The Conclusion

September 26, 2017

I have safely made it back home to California. Sadly, I arrived horribly sick after an agonizing flight home. A sad way to end such an incredible trip, yes, but I do have one more fun story to tell about my last few hours in Japan.

After packing up all my goodies and clothes destined for home, I checked out of my final hotel and requested to use their printer for my boarding pass. Soon, I was out onto the streets of Tokyo for the final time. I was already feeling pretty worn down from the onset of symptoms from my illness, so I needed to kill a couple hours in relative peace. It was a beautiful day and lots of shops were open and selling wonderful looking foods for lunch time. No wonderful foods today sadly, my stomach was simply too opposed to the idea of eating. I walked a bit up past a couple stations and noticed that there was a park atop a hill near Nishi-Nippori Station. I figured I could find a bench there and simply enjoy the weather for a couple hours before hopping on a train at the local station and heading to Tokyo Station for the NEX.

My trusty bottle of water. First thing I ever bought from a vending machine here and has been with me, refilled, for this entire journey. Bye bye! :(

After climbing a very steep hill (terrible when you’re sick and hauling tons of stuff!), I found a little quiet park with children playing in the distance and a small path leading from the entrance. Down that small path were a couple of empty benches under some trees. Perfect. I arrived at the benches and watched as the pigeons wandered towards me cautiously in hopes of me having bread. Sorry little guys, not today.

I sat there for quite a while alone until suddenly, an old man on a red bicycle arrived with a little bag of random items stowed away in the front basket. He parked his bike a reasonable distance from me and pulled out a little bag of something. He began to walk towards the fence of the park near a large tree and dump the contents of this bag on a small stone pedestal. Almost immediately, four stray cats appeared out of nowhere and quickly moved towards to the food that the man had placed down. Whoah!

The old man slowly hobbles over to the bench off to my left and takes a seat. He unwraps and slowly eats a jelly pastry as the pigeons soon gather in anticipation for their offerings too. Sorry fella’s, this old man just wants to enjoy his treat and watch. Both him and I watch the birds. After a while of silence, both him and I notice that one small black cat was stalking the pigeons and was poking it’s face out from the tree it was hiding from. The cat was unsuccessful at catching the birds of course, but the man and I both had a good laugh. Soon, the old man attempts to make casual conversation to me joking about the birds and cats. I could only respond in short phrases and charades, but I think he understood. Further still we watched, when suddenly, giant black ravens also decided to join the mix.

The old man hobbled back to his bike, fed the cats more food, then poured the remainder out on the ground for the birds. The four black ravens got every single scrap while the hordes of pigeons could only watch. Any pigeon that tried to take any food was quickly chased off by a raven. A little sad? Yeah, but the old man and I watched as all three of these creatures interacted and we had a good time. Nothing but a couple birds getting puffy with one another and a few cats unsuccessfully catching anything. It was fun to watch, but the most notable thing was the old man’s behavior towards me. If you’re an outsider living in Tokyo, it’s not very likely that you’ll find someone that’s willing to initiate conversation with you unless you’re in obvious need of help. The fact that he was enjoying his time watching the birds and cracking jokes with me just like I was “any other person” was really great and humanizing. It was fun to have a little friend to watch the world go by with for a couple hours.

The man walks to his bike to grab food for the cats.

They were big cats too! Another black cat hides behind the tree atop the concrete pedestal the man used to feed the cats.

12:20 rolled around and it was time to say my goodbyes. I grab all of my stuff and gesture a wave. A smile, laugh, and a wave was returned by the old man and I walked on towards the train station at the bottom of the hill. That was pleasant.

I jumped onto the Yamanote line for the final time and zipped off towards Tokyo Station.  Okachimachi.. Akihabara.. Kanda.. Tokyo Station. Alright, this is it, time to board the NEX back to Narita. I followed the signs towards the big red train and eventually ended up in a funny spot. I remember coming up these stairs fresh off the plane thinking to myself “Remember this area to get back.” That seems like ages ago. That’s when I had no idea what I would be in for. Soon I’ll walk up these stairs again, but for now, down we go towards the platform.

I await my final train journey at the basement of Tokyo Station. Moments later, the same white-black-and-red train that brought me to Tokyo has arrived to take me away. It was a little sad, but I was ready to see my family again. Soon we’re off and I took the entire ride to just enjoy the window-seat view and watch Tokyo go by.

Emergency Donut: Packed.

It didn’t take long until we arrived at Narita Airport. I followed the signs to the main lobby and passed through security and customs. Security in Japan is SO much nicer than it is in America. The staff are friendly and helpful and even though you still have to go through a metal detector and scan your stuff, it was way faster and more efficient (no “take your shoes off” bullshit). After security, I visited the customs booth, surrendered my passport, and… STAMP… welp there it is, trip is officially over. Aww.

Bye bye Captain Pikachu. I liked spending too much money at your stores.

I waited a few more hours in the airport and watched the JAL workers meticulous work to maintain and prepare our airplane from the giant terminal window. By the time we were boarding, I was actually feeling pretty good and only thought my illness symptoms were just mere allergy symptoms. Sadly, this was very much not the case as I become unbelievably sick after a couple hours in the air, but before that, I had one last nice send-off from Japan.

Bye Japan!

A spectacular sunset with big Japanese clouds. A great visual to end on.

 

My time in Japan has been life changing. I encourage everybody to visit as it truly is a wonder world of unbelievable food, transportation, services, and most of all friendly people. Japan is very proud of their country and I believe they have every right to be. It was the time of my life and I will be coming back.

For the entire nation of Japan:

どもありがとうございます

Waffles and Tragedy

September 20, 2017

Today I awake with a cramped stomach, body aches, and profuse sweating. It’s my last full day…

and I’m sick.

Dammit. I suppose it could be worse – I could be boarding a plane for a 12 hour flight across the Pacific feeling like this. At least I have one day left that I can unfortunately sacrifice to sleep in bed all day.

No, I wasn’t going to waste the entire day. I had to do something new. I pushed through my symptoms, took a few ibuprofen, and drank some coffee. Soon, I was actually feeling pretty good. Almost to the point where I thought my symptoms were just allergy related. Alright, let’s get out and go down to Harijuku today.

Harijuku is more of a “young person” hotspot, but I truthfully found it to be more of an odd tourist trap. More specifically, Takeshita street. It was a huge strip of stores with every clothing item you could think of, giant rainbow cotton candies, scones, fancy waffles, and I even saw an owl handler. Kind of a neat place, but it really feels more geared towards teenage girls in my opinion. Upon arrival, I was starving. It was just around 11:00 and I still haven’t had breakfast yet, so I popped into one of those fancy waffle cafes. I ordered a cup of “American” coffee… which is just.. uh.. coffee, and began to look through the menu. Man, these waffles were expensive. I must admit, they all looked beautiful, but $12 for two waffles? Get outta’ here. Since I haven’t really had any fresh fruit while I’ve been in Japan, I decide to go with the super fruit waffles.

Fancy waffle breakfast

A close up.

Gorgeous and delicious, but that was basically a desert, not breakfast. Waffles with bananas, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, whipped creme, and a chocolate glaze. AKA All of the sugar. Also, have you ever seen a “waffle fork” before?

Oh hey, a fork! Wait…

All-in-all, that was a pretty good meal. Little too expensive for what you get though, but if you dig pretty food, that’s the place for you.

Alright, time to wander a little. Sadly, I don’t have too many photos since it was insanely crowded and I had to bail out a little early.

Takeshita Street and its iconic LED sign

Crepe and Scone shops are very common here.

