Imperial Garden Hanami… and also Kirby Cafe

March 31, 2019

Abbie and I both knew what the main event was for today. There was no getting around the fact that we had to sacrifice another chunk of our last remaining days here in Tokyo at SkyTree, but the prospect of eating Kirby’s face was just too good to give up. We had quite a bit of time before our surprise reservation at the Kirby Cafe was available, so we needed something to do. How about we walk the Imperial Castle Grounds and see the gardens. I bet they’re full of blooming cherry trees and people participating in Hanami. Hanami (literally translated to “flower viewing”), is the springtime festival in Japan where families and friends will picnic underneath the blooming cherry trees and view the Sakura flowers that adorn them.

Yeah, last time I was at the castle grounds, it was lovely. Just walk right in and have a good time in the vast open spaces.

As you will soon see, a couple other people had the same idea.

But before we get into all that, let’s find some breakfast! We set out towards Tokyo station and left via the grandiose east exit. This station is remarkable.

As much as my camera could capture. This place is huge!

Pano shot, complete with humans in interesting shapes

Alright, let’s scope out some breakfast here. We casually strolled around Tokyo, both above and below ground, and eventually found a foodcourt under a massive shopping mall. This place was serving “California-style” bagels (is that a thing?). All around the store were California-themed works of art and the state flag. Hmmm.. Does this feel like home? No, but the bagels and locks were really good.

Pretty expensive for bagels and coffee. At least it was good!

Breakfast obtained. Off to the Imperial Gardens.

Crossing over a bridge to enter the Imperial Grounds

There is just an INSANE amount of people here. I’m willing to bet that there is over 10,000 people waiting in line, and that is not hyperbole. WOW. Security was really on the up-and-up as well. Bag screenings, metal detectors, K9 units. Man, last time I was here, it was an easy stroll through the front gates. I suppose it’s the last day of the Heisei era and it’s Hanami, so those two factors are likely contributing to the crowds, but wow I really didn’t expect this. Let’s find our way to the gardens ASAP since there is lots of space there.

After the massive initial crowds, the path split. One path continued forward while the other went up a steep hill. This steep hill lead to the imperial gardens, of course, but if you’re ever in a crowded situation and have a choice on where to go next, pick the path of greatest resistance. It filters out most of the people.

Once we crested the hill though, what followed was a beautiful walk through the blooming Imperial Gardens.

 

Big, blooming, colorful trees everywhere

Abbie next to a flowering tree

The flowers smell like… nothing. They sure are pretty, though.

Hundreds of people gather under the trees to picnic and appreciate their beauty

Sitting on a bench and taking it all in.

Vast, ancient gardens contrasted with ever more Tokyo construction in the background

All of the paths were covered in blossom petals

More than you could ever count

Atop the battlement looking down at the observatory

New and old

Lots of other trees were in bloom, too

Bridge from old world, to new world

I think you get the idea. Much like New York’s Central park, this vast preserved space is a green haven in a concrete mega jungle. Difference being that these two places differ in age by a few hundred years and as far as I know, central park doesn’t have a moat or ancient castles. It really was shaping up to be a lovely day though, as the weather had warmed up a bit. We walked for quite a bit already and were becoming a little fatigued. Let’s head back to the hotel for an hour and wait for our special dinner.

Soon, we find ourselves at the SkyTree yet again, but this time, with good reason.

Yep still tall.

It was time.

We met with another American couple who had also managed to snag some last second tickets. Since we were in the same time slot, I wonder if we saw the opening at the exact same time. A party of four must of canceled before us. We chat for a little bit before finally… Yes. We’re in. We made it.

Strike a pose! The server takes your photo right as you enter.

The entire restaurant is decorated with Kirby themes

A fiery Kirby hides inside of the coffee grinder

Original art everywhere!

Even the menus are great.

After a lot of deliberating, Abbie and I had our orders in mind. Abbie was going to get the pasta stew with cheese bread while I was going to get the vegetable curry. Abbie also ordered a decorative chocolate malt and a fancy tomato cheese cake for desert.

The delicious malted choco-drink, complete with whipped cream art.

It pained us to drink him. Kirby didn’t seem to like it.

Abbie’s meal. A tomato/meat stew served with cheese bread, fruit, and Japanese potato salad.

Tada!

My dish. A vegetable curry, one side is tomato-based while the other is coffee based. Served with star rice pilaf, fried veggies, and inside Whispy Woods (tree) is potato salad, and cheese fondue.

You would expect a “theme-cafe” to have rather lack-luster food, since, you know… they usually do. But this was great. The food tasted wonderful and the flavors were super interesting.

And for desert…

A WONDERFUL cheese-cake with special tomato jelly served with a Maxim Tomato jar filled with tomato sorbet and acidic yogurt. Sounds exotic, tasted incredible.

We had made it. Abbie and I have wanted to go here ever since we heard about it in 2016, but never got the chance to. There was the very real possibility of missing it yet again, but through a stroke of sheer luck, we had made it. I can die happy now. You can all close down shop now, I’ve made the visit.

A Kirby Cafe spoon lays on the aftermath of our desert

Time to pay the cute-tax. Nintendo/HAL appreciates the blood-sacrifice. (~$90)

Expensive? Yes, very. Unforgettable experience? Totally. I say: worth it. The price of the meal was high, but as a consolidation, you’re given lots of stuff with your meal to take home. We walked out with a ceramic mug, a ceramic plate, two ceramic figurines, and even a little coaster. After dinner, you’re lead into the “exclusive” gift-shop. This shop was separate from the Kirby Cafe store we visited yesterday and had a few things that were exclusive to this area. This meant that we were going to spend even more money on expensive Kirby stuff, but I decided to pick up a few gatcha’s while Abbie got a shirt and a stuffed Kirby Chef. This place was so great. Let’s leave now before we bankrupt ourselves on Kirby memorabilia.

By now, it was only about 5PM. Still plenty of time to enjoy the night. Wanna hit up Akihabra again and play some arcade games? YEAH!

SkyTree from the train station at sunset. Seriously looks like some sort of fake fantasy backdrop.

Abbie’s shot

This train took us right to a JR station where we could transfer over to a line that took us straight to Akiba. It’s funny – we were just now getting used to the drastic time change, and it was already just about time to go back home. Oh well, at least we’ll see a little bit of this crazy city at night.

Crazier at night than during the day.

Electric City

Abbie hasn’t visited a proper Manga store yet. Well, this is the place to see a few (more like a billion of them). Manga and Anime isn’t my forte at all, so I was just as confused as she was. It really is all a spectacle though. You’re bombarded with art and sound from every angle. I didn’t know there was that many ways to draw skinny girls with colorful hair. Truthfully, it was hard to find any differences between the thousands of manga that all looked the same. I need to come here with someone that actually reads and watches this stuff because I’m in over my head. I did manage to find another volume of Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, basically, the only thing that I recognize. Abbie had become quite the fan of the anime over our vacation, so it was neat to point out that most animes that you see start out as Mangas sold in these stores.

Abbie and I picked out one manga each and we departed from the shop. Alright, I think that was enough of that for forever.

Let’s play some games.

 

First, we visited one of the arcades known for a few floors dedicated to vintage arcade titles, the “HEY” Arcade. That’s a little more up my alley. There was an entire floor dedicated to Japanese “Shoot-em ups” (AKA, Shmups). Essentially, take the play field and cover it with more projectiles than any sane person can reasonably process. That basically sums up bullet hell games. I found a Fantasy Zone cabinet – that was a little more my speed (also it has an awesome soundtrack). I wish they had one of the rare FZII cabinets, but this will do for now.

 

I can’t say that I’m the best at these kind of games (see: the worst), but they’re still fun none-the-less.

Resting in an ally with the Sega Arcade sign reflecting in the marble wall in front of us.

Let’s check back to see if the table-flip game is alive

We wandered back to Club Sega to see if the Table-flip game was alive again. Sadly, it was not. There was, however, Densha De Go, a super realistic train simulation cabinet that let you operate trains around this area. We had to give it a try.

Hey JR, I practiced my point-safety. Hit me up if you’re looking for new conductors.

Also this dude

I had to redeem myself.

