…and they was singing, bye bye Miss American Pie, drove my chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this’ll be the day that I die…
This’ll be the day that I die…
…and they was singing, bye bye Miss American Pie, drove my chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this’ll be the day that I die…
This’ll be the day that I die…
This (final) article goes over how I put together my trip to Japan. I hope the previous articles gave you a taste of the country and culture through my eyes.
Things to Do Before You Go
Get a planet ticket. I got mine through IACE Travel. I paid 729 dollars for it, round trip on JAL. The same time you get your ticket you might want to also get a hotel and a JR Pass. I ended up doing them separately which probably caused the IACE folks all kinds of headaches.
Get a JR Pass. The JR Pass is 329 dollars for one Adult, 7 days. The JR Pass is useful if you’re going to travel around the country. If you’re going to stay in Tokyo, you might as well not bother and get the Pasmo — the subway card. You can buy JR tickets using the machines over there, but you may need some help from a station manager — I don’t know if there was English for all of those JR ticket machines. It was nice just to wave my JR Pass and walk on through to the platform. Something else to note, you have to buy the JR Pass before you leave for Japan. It’s meant for foreigners and they don’t sell it in Japan. Get it through your travel agency.
Find a Hotel. I picked the Unizo Asakusa Hotel — not because it was recommended — but because it seemed fairly cheap but there are cheaper means of staying in Japan. I opted for two nights — the night I got there and the next day so I could experience some of Tokyo on my own before heading to my friend’s place. It cost me 266 dollars. I hoped that the hotel would be somewhere in the city and it was in a fairly decent location (Asakusa). If you want to save money, I hear you can get a thing called a “Weekend Mansion” which are 40 bucks a night but there’s no maid service. I’d love to try a ryokan next time too.
The hotel will probably cost you more. I had the luxury of sleeping on a friend’s floor for most of my visit. If you can do that, then all the better. If they’re in Tokyo and that’s where you wanted to be, it’s even cooler. Keep this in mind: the hotel room will probably be small. Mine was. Everything in Japan is small.
Currency Exchange. I bought 20,000 yen at 90 yen to 1 dollar. That amounts to something around $216 as of right now. The exchange rate sucks, but don’t let that hamper your decision to go. It’s sucked now for a year. Don’t exchange at the airport either. On the Monday I was there, the previous Friday the going rate was 88 yen to 1 dollar. TravelEx, which is the foreign currency exchange kiosk at the airport was going to buy at 78 yen to a dollar. Yeah, you’re getting ripped off. Just use the ATM when you get to Japan. you get dinged with service fees so try to take out as much as you can each time you use the ATM — I didn’t adhere to that rule very well. There was a 5 dollar fee and an extra $1-2 surcharge every time I withdrew. Still though, I’m not kicking myself over it.
If you’re keeping track, my price tag for Japan is $1540 so far. I don’t think that’s too bad. I’m positive I could do better. In fact, I remember IACE was having a sale the week after I bought my plane ticket. It could have been $299 for the ticket, but I opted not to wait. For me, the point wasn’t to get a deal. The point was to go. If I waited, there would have been time for “well…maybe if…” and I didn’t want that hesitation. Just do it, was my motto, then figure things out as you go. It’ll be a lot more fun when you have the ticket in your hand.
Tell your bank you’re traveling abroad. Don’t forget to call your credit card and bank and tell them that you’ll be in Japan between your chosen travel dates. Otherwise, if you try to use your ATM card you may find that the account is frozen and that’ll make life miserable. Usually credit card companies have an option in their telephone menu that’ll let you set up the dates. I went into my bank and told them that I was going on a trip and watched the teller enter that info into my account on her computer.
Japanese Dictionary/Phrasebook. Bernadette told me this might be useful to have. I ended up getting My Japanese Coach on the Nintendo DS. The DS title is meant to teach you Japanese, and I guess to a certain degree it works. I’ve been using it on and off but not regularly enough yet to say that it works in that capacity. That aside, on the cartridge is a dictionary and phrase book. The game will even say the phrases so you can practice it or in a pinch maybe use the DS to get your point across. Honestly, I carried it with me around Tokyo but it was too cumbersome to break out — I think I would have found any kind of phrase book cumbersome too. I just winged it, but that’s me.