You will often see edgy avant garde art and billboards all over the place. This is one of the few places in Japan with heavy amounts of graffiti, though I’m unsure if that was just an aesthetic choice or actually caused by malicious teenagers.

Neat

Now one thing that I want to talk about that I found very weird and might be difficult to tastefully explain was the presence of black street barkers. I say these next words with no intent to offend, just simply my observations. In Japan, it is VERY, VERY rare to see a person of color. I think I only saw one on my entire trip up until this point.  It seems that all the “cool” shops down here hired a bunch of black men simply because they’re different and stand out against all of the other street barkers. I’m not quite sure how I felt about this to be honest as it seemed a little exploitative? If they genuinely enjoy their jobs then more power to them as it’s difficult for outsiders from any background to get jobs in Japan. Another thing that I heard about Japan was that it was common to be yanked from a crowd towards a store – this had never happened to me until now when I was tugged over by one of the barkers. Yeah, no thanks… I wanted to get out of there.

I was mainly here for the big 100 Yen shop near the mouth of Takeshita street. In this store were countless items over several floors that were all priced for 100 Yen a pop. Think dollar store, but the items inside are almost all made in Japan and are very high quality. I wanted to pick up some gifts here while I still had some strength left. Soon after leaving the store, I could really feel the body aches creeping back and my head began to hurt. A 30 minute ride back on the Yamanote line and I was at my hotel. Crash. I was out for the rest of the day. Such a bummer, but again, at least I had a place to crash after feeling like that.

Eventually, after about 8 hours of sleep, it was really dark outside, but I was pretty hungry. As much as I wanted to have another nice dinner in Japan, I just didn’t have the strength for it. I settled for a convenience store meal which actually was pretty good. This was kind of a sad way to end the trip, but truthfully, I’ve done just about everything I wanted to do in my stay here. I am completely satisfied with my trip. I’ve experienced so much from this trip and other than becoming sick at the very end, everything just went perfectly to plan. This journey was awesome.

And… If I’m going to be sick in Japan, you know I’m gonna’ try out the silly little head cooling thingies.

Chillin’

They’re weird. One side has some non-adhesive stickiness that you just slap on your forehead. The idea is that the little gel pack will diffuse heat from your head, and at first, it really worked well! Then after about 5 minutes, it became the same temperature as my head. Even glorious Japan can not beat the laws of thermodynamics.

As I write this story, I’m still feeling a little meh, but this time, I have a 12 hour flight to catch. We’ll see how my final hours in Japan go.

Alright, back to bed.

45 Stories Above Tokyo

September 19, 2017

After a comfortable night of rest and relaxation, I awoke with no specific plan in mind for the day. I thought to myself, “I’ve seen lots of central Tokyo, what’s to the west?” I’ve heard that Shinjuku is neat – that’s where all the sky scrapers are. Alright, that sounds fun, let’s take a trip down to Shinjuku and see what we can find!

Shinjuku Station was only a short 30 minute ride away on the Yamanote line. Soon, I arrive and emerge from the underground pathways.

Here’s the first thing I saw at Shinjuku

Shinjuku is just like the rest of Tokyo, but more… mega. There are tons and tons of enormous buildings everywhere. The weather outside was perfect which was really nice after all the rainy days I had in Osaka.

I began my walk around town and wandered for a couple miles. I always like to stray off from the main paths and see some of the less crowded “suburb” areas. It was a lovely walk, but I still didn’t really have a goal in mind. I eventually came across a city map on the side of the street. Highlighted on that map was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that! You can go all the way up to the top observatory for free and take a look at Tokyo from the sky! Alright, let’s go there!

A bit of walking later, and in the midst of all the other massive sky scrapers, there it stood.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Building from the ground.

Whoah, this building is huge. All around the building flew banners promoting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As awesome as that sounds, I can’t imagine what Tokyo would be like if it was even more crowded. Soon, I found myself in the massive main courtyard and followed the signs to the observatory elevators.

Center courtyard

Towers from the courtyard

There was a very short line near the elevators along with a couple police officers. Reasonably so, they were there to give your bags a quick search, and after about 10 minutes or so, I was boarded into a very crowded elevator. It’s funny, that elevator was filled to maximum capacity, and yet, the entire way up, dead-silence. Crowded as all get out, but not even a peep from anybody. It was odd.

45 Stories and some ear-popping later, I was at the top. There were several huge windows to see Tokyo from nearly every angle, a large gift shop, a restaurant with a nice view and classy music playing, and a huge line wrapping all throughout the top floor just to take the elevator back down. The elevator line up the tower mislead me to think that this place wasn’t going to be that crowded. Oh well, let’s see Tokyo from the sky.

The photo doesn’t really capture the true feeling of seeing an “infinite city.”

Seen in the skyline: The Tokyo Skytree. Very faintly on the right side, Tokyo Tower (see: Eiffel Tower) is visible. On a clear day, Mount. Fuji would be visible too. You can click any of these images to see the full resolution.

You couldn’t even explore 1% of this city within a lifetime.

A garden and fountain down below. People look so tiny!

Wait… what’s that…?

Oh, it’s just Godzilla.

Hey look, a mini-Pokemon center. Prices? You don’t wanna know.

A mini Ghibli gift shop! Also wildly overpriced!

I’ll just settle for a squishy flan from a Gotchapon so I can give it to my sister. “プリン” (Pu-rin / pudding) says the gotchapon.

Alright, I’ve taken it all in. Time to wait in line for the elevator down. This took about 20 minutes, but soon after yet another odd and completely silent elevator ride down 45 stories, I arrived back into the lobby of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. That was fun! And best of all (sans squishy flan) it was free! If you’re in Shinjuku, you absolutely have to take advantage of the free observatory decks of the Tokyo Metro. I’ve head that the Skytree also has a good view, but required a HUGE wait in line and costs around ~$20-30. Though, the Skytree is over 600 meters tall while the Tokyo Metro is just over 200 meters.

Alright, I’m hungry. I want some ramen. It didn’t take long before I was at a corner shop serving up big bowls of spicy pork ramen. That sounds awesome, I’m in. I walk up the stairs, order up the biggest bowl with all the toppings, and soon enough:

I love ramen

Hm. While technically correct, “mushrooms” sound more appealing than Fungus, Japan.

The noodles this time were thin this time! It was almost like angel hair ramen. The broth was deliciously rich with porky-goodness and the special red paste spiced it up. It was a subtle spice that built up with time, and soon, my nose was running. Looks like that’s pretty common, since instead of napkins, there was a box of facial tissues. Ha.

View from the restaurant window. As a fan of retro Sega hardware hacking, it warms my heart to see Sega arcades on every corner.

After lunch, I did a bit more walking. I just love the energy of Tokyo so much. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the other cities that I visited on my trip too, but something about Tokyo really speaks to me. A highly ordered and meticulous society meets absolute chaos. I just didn’t get that sense from any other city. The only other city close to the feeling of Tokyo in my opinion was Osaka, but sadly, I got rained out of most of my stay there.

Eventually, I hopped back on the Yamanote line to get back to my hotel. I didn’t really think about it until I was already back at the hotel, but… I just hopped onto the correct train, on the correct route, and got off at the correct station, all without looking anything up on my phone. Man, I was just getting really good at daily life in Japan and the trip is almost over. I’ll be an expert for my next visit ;)

I needed to wash up my clothes for the next couple of days, so I headed down to the hotel’s laundromat and tossed in my clothes. Same crappy driers as every other hotel… You know what? I’ma keep my 200 yen and just air dry these things. Once my clothes were cleaned, I took them back to my room and found every hangable surface I could find. Only one problem: I was getting pretty hungry after all of this and I only had one set of dirty clothes. I didn’t really want to go anywhere fancy looking like a chump, so I figured I’d see how the Japanese take on an American Hamburger.

