Winter Vacation Part 4 – The End of Tokyo

The Tokyo posts ended up running a bit long so I split them up. The first two parts are here. Tokyo 1 and Tokyo 2. Also, Nicole bought me a GoPro video camera and I made a video of our trip to Tokyo. Check it out!

Our Sixth Day in Tokyo – Hakone

Photographing Hakone
Photographing Hakone

Our time in Japan was coming to a close so Nicole and I decided to get outside the city and visit Hakone. It’s famous for it’s giant Torii on Lake Ashi and it’s shrine. The ride outside the city was only an hour or so. From there we took the world’s craziest windiest bus up the mountain. The ride was only hairpin turns. As my grandfather said there’s one turn for each letter in the alphabet. As cold as it was in Tokyo, even though we only had one day of snow, there was plenty of snow in Hakone. The bus wound through snowy roads up to the top of a mountain then back down the other side to Lake Ashi and the giant red Torii.

The lake was really peaceful. Nicole and I were some of the only people there that day. It was a big difference from the bustle of Tokyo. Nicole and I spent the afternoon walking around the lake and visiting the shrine. When the sun started to set we took the bus back to the train and returned to Tokyo.

Seventh Day in Tokyo – The Last Day

Pancake Breakfast
Pancake Breakfast

Our last day in Tokyo Nicole and I returned to Harajuku so we could visit the Meiji shrine without getting lost like we did last time. We stopped first at a little breakfast place serving some of the best pancakes I’ve had since moving to South Korea almost two years ago.

Meiji Shrine

The shrine was really cool, much larger than I expected. It was also much newer. The temple was built in 1920. However, it looked hundreds of years older. As I mentioned in my Osaka post, it was neat to see the shrines and temples actually in use. One of the buildings beside the temple grounds was closed to tourists and only open to people wishing to come in and pray. Another thing that struck me was just how quiet the grounds were. We were only a block away from the main road and the subway line yet it was so quiet walking around the shrine.

Time to Leave

After visiting the shrine Nicole and I gathered our belongings from our AirBnB and took the train out to Narita, home to Tokyo’s nearest International Airport. Our flight wasn’t until the next day, but it was very early and Tokyo has little to no public transportation to the airport before 7am.

Narita

Narita
Narita

Narita turned out to be a really cool little town. We walked up and down the main strip which was only a few blocks and settled on a small bar/cafe with reasonably prices tapas. Lots of the bars and restaurants in Narita catered to airline staff and crew and many of them had really cool airline memorablia including old ads for now defunct airlines as well as medals and awards from flight crews. It was neat to get a glimpse into this world. The first place we stopped at was the Jet Lag Club. It was a cozy place with wood trim and a dog in a flight jacket sitting on the bar. I chatted with the proprietor/bar tender and he gave me two decals from the bar.

The second place was the Barge Inn. It was built by Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines. He originally built it for his airline employees when they had to stay over in Japan since the airport was so far from Tokyo. Supposedly the establishment is a subtle joke on the Japanese pronunciation of Virgin. Try saying Barge Inn several times fast.

Well that concludes my Tokyo leg of the trip. The next morning Nicole and I headed out to Hong Kong and I’ll add another post about that soon.

Winter Vacation Part 3 – More Tokyo

This is continued from Tokyo, Japan. If you missed that part, I encourage you to read it first. Also if you missed the Tokyo GoPro video, here it is!

Our Third Day in Tokyo – Ghibli Museum

Our third day in Tokyo was freezing, well, less than freezing. It was snowing…a lot. It was also the day we planned to visit the Ghibli museum. The Ghibli museum is a museum dedicated to Studio Ghibli, the studio behind Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and most famously Spirited Away. The museum is wildly popular and issues tickets for specific dates and times to keep the crowds down. Because of this, our tickets were date specific so we had to brave the snow. Nicole and I put on every piece of winter clothing we had and caught a train to the museum, or tried to.

