So You’re Coming to Tokyo!

A few weeks ago a former classmate reached out with a question: I’m bringing my son to Tokyo for a visit. Any tips? My brain immediately starting buzzing with ideas, and here is what I have come up with so far.

But first, the disclaimers:

  • I don’t live in Tokyo itself, but in Yokohama–about 45 minutes away by train.
  • I have only lived here six months, and I’m still getting out and about myself. Some of these places I have visited myself, and some I have heard about from others. If I haven’t visited myself then I have said so below.
  • This list is not definitive or ranked in any particular order, and I expect to update it regularly. So for you Japan-based readers out there, please drop me a note if there’s something huge that I’m missing.
  • Some links below point to websites in Japanese. If you open the links in Google Chrome then Chrome will ask if you’d like to translate the page to English.

OK, here we go!

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Ride a Train and Wander the Station

I can’t imagine visiting Tokyo and avoiding trains. It’s by far the fastest way to get around and an awesome people watching opportunity. Bonus points for riding during rush hour or on a shinkansen bullet train! The two busiest stations in the world are right in Tokyo: Shinjuku (1.26 Billion with a B! passengers per year), followed by Shibuya (1.09 billion passengers per year).

After you get off the train, wander around the station itself. Larger stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Yokohama house hundreds of shops and restaurants that are fun to browse.

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Check out Shibuya Crossing

If there’s one street corner in the world that sums up a country, it’s Shibuya Crossing. The mass of people, the neon, the order among the chaos–that’s Japan, right there. Forget Times Squares in New York, which is tacky, populated with sketchy costume-clad hucksters badgering you to pose for photos, and avoided by actual New Yorkers. Shibuya Crossing has its tourists, but real people use it as well to, you know, cross the street. The best views are from slightly above. The Starbucks on the corner is a popular spot, but it’s so well known that you have to fight for a spot at the window. Instead go to the skywalk ramp inside the station itself, which you can see center-left in this live cam.

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Visit Akihabara Electric Town

Akihabara Electric Town used to be lined with nothing but shops carrying random light bulbs, switches, cables and other electronics–basically a giant Radio Shack district. Some of those shops are still around, but Akihabara has since morphed into the center of manga and anime culture. Even if you’re not into either scene it’s fun to browse. Akihabara is also where you’ll find many maid cafes which you can avoid/seek out as appropriate.

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Check out Harajuku, Street Fashion Capital

I wrote a little about Harajuku in an earlier post. Unless your boy child is really into Japanese street fashion, this would likely interest the gals a bit more. Takeshita Dori is the main street and a good spot for an hour or two of window shopping. You’ll mainly see other tourists like yourself, but some cool kids in their Harajuku-iest finery will also roam about.

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Visit a Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple

One of the most famous shrines in Tokyo is Meiji Shrine, conveniently located in Shibuya near Harajuku. That said there are plenty of shrines and temples scattered about, so you should have no trouble fitting in a visit around other site seeing stops. At the shrine or temple’s entrance you’ll see Japanese visitors rinsing their hands and mouths with a ladle; any guide book will give you a description of the procedure so you can show your respects as well.

Get Food at a Department Store

Large department stores often include a food court of casual restaurants, typically located on the top floor. Here you’ll find an assortment of tempura, ramen, sushi, and other restaurants. If you’re not sure of what you’re in mood for then the restaurant windows’ large displays of plastic food models offer plenty of inspiration.

In addition to the food courts on high floors, most large department stores have a huge area of food stalls called a depachika, usually located in the basement. There you will find dozens of stalls selling beautfully packaged bento, sweets, teas, and other treats. In Yokohama we have Sogo at Yokohama Station; you can find out more about Tokyo depachika options here. One thing depachikas lack is a seating area; there’s nowhere to eat your purchase on-site, and there aren’t many parks or spots to eat your lunch outside. So “let’s pick up lunch at a depachika” sounds like a great idea, but there’s nowhere around to eat it. Instead eat lunch at a restaurant or cafe and pick up depachika food on your way back to your hotel.