Oh hey Goku

FOMO

March 30, 2019

I can’t say that the hotel we’re staying at now is my favorite hotel ever. Rock hard beds, dated rooms, and pretty dirty showers. Why did I choose this place? Well… It’s was the only place left! Even months in advance, hotel rooms during sakura season skyrocket in price, so this was the last place I could find that had double-beds. It’ll do, and the staff are still friendly and hospitable… but oof.. my back…

One good thing about this hotel, however, is its location. The hotel is literally right outside of Nippori station which is a main transit hub for not only the JR lines, but lots of other private railways too. That means that transporting ourselves to basically anywhere in Tokyo is a breeze.

First, let’s get a little breakfast from the little coffee shop across the street.

Wonderful hotcakes with a cocoa for Abbie and a Latte for me.

Today, I want to visit one of the most iconic engineering spectacles in all of Tokyo, the SkyTree. Before you get your hopes up and ask if I “went up to the top of the SkyTree,” no. Sorry. Not that I have a fear of heights, it’s more like having a fear of paying $30 a person to wait in line for an hour packed with tourists to see Tokyo on a poor-visibility morning. You know, that fear. Besides, you can get a good view of the city for free at the Tokyo Metropolitan building. I mostly wanted to see the SkyTree from the ground floor and look up at it. The SkyTree is also home to a massive shopping mall, so I figured we would spend a little time there too. I’ve never been to the SkyTree, nor this part of Tokyo before, so this will be interesting.

It really wasn’t all that tough to get down to the SkyTree from Nippori. We decided to take the trains, and while they may take a bit longer and require more transfers, using the city buses without an IC card is a pain. Next time I’m here, I’ll grab one for sure.

Once you arrived at the SkyTree’s Oshiage train station, you can walk directly into the SkyTree’s mall via a set of escalators. Before we hit the escalators though, we encountered an ear-piercing high-pitched squeal coming from the overhead light drivers. Guh, it’s so sharp and high pitched, it’s killing me. You could notice a visible reaction from every person under 30 walking through the same area. The underground area of Tokyo Station had the same annoying light drivers. It’s like a sonic dental drill.

Finally, outside. I wonder where the SkyTree itself is….

Oh…

Yeah that’s pretty damn tall. It’s literally scraping the sky, as the very top of the tower is shrouded in clouds. Very impressive, especially for a country known for its frequent powerful earthquakes.

The SkyTree tower itself is designed to be a TV broadcasting antenna for all of Tokyo. There are also two observation decks. Would I like to see Tokyo from on top of the SkyTree? Yes, absolutely. Do I want to pay 3000 Yen a person and wait for hours to get up there? Lol no.

Yeah that’s pretty big.

So, we decided to just wander around a little. Hey, look, a little Studio Ghibli pop-up shop. Aw that’s nice. There’s lots of little things here for sale that we didn’t find at the Ghibli Museum.

Look who’s here!

…Somehow we left without buying anything. Sometimes you just have to restrain yourself and hold back you kn—

oh.

oh what is this…

wait no I thought they closed this years ago…

is it…

Oh, it most definitely is.

What??? They brought back the Kirby Cafe? This was what’s known as a “pop-up” cafe. A temporary location that centers around a pop-culture subject which artificially increases demand due to its timed exclusivity. Once their time is up, they’re usually gone for good. The Kirby Cafe first opened in 2016 and was closed about six months later, thought to never return again. I really wanted to visit it during my 2017 trip, but alas, it had closed by then.

Pat his head for luck

…Nobody ever told me that the cafe opened back up again this year about a month ago. Yeah! Oh.. well.. something tells me all the reservations are booked for months. Better check to make sure.

Yeah.. just what I thought.

Wow. Completely booked for every single day the place is open. There’s no way we’re getting in here. Sure, it was just a place selling extremely overpriced food with a cutesy video game character aesthetic, but it’s absolutely triggering my sense of FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out.”

Kirby is the easy-to-play, comfortable video game franchise that my sister and I always play together. It’s a franchise that we both love and have always loved. The art styles, the music, the gameplay mechanics, everything. Kirby is wonderful, and here was this little pop-up cafe that celebrated the franchise that we always wanted to get into, but couldn’t because the cafe closed up shop years ago. Until it came back now, and we couldn’t get in because we were lacking reservations. Brutal.

I check once more to see if anything had magically cleared up… nope. Ugh. Oh well, let’s check out more of the SkyTree and see if we could get in later without a reservation when it’s less crowded.

The SkyTree mall was PACKED. Every store and stall was brimming with people. Also, everything here was crazy expensive. I knew this place was upscale but wow. Prices here are truly insane. I’m guessing they’re trying to grab all of that sweet, sweet tourist money.

Speaking of tourist money, look, another Pokemon center!

Yeah buddy, get’em! Rayquasa seems to be signed. Is that the VA for Pikachu?

Crowded and expensive, but these are always fun. I think I’m on track to visit every one of these places. Way more have popped up since I last visited. I’m betting the success of Pokemon Go has something to do with that. Somehow, we left without buying any more $30 stuffed animals.

Oh hey what’s up

A little more wandering through the mall brought us to the little gift-shop above the Kirby cafe. Here, you could buy lots of little goodies and doo-dads with the super tough pink puff and his pal’s faces on them. It’s not as good as the cafe, but I’ll take what I can get. I bought a CD of the cafe’s original soundtrack (Yes, they composed an original soundtrack based on the game music just for the cafe), and Abbie got a little decorative jar of star candies. We didn’t visit the cafe, but we bore witness to it and have proof of it’s existence.

Am I being overdramatic? Yes a little. I’m not upset, you’re upset.

I mean, just look at some of this stuff!

Fine. Let’s just go get some ramen or something.

We left the SkyTree after a little more shopping and headed to a ramen joint right down the street. They also served Gyudon, which sounded pretty good to me. Abbie ordered the house Ramen while I got some pork Gyudon. Moments after being seated at the noodle bar, we were served our food. Abbie said her noodles were really good! My dish, however…

The meat was tasty, the egg was fresh.. the rice? Ughk this rice was totally undercooked. I had already finished the main portion of meat, so it was too late to send the dish back, but yuck! Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever had bad rice in Japan before. Are you even allowed to mess up your staple food here? Bleh. That was a bit disappointing.

Abbie’s Ramen. Looked fine, but I’ve seen much better.

Gotta’ admit, today was a bit of a disappointment in general. The SkyTree was neat, but the overall experience was left me longing for more. Lunch was bleh. Let’s just get back to the hotel. Maybe we’ll just pickup McDonalds (which I normally hate) or something just to get a little American flavor in us to cleanse our palates again.

Some of the beautiful cherry trees lining our streets are in full bloom

After a few train rides back to the hotel, I laid on our rock-solid beds and decided to check the Kirby Cafe reservations again one last time, just for laughs. Ha… wouldn’t it be funny if there was suddenly just a time slot open?

HOLY JESUS THERE IS ONE TIME SLOT OPEN OH MY GOD GET IT.

Last second. Two people. One time slot within the dates we are still here. Tomorrow. We’re booked. The odds of that happening…

Kirby came down from his piles of money and said, “You know what… yes…. come in.. spend more, my children.”

Yeah… you know what? Today’s not so bad.

Last Call for Coffee

March 29, 2019

Last morning in Osaka. I want to pay one last visit to my new favorite coffee spot in Osaka. The owner is just so friendly and the coffee is to die for.

Abbie pointed out that she saw some people last time with jelly on their toast and was wondering if I could ask the owner for jelly on hers too. Once we were seated, we ordered the usual and I attempted to ask for jelly. I did not know what the Japanese referred to “jelly” as, so I attempted the literal translation first, ゼリー (Zeh-ree). ゼリー usually refers to a different kind of food project, most often than not, it’s just a little sweet treat often given to kids. It was not “fruit spread” which we were looking for. After a bit of back-and-forth with charades and useless Google Translate just giving me katakana translations (AKA, just turning my American English into English with a Japanese accent), Abbie had the great idea to simply show him a picture. “Ah! Strawberry Jam-u.” Yes, yes! We got it!

…Wow it’s literally just “Strawberry Jam” in Japanese, huh. Good to know.

Toast, jammed!