Moleskin Notebook. This was slightly more useful as I could write down to do lists and some notes. Also, if you can communicate verbally, try writing down what you want because the Japanese can read English to a certain degree — they all have to learn it in high school.
Point and Shoot camera. This is useful beyond just taking quick snapshots of things, people, and places. I used this to snap various maps, train schedules, and sheets of information, you know, like how spies do it in the movies (and maybe in real life). What’s nice is that with the LCD panel you can immediately review your shot which makes it useful for maps you find on the fly. Of course, if you have an iPhone, you can use things like Google Maps and this makes using a P&S camera moot.
I packed light. I actually bought myself a new small suitcase — so yeah this is an additional cost for me, for this trip, but I won’t count it, because I really needed a new one and obviously I’ll use it on other trips. I decided to get a Samsonite spinner which I figured would be better for moving through an urban sprawl, and I was right. Having four wheels makes life easier. It was about 100 bucks on Amazon.
Here’s what I packed:
I rolled all of my clothing so they’d take up less space. I packed in SLR in with the clothing and tucked the socks around it to really wedge it in there and protect it. In the end I had the spinner suitcase and my laptop bag. I wore a heavier jacket over my hoodie and basically dressed in layers the whole time.
If you intend to buy toys and things you’ll want an extra bag. Since I didn’t want to haul around an extra suitcase I had tucked a backpack into my spinner which turned out to be a real lifesaver in the end.
Don’t worry about an umbrella. You can buy one cheap in Japan — 400 yen cheap — at any convenient store.
Using the ATM is a good way to get cash. Find out what your bank’s ATM withdrawal limit is. Despite that, the withdrawal limit was much smaller when I was in Japan. I was only able to take out 20,000 yen at a time. I ended up spending maybe $800 for my toys, food, miscellaneous expenses, and a ticket to Ghibli.
Adding the $800 to my previous total that means I spent about a total of $2340, give or take, for everything. I feel like that’s not bad for an 8 day trip to Japan. I’m not a foodie so I didn’t focus on eating at a ton of high end restaurants there. I like otaku toys but I opted to buy cheaper things such as Figma and Mobip figures (2000-3000 yen). I bought gifts for friends but they were also small.
If you buy toys
If you’re going because of Akiba some tips for packing your toys. Bring an extra backpack or something to carry them onto the plane. If you buy the Figma or Mobip toys — these are figures that have bendable joints and they’re fairly small — remove them from the box and pack them in a zip lock bag. You should hopefully be able to buy zip lock bags there. Why do this? The boxes are huge and mostly contain plastic to protect the toys. So if you ship it or carry it back you’re carrying back a lot of trash. I bought five figures and a ton of gasaphon. I stuffed them into two of the Figma boxes after I removed all the toys. I wanted to keep the boxes so I pulled the flaps apart and flattened them to carry home. Now if you buy those more expensive types of statues, you may have to ship it because they’re a little more delicate.
Oh, they like to package everything you purchase over there and tape it up tightly. Let them do it. I’m not kidding. I was at a Lawsons convenient store and when the employee asked me (in Japanese) if I wanted to bag my bottled water, I said no. He wasn’t very happy about it.
You can get a Ghibli ticket when you’re in Japan too. Just go to Lawsons and they’re everywhere. It’s not as hard as it might have been in the past.
If you’re worried that you can’t speak the language: I can’t speak a lick of Japanese, and I turned out just fine. I might have stepped on some cultural toes. In fact, I’m sure I did.
You can try to speak English to them, and they mostly won’t understand. At that point you can try and write down what you’re trying to say and they may be able to help you. I usually would write one or two words and it was enough for whomever it was to help me out. All I know is “Konichiwa (hello)”, “Arigatou (thank you),” “Sumimasen (excuse me),” and “Watashi wa America-jin desu (I’m an American.)” You will probably say “Arigatou” a lot.