MOS burger is a very popular Japanese burger chain that uses odd pork and beef mixed patties. Up until now, I haven’t tried them yet, but from what I hear, MOS makes a pretty good burger. There was a store right down the street. Alright, I’ll give MOS burger a try, but my standard here will be In-n-Out… let’s see how Japan stacks up.

I walk in, order a double teriyaki burger and a large fry. I’m soon given a number and I head up to the auxiliary seating up a short flight of stairs. After a few moments, a friendly staff member delivers my food, and man did it smell good. Perhaps the stereotype of Americans loving burgers is true; after all, I’ve been deprived of a good ‘burger and fries’ for almost a month now. The portion sizes were definitely scaled back a bit which is nice: Their large is more like our medium or small.

Double teriyaki burger /w fries

The burger was pretty good! Does it beat In-n-Out? NOOOOO not even in the same ball park, but it was still pretty good nonetheless. There was a sticky, savory teriyaki glaze atop two pork and beef patties. No cheese, instead, there was Japanese Mayo and ALL OF THE LETTUCE IN THE UNIVERSE. Real talk Japan, tone it down with the salad. What I really enjoyed were the french fries. Just like home – thick cut and delicious.

As I sit there eating my burger and fries, The Beach Boys were playing. I assume this was just a cute attempt to give the restaurant an authentic “American” feeling, but truthfully, it kinda’ worked on me. Surf City came on, and it made me think of Home. I love you Japan, but you know, I think I’m ready to go back to California. This was the perfect amount of time for me.

You know we’re goin’ to Surf City, gonna have some fun

Back to Tokyo

September 18, 2017

So it’s time to head back up to Tokyo for my final hotel stay. Originally, I wanted to go down to Hiroshima for a night just to see the area and the peace museum, but due to some unforeseen train scheduling issues, I elected to refund my Hiroshima stay and buy one more night in Tokyo. As much as I wanted to see Hiroshima, this was honestly the best move as most of my time there would be eaten up traveling anyways and an extra day in Tokyo sounds like a fair trade to me!

Since today was a travel day, not too many crazy things happened today. I ate a quick breakfast, packed up all my stuff, then hit the subways toward Osaka Station. You know… there was something at Osaka Station that I really wanted to check out… hm….

Just gonna’ pick up some essentials… you know…? Need anything from the Pokemon Center?

Pokemon Center Osaka. It’s not a “mega” center, but it was still packed with all sorts of Pokemon goodies. I love this place.

This will be the only time I will say this unironically: かわい!!

Fans of Indigo League will like this: Charizard is known as “Lizardon” down here. You can also see that they like using their more literal “Pocket Monsters” branding.

Save me from myself.

Okay, train gets here soon, better start heading to the platforms. With my previous experience reserving train seats down at Takayama, I thought it might be a good idea to pop in a reserve some seats for the Shinkansen, especially since this will be a nearly 3-hour ride. I walk into the ticket office, show my pass, and request a reserved seat on Hikari 522. Sold out. What? Uh oh… I hope this train isn’t packed.

I go up to the station platform and wait in the unreserved area. Oh man, there are quite a few people here. Please don’t make me stand in a train for 3 hours. The Shinkansen arrives, the doors open, annnnnddd… the cars are empty. I find a seat no problem. Nice.

Well, nice until a few stops later, a vehemently upset infant decides that it would like to scream and cry for the remaining two hours of the trip. Goodie. I popped in some earbuds, then just enjoyed the view of Japan passing by at 160 Km/H. I even ordered a special on-train sushi bento! It was so beautifully wrapped – just like a Christmas present of Sushi. Each piece was individually wrapped in a large leaf. This was just “some food you buy on a train” and it was fantastic! How does Japan do it?

Fancy leaf-wrapped sushi bento on a Shinkansen! Can you think of anything more Japanese?

Pretty good cuts of fish too! Best sushi in Japan? No way. Unreal quality for train-food? Yes!!

Eventually, I’m back at Tokyo Station.

I find the green Yamanote line and begin to head down towards Nippori. It was funny, the first stop from Tokyo Station was “Kanda.” The first place I stayed on this trip. Is it possible to feel “nostalgic” over something that happened like… 2 weeks ago? It feels like I stayed in Kanda years ago and was just coming back. “Kanda, Kanda-des,” says the announcer. It felt wrong not to get off.

Next we zoom past Akihabara. It’s always fun to stop in Akiba because of the people that get on and off there. They look just like the kind of people you’d expect to get off at Akihabara. If you see somebody playing with a 3DS on the train, there’s a sure-fire bet that they will be departing at Akihabara station. Mixed in with that are glitzed up girls with bags full of UFO catcher prizes and salary men about to start their evening shift. Soon we depart, and from the windows of the train, you see the bright and in-your-face insanity of the Electric Town of Everything pass by.

Alright, finally, Nippori Station. My full day of train rides has ended. Even though it was a long day of traveling, I still can’t get over how awesome the train systems are here. While the Shinkansens would be pretty expensive without the rail pass, if you were just an average citizen of Tokyo, you can essentially board a train to anywhere and be there in only a few moments for less than $2. So amazing.

This hotel that I’m checking in to is right along the train tracks, so I only have to walk a few steps before I arrive. This place is fancy and the building looks like it’s brand new. So new, in fact, that if you were to look up this location on Google Maps, there is just a dirt plot where this hotel currently stands! Sweet. I get checked-in and head up to my room. First thing I see on my bed:

A little origami crane! Aw!

Instead of a bedside bible, it’s a bedside manga about the hotel chain. I love Japan.

View’s not half bad either.

There’s even a BIG ultra-HD TV in here. Sweet, now I can watch 12 basic cable channels of nonsense that I don’t understand IN SUPER HD! And finally! A soft bed! YES!

Alright, this hotel is comfy. Let’s go get dinner. I took a walk around town and it looks like there is a bunch of cool places to eat. I love the crazy electric sign bombardment through all the alleyways trying to entice people to visit their restaurant instead of the billions of others. Past the train tracks a bit, I found an Izakaya serving fresh fish and more tasty Yakitori skewers. Sadly, no photos this time since it was a bit too crowded for that. I ordered some delicious Shashimi, a multitude of skewers, and even tried out grilled gizzards. Of what animal? Chicken…? I hope..? Chewy!

Dinner was good. I went down to the local 7/11 to pick up breakfast for tomorrow. On my walk back, I reflected on my trip so far. I can’t believe it’s almost over already. It feels like it has gone by so fast, but at the same time, it feels like I’ve been in Japan for years. I’ve learned so much about how this country works, and yet, I still know very little.
I look forward to my last couple of days here. What else will Tokyo show me?

Acrobatics and Aquatics

September 17, 2017

The rest of southern Japan today is awash from Typhoon Talim, but it seems that Osaka just so happens to be in a small area of relieved clouds and partly sunny weather. The weather forecasts for today predict heavy rain, but I decide to take my chances and enjoy the clear skies while I can.

My destination for today? I’d like to go down to the harbor and visit one of Japan’s most prized aquariums: Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. Fortunately for me, the Aquarium was only a short ride on the Chou subway line, of which a station lies just steps away from my hotel. Perfect! I get ready, head down to the subways, pay for my ticket, and I’m off!

I soon arrived at Osakako station. This station was right along the waterfront of Osaka’s main shipping yards and was plastered with lots of images of the marine life found within the aquarium. Looks fun! After only a short walk north, there it stands:

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

The building itself was very pretty and interesting to look at. There was a pretty long line to buy tickets when I first arrived, so I decided to check out the local shopping mall for some lunch. This would soon prove to be a smart move, since I not only found some great food inside of the mall, I also got a show to go with it!