I explained that in some parts of the US, we call Strawberry Jam, “Jelly.” He was really amused by this fact and came back with the whole jar of strawberry jam, asking which language “Strawberry Jam” was if it wasn’t “English.” I reassured him that it was in fact still English, we just had many different words for “jam” and I didn’t know which one the Japanese would use. That was funny. I’ve never had any sort of interaction like that before and it was fun to explain the nuances of our language.

When we were finished, the owner noticed that we left our suitcases outside. He asked if we were going back to America, and I explained that we were leaving for Tokyo and would leave Japan on April 2nd. We also asked for each other’s names and he wondered what my relation to Abbie was. “Little sister!” I said. “One more time, what was your names?” Asked the owner. “Aidan and Abbie.” I said. “I will remember them.”

Awwww… Just another example of Osaka Cool.

“Sayonara” we all said as we departed. I’m saving the coordinates of this place since it’s not on Google Maps. What a great find.

The place to go

Great breakfast spot!

After breakfast, we took one last walk through the morning market shopping arcade and made our way to the train station. We needed to take a quick ride on the local loop line towards Osaka Station, then transfer to Shin-Osaka Station to get to the Shinkansen tracks.

The local loop should have taken us all the way to Osaka station, but at one stop, the train suddenly went out of service. Thanks to the old dude with the cool glasses and hat that gave us the heads up because we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Early morning Shinkansen tracks

A couple more trains later and we were on the Shinkansen tracks. This time, we checked-in with the office and got a seat reservation. These are free with your rail pass and will guarantee you a seat. Since this is one of the most congested lines for the Shinkansen and we were going to be traveling for over 2 and a half hours, I think it was a great choice. Standing-room only would have been such a drag.

 

 

 

With snacks in hand, we waited at the station for about twenty minutes before setting off towards Tokyo. Bye, Osaka. See you again next time!

Visibility was pretty poor this time around, so sadly, there wasn’t really any chance to see Fuji-san. Oh well.

Most of the journey was pretty uneventful, which is nice when you’re using public transportation. Abbie and I just stared out the window and watched Japan go by at 320 KM/H.

Buckle up! ..Wait there’s no seat belts.

After a very long train journey, we were here, back in Toky—-Oh my GOD it’s so cold! That’s something funny about the Shinkansens – You get to rapidly travel between climate zones. A nice day in Osaka might be a cold and rainy day in Tokyo.

Wow. It was really cold. But look! The cherry trees! They’re all blooming! They’re everywhere! They’re Beautiful!!

Wonderful Sakura

Brilliant white/pink trees lined nearly every street. They’re just lovely. Arriving during Hanami (Sakura blooming & viewing festival) was a complete accident, but really makes for an unforgettable experience.

Abbie and I were really hungry after our train ride though. Strawberry Jam toast can only get you so far. How about… sashimi?

Yeah.

Sashimi sounds nice. This is what a $12 meal looks like, by the way.

Abbie got a slightly different meal

Everything was delicious, but my favorite parts of the meal were the ones that involved the Maguro (tuna). The Japanese take their tuna very seriously and it shows. It was incredibly good.

Gochisosama deshita!

Let’s get back to the hotel and out of this cold!

This trashcan gets me pumped

Okay take it easy, razor.

Nara Deer

March 28, 2019

I wanted to do something different today. While this entire trip has been a new experience for Abbie, I’ve already done most of these things already. Not saying that they’re not awesome and aren’t worth doing multiple times, but I just wanted to share a brand new experience with Abbie. One town that I’ve never visited before was Nara. Nara (then known as “Heijo”) was the first permanent capital of Japan and was established in the year 710. Here, you will not only find original structures and temples from that era, but you will also get to experience the thousands of tranquil wild deer that roam the streets. These tiny deer are receptive to people and really like to be fed rice crackers. You can walk up to them, pet them, feed them crackers, and take in the beautiful park where most of them are at. Sounds like fun! Let’s go to Nara today!

…But first let’s grab more of that delicious coffee and toast from the coffee shop we went to yesterday. It’s just too good to pass up. After breakfast, we headed towards the train station and jumped on the local line that lead towards Nara. Nara was actually quite a ways away, so taking the local train was a mistake. Since it stopped at every station, it would take ages to get to Nara. We decided to jump-off at the half-way point and wait a couple minutes for the rapid service. Only a few moments later, we were sitting on the rapid train towards Nara and oh yeah, that’s a lot faster.

We’re here!

Right outside Nara Station

A little bit of a walk up the main street and you will encounter a massive set of temples (with insanely steep stairs!). These temples were amazing and spacious. Even if they were dumping grounds for tourist busses, there was plenty of space so it wasn’t so packed and shovy.

Conquering the steep stairs.

Featured: Abbie, ancient shrine, ancient Buddhist traffic cones

Very tall!

It’s crazy to think about the age of some of these structures. Their conditions were immaculate and everything was perfectly maintained and clean. When you’re from a country as young as the United States, you don’t really have all that much ancient historical culture.

…but where were the deer I’ve heard so much about? Just a little bit more wandering down the temple paths and… look, there’s one!

hello. do u have kra-kor?

Aw, they’re so tiny and curious. It’s neat to see deer like this since they’re usually very skittish of humans. These deer were friendly and inquisitive. Hundreds of years of associating humans with rice crackers will probably do that, but it was cute nonetheless.

Abbie says, “Hello”

The park was massive and beautiful with lots of blooming flower trees. There were thousands of deer here. It was like living in some fictitious dreamscape. Abbie and I pondered if we even really made it here or not – maybe we died somewhere along the way and this was some sort of afterlife. The setting certainly matched, but I can (mostly) assure you that we are, in-fact, still living.

See what I mean?

Serenity

Dotted around the grounds were vendors selling stacks of rice crackers for 150 Yen. You actually got a decent sized stack of large crackers, so Abbie and I bought two of them throughout the course of our visit. Around the cracker vendors, though, were the hordes of opportunistic deer that would congregate around tourists that had just bought a stack. These buggers were definitely the less well-behaved deer and were a bit cheeky, but I had an idea. Bet you if I buy the crackers quickly and zip them up in my pocket before they saw them, I wouldn’t be bothered and we can move out towards the more tranquil individual deer. This theory proved successful, as I’m not sure if deer have object permanence or not. Crackers in the pocket? Gone from existence.

We decided to walk pretty far out from the cracker vendors and the main tourist paths and wander a little bit into the forest. Here, the deer were a little more dispersed, so it was easy to handle one or two at a time. It was funny though, at first you see only one deer, but as soon as the rice crackers come out, three of them would appear out of nowhere.

If you hold your hand up and slowly bow, the deer will respectfully bow to you as well. They’ve been trained to bow dating all the way back to the original ancient Buddhist monks that once, and still do, populate this city.

You can see this behavior at the 0:27 mark in the video down below when I fed them:

The deer are kind and gentle, for the most part. Sometimes they’re a little cheeky and will give your clothes a little tug for attention or will boop your hands, but generally speaking, they’re very friendly. Just don’t let them see where you hide your crackers! If you’re lucky, they will briefly let you pet them. They are very, very soft. They feel like stuffed animals, but with slightly coarse fur.

You know she’s thinking about it.

Only a moment later, the deer bows. I think it’s either saying, “Nah, we cool.” or “Give kra-kor.” Maybe both.

But how did he get to the island? By hopping on little stone outcrops!

The grounds were just starting to bloom

Itchy

Watchu’ want

Time to shed

This park is vast. Nice to have some space for once. This image only shows a very tiny corner of it.

Abbie and I spent some time in the forest and fed some more deer. A man walked up and watched in the distance. I offered him one of my rice crackers since it looked like he was interested and didn’t have any. After letting him feed the deer that we had congregated and taking some photos, we asked each other where we were from. China and America. Opposite ends of the earth. Brought together by feeding some deer.

A deer from earlier scampers through the park

As we walked back to the train station after our day in the deer park, we noticed that one of the deer appeared to be running away with somebody’s map. Stinker. We rescued the map and returned it to a group of people who were now sad that a third of their map was missing. I asked if their destination still existed on the map. “Yeah,” they said. I then explained to them that they now have a free souvenir and we laughed it off while the cheeky deer gnawed on its third of the map. An even cheekier deer decided that it would like to stuff its entire head into Abbie’s coat pocket. Thankfully, she had nothing in there to steal. I wish I had a photo of it because it was pretty funny.