I didn’t rent one. I had the luxury to use Bernadette’s pay-as-you-go cellphone for a few days. Since it was just me and I didn’t completely have to be in contact with somebody all of the time, it was perfectly fine for me to forgo the rental cell. That’s something to consider if you want to save money.
Get ready to walk until your legs ache. I lost 6 lbs. on my trip, but that maybe exaggerated due to illness. I like my slimmed figure so I’m trying to keep the weight off even now that I’m back in America. You can easily walk 15000 steps in Japan on any given day, and I can only do half of that on an elliptical or treadmill — for an hour. I read while I exercise, so it’s time well spent.
So I hear that Spring and Fall are the best times to go. If you want to go in the summer prepare for it to be sweltering hot. In the winter it’ll be snowing. I often think of Tokyo weather akin to Pennsylvania. It snowed the night I arrived and was blistering cold. The next day it was gray in the morning but then for the rest of my trip blue skies and warm weather. So much so, that some days I didn’t even need the extra jacket I brought with me.
Mito was colder than Tokyo at night. A lot colder.
You definitely want to eat ramen there. That ten cent packaged stuff here in the US — a complete joke. Good ramen is in the broth and in the quality of the noodles. It’s a different beast over there. Even at the airport ramen stand, the ramen was better than it was here. Sushi. If you’re adverse to raw fish, then that’s to bad, but sushi’s really good. Takoyaki is breaded and fried octopus. You can get it at various festivals. It’s DAMN good. There’s so much more I didn’t have, that I’ll have to do next time. If you need quick food you can grab onigiri and various “breads,” sweet breads, and meatbuns at a convenient store. A lot of things are fried there which may not be cool if you get sick.
I’m not adverse to eating weird things so I was eager to down whatever the folks there eat. There are McDonalds, KFC, etc. over there too. It’s different but the same, but why eat American when you’re vacationing in Japan?
Mister Donut is interesting if you want some Japanese donuts. I still want to try Mos Burger and Gyoza Stadium. Definitely go to Ippudo Ramen.
Also the water is safe to drink out of the tap. How do I know?
Plus friends told me it was fine to drink the tap water. I noticed when I got home the water here tasted a little crummier than the water there. So, I even feel the water is cleaner over there, but now that I’ve been in the States for a week I’m used to our tap water again.
So there you have it. That’s how I did it. This time it wasn’t expensive, but I’m sure if I stay longer and had a hotel for longer it would be. It’s really fun if you’re a Japanophile. I definitely want to go back because there’s a lot I haven’t experienced yet. I’d like to see other cities like Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka — and anywhere else that might be interesting. I think next time I might go back for two weeks. I think next time I might want to have better Japanese skills. It might also be fun to go with friends too.
If you have any other questions about going to Japan, something I forgot to cover, leave a comment and I’ll answer it as best I can. Thanks for reading these blog posts. They might be long, but I guarantee it took you less time to read them than for me to write them.
Shared 40 photos.
Monday morning I walked Bernadette down to the Mito train station. As we walked, I debated: would I have the energy to go through with today? I was still sick, but this would likely be my last time going through Tokyo, because tomorrow I would be on the road to the airport and then home. I was still sick and certainly walking around Tokyo would not be helping things, but this is my vacation and I gotta live it to the fullest or I’d definitely regret it.
I waved to Bernadette as she disappeared on the otherside of the turnstyle. I waited a little bit longer and lingered around the Newsday store and then decided to head back. At that point, I wanted breakfast, but not anything fried or full of rice. This seems to be the issue with Japan. All the food is phenomenal. Don’t get me wrong on that point, but when you start to feel under the weather a fried pork cutlet doesn’t sound appetizing, to me anyway. A rice ball is better, but still not something I feel like having when I’m coughing up phlegm. Just give me some fruit. Give me some juice. Give me something soothing for my throat. Under the departure level of the train station was a local grocery store. I picked up an apple for 400 yen — a big, juicy one. They sell these back at home for $1.99/lb. I grabbed an orange to fulfill my vitamin C needs and went on my way.