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Order Ramen from a Restaurant with a Ticket Machine

Most people think of sushi as the go-to Japanese cuisine, but ramen definitely wins when it comes to ubiquity. If there are ten restaurants on any street, then eleven of them are ramen shops. The ticket machine works pretty much like any vending machine: insert your money, push the button of your selected dish, and get a ticket. Hand that ticket to the waiter/cook and get your food. Most machines in touristy areas include labels in English.

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Eat at a Conveyor Sushi Restaurant

Kaiten sushi restaurants include a conveyor that parades tempting dishes past your table. Help yourself and stack your plates, which will add up to your final bill; prices are typically 100 yen per plate. There’s usually a screen at each table for special orders; look for the magic English button to translate the screen, and make sure that you don’t steal someone else’s special order! I have found kaiten sushi places less ubiquitous than I expected–certainly not like ramen shops–so before you set out for the day scout out a few locations relative to your itinerary.

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Visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum

If you only visit one museum, make it the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Head straight to the permanent exhibit for an excellent overview of Tokyo’s history. Visit this early in your stay so you can appreciate just how much the city has changed, and how quickly. I found the maps showing the steady march of land reclamation particularly fascinating, and I quickly learned how to spot reclaimed land and new development from speeding trains.

Shop in a Lifestyle Store

Tokyu Hands sells home items, craft supplies, housewares, stationery, luggage…just go. It’s awesome. Yodobashi Camera sells cameras and electronics but also watches, housewares, camping gear, sporting goods, toys, and so much more. Also iPhone owners will never see so many choices for phone cases in one place ever again. Seriously, Just Go!

Shop in a 100 Yen Store

Before you shop for souvenirs anywhere else, go to a 100 yen store. Daiso is a popular chain but others are around as well. You’ll find plenty of options for gag gifts like disposable underwear, adhesive ear cleaning sticks, and double eyelid tape. You’ll also see helpful items including all manners of travel goods like sacks and luggage tags, plus small kitchen items that pack easily and make great gifts.

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Visit Kappabashi Street

Kappabashi Street sells everything a restaurant owner needs to set up shop except for food itself. It’s popularly known as the plastic sushi district, and you will see several shops selling the plastic food models featured in many restaurant windows; once you see the price of a single bowl of plastic ramen you’ll never look at a restaurant window without quickly calculating how many thousands of dollars that display cost to set up! You’ll also find knives, dishes, red lanterns, and plenty of other items. Personally I think a knife makes a great souvenir; it’s easy to pack, useful, and a great reminder of your trip every time you use it. I still have and use the paring knife that I picked up during my 2010 visit.

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Eat at a Theme Restaurant

I wrote earlier about my visit with Tessa to the Kawaii Monster Cafe. Other popular choices include the Ninja Restaurant, the Robot Restaurant (caution: not kid friendly), The Lockup (play prisoner while you eat!), and the earlier-mentioned maid cafes. I haven’t visited any of these others.

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Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

This is a no-kidding, working fish market. It’s also a huge tourist draw, much to the market operators’ dismay. So go, but stay out of the working people’s way. The tuna auction is the main event and runs from 5 to 6AM, but you have to arrive around 3AM to get a spot. Note that trains in Tokyo do not run 24 hours, so you’ll have to get creative on how to get there. Also check the auction calendar to ensure that an auction will take place on the day that you intend to visit. There’s still plenty to see later in the morning, but don’t arrive too late; make it your first stop of the day and enjoy a sushi breakfast after! Click here for details on how to do right without being a nuisance. The market is slated to move to a new location within Tokyo in November 2016.

Go to a Sumo Tournament

Sumo tournaments run at different times throughout the year, and if you’re lucky your stay may coincide with the matches in Tokyo. Check the calendar carefully, especially the venue. All of the tournaments for the year are listed together on this page, and not all of the venues are in Tokyo.