The towns mascot, Shikamaru-kun. You see this little guy everywhere in Nara. Here are some human-edible crackers with his face on it in a 7/11 store.

We eventually made it back to the station where we caught the rapid train line back towards Osaka. Tonight, we actually had a reservation for Kani Doraku, the famous crab restaurant in Dotonbori. Well… so we thought. As we arrived in Dotonbori and waited for our reservation in a nearby cafe, I noticed that we were actually scheduled for yesterday. What? The calendar says it’s today. Nope. For whatever reason, only for this calendar event, it was basing the date on pacific standard time. ….WHY?!

Okay well.. that totally sucks. We were looking forward to that. If it’s any reconciliation though, I think the time we spent having dinner at that secret izakaya last night was a pretty unforgettable experience, so I wouldn’t change that for anything. Still though, for someone that puts a lot of time into double-checking (see: quadruple checking) as many details of the trip as possible, it’s a bit disappointing that a technical mishap ruined one of the few set plans we had. Oh well, what can you do?

…Eat takoyaki from a street food vendor, of course. Duh.

Nuclear fireballs of delicious

Hot, fresh, puff-pastry balls filled with tender octopus and slathered in sweet & savory sauce. Each batch is topped with chives and kombu fish flakes. Be careful! Don’t eat them right when you get them as you risk total mouth incineration! …It’s very hard not to just dive right in, because these things look, smell, and taste so delicious.

The stand we went to was very tiny and had a single standing table underneath it’s roof. Everyone at the stand shared this table, which gave us an opportunity to chat with another American visiting from Tennessee. He explained to us that since he was Asian, he was always assumed to be and understand Japanese, even though he didn’t. I explained that I had the opposite problem. I understood how to speak and understand the language, but because of my appearance, everyone assumes that I do not. Just the way it goes, I guess. It’s pretty fun to meet people from all around the US as well – our country is so big that it’s almost like meeting a foreigner from another country, but you both speak the same language and you’re both on the same team!

🎵 Osaka! 🎶 Tako-yaki! 🎶 Dotonburi 🎵 …sings the five minute infinite loop jingle that was playing at the Takoyaki stand we were at. I wonder if this drives the employees crazy.

After our eight pieces of takyoyaki, we still wanted something hot and soupy to cut through the freezing cold wind. We walked around a little bit and… ooohh… Udon noodle soup. Abbie hasn’t had this yet… Let’s get a bowl!

Mmmm.. Big noodle

We punch-in our selections to the vending machine and plop our tickets on the counter. Moments later we were given two bowls of tempura udon. This looks and smells so good. It was delicious and just what we needed to curb the cold.

After our improvised dinner, we took the same subway back home as we did last time. I neglected to take any photos of the really cool shopping arcade we wandered through at night. It’s crazy atmospheric in here. It’s really hard to capture the aesthetic of the place with a photo.

Food stalls are still open. Even though we are full, they smell so good.

Lots of dark, somewhat spooky, halls. It feels like you’re not supposed to be in here, but it’s fine.

Late-night snacks

This part of town has a ton of character and it has really grown on me. It feels like a movie set. If only we had more time to experience it all. Next time.

Smaller Business

March 27, 2019

Recharged and ready. Time for Osaka.

I’m sure you’re well-aware of my disdain for tourist traps (even though I seem to find myself in them all the time. I like the Pokemon center, OK?). Sometimes though, you do have to journey into the thick of it in order to enjoy some of the iconic scenes and structures found within the country you’re visiting. Today, I’d like to take Abbie to visit Osaka Castle and the famous Dotonbori street for dinner.

But first: I need some coffee. As much as I like the crappy cheap canned stuff, I wanted some coffee. Since we’re in a quiet residential area away from the chaos that is central Osaka, I was certain that there would be a little homely coffee shop around here.

…And right I was.

THICC toast, hard-boiled eggs, perfect coffee

Right down the street from where we were staying, right next to the old shopping arcade was a little coffee shop ran by a single humble man. This was very much a local coffee spot filled with people that live in the area. After we were served, the owner asked “Where are you from?” “Yes.” I replied. I misheard him at first and thought he was asking if we wanted sugar. He clarified and.. Ohhh… “Where are we from?”

“America-jin desu” (We’re Americans). “Welcome to Japan” he replies. Aw, that’s nice. It’s very rare to find people that are interested in where you’re from and will actually ask you. In general, you’ll never really be inquired for anything, especially in the bigger cities. Since we were in a little local coffee shop away from the bigger tourist areas though, we had a little more room to breathe and I think that reflected in the local’s curiosity towards us. It’s quite refreshing honestly.

Anyways, the coffee he served was perfect. When I say perfect, I mean it was a perfect cup of coffee how did you make this it’s so good. Brilliantly smooth, rich flavor, no acidity (nice, m’kay). The thick-cut toast was so soft and coated in perfectly salty butter. The hard-boiled egg was also perfect. I am 100% coming back here tomorrow morning. I really enjoyed that coffee and the owner was super nice too. If you’re ever in Japan, find your way over to the smaller businesses instead of massive chains and tourist joints. It takes a little bravery, but you will be rewarded with tastier food and more genuine experiences.

We paid our bill (only 700 yen for both of us!) and set off through the shopping arcade towards our train station. The arcade was just waking up and all the morning markets just started to put out all of their goods.

I want (good) trains at home so badly

Let’s head to Osaka castle and explore the grounds a little before stopping in and grabbing some lunch near the area.

Look what’s off in the distance!

Getting closer

After a billion stairs, there it is!

Abbie has a series of photos where she T-poses in interesting places. The reaction of the man to her lower right sums up everything.

Inside of the castle is a museum full of art and artifacts from the 17th century. Really neat stuff, so let’s just go and grab a ticket and.. oh.. oh my god.

THE HORDES ARE HERE. It was Sakura (cherry blossom) season and the trees were just beginning to bloom. This will result in two things: Wonderfully beautiful trees filled with delicate pink/white flowers, and unbelievable amounts of pushy-shovy tourists in crowded places. I already know that the inside of the castle is crowded since I visited it last time, but this time, the line just for the tickets was wrapping around the building. Nope, not happening. There are better things to appreciate.

Let’s get away from the suffocating crowds. I know a little secret place here.

A secret place with a view and a new bird friend

There was a local artist drawing the castle from a distance with charcoal, colored pencils, and water colors. Beautiful. Up where we were, there was nearly zero people. Peaceful.

We stayed up top here for a little while before we saw a tourist flag of death. Holy crap like 100 people swarmed in behind their flag carrier and unapologetically blocked the view of the person that was painting in peace. Guys seriously wtf? Alright, I’ve had enough of this, let’s get out of here.

We waited for the horde to take their photos and clear out, then we made our way to the exit on the opposite side from where we came in. At the same time, my parents, who were celebrating their 25th anniversary (Yay! Congratulations!!) at Disney World were sending us photos of their special sushi dinner at Epcot’s Japanese restaurant. It looked really, really, good and that toast we had for breakfast was burning off fast. Let’s go find some sushi too!

A little walking later and we arrived to a bustling sushi shop serving up lunch specials as fast as they could. I’ve never been to a place where you’re served like this before. Immediately, the waiter came up to us with two pre-prepared meals, one was sashimi donburi while the other was a sushi assortment. It looked like she just had someone else’s meal and was just demonstrating what the two lunch specials looked like. No, what she was actually doing was saying “pick one and you’ll get it right now.”

Once we figured that out, we had a sushi set within literal seconds. Woah.

Delicious fishes

While the sushi was good (excellent by American standards), it was definitely not the best I’ve had in Japan. It felt rushed and the rice wasn’t packed very well. The wasabi factor was also cranked up to 12. Normally, I can resist wasabi just fine but god my nose was obliterated. Not bad fish and cheap as all get out. About $12 for both Abbie and I with Miso soup and tea. Nice!

We walked around a little, further and further away from the castle. Away from the noise. Away from the crowds. Hm, I think I remember this area – I’m pretty sure there is a park here.

Yeah, here it is. Quiet, peaceful… and full of newly blooming cherry trees (not being pulled apart this time!)

Park

Tiny cherry flower

It’s nice to spend a little quiet time watching the world go by.

