My iPhone plus a "shibuya capsule hotel" in google later and we had our first night's lodgings. We checked in, dropped off our bags and headed out on the town. The best we managed to find (in Shibuya, a Tokyo night-life hotspot) was an over-priced-under-sized bar. The first night's sleep was okay, though the hotel was a bit noisy, or at least had certain noises none of us were used to (elbows banging capsule walls, etc.)
A capsule hotel capsule (bigger that I had thought.)

Saturday was our first full day and we started it off right with a breakfast of Krispy Cream doughnuts. The light was even on and those fresh warm doughnuts tasted oh-so good. After breakfast we headed to the monorail station in Shimbashi to get to Odaiba (the big man-made island in Tokyo bay, which I've written about before.) The monorail was extraordinarily busy, though at the time none of us knew why (I guessed everyone was just going to see the same thing we were...) Getting off the train it's was a bright sunny day and, of course, I forgot my hat. Quickly we found what (at least two of us) had come to Tokyo to see: a 1/1 scale replica of Mobile Armor Gundam (a giant robot suit from a Japanese animated tv series in the 70's.) It was way more than I had expected; It was bigger, there was more of a crowd, it was hotter out, ... oh and the thing moved! (Well, just the head part and some smoke-machines, but I'm easy to please.)
The Shibuya 109 building
The Hachiko Statue (see the new Righard Gere movie for details.)
An 80' tall robot statue? You go Japan!

Once we were done snapping dozens of pictures of the statue we moved on to other parts of Odaiba. Somewhere along the way we figured out the crowds of people on the train ride in were coming to watch the fireworks in Tokyo bay. Realizing this we decided to stay around and watch too. To kill time we had lunch in a 'cantina' style restaurant (complete with over-priced tacos, that weren't half bad), visited the Sony Science Center (which, again was expensive), and played old arcade games in a vintage arcade (cheap thrills.) As the time for fireworks neared we decided we should get something to drink while we watched. The first grocery store we went to had, literally, a half hour line outside (just to get in!) Fortunately, not two blocks away there was another shop that was virtually empty (of customers.) Drinks in hand we made out way to Odaiba's man-made beach and weaseled our way into a narrow strip of sand between to tarps laid down by people many hours in advance. We did a little crowd watching until the show started. After the show, which was so long we thought would never end, we ended up taking a water-taxi back to the mainland because the wait for the train was going to be ridiculous. We got back to Shimbashi, where our bags were coin-lockered, found a good ramen restaurant, and a bad capsule hotel. The hotel was cheap and the bed okay, but the other guests were all noisy drunken sarari-mans.
A police man directs foot traffic from atop a special car.
Dusk in Tokyo bay.
Rainbow bridge at night.

Sunday groggily appeared and we headed to Harajuku. Rumor had it that sunday was the hot day for all the kids to get out in their flash clothes. Maybe it was summer, maybe it was the holidays, but there was a distinct lack of flashy dress. After breakfast at McD's we got a free tour of the Meiji shrine from a volunteer organization (friendly, free, and in English!) Mid-day we started walking towards Shinjuku. We stopped for icecream at one point and were accosted by a giant radio-active bee. (No, this thing was huge. Really, like big, it had 6 stingers coming off the back. It wanted my icecream. It made a second pass. Where was Godzilla when I needed him?.) A bit of trekking later we made it to the Tokyo Municipal Government Building (the best free vantage point in Tokyo.) And after some tea and enjoying the view at the top, we had a light supper in Shinjujku station before heading off to Roppongi. THere, we saw the Roppongi Hills building as well as Tokyo Tower (my first time going up at night) before heading back to Harajuku to retrieve our bags and stay at the nosiest internet cafe ever. Usually net-cafes have "sleeping area" which are away from the entrance and are pretty quiet. This place had music going all night, as well as a customer who, at 5am, decided it was too expensive and began shouting at the staff (in kansai-ben, or the southern dialect, which ALMOST made it funny.)
The inner gate of the Meiji shrine.
Downtown Shinjuku (with new building in the last two years.)
Tokyo Tower at night.
Tokyo night view from Tokyo Tower.
Tokyo night view from Tokyo Tower.

Monday we got an early-ish start and trotted off to my favoritist of places: Akihabara. We arrived before a lot of shops were open, so we found another arcade and played some video games. While inside it started to rain fairly heavily outside. Though the weather report said "clear sailing for the whole trip" before we left Osaka, a typhoon decided to pop up and dump inconsiderate amounts of rain on us. A soggy walk later Burger King was had for lunch. I was a bit disappointed by the fries (which were more like McD's then the American BK's fries) but the burger was tasty. (On a side note they offered a plain sundae... which is different from regular icecream... How?) After lunch we did some light shopping before trying out a "maid cafe". There are two kinds of nerds in Japan, those that go to maid cafes and those that don't... I've now joined the former category. Sadly the cafe we chose was overpriced (even more so than a normal maid cafe, which tend to be a bit steep), and the service was terrible. We high-tailed it out of Akihabara at that point and headed over to Asakusa.