First up, the grub. There was a small shop selling both okonomiyaki AND takoyaki! I’m gonna’ have to get those things at least one more time because they’re so good! I order one of each and yep, just like last time, they’re wonderful!

Takoyaki

Okonomiyaki

A place that serves these dishes must exist somewhere in California… right? They’re too good not to bring over!

As I finished my meal, I noticed that a crowd was gathering near a small center stage on the second floor of the mall. It seemed like some performance art was starting up! Sweet, a free show to start the day off!

The opening act was a short display of ancient mask swapping magic. The dancer carries multiple concealed masks and will swap them out instantly as the act progresses. The change happens so quickly that you don’t see any masks in his hands or where the multiple masks are being concealed. It was really quite awesome!

The next act required a volunteer to hold up a newspaper while the imagination bisected it with a HUGE bullwhip. The perfectly sliced sheets of newspaper were reduced by half after every attempt, upping the stakes for not only the performer, but for the volunteer as well! I wonder how her hearing is doing because that whip was LOUD!

The last act that I recorded in part was amazing. The magician balanced a giant tower of chairs atop 4 glass sake bottles and proceeded to perform feats of acrobatics on it. Incredible!

Incredible!

Time to hit the aquarium and see some fishes.

After a short wait in line, I was up to buy my ticket. 2300 Yen (~$21) for adults, not bad! I was pretty excited for this aquarium. That is…until I saw the first exhibit.

Uhhh.. This is just a moshpit of insanity. The calm, collective, and cooperative nature of Japan that I have experienced so far has just been thrown out the window. Each exhibit was PACKED with hordes and hordes of people pushing and shoving their way to the front of the crowd. This was madness! You had to wait about 10 minutes in this pushy-shovey crowd just to get a glance at smidgen of an otters tail. First impressions of the aquarium were admittedly very negative. This was not fun and it was a real bummer.

Worse still, this giant mass of humanity was being forced into a long and dark, claustrophobic hallway. Each exhibit window was filled to the brim with impatient people shoving their way to the front or forcing their cameras through the crowd so they could take a blurry and underexposed photo of any fish they saw. I honestly just considered cutting my loses and leaving right there.

Fortunately, I carried on, and soon, the crowds suddenly dissipated. Finally, I could breathe a little and actually see some of the awesome creatures they have on display here! This was more like it. The entire museum is essentially a giant spiral staircase down centralized aquariums, so even though I couldn’t see anything near the crowded tops of the exhibits, I could still experience the animals from below.

Okay, thank goodness for that. Let’s enjoy some sea life.

“Hey wait… is that.. Aidan?!”

“It is!!”

“Hi!!!”

Parking lot? Don’t you mean… sharking-lot?

The Japanese can not pronounce the “guin” in “Penguin,” so they call these guys “Pengins” and it’s adorable.

 

 

I love these little sand-eels

They chillin’

In the center exhibit are two prized whale sharks. One male, one female.

It was cute, you could hear all of the little kids shouting “Des-tin-ney! Des-tin-ney!” referring to the Finding Dory whale shark character, “Destiny.”

AYYYY

I’m pretty sure this is where the inspiration for the Animal Crossing aquarium comes from.

After lots and lots of aquatic encounters, it was time to go. While the first section of the Aquarium was utter hell, the less-crowded sections were actually quite pleasant. I have to admit though, I think The Aquarium of the Pacific back at home has this aquarium beat. Still, it was a nice afternoon overall.

Of course all of the animals here have mascots! This is Japan!

Seaside Osaka

An enormous farris wheel out front. Sadly, not in operation today.

Alright, back to the hotel.

30 SECOND CHOCOLATE REVIEW:

BOOM STRAWBERRY POCKY, S’BRETTY GOOD AND TASTES LIKE STRAWBERRY POCKY. NEXT!

BOOM NORMAL POCKY, S’BRETTY GOOD AND TASTES LIKE NOT STRAWBERRY POCKY. NEXT!

BOOM CRUNKY! Real talk this bar was actually really good. Think of a crunch bar, but with slightly darker chocolate and not as sweet. This is a new favorite.

30 SECOND CHOCOLATE REVIEW OVER.

Let’s go down to Dotonbori again tonight! Yeah, that sounds fun! I’ll just check the weather and…

Oh hey there Typhoon directly on top of me.

Oh… well guess that’s not happening tonight. Guess I’ll get dinner at the little place down the street a bit!

I love sushi

I love chicken

Sad that I won’t be able to visit Dotonburi again tonight, but hey, there’s always next time!

Rained Out

September 16, 2017

Aw man…

In Japan right now, Typhoon Talim is making landfall. Fortunately, the storm has weakened significantly, but this means that Osaka will be awash with heavy rain and winds. Man…

The storm didn’t seem so bad when I was inside of my room, so I went down outside to check for myself. Immediately after opening my umbrella, a strong gust of wind turned it inside out and nearly ripped it from my hands. Eh.. Guess I won’t be doing much walking today. After waiting for the weather to die down for just a little bit, I went on a search for some okonomiyaki.

A little walking in the rain and I arrive at what seems to be “the location” for a restaurant that I was searching for on Google Maps. I looked around and saw nothing that resembles the restaurant listed on my map. I asked some locals for help and they too had no idea where this place was. Hm… Well, upon closer inspection, I noticed that there was a small dirt plot about the size of the restaurant in question pointing exactly where Google Maps said to go. The restaurant had been demolished and the listing was never updated. Oooookay time to search around a bit more then.

Most of these okonomiyaki places were dinner-only, so I had trouble finding any open place near me. I decided to search for “お好み焼き” instead of “okonomiyaki” to see if my results would fair better. Immediately, tons of these little okonomiyaki places started to appear on my map. Sweet, there was one right below the bridge I was standing on. Protip when searching for things is a foreign country – try searching in the native language for better results!

This okonomiyaki joint was awesome. The cook was right out front with a big teppan cooking away meals while the rest of the super tiny restaurant consisted of only a few tiny tables inside. “Comfy” aptly describes this restaurant. I ordered up some okonomiyaki and as to be expected, it was glorious!

Egg, cabbage, various meats, bonito flakes, and wonderful okonomiyaki sauces and Japanese Mayo. This stuff is the bomb and is a super cheap eat. I loved this tiny street-side restaurant. The only problem with some of these smaller joints though is that a lot of people like to smoke in them. Being in a small room with a bunch of smokers makes it a little tough to fully enjoy the meal, but eh.

Soon after I finished, the storm was beginning to mount. Man, it sucks to be rained out in Osaka – there are so many cool things I want to do here and wasting days just blows. Okay, if I’m staying inside today, I’m still going to figure out a way to experience some new things.

I’m gonna’ go down to a convenience store and buy a whole bunch of Japanese chocolates and see how they taste. Yeah!

The chocolate sampler

So I picked up a couple packages of chocolate items that seemed interesting to me. Osaka is known for both its Glico and Meiji factories, whom which are two of the largest Japanese confectionery producers. I grabbed a couple tiny squares, some chocolate-stuffed crackers, a “Crunky” (crunch?) bar, some good ol’ standard Pocky, and some strawberry Pocky, which I haven’t actually seen in the States before.

Roasted soy-sesame mochi

First up, the tiny squares. This first one doesn’t look like chocolate and displays some sort of mochi on the package. I actually really enjoyed the taste of this piece – It was almost like a peanut butter flavor, but it’s more along the lines of “peanut butter, but made with sesame seeds.” After the piece melted a little, there was a squishy texture inside. It was an actual piece of mochi! Awesome! I liked this candy!