After about 20 minutes or so, we decided to take the long-way through Osaka back towards the JR station. We could have just used the metro, but sometimes it’s fun to just walk around town. We really have gotten better weather than we could have ever asked for. Mild weather with very little rain (and it only snowed at the Ryokan which was AWESOME). Couldn’t have asked for anything better.

We arrived back at the apartment and rested up a little.

…Let’s go to the Pokemon center at Osaka Station. Why do I do this to myself? Oh I know, the pursuit of overpriced merchandise with a bunch of cute fantasy animals on it. Worth it. I’ve had my fill on merch (I think), but Abbie was on the hunt for a Lucario plushie, so I couldn’t deny her that. We headed off to the MASSIVE Osaka Station shopping complex and made our way up to the thirteenth floor. There was a massive bridge over all of the train tracks with a “popup” artificial park laid out.

 

Packed, crazy, loud, chaotic. But they had Lucario so it was worth it.

Rowlet: One of the very best

I’m hungry again. Let’s hit up Dotonbori Street for dinner. I already knew that this place was going to be a crowded nightmare, but it’s one of those supremely iconic areas that Abbie just has to see with her own eyes.

We also got to experience rush-hour trains in Japan. Squishy.

Anyways:

Freedom from the subways

Getting closer (look at the sea of people)

Closer still

Not quite ready yet. Check back in five.

Oh yeah, there he is

Some say “Blade runner.” I say, “It’s just Japan”

Subliminal messaging? More like superliminal messaging.

Super cool looking, but oh man these crowds. Guh.

Okay, so, all of these shops and stalls, even though I bet you they’re pretty good, are PACKED with lines, lines, and more lines of flag-groups. Yeah, no. Thanks but no thanks.

I know what to do.

Head down some of the side streets. Find alleyways that lead into seemingly nowhere. That’s where you’ll find the real deal. You see, most of these tourists are here to grab a photo and that’s about it. Move away from the less photogenic part of town and the crowds dissipate almost immediately. The character of all the buildings swap from flashy and loud, to low-key and genuine. Rust. A sure sign of the real world.

Only moments later, we find an empty izakaya with a single older man just waiting for customers and watching some TV. I slide open the door and ask him if he’s open. Sure enough, we’re immediately welcomed in, one-on-one. This was gonna be awesome. He gives us the menu and we only had to ponder over it for a few seconds to know what we wanted. In goes our order and he gets to work, freshly slicing and seasoning the meat he was going to serve to us. A few minutes later, he stepped outside and brought in our own little charcoal grill which he fired up when we arrived. AWESOME.

Hard to beat this.

The meat, was of course, to die for. Carefully seasoned, rich and flavorful with a dipping sauce he prepared right in front of us. The owner was soft-spoken, but very polite and appreciated our ability to communicate in Japanese. The chicken was so delicious that I had to get another round of it. He discounted the price by 200 yen – aw man thanks! He also was preparing soup when we arrived, and had just finished chopping up the green onion that would adorn it. He gave us two bowls of it free of charge and it was SO delicious. Light onion soup with bits of beef and fresh green onion. So light and tasty.

This was so nice. Away from the craziness and way more genuine. Always remember to stray off the beaten path and find something special for yourself. It will be worth it and you’re supporting small businesses.

“Gochisosama deshta,” Abbie and I exclaim after our meal. He saw us out with a smile and we were on our way back to the apartment. After another crowded train ride, we hopped out at a different station and decided to walk through the massive shopping arcade alleys at night. It seems spooky – almost like a theme park attraction, but since the crime rate in Japan is virtually nonexistent, you’re completely safe. This maze-like arcade twisted its way throughout the community. You could see late night food vendors selling their goods among the hundreds of shuttered stalls. The smoky atmosphere provided some awesome dramatic mood lighting for the area. It really does feel like you’re in a movie.

After about ten minutes of walking through that maze of stalls, we emerged to our main street.

The unassuming entrance to a massive shopping arcade in the dark

This part of town has a cool nighttime atmosphere.

There’s even a Takoyaki street stall right in front of our apartment. Yeah, we’re gonna have to check that out. I love Osaka.

Osaka Cool

March 26, 2019

Today, we were going to visit my favorite city in Japan: Osaka. Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is cool, but Osaka is cool.

Not only is Osaka cool, it’s also delicious. Osaka has garnered the well-earned reputation of being known as “Japans-kitchen,” and I whole-heartedly agree. This city is a culinary wonderland home to some of the best food in the world.

…But first, we had to get there.

The main street in Kyoto outside of our hotel in the morning

Osaka is very easy to get to from Kyoto – The two cities are only about thirty minutes apart and there are several train lines that go between the two. I simply punched-in where we wanted to go into Google maps, selected the route that preferred JR lines, and bam. Local trains leaving from Kyoto station that would take us directly to Osaka station. Easy.

After hopping on a few quick subways down towards Kyoto Station, we soon arrived and began looking at the time-tables for the fastest train to Osaka. This was also the first time Abbie got to see the immense glass roof at the front of Kyoto Station – it really is a sight to behold.

Photo Credit. Kyoto Station looks like this! In my haste, I didn’t grab a photo.

A quick (and crowded) standing-room only train ride later and we were in Osaka. This little local line is really great if you want to see a little bit of the semi-rural/industrial split between Osaka and Kyoto. It takes you over big rivers, gives you a view of Kobe from a distance, and even takes you through a bit of both cities. Once we arrived in Osaka, Abbie pointed out that every major station is essentially just a big shopping mall and yes, this is in-fact the truth. Nearly every major train station in Japan is its own metropolitan hub and Osaka was no exception. In front of us was a MASSIVE wall of shops and restaurants going up as far as the eye could see. Somewhere in that massive wall of shops is another Pokemon center… we’ll see if we can find it later. For now though, let’s find our next accommodation.

All we had to do was take the local Osaka loop to our destination station. Thankfully, this local loop is operated by JR, so we can finally use our rail passes again. Kyoto operates with many different private rail companies, meaning that it gets a little pricey to move yourself around even if you have a JR rail pass.

This little local loop is similar to the Yamanote line in Tokyo. Each train takes you all around the city. Since our stop was at the complete opposite end of the city, it gave us a chance to take in a few of the sights. I love Osaka – it’s got a certain charm that you can’t really find anywhere else. That perfect blend of old and new. It’s like Jazz Fusion (playing in the music video above), but in city-form.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination station (that sounds like a cool band name). It led straight into another shopping arcade. This time, it was a bit more “local.” Less crazy flashy shops, a bit narrower, a bit older. There was lots of local produce for sale as well as tons fresh-caught fish. This was more of a grocery arcade where local growers and farmers sold their goods. Everything looked so fresh. We had to drop off our bags before we did anything, though. They’re a real nuisance in the streets of Japan.

After a little bit of wandering around through the local neighborhoods, we found our destination. This time, it was going to be an AirBnB-type accommodation. Our own little apartment in the middle of Osaka for the next few days. Last time I visited Japan, I stayed in an apartment for just one night and it was AWESOME. Not only do you get way more room in general, but you get all the accommodations of a real home AND they’re usually far cheaper than hotel rooms. There is a bit of a risk when booking things like this though, as you never know if an AirBnB could cancel on you or not (plus there are no refunds once you are booked!), but if you play your cards right, it’s a real treat.

After faffing about for about 30 minutes trying to figure out what our door unlock code was (they never sent it to me, so I had to wait for them to reply to my request for it), we were finally in. Whoah. This place was awesome! So much space!

What did we decide to do during our first-night’s stay? Order pizza and do absolutely nothing. It sounds like a waste of a day, but this is the best part about traveling without any real schedule. Do whatever you want. Tired from all the traveling around? Take a day off to recharge. Why did we decide to go with pizza for our first meal within “the kitchen of Japan?” Well, think of it this way: Japan has some of the best food in the world. Taste is subjective, but let’s be real, Japan has objectively fantastic food. BUT. It’s all “Japanese food.” While this seems self-evident, let me explain: In America, we’re super spoiled for choice when it comes to flavor variety. The same diversity that gives us a unique blend of cultures and people also gives us near limitless choices for flavor. But here, nearly all food has that same Japanese taste profile. It’s wonderful, but it’s akin to going to the same restaurant every single day. Eventually, you crave something with a different texture and flavor profile. That’s what these pizzas were for. Something a little bread-y, salty, pizza-y to cleanse our palette to prepare for Osaka’s brilliant cooking.