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Get Out of Tokyo

If your stay is long enough then consider a day trip or overnight visit out of town. Kamakura is a great choice. About 60 km south and an hour by train from Tokyo Station, Kamakura is home to the famous Daibatsu Giant Buddha as well as dozens of other shrines and temples (Warning: Giant Buddha is undergoing restoration until March 10, 2016. Don’t go now unless you want to stare at a giant sheet of plastic!). Many guide books list walking routes between popular sites. These pleasant walks also take you through several quiet neighborhoods and allow you to pretend-shop for real estate. If we decided to live close to Yokosuka we would have chosen Kamakura for sure.

Another nice option is Hakone, a town further south from Kamakura. Even though Hakone lies 100 km from Tokyo, it still takes only an hour by train from Tokyo Station–because you get to take the shinkansen bullet train. Super DUPER bonus points!! I haven’t visited Hakone yet myself but plan to soon, and I’ve heard great reports from friends who have gone there. Popular itineraries include a pirate cruise on the lake with a view of Mt. Fuji, a visit to an onsen hot spring, and a stop at a lovely outdoor art museum. This website describes some package deals. Again, haven’t been yet–but plan to soon!

 

Girls’ Weekend: Monster Cafe, Harajuku, and Shibuya Crossing

This past weekend Mark and Cy set out for their boys’ ski weekend. That meant a second girls’ weekend in a row for Tessa and me! We haven’t ventured into Tokyo as much as I’d like, so I planned an outing to some pop culture sites in the Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods.

IMG_2712Our first stop was the Kawaii Monster Cafe, one of the many theme restaurants scattered around Tokyo. The cafe’s decor looks straight out of Willy Wonka: bright colors, bubbly IMG_2726shapes, and wacky elements like giant lips and cows drinking from baby bottles. The menu continues the colorful theme with an eye-popping amount of food coloring in most of the dishes. I told Tessa about the food coloring and she was not too thrilled about the prospect.

Tessa: “Remember the last time I ate red velvet cake, and for days….”
Me, cutting her off: “OK! No need to get too scatological.”

IMG_2724I almost ate there several months ago on a site seeing trip with a group of moms from the school. I heard about the heavy-handed use of food coloring and felt somewhat ambivalent about eating there. If the group wanted to eat there then I would too, just for the experience. Several of the other group members saw the menu and immediately declared, “Absolutely not”–so we ate elsewhere. I wasn’t too sad about missing out that first time. I suspected that Monster Cafe was the kind of place I’d only visit once or twice, and I’d rather go there with a child to rack up some Cool Mom points.

So back to our visit! You can’t have a Monster Cafe without monsters, and there were several bopping around. I wouldn’t call their appearance particularly monster-like, but they definitely had some major colors going on. They also put on periodic Monster Shows which consisted of little more than striking poses on a rotating psychedelic merry go round.

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Note the giant cow’s and baby bottle in the background

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This monster’s a dude, BTW. “But don’t tell anyone that I told you,” said our waitress
For dinner we steered clear of the food colored offerings and opted for a mixed grill instead. A gift-wrapped bundle of paper held a mixture of meats and veggies cooked in teriyaki sauce. It was overpriced and unremarkable–but good enough. Tessa enjoyed it and ate well.

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Checking out the view from Monster Cafe terrace
We decided to skip the rainbow colored desserts at Monster Cafe and hit one of our new favorites instead: a crepe shop on the street. Tessa considered the many crepe options but went for bubble tea.

IMG_2777After dinner we started roaming Takeshita Dori, the main drag of the Harajuku shopping district. Harajuku culture started during the post-WWII occupation of Japan by American forces, when Harajuku was populated by Americans and the shops that catered to them. Curious Japanese teens started shopping there as well, and various styles of Japanese street fashion took off. We found a cute dress for Tessa and a sweater for me on the sale racks in one of the shops, a nice memento of our visit.