With breakfast over I ventured back to Tokyo on the Super Hitachi train. It takes only an hour from Mito to Tokyo so I was in Ueno Station in no time and back on the Yamanote Line in search of Ippudo Ramen down in Ebisu. It took some meandering around and asking, but I eventually came across it and got myself the lunch special — tonkatsu ramen, gyoza, and all the rice you could eat — at least that’s what the English menu said. I definitely didn’t have it in me to pig out and the meal was filling. Good ramen, I believe, is in the broth, and at Ippudo it was good to the last drop. Maybe, because I was ill, but I felt it in the back of my throat. It was a very rich and flavorful soup. The noodles, I believe, were hand pulled and firm. I tell you, once you’ve had ramen in Japan, it’s hard to go back. This is no comparison but when I got back I had some Sapporo Ichiban ramen — the 89 cent ramen dry package ramen — and all I could taste was the salt. At some point in the past I remember enjoying this but now that my palette is a little more refined, it just doesn’t cut the bill. I suppose if I want ramen like Ippudo, I’ll have to live in the land of the rising sun. Or, I hear there’s a branch in New York City.
Shinjuku was next on the list. I had come here Saturday night only to eat some sushi at a department store and go home, but now it was mid-afternoon and I would get a chance to see more of it. Shinjuku is where all the skyscrapers are. The Tokyo metropolitan government building sticks out of the ground like a large tuning fork. The JR and subway rail stations are connected to a vast underground concourse that links to a series of skyscrapers so you never have to see the sun or rain if these are the buildings you commute too. I walked beyond this concourse out into the daylight and snapped all the skyscraper porn I wanted.
I continued walking to the Shinjuku-Chuo Park (central park). It’s undergoing some heavy reconstruction. If you’re curious where Tokyo hides all of the homeless, it seems to be here. Sitting in groups on the park benches are the homeless. There are kids doing kickflips with skateboards. Business women and men walk by the homeless without the fear of being robbed, attacked, or accosted for money. The homeless themselves are quite orderly — so it seems. I ventured further into the park and found a small shantytown by the temple. There were blue tents erected in a field. The homeless seem to collect all the discarded umbrellas in Japan and use them as additional shielding for their homes. Their spaces were nice and tidy too. A broom was lying against a tree; the dirt in front of a shanty house had been swept. There was an analog clock hanging on a branch of another house. I snapped a few photos. Nobody seemed to be home, or if they were, they didn’t come out. I went on my way and wandered around the temple behind the shantytown before heading out of Shinjuku for good. There’s much to explore, and definitely a second trip with more time would do it justice.
I had to go back to Akiba. This is one of the reasons why I came to Japan after all. The toys. The electronics. The games. The anime. I won’t bore you with my shopping adventures. Needless to say I found the only Maria-sama ga Miteru gasaphon machine in Akiba again and plunked more yen into it until I was satisfied that I got more of the characters — all of them except Yumi.
I planned to leave on the 19:00 pm train to go back to Mito. I missed it by 5 minutes and decided to stick around to the 21:00 pm train. This gave me two hours to kill. I went to Club Sega and played some Street Fighter 4 at 100 yen a pop. A guy over the network handed my ass to me with Blanka.
Then I decided to do the nerdiest thing I could do. You have to if you’re in Akiba, even if it is against your better judgement.
I went to a maid cafe.
There are a bunch. You can’t walk across a street corner without a girl in frilly maid outfit trying to shove an advertisement for her cafe in your hands. I took one for a cafe called Maidreamin’. It was on Chuo-dori sandwiched between the Softmaps and Club Segas. There it was, a neon pink banner slapped onto the side of a nondescript white building.
“What the hell,” I thought and took the elevator up. It would be good. I could get off my feet. I could get away from the Akiba noise and light show outside. Maybe, it being a cafe, I could get some tea to soothe my sore throat and if it was delivered by a girl in frilly dress, then, all the better, right?
