Japan 2017 – Day 6

Day 6: Arashiyama (嵐山 [Storm mountain]), Arashiyama monkey park Iwatayama, and Nijo Castle (二条城)
Starting the day early, we took the subway for a few stop from Kyoto station to the saga-Arashiyama station. Once at the station, you just have to turn right and walk straight toward the Tenryuji (天龍寺) temple area. Surrounding it is a pathway which happens to be a bamboo grove. Perhaps its a good idea to do this early as it gets crowded and the path is narrow. The sun wasn’t fully out, but there was enough light for some photos.

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The end of this path leads you toward the Katsura river (桂川). I would imagine how colorful everything would be during a different season, but it was still scenic to walk by the river. The water is a nice blue.

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You’ll eventually reach the Togetsukyo (渡月橋) bridge across the river.

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Once across, you make a right and walk for about 5 minutes until you come across the entrance to the monkey park Iwatayama trail.

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It takes about 20 minutes or so to get to the top of the hill (160 meters). It’s a nice walk and totally worth it. You’ll know you’re at the top when you see the 100+ Japanese macaques all over the place.

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The rules are to not make eye contact, no touching, and no feeding unless you are in the cage house. These guys are territorial and tend to quarrel and fight every now and then especially when food treats are involved.

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Did I mention that the monkey park is on top of a hill. Which means you have great views of Kyoto.

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So after seeing a battle of the ages between to monkeys which had them rolling down the hill while the other monkeys cheered on, it was time to also descend the hill into the town. So backtracking across the bridge into the main street. There is plenty of shopping here. Also for lunch, there are plenty of eat spots. Speaking of, we just randomly walked into a small sushi store called Naritaya and it turned out to serve the best unagi (eel) I ever had.

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Since we still had some time, we decided to visit the Nijo castle which consists of 2 fortification rings, 2 palaces, and gardens. It’s quite a large open space so be prepared for walking. The main building is the Ninomaru (二の丸) palace where visitors get the opportunity to enter and walk around, but have to leave your shoes at the entrance. No photos allowed, but I can tell you that it was impressive and worth a visit. I did manage to take some photos of the grounds.

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It turns out that Japan is more than just the big city scene. There is the country side, mountains, rivers, history, palaces, and monkeys. For tomorrow, instead of monkeys, there will be deer… and ninjitsu.

 

Japan 2017 – Day 5

Day 5: Intro to Kyoto (京都)
Although Shinjuku station is so massive and seems to be the central transportation hub, the shinkansens (bullet trains) do not stop there. Just when I thought there could not be a crazier place than Shinjuku station, here comes Tokyo station. If you want to feel like a bee who lost its way and ended up deep in another hive during honey season, then visit this station. I didn’t take photos because I had to struggle with luggage, dodge people from all directions, and use all of my brain to locate my train (signs aren’t always straightforward) with little time. But once you arrive at the right platform (Tokaido line [東海道 新幹線] bound to Shin-Osaka station [(新大阪 駅]) and see your bullet train arrive, its smooth sailing from there. Just 2 hours and 40 minutes to Kyoto; the old capital city of Japan. Make sure to get a seat on the right side to get that Mt Fuji (富士山) view.

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After a high-speed ride with views of several cities and towns, you’ll arrive at Kyoto station; a monster train station with a 14 floor mall and a maze of platforms. It took me 2 days to get familiar with the layout of the station. I recommend staying at the Sakura Terrace Gallery hotel since isnt so expensive and just 2 blocks away from Kyoto station. It’s ideal to use as home base and serves great food for breakfast or dinner. So just like Tokyo, it’s not hard to lose your way when walking around. Kyoto tower (I realize my photo of it is quite blurry, sorry) dominates the sky since there aren’t high buildings in Kyoto, so it can be used as a reference point for Kyoto station. After a quick check-in, it was time to explore.

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Since there weren’t any trains that led to our first destination, we just cabbed it (2-3 miles) to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺); a buddhist temple that is located on a hill. By the way, a bit of Japanese will help greatly when requesting something or asking for something, like directions in a taxi.

I couldn’t tell you much about the history of Kiyomizu-dera but it definitely was the place to be during that Saturday. So many people (both locals and foreigners) walking up the shopping streets and on the temple grounds. It was a bad place for selfies but ideal for photo-bombing. Once you get through the paths of shops, you pass the Niomon (仁王門) gate.

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After the Asakusa pagoda fail (covered in scaffolding) during the day before, it was good to finally be up close with a huge pagoda; Sanjunoto (三重塔) 3-story pagoda.

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And since the path eventually leads to the peak of the hill, you get great views of Kyoto. It is here when you realize that Kyoto is surrounded by mountains.

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Once at the top, you simply work your way back toward the entrance of Kiyomizu.

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From Kiyomizu-dera’s entrance, it’s about a 20 minute walk through Higashiyama (東山) to Kodaiji temple. You’ll immediately notice that the streets are narrow and barely enough space for cars. You have to be mindful of cars at all times. The cab driver told us that Kyoto’s roads were designed a long time ago, when horses were the cars, which explains the street width. It has a totally different feel than Tokyo.