…And they were awesome, too.

These pizzas were so good. I love Japanese style pizza so much. One thing that caught me off-guard though: the price. Wow, these two tiny pizzas were $50, Jesus. That’s one of the most expensive meals we’ve had so far. Oh well, it’s worth it for the experience. Plus, delivery is “free” (baked into the price) and since there is no tipping here (YES. SO NICE), you don’t have to worry about that either.

After the pizzas, Abbie and I just sat around catching up on our overflowing YouTube subscriptions and just watched some TV. It was comfy. This apartment also finally featured some squishy beds. This was really awesome since all of our hotel beds so far have been the standard Japanese “board of plywood with a sheet over it” kind of deal. Nice. Let’s get some rest for tomorrow.

Kyoto is Crowded

March 25, 2019

Good morning, Kyoto!

Today’s forecast called for chilly and overcast weather, but the sunrise this morning was very pleasant and relatively clear. Abbie and I started off the day with some pastries that we bought from the fancy bakery stall right near our hotel.

Dark Cherry tart! So good!

Since we only had one full day here, we wanted to make the most of it. Even though Kyoto has lots to offer, Abbie and I had three major goals:

  1. Visit the massive Shinkyogoku shopping arcade
  2. Visit the famous Gion area and the big orange Yasaka Shrine
  3. See Nintendo HQ (because it’s neat)

Today was going to require quite a bit of walking, but we were prepared. At around 9:50, we set out to see a small part of Kyoto.

We made our way to Shinkyogoku and stopped at a cafe for a proper coffee (and cocoa) plus second breakfast, I guess. The coffee here is just SO good. I want to know their secret.

Second breakfast

It goes on foreeeeeeevvveerrrr

These shopping arcades are always fun. So many shops and infinite variety. You can find everything here! It was about 10:30AM, and most of these stalls opened at 11AM. There was a little stationary store that we decided to visit to kill some time while we waited for the rest of the stores to open.

This was heaven for Abbie. Fancy pens, paints, papers, tapes, inking markers, and any color you could think of. “You shouldn’t have brought me here, I won’t be able to control myself,” exclaims Abbie as she holds a fist-full of Copic markers. Copics are specialty alcohol markers known for their legendarily smooth colors and are often extremely expensive in America with their median price hovering around $8 a marker. Since Copics are made in Japan though, they’re about $2 a piece here.

Paper, tapes, and fancy inks

Markers and pens

So many things. You can see the display of Copic markers at the end of the aisle

That store was fun. Abbie came out with a haul of fancy markers, pencils, and erasers. We spent quite a while in here, so most of the other stores were now open. This place really comes to life once all of the stalls open up.

Look! Crab man! We’ll be dining at the same restaurant when we get to Kyoto.

Abbie and I meandered throughout all the different stores. We visited everything from second-hand stores to “upscale-couture” that sold plain-looking shirts for far too much money. We also found a wall of gatchas. There, we witnessed a gatcha dispensing “strong-bird” figures. Glorious.

My favorite is the blue Parakeet

There were many stores geared for tourists, of course – a notable one being a shop that sold shirts with various kanji on them. The translations were very strange. One was, “I have a bomb strapped to my leg” in Kanji. Yeah, not gonna’ be taking that shirt to the airport.

Alright, with all that walking, I’ve mostly burned off all of the sweets we had for breakfast. Let’s get a fancy lunch at this restaurant that overlooks the river to Gion. They served Fresh-water eel (Unagi), which is a bit pricey, but unbelievably tasty. Soft, crispy, savory, sweet. Just wonderful! Once Abbie was finished dumping the green tea all over the place (nicely done), we took in the sights and enjoyed a great meal.

Unagi Lunch

…with a view!

The lobby of the restaurant

Giant hawks swooped in on unsuspecting tourists brazenly holding their food out in the open. Awesome.

Lunch was great! Let’s hit the streets and head towards Gion. Wow.. it’s… UGH WOW it’s getting SUPER crowded. Man, I don’t remember it being this crowded last time I visited. Though, when I was here last time, it was pretty late at night, so there wasn’t as many tour groups.

Mini-rant: If you’re a guest in a country, you should try your very best to observe the cultural norms and behave in a way that is, you know… appropriate. I am very much aware that I myself am also just a tourist, but I try very hard to conduct myself in a way that positively represents me and the country I come from. A particular type of tourist (you know, the ones that arrive in huge buses, follow flag carriers in massive groups, and swarm monuments just for a few photos before moving on), just seem to have zero respect or tact. It’s slightly disheartening and really takes away from the experience for everyone else. Hopefully, I don’t sound too, “holier-than-thou,” but if you saw this behavior for yourself, I feel that you’d agree.

Complain-y white-boy rant over, back to your travel thing I guess:

Yasaka Shrine

The Tori gate I photographed last time, now featuring one of the few blooming cherry trees. This poor tree was being pulled apart by said tourists for photos. So sad, leave it be!

The crowds here really were insane. Every corner was also populated by tchotchke and food-stall vendors pedaling goods. I suppose that’s fine for what this is, but capitalism kind of takes away from the shinto aesthetic. I sound so whiny in this blog, but bear with me. I tells it as I sees it.

Thankfully, Abbie and I found a relatively quiet koi pond with gigantic fish in it. Look at the little pond-skimmers and the tadpoles! We sat here and relaxed for a little while and just appreciated the gentle giant kois.

Shrine pond

Okay, I’ve had my fill of tacky tourists and crowded spaces. I wanted out. Let’s go to the restroom real quick and get out of here. Oh, they make you buy the toilet paper here. What? Hm, hopefully Abbie read that sign before she… oh.

After a copious amount of hand-washing and sanitizer, we made our escape. Given the circumstance, that could have turned out a whole lot worse. We took a shortcut through some of the side-streets of Gion since the main roads were simply packed with pushy-shovy people. Man, that was truthfully a bit of a disappointment. I remember that shrine being a lot more peaceful when I visited last time. Note to self: night-time is the best time to visit Gion.

I think it’s time we move out of the tourist hotspots and take a brief trip down to Kyoto’s less-populated industrial center. There isn’t anything particularly interesting to do around here, but it’s definitely a bit more of the “real” side of the city. Once we finally made our way to the subway that lead to… well.. nowhere really… the crowds began to dissipate and the world became quiet and peaceful again. Mmmm… that’s more like it.

The stations got smaller. The trains were slower. The people were quieter. We can breathe a little now.

Train tracks at a small station in the middle of nowhere that lead to a more chaotic horizon.

Here, away from the tourist centers, bilingualism fades away. Structures are rustier and less polished. Buildings are less flashy. You could see people going about their daily lives here. Salary men walking back to work from lunch, children playing at their school playgrounds, housewives hanging up their family’s clothes to dry on top of the tall “mansion” apartment buildings. There were even little tiny gardens that dotted the urban landscape. It was a lovely little walk through the real side of the city.

…But why were we here, exactly? Amidst the industrial sprawl of car-crushers, rusty reclamation centers, and other heavy industries lied a pristine set of white buildings.

Oh yeah. You know what we’re talkin’ about.

The Nintendo campus is totally a “Welp… there it is. Alright now what?” kind of location to visit, but you know… it’s super cool to see it with your own eyes. Nearly fourty-years of modern fun came from this company as we know it today. Nintendo proper being established in 1889 of course! And their cherry trees were beginning to blossom. How lovely!

Nintendo R&D. Here’s where the magic happens

You can’t enter the premises without having an appointment, of course. We saw lots of people walking inside though – I wonder what their jobs were? What influences did those people have on the games and consoles sitting in my backpack? Interesting to think about.

Across the street. I actually did visit that restaurant last time I was here. It was really good!

Do it for the snap

Do it for the.. uh.. my own website

Wonder what they’re working on now.

That was a fun little walking tour. You could see that they had an on-campus tennis court and a baseball diamond nearby. Perhaps these were inspirations for Mario Tennis and Super Mario Strikers.

Alright, I’m wiped. Let’s get out of here and back to the hotel. There’s a train station down the street that will lead us right back to the main street we’re on. Just have to check the fair map and… uh.. wait where’s Shijo…

…maybe I’ll look a little harder. Uh… Shijo station should be on this line. Uhhhhh where is it??