We saw all the normal sights in Asakusa before deciding that we really wanted to eat shabu-shabu. We then proceeded to spend the next hour wandering in circles looking for a shabu-shabu restaurant. When we finally found one is turned out to be a great experience. Shabu-shabu is raw meat which you cook yourself in a pot of boiling water with green leafies in it. After the meat and veggies are consumed the remaining water is used to boil udon noodles. The staff at the shop was really patient and understanding with the three foreigners who had no clue what they were doing. For desert we had Baskin Robins icecream. Karaoke was next followed by another stay in a capsule hotel. This one wasn't as nice as the first one, but was a lot better than the second one. There were a LOT of foreigners staying at this one.
The Asakura shopping street, decked out for summer.

Tuesday we gave in to convenience and had McD's for breakfast again. Ueno park was next. We started at the north end of the park, seeing the pond and the temple there. Next, due to some mis-direction on my part, we left the park and took a very round-about route to the museums on the south side of the park. In a clearing outside the science and history museum we found a group of Japanese christians performing a service for the homeless of Ueno park before serving them lunch. Inside we saw a fair bit of the exhibits on display, including moon rocks and a nearly complete triceratops skeleton.
A lotus blooms in the morning light in Uneo park.
It was quite the show.

In the evening we met one of my companions' Japanese friends from university and went out for dinner. In the evening we ventured to a very odd prison-hospital themed bar (Alkatraz ER) where we sat in a "prison cell" complete with bars and were served hospital themed drinks by people dressed as doctors and nurses. All you can eat and drink for 100 minutes for $30... worth it for the experience. When our 100 minutes were up we went back to the first capsule hotel we stayed at again. This was, perhaps the best night's sleep we had in Tokyo... mostly because we were pretty worn out from walking for 4 days.

Wednesday we had Krispy Cream again before heading down to Yokohama. I wanted to show the guys the "graffiti wall" so we walked on the way to Landmark Tower. Unfortunately, and recently it seems, the "graffiti wall" has been painted over completely in drab grey and signs touting the illegality of spray-painting have been posted every few meters. (I'm saddened Yokohama, you've lost points in my book... you're still my favorite... but...grrr...) We went on to do the observation deck at Landmark Tower, visit an amusement park in the harbor, and see Yamashita park before we arrived in China Town. We all bought panda-print ties in a panda themed shop then had a late so-so lunch of chinese food (which, again, was over priced.)
"Graffiti Wall" circa 2005
"Graffiti Wall" Aug 12, 2009
Yokohama from Landmark Tower.
The Nihon-maru, semi-permanently docked in Yokohama.
Panda themed shop in China Town.
A girl in Yukata on a cell phone.
A Chinese temple in China Town.

Someone back in Osaka told us of a Greek restaurant near China Town which, after some foot work, we managed to track down for dinner. Apparently this is one of two Greek places in Yokohama... I hope the other one is cheaper, or at least has better food (though, being my first gyro ever, I guess I'm not one to judge.) After dinner we headed back to the Yokohama station area for some arcade time, some karaoke, and another net cafe. This cafe was quieter and had more comfortable chairs, but I was so tired I could have slept anywhere.

Thursday was greeted by indecision as to how we should return. Some wanted to rent a car and drive (those that had a license,) I was in favor of using the other two days left on my pass and splitting the cost of getting the third person home. While debating we had breakfast at a fairly horrible bagel shop. The food was okay but I couldn't get a toasted bagel with only butter. I just couldn't convince them to give me the honey and butter topping, hold the honey. Ridiculous. In the end we decided to use the pass and somehow manage to get our third person back home (we were successful, details will end here.) After the 10 hour return trip we were welcomed by the sounds and smells of good 'ole Osaka. We had dinner at my favorite curry shop before parting ways. I came home and had a spectacular night's sleep in my own bed.

This trip opened my eyes to a few things: First, I now see where some of the mis-conceptions about foreigners come from. I like my traveling companions, but they occasionally and unapologetically did some things that I know are cultural no-no's and would never do myself. Secondly, traveling with other people who also speak some Japanese is a great help. I found that you can usually fill in the parts of speech the others don't know and two or three secondary speakers almost amount to one native speaker's level. Lastly, I've noted many times in this post that things were expensive or over-priced. I see now the difference between living in Tokyo and visiting. Most foreigners get the "visiting" experience and come away asking "how can anyone afford to live there?" If you're going out to eat every meal and staying in hotels every night, plus shopping, it certainly can add up quick. Also, not knowing the good, cheap places means that when you're eating out, you may not be getting the best bang for your buck... or yen as the case may be.

Well, that too a while to put together. Hope you enjoyed it.

Jaa Mata Ne.

Update on the way!

Hear all about my exploits in Tokyo this summer in an all new post!
Pictures, text, and more*!
Coming soon to a blog near you!

(*okay, not really more, but a lot of pictures and text.)