Coconut, lime, and creme?

Next up, this white square of candy. Again, this didn’t seem to be chocolate, but I gave it a try anyways. This flavor was odd… Ever smell a candle and think “man, I really like this smell, I wish I could ‘eat’ this candle.” Yeah, that’s kinda what this thing was like. Odd limey-waxy-creme flavor with a liquid lime center. I don’t think I really liked the flavor of this one. Meh.

Choco-filled crackers.

Next, the chocolate-filled cracker things. These were awesome. Light, crispy, goldfish-esque cracker filled with light and airy chocolate. I… May have finished the entire box of these things. They were really really good.

At this point, my sweet tooth was satiated and I decided to save the rest for later. The forecast calls for more rain tomorrow, so perhaps I’ll save the rest of these chocolates for the following day.

Totally random side-note that I just wanted to share, keys in Japan are neat. Instead of the standard North-American notch-and-bump model keys, Japan uses different-sized divots in the body of their keys.

What keys look like in Japan

Random side-note over. Let’s go get some dinner!

The storm cleared up a little near 20:00 and I wanted to do some walking. I searched around for a cool restaurant to eat at and after about a mile or so, I found an Izakaya. Izakayas are tiny bars that you’re normally supposed to drink yourself stupid at, but are also known for their Yakitori. Yakitori is Japanese-style charcoal barbecued skewers of meat cooked up right in front of you. Yeah, that sounds awesome, I’m in.

An open, white-hot charcoal grill cooking up some wonderful meats.

There was a friendly request at the bottom of the menu that said you must order at least one drink, but sorry Japan, drinking ain’t my gig, so no disrespect to your restaurant. I gave them a five-star review, so hopefully that makes up a little for my lack of alcohol consumption ;). I got a couple odd looks, but overall, I think they got over it eventually when I just ordered water.

Anyways, back to the food. Holy moley it was incredible. Even though I don’t drink, I can appreciate the clever design of the food in these restaurants. Pickles, salted meats, salty breads, miso-rich glazes… They want to make you as thirsty as possible so you buy more drinks. Delicious, but they certainly do make your parched.

Here are the dishes I ordered:

My favorite skewer. Pickled-ginger chicken. Incredible flavor.

Salted chicken skin. Good, but admittedly, a little bit of a boring flavor after a couple bites. I ordered the sauce-drizzled chicken skin next and THAT was amazing.

Fancy seared and shreaded wagyu beef dish. As a westerner, eating near-raw beef /w raw egg was an interesting sensation, but man it was good.

Wasabi-seared chicken. Again, nearly-raw chicken felt super shady to eat, but it was wonderful. Pro-tip that I discovered while eating these: If your head is exploding from a massive amount of wasabi, just inhale through your nose at a steady rate. It prevents your sinuses from flaring up!

Grilled chicken and onions. The heavy charring on these ingredients paired up with the sauce is divine.

A crispy grilled shrimp and vegetable sandwich. I love crispy, salty, charred up bread. There uh.. was two of these sandwiches.. I may have been a bit hasty :)

Just had to get more of these chicken skewers. Man they were good.

love Yakitori and will totally be getting that again. I just wish the pressure to drink wasn’t so strong, but whatever. These dishes would never be served in the United States. Serving under-cooked poultry and beef is a sure-fire way to be shut down by a health inspector in the US, so I’m glad I got to try it out down here where the unique blend of more relaxed food preparation standards and the pursuit of literal perfection merge.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that my confidence with walking in to random restaurants has really improved. When I first came to Japan, there were so many cool places that I wanted to visit, but hesitated since I was unsure if they would accommodate a foreign person that doesn’t know the language very well. In retrospect, that mentality was pretty silly and I’m glad I’m getting over it. These places are more than happy to take your money, after all. Every restaurant I have been to either has an English menu, pictures of the food that you can point at, or rarely failing that, staff that will gladly help you pick something good.

Food is an absolute good in Japan. You really have to try to make it a bad experience. Well, unless you go to McDonalds for breakfast.

Osaka: Food Heaven

September 15, 2017

Well, I can’t say that this day didn’t start off interesting. I was just enjoying my morning coffee and breakfast when suddenly I received a message from home asking me if I was having “Quite the morning.” Uhhh… uh oh, what’s going down..?

I turn on the TV and see this:

NK, I’d really appreciate it if you could just not, you know? Welp, I didn’t receive any notifications on my phone or hear any sirens. I was in Kyoto which is pretty far from the Hokkaido region where the missile passed over. State media was in a frenzy for about 2 hours – nearly every channel was on this subject.

….Then after those 2 hours, nearly nothing. The war on the Pacific Ocean was seemingly forgotten. That’s nice. Sumo wrestling was on now!

With that out of the way, it was time to check-out of Kyoto and head down to Osaka. Kyoto was fun, but I don’t feel like I got the full experience. There was just so much to explore in Kyoto, but I was located in kind of an awkward spot in town that made it tricky to visit these sites within a reasonable time frame. Oh well, maybe I’ll pop back down for a day trip later if I have some extra time.

Today, I was going to head down to Osaka, the last new destination on my trip. Originally, I was going to head down to Hiroshima after Osaka, but due to unforeseen train scheduling issues, I had to cancel my stay in Hiroshima. Instead, I’ll spend one more day in Tokyo. Honestly, this is probably a better move as most of my single night in Hiroshima would have been wasted with travel time.

I’m excited for Osaka as it’s known as “The Kitchen of Japan.” It was only a short 30-minute train ride away… oh.. this train is a little crowded.. whoops, guess I’m standing for the entire journey. Oh well!

Eventually I arrived in Osaka and wow, I really like this city. Kyoto was fun, but I couldn’t feel the same “energy” that Tokyo had. Osaka right off the bat has a fun, adventurous, and silly atmosphere that I’ve been longing for ever since leaving Tokyo. Hey, there was even another Pokemon center right inside the train station! I’ll have to check that out later. I was excited to be here!

Since my hotel was pretty far away from Osaka Station, I gave the local subways a try. It was a little confusing at first since there was a huge underground maze of different subway routes, shops, and restaurants, but I eventually tracked down my subway line. My new knowledge of how the subways worked in Japan was very helpful since I knew exactly how to find and calculate the cost of my destination while countless other new arrivals hummed-and-hawed, puzzled by the seemingly overly-complex subway ticket terminals. Don’t worry, we’re pros now!

I quickly zoomed off to my hotel and upon arrival, I was about an hour early for check-in. I dropped off my bags and decided to find some lunch. The street that I’m on is FILLED with amazing looking restaurants. Awesome.

Just a couple buildings down and I found a restaurant with a killer lunch deal.

How in the world do they sell meals like this for ~$8?!

It was a delicious sashimi assortment on a bed of rice served with a little cucumber salad, lightly flavored tofu, and of course, miso soup. Wonderful!

Lunch was through and I still had 30 minutes to spare. I headed to a little park down the street and rested for a little bit before I decided to go on a walk and see what I could find.

It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon a bunch of interesting locations.

NHK Broadcasting Building

It’s the NHK Broadcasting towers! I was watching their news broadcast just this morning. This building is akin to something like ABC studios at home. The building was super ginormous so it was difficult to even get a fraction of it in-frame.

Then, literally across the street… Whoah, a castle.

Castle in the middle of the city? Sure, I’ve got time. Let’s check it out!

The castle grounds were massive, as were the stones used to build all of the structures and walls. Each huge block of granite was about the size of a school bus and to think that the original construction of this castle was in the 1500’s. Wow.