Snowmageddon

During snow, Tokyo’s fantastic subway system becomes a bit more convoluted. One of the trains we tried to take wasn’t running the full length of its route so we had to hop off and transfer to a different train. Several announcements on the matter were made. However, they were all in Japanese, and, alas, I do not know Japanese.

Once we arrived at the nearest station we had a 1km walk. During agreeable weather this walk is beautiful and through a park. During snow, this walk is cold and terrible. Weather aside, we eventually made it to the Ghibli Museum. It’s a small building nestled in the corner of a park. From the outside it looks like a little cottage. Inside it feels like one too. There are characters from the movie all over and little tunnels and doorways for kids, and Nicole, to play in.

Our Fourth Day in Tokyo – Fancy Day

We met up with Robin and his wife for lunch downtown. Rob took us to one of the fanciest meals I’ve ever had. We had venison and a number of other fancy dishes I can’t name. After lunch Robin dropped us off in Ginza, the fancy area of Tokyo. We strolled past designer shops and stopped into the world’s largest Uniqlo so I could buy a thermal shirt and some long johns since it was so cold.

Bear Comic and Robots

That afternoon Nicole and I visited TEPIA, Tokyo’s emerging technology gallery. It’s a bit like Innoventions at EPCOT. There were lots of cool examples of new technologies. Nicole and I got to play video games, try on a jacket that changed colors in a mirror, and even star in our own bear comic.

Indian Dinner

Naan and curry
Naan and curry

That night Nicole and I visited a quaint little neighborhood where we ate more crepes and visited a bar/flowershop. It was really nice. The bar was a flowershop first and a bar second. There were flowers everywhere and squeezed between them, Nicole and I found a place to sit at the bar.

Flower Bar
Flower Bar

Our Fifth Day in Tokyo – Gundam Cafe and Temple

No the Gundam Cafe isn’t a temple as well. They were two different things we did that day. In the morning we went to Sensoji Temple and walked around. The place was packed. Nicole and I walked through crowds shoulder to shoulder to get up to the temple. Strangely enough the crowds were only in the market area leading up to the temple. The actual temple grounds weren’t that crowded and the gardens behind the temple were almost empty. The temple interior was beautiful but I preferred the view from outside and the small garden and Koi pond behind it more.

Gundam Cafe

Later in the afternoon we visited the Gundam Cafe in Akihabara. The cafe is based on the anime series Gundam. It’s about people fighting using giant robotic suits, similar to Pacific Rim. Inside the cafe there are models of the Gundam suits everywhere and TVs playing episodes from the series. The cafe is a real tourist trap, but it’s fun to visit for a drink and some light food and the prices aren’t bad. Even if you aren’t a fan of the Gundam series there’s enough novelty in the place to keep you entertained.

Akihabara

The gundam cafe is right in the middle of Akihabara, a mecca for all things geeky. There are tons of arcades, shops selling retro video games, and at one time cosplayers, although I didn’t see any while we were there. Nicole and I walked through a few of the electronics shops. They were selling NES, SNES, N64s, and tons of old and hard to find games.

Sushi and Setsubun

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 10.10.24 AM

That night, Nicole and I visited Roppongi. We had some amazing sushi and we found a little basement bar serving Japanese craft beer, called Ant ‘n Bee. However, that’s not all. The night we visited the bar they were celebrating Setsubun. A waitress gave us some origami paper and instructed us to make a box. Once we completed our boxes, she gave us soybeans and told us to throw them at the bar tenders, who were dressed as evil spirits. It was a lot of fun.

So I know I said last time…

I know I promised two entries, but there’s just so much to say about Tokyo. I’m going to split Tokyo into 3 parts, with tomorrow’s post being the last one. If you missed the first Tokyo post, it’s here.

Update: Final Tokyo Post 

Winter Vacation Part 2 – Tokyo, Japan

Nicole and I spent the last few days in Osaka winning Pachinko games and seeing temples in Osaka. However, now it was on to Tokyo.