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Window shopping along Takeshita Dori, the main drag of the Harajuku shopping district
After Harajuku we made one more stop before heading home: Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is a scramble intersection, where pedestrians in all directions cross at once. It’s often described as the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, with as many as 2500 people crossing at each light change. Here’s a quick video of our visit. The best views are from above, but we started to lose steam and stayed at street level. Maybe on a future visit we’ll venture up!

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We also checked in at the Hachiko statue, a popular spot for meeting friends. The statue memorializes a dog who met his owner at Shibuya station every afternoon as he (the owner, not the dog) returned home from work. Hachiko continued this vigil for nine years after the owner passed away. Japanese schoolchildren learn the story and there have been several movies made, including an American version starring Richard Gere. It’s on Netflix and a great choice if you feel like sobbing ugly, gulping tears for two hours straight!

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The Hachiko statue outside Shibuya Station

Shared Bath? No Problem!

I learned something incredibly cool about Gala Yuzawa, the area we are visiting this weekend. In an earlier post I mentioned that Gala Yuzawa is one of the only Shinkansen stations right at the base of a ski resort. The other day our lodge’s owner told me that the gondola to the top of the mountain starts right inside the train station!

When I decided on this weekend trip about a month ago I quickly discovered the problem of such a convenient arrangement–everyone else from greater Tokyo wants an easy ski trip as well, and hotel rooms were booked solid. The travel agent on base couldn’t find anything within an hour’s bus ride of the station. Then I learned that the agent only looks at large properties that have contracts with them. So I went home and started searching for smaller places, and that’s how I found Bears House.  

The view from the sitting room while I wrote this post

Bears House sits a 15 minute drive away from the Echigo Yuzawa Shinkansen station, and the owners shuttle guests to and from at no extra charge. The reviews on Trip Advisor gushed about the owners’ hospitality, and the price was right. There was only one catch.

There are no bathrooms in the rooms–only shared baths and toilets.

 This arrangement is actually pretty common here, at least in ski areas. No other hotel rooms magically appeared over the next several days despite my slightly obsessive searches, so I booked the room and crossed my fingers.

I decided not to tell Tessa about the bathroom situation until the last possible moment–which was after check-in as we climbed the stairs to our room. I expected a shrill, screechy “WHAT?!?” but instead got a suck-the-air-through-the-teeth, barely audible “…what.” A parenting win!

I knew about the shared bath in the hallway. I did not expect said bathroom to be one floor down. “But if our room were on the second floor we would hear people using the sinks all the time!” sounded unbelievable even to my own ears, but of course I said it anyway. We noticed that some rooms had their own sinks inside, though ours did not.   Our room was best described as monastic in appearance, but also incredibly clean. I know this for a fact because I pretty much tore the room apart looking for the #%:”?@*! room key that I misplaced shortly before checkout (found it!). Not even dust under the beds!   So the rooms were for sleeping, and not so much for hanging out. The common areas were great, though. It’s very lodge-y with multiple cozy seating areas, a fireplace, games, and so on. Tessa and I both agreed that it would be great to fill the lodge’s eleven rooms with our ski buddies for a weekend.  

 Breakfast cost an additional 1000 yen, or about $8. After our rather lackluster experience at our hotel in Hakuba in January I didn’t expect much. Instead I was presented with the spread you see below, complete with two kinds of homemade jam.

Just like an $8 breakfast back home!

Normally Bears House doesn’t serve dinner, but on Saturday they had a full house and served up a four course meal for a whopping 2400 yen, or $20. Every dish was incredibly delicious and made from scratch. The owner did the cooking, and he could totally hang in any restaurant kitchen based on what I ate. Also he is a former giant slalom champion, according to the many trophies in the sitting room–including a first place finish at the 1996 Asian Games.

[CORRECTION: Elder son Kenta Uraki–who we did not meet–is the champion skier, not Papa Bear.]