The doors opened and a maid greeted me with a deep bow. “Irasshaimase!” (I believe that’s what she yelled at me.)
“Hello,” I said.
One of the girls asked if this was my first time in a maid cafe. To that I said, “yes” and she explained how it worked. Before anything happens, you pay to sit in the maid cafe. 500 yen will get you 30 minutes at the bar. 1000 yen for an hour. 1000 yen will also get you an hour at a table, but if it’s a table you want to come as a group otherwise a single person will have to pay for two people — so 2000 yen if you sit by yourself at a table for 30 minutes. I opted for the bar for 30 minutes.
How shall I describe the room? It’s pinku. Pinku everywhere. The walls were pinku. The sofas. The karaoke stage. The room’s not big. The bar was a white counter with a pink heart shaped end. I had a basket under my feet to tuck my belongings into so I could keep them off the ground. To my left and behind me was a small kitchen. The floor was wood and spotless. When I sat down, a waitress, uh, maid, came over with the Japanese and English menus. You could have dinner here, but none of that seemed appetizing. I opted for maple strawberry tea and a parfait — a really expensive one by the maid’s suggestion — it was 1300 yen. Figures, of course, she’d pick the a really expensive one as a recommendation, but I went along with it. Why not? It was supposed to be fun after all.
As I waited for my food and tea to arrive, one of the maids came by every now and then to chat with me. I suppose it’s apart of her job description, but then again, of all the maids working there, she was the only one that spoke with any semblance of English. I’m sure a lot of American otakus come to Japan, so having someone on staff to speak the language is good for business. Our conversation wasn’t deep; it wasn’t like I discussed Nietzsche with her or anything. Regardless, it was nice to try and hash out a conversation in my native tongue.
She asked me where I was from. “California,” It told her. That got some big “OoooOos.”
Later on she walked by again and asked, “How long are you in Japan?”
“Just a week.”
Later on, “Where are you staying?”
“I’m staying in Mito at my friend’s.”
It seems like I didn’t say much, but I tend to write curt dialogue. Plus I don’t remember everything I said to her. A lot of it also was just repeating the same thing over again because I said it too fast.
A different girl than the one talking to me brought my tea out. She knelt down on the otherside of the counter and set the kettle in front of me with the grace of a young woman trying to be a trained geisha. “Here is your tea, master!” She said with a flourish of her hands. So there it was. The “master” bit. The part that made Michael Moore on his visit to Akihabara blurt out, “Oh no, we’re not your masters!” It’s goofy. I understand it’s meant to be polite in a strange way. I also figure, it’s just something she’s paid to say. So I just smiled back and thanked her. “Would you like milk or sugar?” she asked.
“Both would be nice.”
I watched her prepare my cup of tea, but before I could have it we had to do one more thing. I call it an “incantation.” She put her fingers together to form the shape of a heart to her right, then her left and then in the middle of her chest and splayed her hands out. “Now, you and me!” I grinned. Okie-dokie. I mimed her moves and when she seemed pleased and moved off I cured my scratchy throat with a cup of tea.
My parfait was brought out with similar fanfare. Again before I could eat it, the same maid knelt down on the otherside of the counter and had me mime an incantation with her. This time she had me trace a heart with my fingertips, then a heart to the left, then right, then cat ears. “Kupi, Kupi, Kupi, Nyah nyah!” I repeated after her. I suppose if the point is to make you smile, even if its goofy, it works. You can’t help it.