The train into Tokyo
The train into Tokyo

For both Nicole and I, we’d always dreamed of visiting Tokyo. It’s considered one of the largest cities in the world, but outside of Shibuya it never really felt like it. The city is so clean and everything is so well organized you never really feel lost in the crowd. All of the subways have marked lanes for which direction people should walk. If you are going up the stairs walk here. If you are going downstairs walk here. It was amazing that everything just worked. The trains come every 3 minutes if not sooner. They shuttle 10 million people around the city everyday and if the train is more than a few minutes late they hand out apology letters you can give to your employer as an excuse for why you were late to work. Here’s a great article on the subject. It’s remarkable. Enough about that. Let’s start at the beginning of our time in Tokyo. But first, here’s a GoPro video of Tokyo.

Arriving in Tokyo

Nicole and I arrived at Narita airport, nearly 1.5 hours from Tokyo and our AirBnB. Tokyo is a massive city, and while it doesn’t feel large walking around inside the city, it feels enormous trying to take a train from one side to the other. We took a train from the airport into the city then transferred subways twice before arriving in our neighborhood. It was in a small neighborhood just Southeast of the city, and one of the cleanest places I’ve ever been.

The neighborhood we stayed in was immaculate. I felt like I was walking around on a film set. It didn’t feel real. The streets were spotless. There were almost no cars and only the occasional bicyclist. I was surprised to find a sleepy little neighborhood inside of Tokyo. I thought for sure the most populous city on the planet would be bustling at all times in all areas.

The walk to our guesthouse was short. We checked in and met out AirBnb host. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He’d gone through a great deal of trouble to be a great host. He handed us a binder filled with everything we could possibly want to know about the neighborhood. He had directions to the local laundromat, bars, restaurants, a list of medicine in the bathroom, instructions for working the washing machine, everything. If you’re visiting Tokyo, I recommend staying here.

Our first Day in Tokyo

Espresso from a shipping container
Espresso from a shipping container

Our first day in Tokyo we visited Harajuku. Harajuku is a popular neighborhood for the fashion forward and trendy youths of Tokyo. We saw brightly colored outfits and wild clothes everywhere we looked. I got a few pictures of the denizens of Harajuku about town while Nicole shopped. When we’d had our fill of fashion, we stopped for some espresso at a coffeeshop made of shipping containers then made our way to what we thought was Meiji Shrine. However, what we did not know was there’s a fence separating Meiji Shrine from Yoyogi Park.

Yoyogi Park and Tandem Bikes

Riding Tandem Bikes
Riding Tandem Bikes

We walked around beautiful Yoyogi Park trying, in vain, to locate the shrine to no avail. We discovered instead a tandem bike rental place and I got to ride a tandem bike for the first time ever. I rode in the front and steered while Nicole yelled “WHEEE” behind me. It was great. Everyone should go tandem bike riding. I can’t imagine ever returning to a single bicycle. I would feel so lonely.

Shibuya

Shibuya
Shibuya

After our bike ride we walked a few minutes up the road from Harajuku to Shibuya. It’s one subway stop down and a very manageable walk for anyone interested. Shibuya is a lot like Time Square in New York. It’s mostly tourists, there are tons of bright lights and if you’re visiting the city, it’s something you have to do. Nicole and I walked through the congested streets stopping into stores, getting bumped into (watch the video), and playing arcade games. Last time Nicole and I were in Japan, we played a ton of arcade games because, one, they’re awesome, and, two, they’re everywhere. Our favorite game is this drumming game similar to DDR where you drum along to the song and math the targets on the screen. Good fun.

Dinner

After some arcading we met up with two of our teacher friends from Korea, Connie and David. They’d been in Tokyo for a week already exploring the city. We all got sushi together at a little place in Harajuku. It was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a twist. Instead of serving a continuous stream of sushi plates to choose from, you ordered your food from a touchpad at the end of the table. Once your food was ready, a little cart on a conveyor belt would zip right to your table. It was fast and efficient. Like tandem bikes it made the normal alternative feel bland. I was hooked.

To cap off the night we got crepes down the road. I don’t know how long Japan’s crepe craze has been going on, but it’s in full swing. There were delicious crepe places everywhere. I don’t get it, but I’m fully supportive of it.