  Bears House sits at the base of Ishiuchi Maruyama ski resort, and we both enjoyed our first-ever ski-to-door experience. In the winter the road right in front of the lodge is compacted snow and closed to cars–so our bags got a lift from the slightly-farther parking lot via snowmobile.

Luggage delivery via snowmobile
That’s about as Ski To Door as it gets

While Papa Bear cooked up delicious food, his son Daichi did the shuttling, shoveling, and general hosting with a smile. He worked incredibly hard but also seemed to enjoy his job–a gracious host indeed.

Daichi-san shuttles luggage with the teeny snow machine

The lodge also has its own small hot tub and shower area in the basement, best described as a mini-onsen. It’s the only shower available to guests, but we didn’t use it. Instead we walked five minutes to a giant and fabulous onsen right next door, Yung Parunas. Perfect, fluffy snow fell as we enjoyed the outdoor bath, and the scene looked straight out of onsen stock photos.

So would I return? In a heartbeat. Though next time I’ll try for a room with a sink for sure.

Ishiuchi Maruyama

Our lodge sits at the foot of at Ishiuchi Maruyama ski resort. So this morning we woke up at 7:30, had a leisurely breakfast at 8, and hit the slopes.  
A snow gauge showed a depth of about 1.5 meters, all of it natural. I didn’t notice snow making equipment anywhere. Last night the hotel owner mentioned that there’s usually 3m or more by now, which I can’t even imagine.

Morning break: hot chocolate for Tessa, mocha for me. Every adult around me was drinking beer. At 10:30 AM.

Several years ago I took lessons from a ski instructor who told me about his approach for getting his kids to love skiing–make it a party. Let the kid decide where to go. The second anyone gets tired, stop for hot chocolate.

Yeah, I can’t read it either

That’s how we ended up with a a mid-morning break, lunch 90 minutes later, and an afternoon break 90 minutes after that.
At lunchtime we found the choices much more varied than at the other two resorts that we have visited. Tessa got a mini ramen and ate the rice from my lunch. I got the karaage chicken lunch set, an enormous amount of food for 1000 yen or about $8.

Tessa’s mini ramen

 

Karaage chicken lunch set: fried chicken, rice, miso soup, shredded cabbage, fried potato wedges, and two kinds of pickles

Several times throughout the day we plopped down in the snow and just relaxed for about 10-15 minutes. The first time Tessa landed she said, “It’s like a throne!”. I called her Queen Tessa, and she immediately did a queen wave and said, “What’s up, my snow people?”.  She cracks me up.

Tessa the Snow Queen addresses her people

We even built a snow easy chair, which I model in the photo below.   In between eating and lounging we even did some skiing!  


Tessa cajoled me into trying the half pipe, a trough-shaped run that you’ve seen in the Olympics and X Games. I “did” the half-pipe in that I did not ski straight down the middle. After my run I saw neither ski patrol with a stretcher nor a publicist with an endorsement deal waiting for me. Good enough! 
 After another snack….


…we headed back to the lodge shortly before 4PM. We are unwinding now and will head to the onsen at a nearby hotel shortly. Then we will enjoy dinner at our lodge.

Bullet train!

Tessa and I are on the Shinkansen bullet train bound for Gala Yuzawa, a ski area about 250 km from Yokohama. We boarded the train at Tokyo station. But first, we picked up snacks for the ride: a sandwich for Tessa and bento for me.  

 Inside the train looks about as unexciting as your typical Northeast Regional on Amtrak in the U.S.: 

But on the outside, Shinkansen definitely wins.

 The shinkansen’s maximum speed is 320 kph. I’m not sure how fast we are moving right now–slower than 320 for sure, but still pretty zippy. I did my best to capture it here.

The total travel time between Tokyo station and Gala Yuzawa station is around 75 minutes. Gala Yuzawa is one of the few ski areas with a Shinkansen station right at its base, while most other ski resorts sit 60 minutes or more by bus from the nearest Shinkansen stations. This proximity makes the Gala Yuzawa especially popular, even as a day trip.