Pro-tip: there are actually two Jujo stations – both have separate lines. Good to know for next time because damn that was confusing!

Alright, we’re back. Let’s take a break and rest up for dinner. What’s dinner going to be?

Okinomiyaki. Yeeaaaahhhh buddy – Japanese “savory pancake.” Served hot right on your table’s tepan.

We arrived to the restaurant and there seemed to be a bit of a wait. That’s okay, we’ll just hang outside for a little while and wait for a table to clear up. We waited for about thirty minutes, and there seemed to be some sort of “scene” happening near the front of the store. Yep, que our favorite type of tourist, the same we saw down at the temple today, violently flipping through the menu (wtf?), and profusely bothering the poor server that was already very busy. The server was trapped helping them the best he could for about twenty minutes – they just wouldn’t let this poor guy do his job. As soon as we were invited into the store, he asks us with an exhausted look on his face, “Sorry, could you wait? Waiting OK?”

“Sure, no problem. It’s okay.” I reassure him with a smile. The aforementioned family ahead of us though – oh no, that was their tipping point apparently. “Is a table ready yet. We are not waiting any longer. We do not want to wait.” (wtf? lady the store is packed, they can’t just magically make a seat appear). I briefly chatted with the exhausted waiter and assured him that we would be patient and that he was working very hard. His relived smile and laugh seemed to quickly put us on his “good-side” and it instantly absolved any fear that we too may in fact be impatient foreigners. Our patience and goodwill was rewarded with a seat nearly instantly right near the chefs preparing the okinomiyaki. Sweet – thanks for the hookup dude!

WELL THAT WAS NEAT I GUESS: back to the food O_o

Basically the best thing ever.

I ordered two styles: Osaka style and Hiroshima style. One was made with soba noodles while the other was mostly cabbage-based. Oh my GOD these are so good. Top them with Kombu fish flakes and slather more of that sauce & Japanese mayonnaise and send yourself on a trip to flavor town. I LOOOOVE this stuff.

ごちそさま でした!

Snow to Kyo…to

March 24, 2019

Just as we started to get over our jet lag, Abbie and I decided to ruin it by waking up at 4:30AM. Why? Onsen baths! Very early in the morning is the best time to visit the onsen since there is usually nobody there. Since it had snowed heavily the previous night, the outdoor volcanic hot-spring baths now featured gardens covered in beautiful crystalline pillows of ice. It was supremely beautiful and was a totally unexpected experience. Getting into the bath itself though was a little challenging, since it was still -2°C outside and because you needed to bathe yourself beforehand, you were soaked. It was hard not to just cannon ball into the onsen waters. Once you were in – ahhhhh… The heat of the water with the contrast of the arctic environment was wonderfully refreshing.

After that wonderful bath, I got all cleaned up at their shaving sinks, complete with lots of good smelling hair tonics and aftershaves. It was time to relax under the kotatsu and enjoy the snowy morning while we waited for breakfast.

The view from our room

After a seriously beautiful sunrise, it was time for breakfast.

Another beautiful spread

Honestly, I love the breakfast more than the dinner. The flavors, while still exotic, are definitely easier for those adjusted on a western palette. Delicious crab miso, smoked egg, sausage, salmon, seasonal fruits, glass noodles, potato salad, seaweed salad, WONDERFUL yogurt, and lots of coffee. SOOO good. All the while, a snowy sunrise lit our tatami dining room. Wonderful.

Land of the Rising Sun

Refreshing, snowy alpine views

Of course we had to make a tiny snowman

After breakfast, Abbie and I slowly enjoyed the morning and just took it easy.

Supreme levels of comfy

Once it was time to go, we simply crossed the street and waited for our bus.

All the snow melting away, turning the streets into rivers. Look at all of the water coming off the roof!

Going down via bus is often a lot easier than going up. It’s easier to pre-calculate your fare and have it ready for when you get off. Since we were going to the terminal stop, Odawara Station, our fare would be the maximum 1050 Yen. Easy! Both Abbie and I prepare exact change and hop on the bus.

The ride down was very pretty. Since all of the snow was melting, the waterfalls in the area were really spectacular.

A river and a rainbow

There was a little bit of traffic going down the road, but it was kind of nice since you got to take-in all of the little mountain towns. But, suddenly, the driver indicated that this final stop was “the end of the line.” Uhhhh… no it wasn’t. I checked my map, yep, definitely not supposed to be the end of the line. What? I guess the driver was just going out of service to end his shift. Either way though, we’re at the Hakone-Tozan station again when I just wanted to go directly to Odawara Station. These two stations connect to each other, of course, but now we had to buy tickets and wait for a train. Annoying. Further still, after pre-calculating our bus fare, we weren’t prepared to get off with our fares in-hand. Abbie didn’t understand this and dumped in 1050 Yen for an 800 Yen fare… oops. I had to hold up the line for just a little bit and count my Yen again. Oh well, let’s just get some train tickets.

Waiting for the train at Hakone-Tozan Station

 

 

 

Once we arrived, we needed to hop on the Hikari Shinkansen bound for Kyoto in 10 minutes. Hurry hurry! Made it!

This was going to be a two-and-a-half hour shinkansen ride down the coast of Japan. Visibility was excellent today, so there was a very good chance that we would see Mount. Fuji in all of its glory. Sure enough, 30 minutes later… waaaoooooohh… Incredible. It looked just like the all of the artwork. Massive, snowy, with a little cloud around it. We were on the left side of the train while Fuji was on the right. Not wanting to be rude and take photos over people, we decided to just take it in for ourselves. It was marvelous.

Image Source. If you could imagine us inside of the Shinkansen looking out, that’s kind of what it was like. (but more snow!)

I just love this train ride. Since we were on the Hikari line, this train rips passed many of the smaller stations and fully opens up, full speed-ahead for hundreds of miles. You get to see the coastal countryside of Japan zip by at over 320 KMH. Spectacular. After a long, uninterrupted train, we stopped briefly in Nagoya. I stayed in an apartment here last time. Nagoya is a pretty fun major city – definitely a bit more low-key and peaceful than Tokyo.

Nagoya from up on the Shinkansen tracks

A little while longer on the train and soon we arrived in Kyoto. Kyoto is nice since it’s a little more on the old-school side of things. Abbie and I hopped on a subway for half of the trek to the hotel, then decided to walk for the remaining two miles since it might be nice to take-in a little bit of the local color. The buildings here vary in architectural style greatly. One moment you’re walking through massive skyscrapers, the next you’re walking through a sea of residential buildings, most of which still feature traditional Japanese styles and materials.

A quick shot of Kyoto after we emerged from the subway.

Eventually, we made it to our hotel. Funnily enough, the hotel I stayed in last time I was here was right across the street. This was handy, because that meant that I was already familiar with this area. Once we were checked-in, we looked out the window and were greeted with one of the best hotel views (other than the ryokan) that I’ve ever seen.

Sunset

You could see right across the massive community of varied houses. There’s even a couple temples in the distance. Below us runs a little trolley track. Last time I was in Kyoto, my hotel view was just a brick wall and some AC units. This was great!

What was going to be for dinner though…? How about something fast, cheap, but more importantly, delicious. Gyudon. Hell yeah. Gyudon is a staple “fast-food” for Japan and it is oh-so-delicious. Basically, it’s chopped meat, usually pork or beef, served over rice. I like to crack raw-eggs into mine since the egg will cook into the hot rice and make it extra delicious. Cheap, yummy, fast, and filling. This is what fast-food should be like everywhere.

Both Abbie and I got full meals for about $9 together.

Last thing to do for the night was to do some laundry. While we waited, we decided to head over to the Daiso store down the street from us. Daiso is essentially Japan’s chain of “dollar” stores, where most items are 100 Yen each. Abbie picked out a couple souvenirs for her friends, about seven dollars’ worth of stuff, and paid with a 10,000 Yen note. The highest denomination. This is like going into a 99-cent store and paying with a $100 bill. The clerk gave Abbie an understandably surprised look, but happily accepted the bill (unlike the States where you’d probably be interrogated for using anything higher than $20). Abbie mostly wanted to break her large bill into smaller denominations anyways, so this was actually pretty handy.