Perhaps to give you a sense of scale. Look at the size of the people crossing the bridge vs the size of the stones.

I really love these ancient super structures right smack dab in the middle of the Japanese mega-cities. I randomly wandered through the castle grounds and crossed as many of the huge bridges I could find.

The primary bridge to the castle. Complete with weirdos taking dumb photos of themselves.

The main castle tower. Lots and LOTS of tourists in this area.

Soon after walking around the castle, I discovered the central tower. It was a gorgeous building and it seemed to have a line growing out of it – does this mean I can go inside?

Yes! You can go inside of the main building since it has been turned into a multi-story museum. Awesome! I bought a 600 Yen ticket and began my walk up the ancient granite stairs. Just then, I noticed a HUGE line out the door that practically wrapped around the building. Oh no… man.. I don’t want to wait in this… wait.. There’s a sign… It reads “Left side, elevator for 5F, right side for stairs.” This entire line is because people are too lazy to walk up stairs? Alright works for me.

I zipped right into the building via the nearly empty “stairs” line. Admittedly, the stairs were pretty steep, but the flights were very short. Why those people were waiting in an hour long line just for the elevator? I’ll never know.

Anyways, the inside of the main tower was an awesome showcase of genuine ancient armors, paintings, scrolls, and tapestries. There were a couple floors that did not allow photos, presumably to protect the ancient works from strong UV light coming from camera flashes, but there were a few things that I was allowed to take photos of.

Golden squishy tiger!

There were lots and lots of these ancient armor sets. All of them looked so cool.

Scale model of the castle grounds. There were lots of these building models and even large models of ancient battles!

Here are a couple of views atop the main tower. Beautiful.

Front courtyard. The building on the left was being renovated.

Hey look! The massive NHK tower we saw before!

Lots of large fields and gardens.

Ornate golden statues on every corner.

Here’s a short video showing my view. There was a magic show going down in the courtyard below so if you listen closely, you can hear the wonderfully appropriate soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A peaceful little stream away from the tourists.

A view from slightly farther away. It’s way less crowded down here.

Overall, I think that was a fun and spontaneous trip. There were a suffocating amount of tourists that were being loud and annoying, but some of the quieter parts of the castle were lovely. I really liked the view atop the main tower.

Okay, back to the hotel for a little bit so I can rest up for my next big night walk.

About 2 miles away lies Dotonbori, Osaka’s famous and iconic strip of street food vendors and entertainment hotspots. I couldn’t wait! Nightfall arrived and soon I was on my way. Walking through Japan at night is an interesting sensation. You can walk through the darkest, shadiest looking allies and yet.. you will be completely safe. You will frequently (I mean, literally multiple times every day) see what look like 2nd and 3rd grade school children by themselves walking around during the day and riding on the trains and subways. I love experiencing such a safe and fearless environment.

Eventually… I see… IT.

The iconic Glico running man. Just had to get a photo with it.

Dotonbori was AMAZING. It is an endless strip of wonderful street food, beer on every corner, and lots and lots of crazy sights. Love it! Time to get some street food.

First up, the food that Dotonbori is famous for: Takoyaki. I walked up to the little street stall where cooks were skillfully pouring batter and flipping the little orbs of deliciousness inside of massive pockmarked cast iron pans. The were also selling charcoal grilled chicken skewers. Yeah buddy, one of each please!

SO GOOD

First off, a word of warning to those who try Takoyaki. They are SUPER HOT and will not cool off in your mouth. My first bite was scalding and painful…. but oh my god so good. It was hard to resist hurting myself again just for another bite. Atop the Takoyaki was a bunch of interesting wiggly thin fish flakes (bonito) that were mostly for texture. Takoyaki is a little puff-pastry filled with fresh octopus meat and slathered in delicious sauces. Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of octopus, but man these little balls of goodness were to die for.

The chicken skewers were also incredible. Crispy and savory, covered in a thin salty sweet sauce. Friggen wonderful.

Speaking of chicken, a friendly vendor behind me was barking out to the streets advertising his Japanese-style fried chicken. Yeah buddy, let’s go.

I pick up a three-wing pack and oh man, they just beat America at its own game. Sticky sweet and salty, super crispy batter, wonderful taste and texture. These wings were the bomb. Subtle flavors rule.

Japanese fried chicken

That fried chicken vendor was awesome too. After my meal, my hands were extremely sticky and greasy. I kid you not, the moment I stood up and turned around to ask for more napkins, he is directly behind me with napkins and a wet towel. Friggen mind reader. I say this often, but man I love Japan.

Hey there you are! I knew you were in Osaka!

Next up, Gyoza. Japanese fried dumplings. Also stupid delicious. I love the food here so much, but I decided to call it quits after that meal since I had a 2 mile walk back to my hotel! I’ll be back for more soon, don’t worry.

Gyoza, more like Good-za.

Street food vendors

Endless food insanity

Huge Electronic signs everywhere!

A walk down the main street

Lots of shops have elaborate billboards

ドラゴン!

Endless fun

Kobe Beef

September 14, 2017

More meat for the meat gods. Today was going to be a special day. I was going to take a day trip from Kyoto to Kobe and indulge on what is rumored to be the finest cuts of beef in the world. Kobe Beef.

Lots of blogs, travel documentaries, and YouTube videos claim that Kobe beef is the be-all-to-end-all divine food and is usually described as “the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.” Would Kobe Beef be the best thing that I have eaten in my entire life? I’ll travel down to Kobe and find out!

I got ready, prepared my backpack, then jumped on a train towards Kobe. I skipped breakfast this morning, so I was super hungry and really raring to go for this meal. I accidentally missed the Shinkansen sitting right in front of me headed towards Kobe, so I had to opt for the slower generic train. The ride was much longer, but there were many cool sights along the way, so I enjoyed the ride.

An hour and a half or so later, and I arrived at Kobe Station. It was another hot and sticky day, but since Kobe was near the ocean, there was at least a cool breeze. I didn’t have any particular steakhouse in mind, so I pulled up Google Maps, found a highly rated restaurant down the street a bit, then took a walk through Kobe. It was only about 2 miles away, so the walk wasn’t that bad, however; Kobe is a bit more mountainous that the cities I have previously visited, so dealing with the verticality of the paths was pretty tiring at times. Finally, I get to the steakhouse annnnnddd…

There’s a sign on the door that says they will be closed for renovations between the 12th and the 17th. Ughh.. I seem to be running into a lot of closed restaurants on this trip. Okay, what ever. About a quarter of a mile west lies another highly reviewed steakhouse within a hotel. Alright, let’s check that place out.

A little walk in Kobe

Now normally, Kobe Beef meals are served on a teppan by a chef in front of you, but since I didn’t have a reservation, I had to order from an ala carte menu. No big deal, I was here for the beef, not the show. Soon I was seated in an opulent room with a big fireplace and smooth jazz music playing softly in the background. I love that lots of restaurants and cafes stick to smooth jazz and swing music – it makes everywhere feel fancy!

I await my meal.

I call over the server, then order the most expensive cut of Kobe Beef on the menu… and some rice too, of course :)

Moments later, I’m greeted by a perfect cut of medium-rare Kobe Beef, various sauces and toppings, and a big bowl of rice.

The meal.

In the center was the cut of beef along with some tiny fried potato rings. To the top right was black salt, miso paste, and a pickled radish paste /w green onions. The sauces were tomato sauce and soy sauce. I was instructed to mix the radish paste and green onions into the soy sauce. To eat the beef, I should first dip the piece into the black salt, grab a little miso paste, then dunk into tomato sauce, then dunk into the soy sauce. Lots of steps per piece, but then I took my first bite.