  Given this popularity, I had a really hard time finding a hotel room. The fancy hotels right at Gala Yuzawa filled up months ago, so I ended up with a small place about 15 minutes away. It’s located at the base of a slightly smaller resort, and I’m hoping the slight inconvenience will mean less crowded slopes. The hotel owner will meet us at the station to pick us up. Reviews on Trip Advisor gushed about the owner’s hospitality. I’m counting on that–especially since I could only get a room with a shared bath.

Shh, don’t tell Tessa. She doesn’t know yet.

It’s Sky Mall, Only On the Train. And in Japanese!

Tessa and I are on our way to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Niigata prefecture for our ski weekend. Our current ride is the Limited Express, with seats more like a commuter train–and Train Shop magazine!

  
Train Shop offers the same goofy wares as the late, great Sky Mall, only better (“I miss Sky Mall,” said Tessa wistfully).  

Check out these offerings:

Face Pulling Up thingies for both the men and the ladies. 

  

Questionable yard decor. 

  

Glasses for reading while lying completely flat on your back.  

A bag for catching urine? 

  

 The pet section. 
  

And my personal favorite, the camera for scoping your ears. 

 
 

That’s One Strong Cat

The elder child and I are off on a ski weekend this Friday! When we last skied in early January we took the whole family and drove in an overstuffed rental minivan; this time the two of us will travel via the shinkansen bullet train.

kuroneko-300x201We will board the shinkansen at Tokyo station, an hour from our local train station. We don’t have to change trains to get to Tokyo station, but hauling skis and gear for two people on a local train is simply not an option. Enter Black Cat.

Black Cat–or Yamato Transport, as it is properly known–is Japan’s version of UPS. You see the cute little Black Cat vans everywhere around town. In addition to delivering packages, Yamato ships luggage around Japan and overseas via their TA-Q-BIN service.

Yamato caters to its non-Japanese speaking customers quite well; they maintain both an English version of their entire website and a phone number manned by English-speaking customer service representatives. One quick phone call later, our baggage pickup was set! I scheduled the driver to come to our house for two bags the next day, with the bags arriving at our hotel one day before us. Blank shipping labels magically appeared in my mailbox a few hours later. [For you Yokohama locals out there, scroll down for URLs and phone numbers.]

The total cost: 6512 yen, or about $53 total. That averages out to $13 per bag, each way. Not bad for 70 lb. (32 kg) of stuff!

On Wednesday morning I packed our bags and had them ready to go for the 12PM to 2PM pickup window. Back in the U.S., scheduling a 12PM to 2PM appointment at the house means that the repairman (or whoever) will arrive at 3PM….or 4:30PM…..or call at 5:30 to reschedule for the next day. In Japan a 12PM to 2PM pickup means that the driver will arrive at 11:45AM or earlier.

IMG_3287Right before my pickup I scrambled on last-minute errands. I planned to return to the house at 11:45AM, and I hit it right on the nose. I pulled up, all proud of myself…and saw the Black Cat driver waiting for me, standing at parade rest. I apologized for being late, he apologized for being early, we bowed, etc. At least I had the bags and packing slip ready to go.

My skis and gear are on their way, and in two days time Tessa and I will be too!


Arranging Yamato Transport in English

-Yamato Transport Customer Service in English: 012.017.9625, daily 9AM to 6PM

-Ski TA-Q-BIN info:
http://www.kuronekoyamato.co.jp/en/personal/ski/
On that page, look along the right side for other categories of TA-Q-BIN service.

-How to fill out the shipping label:
http://www.kuronekoyamato.co.jp/en/personal/ski/index2.html
Honestly I found this page really confusing, so I called Customer Service and they walked me through it.

When shipping luggage to hotels within Japan, allow at least three days for transport. The shipping itself takes two days, and Yamato plans on delivering to the hotel one day before your check-in.