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Kodaiji (高台寺) temple grounds has nice gardens and a huge buddha statue (even a nice little bamboo tree walkway). Well, we couldn’t get in because it closed by the time we got there. Keep in mind that some places close 5pm sharp. But no worries, Kyoto is full of temples. Just a few blocks away, and boom, the 5-story Hokanji (法観寺) pagoda.

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A few blocks west bound via Yasaka Dori will lead you to the Kenninji (建仁寺) temple grounds. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are already starting to bloom and its only February.

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Walking north through Kenninji will eventually lead you to Gion; the geisha district. Many restaurants are right around Shijo Dori. Once you cross the bridge, the scene will start to resemble Tokyo somewhat with crowds, lights, and shopping. And right by the water is a strip of restaurants called Pontocho (先斗町).

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We were in the mood for sushi again and came across the Chojiro restaurant just 2 blocks away from the bridge. The sushi was very oishii (tasty). Similar to Genki sushi, you just click which sushi you want on an Ipad and the food gets sent to your table quickly. I miss it already.

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The Kyoto subway system is a bit simpler than Tokyo’s subway system. It’s fortunate that the Suica cards (just like a NYC metro card) can be used in Kyoto as well. Just a few stops to Kyoto station from Kawaramachi station.

 

Japan 2017 – Day 4

Day 4: Asakusa (浅草) and Tokyo Tower

On a Friday morning, why is it so full of people in Asakusa? This area is known for the SensOji (Buddhist temple). Once you pass the Kaminarimon (thunder gate), you proceed to walk down Nakamise Dori; 250 meters long consisting of 100+ shops.

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Then you pass HOzOmon (Treasure House Gate) which provides the entrance to the inner complex. The 5 story pagoda was completely hidden within scaffolds but all else was just fine.

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All the kids were eating these whip melon pans. We tried one and immediately understood why.

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You can get overwhelmed with the shopping Nakamise Dori and the additional branching out of shopping blocks. So after an hour or so, we headed back to Shinjuku for lunch. We had our minds made up for ramen. But where? This ramen shop called Ichiran. Perhaps its the best ramen I ever had. You simply select your soup parameters from a vending machine and wait to be seated in a ramen cubicle. Its worth the wait.

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Before getting back on the subway to the next stop, we took a walk to Kabukicho (歌舞伎町); the entertainment/red-light district. The Gracery hotel sticks out as it has Godzilla’s head above the building.

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By the way, if you can, check out the 10th floor of this building to be close and personal with Godzilla.

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Although we were at the Skytree 2 days ago, I still thought a quick visit to the Tokyo Tower made sense for a night view of  the city. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest subway station. We came across some mario karters on the way.

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The Tokyo Tower has a slight resemblance to the Eiffel Tower.

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There is actually a miniature theme park based on One Piece; a pirate manga/anime. Since I’m a fan, I thought it would be a good idea to check it out. After a quick stop at the gift shop and Mugiwara (straw hat) cafe, we went into the Tokyo One Piece Tower. Maybe if I was half my age, I’d enjoy it more. But I found one thing that was fun for all ages; Usopp’s sniper king game. The goal is to hit 5 targets with a slingshot and then aim for a more difficult target within a minute or so (it’s harder than it looks).

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We didn’t forget to take the elevator to the Observatory.

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I’m of course leaving out details of the long walks and multiple travels using the subway. I haven’t stayed up to passed 8pm until today. We have time for one more stop… the Mario Bar! You can have a themed beverage and play any video game you want (they had all the classics and more). We played some Mario Kart and then called it a night.

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Japan 2017 – Day 3

Day 3: Akihabara (秋葉原) and Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場)
If you’re into anime, manga, video games, or anything like that, then Akihabara (Electric Town) is the place for you. A rainy day wasn’t going to stop me.

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The first place we stopped at was the Square-Enix cafe. It just opened a month or 2 ago so my timing was spot on. This cafe is based on the Final Fantasy 15 game. You can sit and eat a little something, have a beverage, buy a souvenir, or all of the above. It’s small but it’s worth a stop.

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There was a cool Sephiroth figure displayed. I’m a bit of a Sephiroth fan.

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There are loads of arcades, electronics stores, and anime book stores to choose from. The Don Quixote stores are great for general purpose souvenir shopping. Taito arcades are fun, and so are the Sega ones. I personally like the Mario Kart game and this other taiko drum game called Taiko no Tatsujin.

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There are loads of themed cafes. One caught my eye and turned out to be a spontaneous choice; the Akiba Base shooting cafe and bar. Sure you can eat/drink but I came to shoot targets. For 10 minutes, you choose 3 guns (I chose desert eagle, M4, and sniper rifle), you get a brief tutorial, and then you have to shoot multiple targets (the ammo is small pellets). This was really cool.