I think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket sums up my reaction quite well.

That was an unreal cut of meat. I’ve never experienced meat that was this tender before. It was savory and delicious! Easily the best steak I have ever had in my life by far. Wonderful, to say the least.

Perfectly cooked!

BUT:

Was it worth the $100 I spent on a 100 gram cut?

You know, I’d say yes. Not just for the flavor of the meat, but for the experience. I can now say that I have genuinely tried Kobe beef in the actual city of Kobe. Just that little talking point alone I think is worth the price tag.

Is it worth traveling all the way to Japan just to try this meat?

Nah. Trust me, it was a delicious steak, but people kinda’ hyped this waaaaaay too much. If you’re in the area and you’ve got a budget surplus like I did, by all means, come down and try it. You won’t be disappointed! If you save up and spend years preparing for just this meal, you’ll probably be let down. It’s a ridiculously good steak, but it’s not a life-altering, “touched by god himself” meal. Dare I say, the Sushi that I first tried at The Sunshine City Mall in Ikebukuro is still my favorite meal flavor-wise that I’ve had so far!

Gotta’ say though, that meal changed the steak game for me. That tender umami bomb was awesome!

I finished up the rest of my meal and was asked if I’d like a coffee to finish up with. Sure, that sounds great!

If we could end meals with really good coffee each time, that would be awesome.

I got a little coffee set with really good creme, then just took in the atmosphere and reflected on my meal. I like livin’ the good life. I’ll keep working hard and saving away so I can do stuff like this more often.

I finished up, accepted that I will not be having a budget surplus today, then released myself into the city of Kobe for a little while. I wandered only for a short bit before stumbling into another one of those crazy huge shopping arcades.

These arcades really do feel infinite

In Japan, it’s almost guaranteed to be handed fliers and give-away items when walking through shopping centers. Nearly every store has a vendor barking at the crowd and attempting to pass out fliers promoting their business. In the center of the shopping arcade, numerous promoters walked around in brightly colored vests plastered with promotional information and signs with more information strapped to their backs. At first, I thought they were just a health company promoting their products, but once I walked by, I was given some of their promotional material.

It was a pack of tissues with a promo card in it! They were the Japanese red cross and they were promoting a blood drive! Ahhh, I see!

Of course there is an adorable blood-donation mascot. This is Japan! He is けんけつちゃん, “Kenketsu-chan”

 

I spent a couple more hours wandering around Kobe, but didn’t really find too many other things of interest. Other than the awesome steak, it was a pretty average day with lots of travel by train and walking around as usual. I did, however, pass through Osaka a few times on my train rides. Osaka will be my next destination and I CAN’T WAIT!

Infinite Shopping

September 13, 2017

The part of Kyoto I’m in is very upscale and has tons and tons of fancy shops. I wanted to take a walk around town today and see what I could find.

It was a late start for me today. I’m getting a little more acclimated to the time now, so waking up extra early like I normally like to do is becoming a bit more difficult. After grabbing a couple snacks from the lobby and getting ready for my day, I set out at around 12:00. It was right around lunch time, so there were lots and lots of people, but since I ate not too long ago, I decided to walk around for an hour or so before picking a shop.

While I walked, I came across a massive, and I mean seemingly infinite shopping arcade. Shopping arcades are semi-indoor areas that are lined with countless shops. Kind of like a mall, but a bit more outdoorsy. I’ve mentioned before that many shops in Japan seem to pride themselves on having an impossibly large selection of goods to sell – well this was an impossibly large collection of shops with impossibly large selections of goods.

And to think, there were several branches off this main path that also looked like this.

Inside the arcade are shops of just about anything you can think of. Clothes, restaurants, video game arcades, pachinko parlors, tea shops, US army surplus stores, mask sales men… It was pretty insane and really fun to walk through.

Japan is a country that does not allow the sale of firearms to consumers. That’s actually really wonderful, but then you get silly model shops like these.

Video games have made me weary of creepy mask salesmen.

Hey, look who I found at the end of the Arcade! I could have sworn you were supposed to be in Osaka.

Miles and Miles later, I was starving. Time for lunch! A little more exploring later and I found a little underground place that had an insane lunch special on sashimi. Japan’s food is so amazingly good and is usually criminally cheap. How do they get away with meals like this:

Sashimi & Tempura spread with rice, and miso soup

FOR 1200 YEN?? ($11). It’s going to be hard to go back to the states where a meal like this would probably be like $70. The cuts of fish were wonderful and the tempura was fun to eat too! They tempura fried what seemed to be a melon and it was amazing with soy sauce! At the end of the meal, even though I was pretty stuffed, I wanted to try out their little desert special. They had little tiny ice cream truffles powdered with bitter cocoa. They were delectable and would slowly melt into a thick mousse.

Desert

One lunch later and the weather really decided to take a turn for the worst. It wasn’t raining or anything, just the opposite. 90°F+ and what felt like 100% humidity. Guh, there was no way I was walking in this. I went back to the hotel to rest up a little bit and decided that I would go out a little later in the day when it wasn’t so miserable outside.

My hotel sat a couple miles away from Gion, an older part of Kyoto known for it’s long alleyways of gorgeous (read, expensive) restaurants and Geishas. I wondered what I’d find down there, so I took a walk, hit the subways, then wandered all over the place. This was definitely another tourist hot spot. Rightfully so, I suppose, since the area was very pretty, though the crowds were a bit nuts. Down the beaten path I walk first, eventually coming across the brilliant Yasaka Shrine right at the end of the street. A magnificent temple campus with lots of huge orange gates, lanterns, and lots of zen architecture and statues. The main entryway was pretty crowded with people that have been drinking a biiiiiiit too much, so I wanted to get out of there and get a little deeper into the shrine. I walked up to the humble cleansing fountain, spooned a few ladlefuls of water over my hands, then put the ladle back exactly as I had found it. Off into the temple.

Walking a little deeper into the campus and you will find the many huge ropes attached to bells to be rang by those who wish to pray. Just beside the bells was a huge collection of lanterns above what appeared to be some sort of stage. It was brilliant! My camera couldn’t really cope with the brilliance of the lanterns against the darkness of the night. For the next few photos, I had to adjust my exposure time to about 3 seconds, so I apologize for any blurring.

Lanterns

A stoic stone protector of a tiny zen fountain

Said zen fountain. It was so peaceful.

Further still I wander into the temple, when suddenly, I was alone. I was too far away from the entrance for any of the other tourists, so I was isolated in my own little section of the temple. I love when this happens. I continued on and soon after a set of giant stone stairs…

A Tori Gate. It was very dark out, so in order to capture this image, I had to remain perfectly still for the long exposure to complete. Let’s just say that for just a moment I harnessed by inner zen Buddhist monk to remain perfectly still so I could capture the beautiful structure.

After that moment of serenity, it was time to jump back into the fray. While the main streets were pretty hopping, some of the tiny alleyways were sparsely populated. I headed down some of the darker, less crowded alleys and found tons and tons of very fancy, very exclusive, very expensive restaurants. The walk was quite pretty though. There was a certain charm to all these traditional buildings, each with their own red lantern outside.

I walked down these maze-like alleys for hours. I enjoyed the walk since this was a quieter part of town. Just then… Was that a Geisha? A Geisha just zipped into that building. I begin to walk down that lonely street and suddenly…
I was face to face, alone with another Geisha in a brilliant red Kimono. Whoah…
This was a unique moment for me. Normally, Geisha are absolutely swarmed with tourists trying to take photos with them, and yet, here I was, for just a few seconds, all alone with one.