The parfait was a mile high and probably gave me diabetes. It’s two scoops of ice cream over Del Monte fruit and a bed of cornflakes — I don’t know why cornflakes, but I hear the Japanese love courne, I mean, corn. Over the ice cream scoops it’s whipped cream used to stick a small pie crust down. On the pie crust is a dollop of pudding. On top of that more whipped cream used to hold down another little cookie with a dog shaped face on it. I ate the entire parfait and when they girls came around again they uttered “Sugoi! Suuugoi!!” as if, while in the kitchen, they were colluding with one another while making the damn thing and saying, “I bet that idiot foreigner couldn’t finish this!” Just so you know, we Americans have bottomless stomachs. Where else in the world can you get a 72 oz steak and get it free if you chow it down in an hour? How about a mammoth breakfast burrito? Or a pizza that has to be custom delivered in the back of a pickup truck and is larger than most Japanese apartments in terms of square footage? Where else can you get a 6 lb hamburger made from the tomatoes, cheese, bread, and hamburger meat of lesser hamburgers? America. That’s where. We have no problem eating this kind of stuff.
As I sat there enjoying the ambiance, another foreigner — he was a white guy — entered the cafe and sat down at the opposite end of the bar and one of the maids began the same shtick with him. A group of young Japanese guys entered and took a table. They seemed to have the most fun. At some point all of the maids were clapping and yelling what I might equate to “chug chug chug” at a frat party. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but it looked fun and/or crazy.
I talked some more with the only maid that could speak English and as a last thing to do, I snapped a photo with her for 500 yen. I got my pick of the harem, but even when I was presented with the entire roster of girls, I pointed at her from across the room. I connected with her the most. Mainly because she spoke English. For 500 yen, they turn the lights up and bring you up to the karaoke stage. I was handed a pair of gaudy cat ears and made the nyan-nyan Asian pose. Another girl brought out a giant Polaroid camera and snapped us in the moment. Me and my maid. Something I’ll remember forever. 500 yen forever. I guess.
She drew some cute little things over the photo and gave it to me. I realized, I didn’t know her name, but she told me it was Midori. “It means green,” she said. That I actually knew.
I had paid to stay to 8:45 PM but I had a train to catch. I wanted to cut out early which seemed to surprise them, as if no one had done that before. You don’t pay until your allotted time is up which is how it works. I tried to ask one of the non-English speaking maids if I could pay the bill. When I spoke to her, she laughed nervously and immediately searched the room for Midori and waved her over. I tried to explain to Midori that I wanted to pay the bill and leave and she eventually understood. Once I had paid they waited for me to enter the elevator (i.e. I was politely getting kicked out) and Midori bowed deeply. I gave her a little bow. She stayed that way until the elevator doors closed.
I spent 3000 yen there for the right to sit at the bar, have some tea, a parfait, get a photograph taken to commemoriate the experience, and get a little “magic” candle trinket.
I had written some observations about the maid cafe experience, but I chopped it out of the article. If you want some culture shock and humor, here it is.
The next day I spent traveling to the airport. I bid Kenny farewell around 7 in the morning. He went off to work. I did my laundry and prepared for my long journey home. No more pictures. No more Tokyo. No more buying things. The night before I managed to stuff all my toys into a backpack I carried along with me. I had three bags going home. I wheeled everything precariously down the back alley to the Mito Station around noon and got to Ueno around 1:30 pm. From there I headed down to Tokyo Station and took the N’EX to Narita. There were things to see around Narita, but admittedly, I was done. I checked my bags. I crossed through security. I massaged my weary back in one of the massage chairs onsite, and then caught my plane at 6:45 pm. I left Tuesday evening. I arrived home Tuesday morning. I didn’t sleep at all on the plane since some parents can’t silence their spawn. On my way out of SFO, I saw the SFPD and paramedics holding down a man screaming in anguish.
It’s good to be back in America.
The Yamanote Line is the JR track that encircles Tokyo. If you want to get anywhere in the city, this is the line to travel. These trains literally come every three minutes. So if you miss one or you go the wrong direction you can easily get on another one.
Bernadette, Alexis, Kenny, and myself were supposed to go to Sea Disney on Saturday, but Friday night they were feeling under the weather, and at the last minute we decided not to go. I was doing alright. Bernadette reminded me that it was my vacation so I didn’t have to let it live or die around their schedule. I felt bad for leaving them, but it is my vacation and she didn’t need to remind me twice. I headed down to Tokyo for the day. The Super Hitachi runs from Mito to Ueno Station with three stops. It’ll get you into the city in an hour. That’s blistering fast considering the Joban rapid line will take two.
