Japan 2017 – Day 9 and 10

Day 9: Universal Studios Japan

Imagine if you had a theme park like Universal Studios just a bike ride from your house. That is the situation in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan is 2 train stops away from the Osaka loop line via the Sakurajima line. You know you’ve transferred to the right train (at Nishikujo station) when you encounter a train covered in cartoon characters. Even on a cold February Wednesday morning, the park was packed. It took 30-45 minutes just to get in the park even though we arrived at the entrance during the opening hour. Its smaller than the theme park in Orlando but it’s large enough to take a full day to cover it. And it’s the 15th year anniversary of this theme park! My advice other than getting there early on a weekday is to get a fast pass, otherwise your day will be 50% waiting on a line.

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What separates this theme park from the one in the USA are 2 major things:

 

  • The rides are in Japanese. Elmo and Cookie Monster are speaking Japanese only as Erumo and Kuki Monsuta. Even Harry Potter and the gang have become Japanese. But it doesn’t really matter, a ride is a ride.
  • Universal Cool Japan. It’s a suite of Japan-only rides/attractions that outclass most rides in my opinion. Also, they are anime themed, so extra points right there. The rides for 2017 were Godzilla, Attack on Titan, Evangelion XR, Detective Conan (didn’t do this one), and Monster Hunter. The first 3 are perhaps the best rides I’ve been on period.

 

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Additionally there are the common areas like Harry Potter world, Jurassic world, and such.

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Remember when I said to get a fast pass. Look at these record-breaking wait times!

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After being there for hours and seeing the multitude of young locals in groups and dressed up in park-bought attire, I believe that the theme park is a big after school hang out spot. The 3pm parade was quite impressive, they know how to throw a party.

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You may get hungry by the end of the day. Conveniently placed right outside the park is an avenue full of shops and restaurants. This was our last day in Osaka. As we headed back to our Kyoto hotel, we realized that it was also our last night in Kyoto. Time to pack and get ready to catch that early morning bullet train back to Tokyo.

Day 10: Back to Shinjuku, last day in Tokyo

Finally, a much-needed rest day. After arriving back into the madness that is Tokyo station via the bullet train, we hopped on the local train back to Shinjuku station (once we were able to actually find that train platform). Checked into the hotel and had a good 8 hours to spend eating at places, last-minute souvenir shopping, and spending the remaining coins at the arcade. We did not stay up too late since we had an early morning flight back to NYC. I have to admit, it is hard to say goodbye to a this place, this country. The food is great, the people are nice, so much to see and do, and I only managed to cover a fraction of it. Arigato and sayonara Japan! Maybe I’ll see you again during Olympics 2020.

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 2016 – Day 1

The Tokyo subway, 2 shrines, Akihabara, and Shinjuku in pouring rain

You can surely expect rain during the June rainy season so make sure to bring a rain jacket or umbrella. I decided to be brave and take the subway… from Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world! It is like Grand Central station but multiplied by two. Also, there are 3 train systems that overlap: Toei Line, Tokyo Metro Line, and JR East Line. Each train line has many color coded routes and fairly straightforward to navigate and make transfers when needed. Also, Tokyo trains are much cleaner and dependable than NYC’s MTA. One of the most useful routes is the Yamanote line on the JR East which covers most of the touristy spots within central Tokyo. First stop… Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), shinto shrine. From Shinjuku, one could actually walk for 20 minutes or so to the north entrance, which is what I decided to do. This would be my first site of a Tori gate, the first of many during my stay in Japan.

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After a 10 minute walk via a scenic path, you reach the shrine area.

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On a rainy morning, it was rather quiet but its better that way. It’s nice to experience a moment of peace throughout the sensory madness that is Tokyo.

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There was an other shrine that I wanted to check out before lunch, so back on the subway I went. Next stop, Asakusa (浅草). Asakusa is a part of Tokyo which is by the Sumida river; Japanese version of the NYC Hudson river. Also, this is where you can find the Sensoji (浅草寺) shrine/temple. Once you exit the Asakusa subway station, you immediately notice the entrance to the temple, the Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon). Unfortunately, it was under scaffolding for repairs or something but I managed to squeeze my camera through the openings for this shot:

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After you enter, it’s about a 10 minute walk to the inner complex via Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り). The 10 minute walk can easily take 30 minutes or more due to the shops which tempt you left and right.

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The Treasure House Gate (Hozomon), is quite impressive.

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Behind this gate was the Hondo; the main hall. Also, on the left side, you can see the Sensoji 5-story pagoda (which was also under repair; scaffolding, grrr). This is Tokyo’s oldest temple.