I looked her in the eyes and said, “こんばんは” (Konbanwa, Good Evening). She softly replies, “こんばんはございます” (Konbanwagozaimas, A more respectful Good Evening). I walked past, and that was it. What a crazy little moment that was. It was so quick that I could barely process it. Neat.

Dinner time yo. I want something fast, delicious, and packed with meat. Kyoto obliged when I found a small bar-style restaurant that served huge bowls of various thin-grilled meats. A sign out front read, “No meat, no life.” No truer words have been spoken. Chicken, skirt steak, pork, you name it. All charred up on a grill, piled high into a big bowl of rice, then slathered in a deliciously savory spice sauce. Why is Japan so delicious? How will I cope without it?

Finally, after that wonderful huge-normous meal, I was beat. I walked for a couple more miles (while full, ughjkfds), then hit the subways back to my hotel. On the way there, there was of course, many vending machines. Even though I exclusively drink water, there was on drink there that I’ve always wanted to try. Japan’s infamous Pocari Sweat. Yes, not “sweet,” sweat. What an odd name. I’ma’ try it.

It’s basically just Poweraid without the insane sweetness. Not bad. I still prefer just regular water though.

Unlimited discoveries. Until tomorrow, Japan.

 

 

Wandering Through Kyoto

September 12, 2017

Morning comes and I’m up bright and early writing away. I remember the hotel staff mentioned that there was “free breakfast” served in the morning, and I wondered when that was. I found my little information card and it was breakfast was served up until 9:30… it was 9:25. I quickly got dressed and booked it to the lobby, only to discover that there was ample food left and even some nifty auto-grinding coffee machines.

I stocked up on lots of free pastries, grabbed a cup of coffee, then headed back to my room. The pastries were… meh. Hey, at least they were free. With that light breakfast out of the way, it was time to find something to do today.

The subways confused me last night. I needed some more practice with them. Since I was in Kyoto, I thought I’d take a trip down to the less glamorous part of town and see the headquarters of a company that I loved for all my life. Nintendo.

I had no intentions of going inside the buildings (not like I could anyways!), but I thought it would be cool to check out where nearly 40 years of digital magic came from (Nintendo as a whole being founded in 1889!). Going down to Nintendo would require several subway rides to and from, so it would be perfect to practice a little more. I chose to take the subway from my hotel to zip down to the next subway that would take me to Kyoto Station. From Kyoto Station, I would walk the remainder of the journey since I’d like to see a little bit Kyoto too.

Here’s what a subway ticket looks like.

Turns out, after using the subways so many times in a row, I managed to figure out the system pretty well. You don’t need to select a city on the ticket screens. Simply find the “You are here” on the big route maps placed above the ticket machines, follow the same colored line as the “You are here” to your destination stop, then look at the black number (red number is for child prices) to find your fare. Simply place that fare into the machine and automatically a button will appear representing the ticket value of the money you just inserted. Press that button to receive a ticket and that’s all you need to do.

Take that little ticket, put it into the receptacle at the gates and continue to walk forward. Immediately, your ticket will pop out from the other side. Grab it and you’re good to go.

Another thing that I learned while on the subways is that you need to pay close attention to the signage. Failing to correctly read the signs may put you on the wrong station platform or put you on a train that goes off in some random direction.

Alright, my quick trip through the tubes has concluded at Kyoto Station, now it was time to march. There was some light, intermittent rain, and the skies were mostly grey and gloomy. It was still rather warm and humid though. As I walk, the high-class and upscale Kyoto that I saw near the train station began to fade into rusty industrial hues. The smell of the environment also changed – Much more of a petroleum smell in this side of the city. It was definitely less glamorous than the main tourist hot spots, but this looked to me like the real side of Kyoto.

Rust, gray concrete, lots of power lines. The gritty industrial side of Kyoto.

But, amidst that sea of boring grey concrete lie a bastion of magic and goodness inside of a gleaming white tile building.

Hey! We made it! That is the Nintendo Research and Development Building.

So much colorful, happy magic came out of these buildings, even though they’re pretty plain and boring looking.

An infrared tripwire system found atop the Nintendo wall.

I took a walk around the perimeter. It was hilariously clear to me that I was indeed not the first fan to come walking through this area. Judging by the grassy barrier, the super tall wall, guards, gates, and even laser trip wire systems, I don’t think I was going in for a visit. Still though, it was really neat to see this place in person. I’ve always looked up to Nintendo for their impeccable design and they’re countless brilliant games.

A bit of a walk around the campus, and soon you will find Nintendo’s main headquarter building.

The main headquater building.

The main campus gate and sign. Notice to the left, a small sign that forbids any visitors. There was a giant Pikachu banner in the guard office though!

Seeing the Nintendo buildings was super cool and all, but this trip actually had an ulterior motive. I suspected that deep within that industrial park lies some pretty killer places to eat. This area of town was clearly not designed for foreigners. The English subscripting on all of the signs had vanished, announcements were not bilingual, and all the restaurants and shops in this area were small mom-and-pop operations. Directly across from the Nintendo campus lies a tiny Udon noddle shop. It was a little late into the lunch cycle (13:00), so I wondered if they were still open. Yep, open, but not very crowded. There sat one man that I could have sworn was Miyamoto at first glance and I almost died… but upon further inspection, it was just a normal person. Oh well. I ordered up the daily special and looked around.

On the wall was a collection of signatures that I could only assume were from big Nintendo names stopping by for a bite to eat. Keep in mind that this shop was directly across the street from Nintendo.

Some signatures on the wall.

Lunch arrived and as always, it was stupid delicious. It really is going to be hard to go back to the US when all the food here is just to die for.

Udon Noodle Lunch!

Fun fact: There is also an enormous Porsche dealership right next door to Nintendo. Tons and tons of beautiful cars, good food,  AND Nintendo. This was a super fun spot in an otherwise dull industrial park.

You can see that the Nintendo building really stands out inside this rusty industrial park.

I took one last look at Nintendo HQ, then I did a little more walking through this area of Kyoto. I eventually crossed over the Kamo River. I found it interesting that the embankments of the river were thoughtfully designed to contain Tsunamis should one ever pass through. Eventually, I found my way back to the subways and made my way to my hotel for a little rest after my long walk.

I like this little stubby pedestrian sign.

My next adventure for the day was to seek out one of those crazy conveyor belt sushi restaurants I’ve always heard so much about. I managed to find a highly-reviewed one, but it was back at Kyoto Station. BACK TO THE SUBWAY! I’m getting lots of practice with the subways today – I’m becoming a pro at these trains.

After getting lost in the enormity of Kyoto Station, I eventually found the restaurant. There was a short line out the door, so this place must be good. This was actually the first time I had to wait for a restaurant in Japan. Twenty minutes later, and I was seated at the rotating sushi bar. Chefs worked tirelessly to constantly restock the conveyor belt while patrons grabbed any piece that looks good to them.

Prices were determined by plate color. The standard white and blue plate was 143 yen. A multi-colored plate meant the price was still 143, but contained no wasabi. Finally, a gold and blue plate was for premium cuts, costing about 350 yen.

I ate what I felt to be lots and lots and it only amounted to about 1200 yen (~$11). So good. So affordable. There were a couple rolls there that just cranked the wasabi factor up to 11 though. They were super yummy, but every piece set my sinuses ablaze for a short few seconds.

I liked the little conveyor belt sushi idea. It was fun to see what magical things went by and you got to try anything that looked interesting. Fun!

I ended my night with another short walk through the Kyoto Station area and finally jumped on the subway back to my hotel. I’ve gotten pretty good at these things today!

Kyoto Tower at night