Our Second Day in Tokyo – Disney Sea

DisneySea MapNicole and I love Disney. Back when we lived in Florida we got a 4 park Florida resident pass and visited all the parks in February when they were empty. Seeing as Tokyo also has a Disney, several in fact, Nicole and I had to go. We booked tickets for Disney Sea and made our way out to the park. Disney Sea is perhaps the most unique, and one of the newest Disney parks. If you can only visit one Disney park in Japan, make sure you see Disney Sea over Disneyland. The whole park is laid out around a giant lagoon and has many different areas. There’s a Mediterranean Harbor, Port Discovery, Mysterious Island, and Mermaid Lagoon, and several other really cool spots.

We met up with my grandpa’s friend Robin. He works for Disney in Japan. We had lunch together and he showed us around the park a little bit before returning to work. Disney was a lot of fun, especially visiting a new park I’d never been to. One of the things I was most excited about was riding the “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” ride. It used to be at Magic Kingdom in Florida. However, it was shut down and replaced with some sort of Little Mermaid photo-op. The ride definitely lived up to my childhood memories of it.

More Tokyo Awaits!

I’d hoped to write just one post for all of Tokyo but this post is running absurdly long so I’m splitting it into two posts. To read about the Ghibli museum, the Gundam Cafe, and Sensoji shrine read More Tokyo.

Winter Vacation Part 1 – Osaka

As part of our teaching contract, Nicole and I get 3-4 weeks off for Winter Vacation. This year our vacation was January 24th to February 22nd. We visited Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the first entry, on Osaka. I should also mention, my amazing girlfriend, Nicole, bought me a GoPro for Christmas and I’ve made GoPro videos of each destination on our trip. Take a look at the video below before reading the post.

Visiting Osaka

Nicole subway OsakaNicole and I visited Osaka once before during our first year teaching in Korea. We had such a great time that we decided to visit a second time since our flight would have to fly through there anyways. This time around we only stayed for the weekend.[divider_flat]

Our Neighborhood

Riding bikes around our neighborhood
Riding bikes around our neighborhood

We stayed in a little neighborhood outside of town called Deto. The neighborhood was mostly small apartment buildings and warehouses. One thing I noticed about Japan is there are drink vending machines everywhere. Literally every block had some kind of drink vending machine selling all manner of drinks from coffees to fruit juices.

Our AirBnb accommodations were in a first floor studio apartment with free bikes out front for our use. Nicole was feeling sick when we arrived so she stayed in the apartment and I ventured out to the nearest convenience store (a 7-11) for snacks and drinks to tide her over. The selection at Japanese convenience stores is really impressive. They have sushi, baked goods, coffees, entire meals. Their convenience stores offer various other services as well including package delivery, ticket purchasing and sometimes banking.

Exploring Dotonbori Solo

We got into Osaka pretty late so we called it a night after I returned with a bounty of snacks. The next day I stocked up on snacks for Nicole for the day then ventured into Dotonbori, Osaka’s downtown market and entertainment district. I made a simple day of it with conveyor belt sushi, some souvenir shopping and general exploring. The whole of Dotonbori is a maze of narrow lanes, some covered and some exposed to the elements, packed with shops on either side.

Pachinko!

After lunch but before I headed back to see Nicole, sick in bed, I stopped in at a Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a kind of gambling in Japan. It’s a cross between pinball and plinko, that Price is Right game. You’re given maybe 1000 small metal ball bearings and you use a pinballesque launcher to fire these balls up to the top of a plinko game. The amount of points you earn varies based on where the balls land.

The Pachinko parlors are loud and smokey like a casino. Experiences Pachinko players will often sit down at a machine and play for hours with ear plugs in because they’re so loud. I found the one empty machine at the end of a row and sat down with some money. I put in about $8.50USD and tried to play. I wasn’t too sure what I was doing so one of the workers showed me where to aim to get the best odds. My $8.50 lasted a long time. At one point the same worker who helped me in the beginning walked past and said “amazing”.