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There is a cat cafe in the same building called cat cafe Mocha. Sure, let’s go. You get 30 minutes to be in a large area full of cats, and you can play Wii U if you want. The feeding option is totally worth it since all of the cats surround you as soon as they sense that you have treats.

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Super Potato is a cool store if you’re a gamer from the 80s and 90s, like me. Trust me, walking in is like going through a warp zone into your past.

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Tsukiji Fish market has loads of seafood restaurants that are all good. We went to not one, but 2 sushi restaurants. I guess that covers lunch and dinner. Gotta love sushi from the pros. Sorry about not having any photos for what we eat, it was raining a lot and I was too hungry to take photos of my food this time. However, a managed to find a restaurant chain named after me while walking to Tsukiji.

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On our way back to Shinjuku, we stopped at Artnia, another Square-Enix cafe. Themed food and drinks on the menu and a larger selection of souvenirs (I had to buy that cactuar).

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Almost adjusted to the time change but not quite. Sleep time at 8pm.

Japan 2017 – Day 1 and 2

One week in Japan just wasn’t enough. A few days in Tokyo and a Mt Fuji summit was a teaser and barely an introduction: Mt Fuji 1 and Mt Fuji 2. Six months later, I decided to return for a longer period of time to allow more time to explore.

I thought you could escape the crowds by visiting in February, but I guess it doesn’t matter when you go, there will always be floods of people everywhere. The winter weather in Tokyo and Kyoto is similar to New York with perhaps less snow, so you still have to layer up. Other packing advice I can give would be to have a lot of yen handy since credit cards aren’t always accepted. Also, samurai umbrellas must be checked in (not hand luggage), weird rule. Make sure to brush up on your kanji reading and conversational Japanese; you’ll need it from time to time. Finally, print some maps or download offline maps to reduce how often you lose your way.

My itinerary consisted of Tokyo (東京), Kyoto (京都), Osaka (大阪), and as much in between that I could think of. The best way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto is by using the Shinkansen (新幹線) or bullet train. If you’re planning to do that as well as other day trips using JR trains, then it makes sense to purchase the JR week pass. I saved about 50% on transportation by using the JR week pass.

Day 1:
This was mostly a travel day. A 13 hour direct flight from JFK to Narita airport (成田空港). Japan Airlines is pretty good. The view is mostly upper Canada, Alaska, and the sea. No northern lights during my flight unfortunately. So after surviving a looong flight, you have to travel a bit more after landing since Tokyo is more than an hour away from Narita airport. Either the Narita Express train or Airport Limousine are good choices. Shinjuku (新宿) or Shibuya (渋谷) are great locations to use as home base. I chose a spot really close to Shinjuku station; a major train station hub that is like 2 Grand Central stations. After being awake for almost 20 hours, there is just about enough energy left for a small stroll in Shinjuku and maybe a quick meal at Takashimaya mall, Yasukuni Dori, or Omoide Yokocho [Yakitori street/Memory Lane/Piss alley]. And finally, a good night’s rest.

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Day 2: Tokyo Skytree, Harajuku, and Shibuya
What better way to start exploring a big city than looking down upon it from the highest point. The highest point would be the Tokyo Skytree. I thought it would be best to arrive at 9am when it opens to avoid long lines. Well, we did manage to walk right in without waiting on a line at all, but at the expense of getting on the train during morning rush hour. I’m a regular NYC subway rush hour commuter, but its child’s play compared to the sardine squeeze I felt in Shinjuku. Well, the skies were clear and the trip was worth it. And although I’ve been to the top of Mt Fuji, this would be the first time I get to see the mountain without it hiding in the clouds. The last photo shows the Skytree’s shadow over the city.

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Next stop, Harajuku (原宿). Takeshita Dori has loads of good souvenir shops, eat spots, and stores. Also, this street is usually packed with people, even if it’s a weekday in February.

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One of my favorite spots is the Laser Trap room right by the entrance of this street; a fun small obstacle course in a dark room with lasers at various difficulty levels.

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After walking through Takeshita Dori, you make a right, and reach Ometesando Dori after a few blocks. Luke’s Lobster sells the best lobster rolls and there’s always a line because everybody knows it’s good.

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Themed cafes everywhere. So we tried a bunch of these throughout the trip starting with a rabbit cafe called RAAGF (rabbit and get fat). You get a beverage and 30 minutes to interact with a bunch of rabbits. You choose 2 rabbits for feeding (we chose Roco and Chame).

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The Kotori bird cafe was about 15-20 minutes away on foot. You can sit and order bird themed sweets and drinks and also get 5 minutes to interact with a some birds. The big bird is a cockatoo and has a thing for taking off hats.

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Another 15-20 walk to get to the famous Shibuya station crossing. It’s always fun to cross this 5 way intersection for some reason. The Starbucks on the second floor gives you a good view of the scramble.

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One of my favorite sushi spots is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant called Genki sushi. It’s about 3 blocks away from the scramble. It’s easy to make friends too.

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Still a bit jet lagged, we headed back to the hotel and crashed for the night at around 7pm.