While I sat in the train I pulled out a Tokyo guide I had picked up from the Unizo Asakusa Hotel and began to go through the sights. There was the Imperial Gardens, Tokyo Tower, Lolitas in Harajuku (uh, not listed in the guide), the sky promenade in Shinjuku, and why not, I’ll even swing by Akiba for a bit of shopping. I circled the places I was interested in and when I dropped into Tokyo I hopped onto the Yamanote line to go from Ueno to Tokyo and begin my whirlwind tour of the city.
Tokyo Station empties out into a massive center city. The train station and all the skyscrapers that surround it are filled with upscale stores. This is not the place for me, so I believe. I’m not apart of the fashion elite. I would fit right at home in a Jusco, still I walked through some of these department stores. I then went on further to the Imperial Garden. It’s surrounded by a moat and there’s one or two bridges that lead inside. To visit the garden you get a special pass which you have to return upon exiting — I guess this way when they hand out and receive back all the passes they know that everyone’s gone. It’s like a zero-sum game.
If you want solitude in the center of Tokyo, come to the Imperial Gardens. Once you’re through the gates and buffered by the stone walls the jack-hammering, the incessant honking and din of cars motoring down the streets disappears. It’s quiet here. There are a couple of small museums you can visit that show off the Emperor’s swag from visiting other countries over the years. I generally ignored it. I wanted to see the garden. Show me the manicured trees, the meticulously kept grounds, and the stone walls that you carefully rebuilt stone by stone over the years. I came for the epic-ness. I came to be thrown back in time to the Edo period in the small space that survived, untouched by the modern world and time itself.
That’s what I came for. I don’t care if the King of Scotland gave the Emperor a fancy toy boat. Ironically, I’ll probably devote a blog post to the toys that I got from Japan because…I think you might care.
There’s a part of the park where a vast field of dried grass covers a flat field. People sit out there and picnic and rest. You can lay on the grass. It looks damn nice, especially with the blue sky over us that day. I opted to stay on my feet and kept walking around snapping photos and videos. This is how I like to spend my time — on the move, but if I come back, I’ll lay on the grass and stare at the blue sky.
I left the Imperial Garden and headed back to Tokyo Station. There’s one thing here I wished I had taken a picture of. A homeless man had made himself a little umbrella hut under one of the concrete pylons. It was constructed entirely of umbrellas and looked pretty solid for something that might blow away in the wind.
I was back on the Yamanote Line and heading to my next stop, Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower’s not the highest building in Tokyo anymore. It’s not the best observatory, but I choose this because it seemed to be iconic, even if it is kitsch. One of my favorite sentimentalist Japanese movies, Always: Sunset on Third Street takes place in 1950s Tokyo. They’re rebuilding after World War II. It’s about a family that runs a small auto shop called Suzuki’s (maybe or maybe not related to the big auto manufacturer). They’ve just hired a new mechanic — a girl that just got out of school who’s looking for work. They live next door to a struggling writer trying to make it big while running the candy shop he inherited from his folks. There are glorious melodramatic moments in the story between the famiily, the writer, and the girl he falls in love with. It takes place under the backdrop of Tokyo Tower being built and that’s why I wanted to see it.
Tokyo Tower sits on a hill and you walk up to it, gazing up at its magnificent grandeur as you approach. I entered the shops around Tokyo Tower first and had a Pink Waffle — think of it as an Auntie Anne’s but they make a waffle and smother it with ice cream and chocolate. I looked at all the campy Tokyo Tower toys to buy — keychains, globes, puzzles. No, I thought to myself, I won’t buy any of it. Just show me to the tower.