The Secret Prize Handoff

I was there about 30 minutes and I would have been happy to leave earlier. Eventually I ran out of balls and a worker came over and swiped a card at my machine. Next they led me to the prize counter where I was given what appeared to be several fishing weights and allowed to choose a piece of candy. After I made my selection I was led out a side entrance and told to wait at a little opening in a wall. I watched as the person in front of me slid their fishing weights and candy through the slot in the wall and received some money in return. I did as I saw the man in front of me do and was pleasantly surprised to find I received $70. All in all I’d won about $60 and I hadn’t even spent that much since being in Osaka. For my second day in Japan, I’d actually made money on vacation.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki!It was getting late so I hopped on the subway and returned to Nicole and the apartment. She was feeling better but still a bit sick. We ended the night with some takoyaki, fried quid balls with mayo. Despite the description, they’re quite delicious. [divider_flat]

Japan’s Oldest Established Temple

Our last day in Osaka we visited Shitennoji temple. It’s Japan’s oldest officially administered temple, built in 593. I took some photos and we walked around the grounds. In total the land it sits on is the size of several city blocks and includes numerous buildings. What I find interesting about so many temples in Japan is that they are still in use. Often you will come across areas or buildings that you cannot enter because people are using them. It’s fascinating to see temples used currently and not regarded as some relic of the past.

Leaving for Tokyo

Our few days in Osaka were coming to an end. Nicole was starting to feel better and we were off to Tokyo for the next leg of our winter vacation adventure.

Japan Vacation – Returning to Korea

One Last Train Ride

Nicole and I woke early, cleaned our room, and took a train back to the Osaka airport. The ride was early and uneventful. The often crowded subway was sparsely populated with random Japanese people and the odd tourist with a suitcase making the same trip as us.

Along the route back to the airport, I saw numerous people outside exercising, playing tennis, jogging. It was refreshing to see a culture that embraced the morning. In Korea, I rarely saw anyone out and about before 10 am. The coffee shop by my house doesn’t even open until after 11. By then I don’t even need coffee.

Airport Food and Souvenirs

Duty Free Shopping
Duty Free Shopping

At the airport, Nicole and I checked in and bought Udon noodles and Takoyaki in remembrance of the great times we had in Japan. The food was considerably better than American airport food and much more reasonably priced. After our airport lunch Nicole and I perused the duty-free shops before out flight. When it was time to board, Nicole and I realized that we would not be sitting next to one another because we booked separately and checked in electronically.

Two Ships Passing in the Night

I was sitting in the back so I walked out onto the runway with the other passengers stuck in the back and Nicole boarded at the front like a normal human. In that moment I knew what it must have been like to be a third-class passenger on the Titanic. Right as I boarded though, Nicole flagged me down from the front of the plane. She had persuaded the Korean woman next to her to switch places with me and sit in the back.

In-flight Booze
In-flight Booze

I walked up to the front and sat with Nicole. Nicole regaled me with the tale of how she asked the woman and the woman said yes before realizing how far back it was and remarking in broken English “It’s so far”. I didn’t know this detail beforehand and felt a bit bad about it, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by reading some exciting in-flight literature. Nicole and I had some Japanese money remaining that we hadn’t spent and decided to go out with a bang so we spent our remaining few dollars on Japanese in-flight booze. It was fun, we got a beer, some plum wine, and a highball (which is awful). Thoroughly sauced, we passed the rest of our flight discussing our favorite parts of our trip and planning our next adventure back in Korea.

Korea or Bust

Nicole and I landed in Korea and spent the rest of the day traveling back to Gwangju, first by light rail, then subway, then bus, then taxi. It was exhausting, but we finally made it back home.

Overall I had a great time in Japan. It was a place I’d always wanted to visit and I feel like Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto were a good way to see a wide slice of Japan. I’d love to go back someday soon, perhaps even teach there. It felt a decade ahead of Korea and the US. The food was amazing, the people were incredibly friendly, and there was so much to do all the time everywhere.