After Daiso, we went to a little bakery stall to grab snacks for the morning and headed back for the hotel. Then, we collected Abbie’s clothes from the “dryer,” and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

You’re very welcome

Goodnight, Kyoto!

It’s Snowing on Mount Fuji

March 23, 2019

It’s time to say goodbye to our first hotel in Japan! It’s always a little bittersweet – it’s your first home here, but now you get to experience something different. Don’t worry, you’ll always remember the first hotel. I still remember my first hotel down near Kanda station!

This was going to be Abbie’s first time on a Shinkansen, the famous Japanese bullet trains. These trains never cease to amaze me. The tentative plan was to jump on the Shinkansen and take a break at Shin-Yokohama to enjoy some noodles at the ramen museum. We’d just find a coin locker to keep our stuff in and make our way there before lunch time, then hop back on the train towards our Hakone Ryokan.

…This plan did not exactly work out like we wanted it to.

Shin-Yokohama

First off, the sunny and mild temperatures of the past couple days has been replaced by extreme cold, rain, and wind. It was pretty bitter while we walked around, but it might be pretty comfy once we get to the ryokan. Now we just need to find a coin locker to place our bags.

…You’d think a major train station like Shin-Yokohama would have more than just a few coin lockers for the thousands of people that go through there every day, but no. They were all sold out. We explored all over for more, but they too were all sold out. We decided to raincheck the ramen museum for now and visit it when we return to Tokyo. Brining all of our bags in there would just be a nightmare and we were going to have a massive dinner tonight anyways, so we settled for a little restaurant near the train station. But first, I wanted to visit my favorite 7/11 in Japan inside of the Prince Hotel (where I actually stayed last time!).

 

 

Why is this 7/11 so ornate? What ever, time to pick up a couple more bills and get something to eat.

Abbie got some salmon sashimi and tempura shrimp

I got a delicious fish bowl served over rice with a thermos of soup to sip on.

Okay, all full. Time to get to the trains to zip over to over to Odawara Station. A quick train ride later, and now was the hard part. See, using the trains in Japan is easy! Using the bus system (without an IC card) is slightly a pain. They’re crowded and a bit stressful to use when you’re transporting luggage. Also, when your stop has a name like Sengokuharabunka Center Mae, it’s a little tricky to know when to tell the driver to stop.

Before we left the train station, I stopped over to the Information center and inquired about some advice on which bus routes to use. The lady working the desk was supremely helpful and gave me a ton of maps that she highlighted all of the important information and routes on. That saves a lot of time and effort.

Hakone-Tozan line

First, we jumped on the Hakone-Tozan train a short ride up to its terminal station just up the mountain. Then we jumped on the Tozan bus line, marked with a “T” indicator. I remember riding this bus last time and getting off at the wrong stop, since it is named almost identically to the stop we’re supposed to get off. Not this time, bus.

We made it to the ryokan without much issue, but today was a long and cold day, so we were exhausted. Soon, we were checked in and we were able to relax.

Ryokans are always a treat, and since it was freezing outside (literally), sitting in our warm tatami room was wonderful.

Comfy

They even had a kotatsu (heated comforter table that you sit under) ready for us. These are supremely wonderful, why haven’t we brought these back to America yet? Abbie and I prepared some of the high-quality green-tea and enjoyed our welcoming snack under the warm kotatsu. Mmmm… relaxing…

Wait… is it.. snowing outside?

 

Yeah it is!

As if it could get any cozier.

Actually, yes, it could. Because it’s kaiseki dinner time.

Looking fly in the elevator going down to dinner

That’s me!

What a spread! More dishes just kept coming

Lovely sashimi and real wasabi

Plum sake and lots of little dishes

Wonderful tempura and sauces

A little salad, a bit of smoked fish, a squishy mochi, and an evil raw snail on a bed of salt

Desert

Now all that was left is to watch Japanese Spongebob and a show about cats (also a really amazing Rube-Goldberg machine show where they turned colored balls navigating the machine into characters, wow) and wait for our snowy onsen baths.

Ikebukuro – Sunshine City

March 22, 2019

Okay, this is going to be a fast paced-post with not a ton of writing since we need to get out of here quickly this morning and move on towards our next hotel!

Today, we were going to checkout one of the many premier shopping districts in Tokyo, Ikebukuro. In the center of Ikebukuro lies a MASSIVE shopping complex known as “Sunshine City.” Think of it as not just a “super-mall,” but a hyper-mega-supreme mall. The “City” in Sunshine City is not just for a colorful name.

Though, the name is literally colorful.

We set out to Tokyo station, this time a bit later in the morning in search of a meal. It was about 7:30AM this time, so surely more things had to be open. Yes, more shops were indeed open, but it almost seemed like overnight, each restaurant we were interested in moved their opening hours up ever so slightly – like they were messing with us or something. Oh well, let’s check Ikebukuro for something to eat when we get there.

A short trip on the Yamanote line later and we arrived. Ikebukuro is a very upscale, rich shopping district. If you’ve ever wanted to move beyond the cityscape hubworld in the video game Splatoon, this is probably what you’d see.

 

Do you think they know anything about Mahjong?

After walking around the train tracks (and noticing that the first few buds of the cherry trees were blossoming!), and a little bit of strolling around town, we arrived at Sunshine City. This massive complex houses hundreds of shops and restaurants. There’s even hotels, an aquarium, a planetarium, VR experiences, a MASSIVE display and water-feature, and most importantly, the Pokemon Mega Center.

 

This place is HUGE.

But before we dive into the shops, we were starving and needed to eat something. Last time I was here, I visited a KILLER sushi joint. Let’s find that!

Incredible

Abbie ordered the sashimi bowl while I got the same sushi assortment as I did last time.

Criminally Delicious

There simply is no use in comparing Japanese sushi to American Sushi. They are not even in the same universe. You’ve never tasted anything more tender and delicious. Especially the Salmon and the Eel – to die for.

On to the super fun stuff:

This place makes me happy

Abbie hangs out with her boi

*Side-B’s* “nothin personnel, kid”

Abbie look out you’re about to get hit by an Aura Sphere oh god she has airpods in oh god she can’t hear us.

Outside of the mall is a little rooftop relaxation area with a beautiful little miniature town display.

We even found a Toys R Us. Think of what a Japanese Toys R Us would be like: Yep, you’re exactly right.

Toys R Us actually still exists here.

Cityscape

コーヒーとココア! A wonderful Latte and iced cocoa desert for our break.

Abbie was in shopping heaven, so I let her shop around a little while I rested my feet. She ended up buying a cute, Japanese-style dress, but she had a different goal in mind. See, in Japan, English is often used as a stylistic choice. It’s seen as fashionable and trendy, and much like tacky foreign language tattoos you see in the states, their translations are often nonsensical. Abbie wanted to find an article of clothing with the best English nonsense that she could find. We found many examples of this, but this shirt was one of our favorites.

Assertive, yet philosophical

Okay, that was a TON of walking. Let’s head back to the hotel. Off we go on the Yamanote line back to our temporary home.

We were finally beginning to adjust to the jet lag, so we decided to stay up for dinner this time and head to the fancy Yakitori restaurant right down the road from us. This place was fun. Order raw meat and grill it yourself!

Devastatingly good. Look at that marbling.

Marinated shrimp

This kind of place was totally upscale and expensive, but since it was our first proper dinner, I think it was worth it. It’s the kind of place that “doesn’t have pictures on the menu,” so I was handed the Gajin-baby card with a limited amount of “safe” menu items and a couple photos to point towards. While I did use this menu to start off with (since a couple things did look pretty tasty on it), I was interested in the massive menu of interesting mystery meats. I knew how to read all of the characters on the menu, but I didn’t know what each menu item actually meant. A little bit of researching between orders, and wow. Thank goodness I knew how to read those characters. The quality of meat went from “really, really good” to “HOLY SHIT THIS IS INCREDIBLE.” Do your homework, kids. It’s worth it for the meat!

…After that wonderful dinner, we went back to our hotel and prepared to do a load of laundry. The washing machines work fine, but the dryers here actually suck so hard it’s not even funny. They run both the washer and dryer on a shared 100V circuit, and even with an HOUR dry time, my clothes were still soggy. Ughk. Guess I’ll just hang an outfit out to dry and pack away the rest for later.

You can’t not get a frog-ninja.