For 1000 yen one adult can go up 150 meters to the first observatory. Once there you can pay 600 yen to go up another 100 meters. I figure, I made the journey all the way out to Tokyo Tower — why not go up? The real price of going up 100 meters more is that, it will take you an hour. You have to wait for your number to be called. I spent time on the first observatory and I recommend you immediately buy your ticket for the special observatory if you want to go higher, but honestly at the end of the day that extra 100 meters was not worth it. You get the same view at a slightly elevated angle. The observatory is smaller and packed tighter and there’s nothing else to do there other than gaze out at the city. I really didn’t get the sense that I saw more than I could at 150 meters. I snapped pictures of the buildings below and got a good panorama view of Tokyo from the sprawling city to the bridges over the bay. That’s really about it. You can dine at the cafe on the first observatory. There’s a shop there the size of a closet that a thousand Japanese tourists will try to squeeze through. So do yourself a favor and enjoy the 150 meter high view and move along.
I stayed long enough to see the sunset.
As I walked away from Tokyo Tower, I turned around and snapped this postcard picture:
An even better one:
There were two things I wanted to see here: the temple and Lolitas. Since I couldn’t find the temple, I saw the latter just by walking around. Once I got off the Yamanote Line, I was back on the streets of Harajuku I ended up following several people around making a loop about the shopping district. Harajuku’s known for its high fashion and all the shops reflect that. Now, imagine Akiba stuffed to the brim with electronics, DVDs, anime, and toys. Harajuku is the same but with fashion. I don’t know if all the stores went up eight stories, but I bet they did. There are Lolita shops that effuse pink. They love them some pink in this country. Men wear pink without embarrassment. I don’t know what the official reason is, but here’s my take: everywhere you go they wear gray and black — the business men, school kids, everyone except for the one girl that’s dressed in a bright kimono. So then there’s only on way to not be so plain and lifeless. Wearing something pastel. Pink doesn’t carry the same stigma that it does in America. It doesn’t scream pansy and they love it on everything here. We just think it’s gaudy.
I managed to catch sight of a few dour looking Lolita as I walked around, and since there was nothing else I could find to see in the night, I headed back to the Yamanote Line and breezed off to Shinjuku.
So, before I blitz out of Harajuku, why Lolitas? I have a thing for girls in period clothing (obviously). The subculture’s always fascinated me. Don’t call it a costume. Don’t mistake it with anime inspired maids — it borrows influence from Lolitas not the other way around. This is youth rebellion. It’s girls that got tired of of the modern world and the hyper-sexualization of their society so they dressed down. Rococo style. They dress for themselves because they got tired of being treated and paid like second class citizens with the only future prospect of popping out babies. At least that’s how I understand the fashion movement. There’s an air of elegance about it; I suppose that’s what I like the most.
If you want to find more about Lolitas watch Kamikaze Girls. It explains the fashion and a take on the mentality of it. That aside, it’s a damn good movie to boot. Lots of good moments. Plus if you like Fukada Kyoko, you can’t go wrong.
Honestly, by this point in the evening, all I did was have dinner here. The stores were closing for the night anyway. The JR station connects with a department store and on the eighth floor of that store there’s a restaurant floor. I had sushi there and was on my way. I vowed as I left that I would come back to Shinjuku to see it in the day next time.
I cut across Tokyo on the Chuo line to avoid going around the Yamanote Line — it was a lot shorter this way. I stopped off at Akiba for some quick shopping — I figured I’d grab a figure or two and then be on my way back to Mito.
I arrived here back at midnight. I thought I could take the Super Hitachi back, but for some reason I thought I couldn’t — but the joke’s on me, because you could, and I learned that a day later. I ended up taking the Joban line back to Mito and enjoyed the two hour train ride.
It was a long Saturday filled with sightseeing and I did see everything I wanted too. What I like most is that I didn’t extensively plan anything. It’s all spontaneous. Off the cuff, if you will. I must travel this way more often. It’s fun to explore on your own. When we had considered going a year ago we looked at doing tour groups, but honestly, what’s the fun in having someone hold your hand? I like to explore.
The next day, Sunday, it was Kairakuen Garden in Mito. The day after, one final stop in Tokyo and I do something absolutely ridiculous and nerdy: I go to a maid cafe.