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Next stop, Electric town, AKA Akihabara (秋葉原). Although it was still raining hard, I didn’t care because there was not a dry spot on me by this point; I couldn’t get anymore wet. Once you exit the train station and start to walk via Chuo Dori, and once you look up, the little kid inside takes over. If you like electronics, anime, and video games, then this is your Mecca. One can easily spend hours here going through all of the stores and shops. I went through as many buildings and floors as I could before completely exhausting myself as I normally do. There are several worthy mentions such as Club Sega, Taito Game station, Mandarake, Animate, Retro Game Camp, Super Potato, and Gundam Cafe.

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So much to see and buy, so little time. My favorite would have to be Super Potato since it is multiple floors filled with everything related to old school video games from the 80s and 90s. Even the staircases in Akihabara are amazing.

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Just like a kid not wanting to leave the playground, I had to drag myself back to the subway. The body needs sustenance or it will pass out. Back in Shinjuku, we ate like kings. Regarding restaurants, you are greeted with “irashaimase!”, meaning ‘welcome’. And even if you can’t read Japanese on the menu, most meals have a nice picture next to each item. The people are so much nicer here compared to NYC. I tried to order in Japanese whenever possible and I’ve been told that my Japanese if good from quite a few people. Like I said in a previous post, knowing the language helps a lot especially if you are not accompanied by a native speaker. If you like green tea, then you are in the right city! Sushi is one of my favorite foods and I must say, the Japanese do it best.

Before heading back to the hotel, we checked out the Taito Game Station on Yasukuni Dori to play some video games. Multiple floors of video games. It’s too easy to spend all of your yen coins here. With a stomach full of rice and fish, I crashed for the night. Gotta rest up for Day 2…

 

Japan 2016 – Day 0

Konnichiwa (こんにちは) and Ohaiyo gozaimasu (お早う ございます)! Japan (日本), the land of the rising sun.

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To me, almost everything that is awesome comes from here. Just think about all the things.

  • Anime/manga: Dragonball, Bleach, Death Note, Attack on Titan, One Piece, Sword Art Online, Code Geass, Tokyo Ghoul, Gundam, Berzerk, Full Metal Alchemist, Naruto, Baki, Pokemon, etc…, I like anime.
  • Video games from the 80s to the present: Nintendo, Sega, Sony Playstation, etc.
  • Electronics: Panasonic, Toshiba, Hitachi, Sharp, Casio, Canon, JVC, etc.
  • Cars: Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Mazda, Nissan, Yamaha, Kawasaki, etc.
  • Martial arts: karate, judo, jujitsu, aikido, kendo, sumo, etc.
  • Food: sushi, sashimi, hibachi, ramen/soba/udon, tempura, tofu, sake, etc.
  • Weaponry: katana, nunchuku, bo, sai, naginata, tonfa, kama, etc.
  • Musical Instruments: taiko drums, shamisen, koto, shakuhachi bamboo flute, etc.
  • Other cool things: ninja, samurai, origami, karaoke, sudoku, Japanese game shows, godzilla, haiku, etc.
  • Words that we use in English like: tsunami, emoji, sensei, hancho, etc.
  • And Mt. Fuji (富士山)! Sign me up!

It was a last-minute decision to book a flight to Tokyo in early June 2016. I only had a week to cover as much as possible. This may be the first country which I was thinking about my second trip before even going once. When my friend Justin and I were teenagers watching Dragonball Z and 100s hours spent on RPG games, we already spoke about going to Japan one day. 20 years later, it finally happened.

Back in 2001, I took 2 semesters of elementary Japanese which covers basic grammar/conversation as well as the hiragana and katakana characters. Tochika sensei was the best Japanese professor anyone could have, ありがとう ございました. With the basic foundation, it was enough to get by in a non-English speaking country. Yep, Japanese people typically don’t speak English conversationally so it is very handy to meet them halfway when communicating. It’s easier now more than ever to learn basic Japanese as there dozens of phone apps to help strengthen your vocabulary, grammar, verb suffixes, and Kanji character memorization. Some people might disagree and think that konnichiwa, arigato, and hai is all you need to get by, but if you take the time to learn the language as well as the culture, it actually enriches the experience, trust me. Phrase books aren’t very effective when asking questions because you won’t understand the answer in Japanese. Also, many signs are not translated in English. Ok, enough intro, minnasan ikimashO!

Day 0 – Arriving in Tokyo (東京):

Who would’ve thought that Japan is only 13 hours away via a straight flight from NYC. From Narita airport, I think the most convenient way to the city center is to book a round trip bus (Airport Limousine) for around $40. Its takes a little over an hour to get to Tokyo. Tokyo is divided into 23 wards, and I would say central Tokyo covers 10 of them.

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We chose to stay in a central location and one of the busiest areas in Tokyo called Shinjuku (新宿). In particular, the Gracery Hotel in Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) was our home base for the next 5 days (east of Shinjuku station) which has a huge Godzilla head peeking out of the 8th floor. This is the view from the hotel:

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Already being awake for 18+ hours, I figured I’d make it a record and go for 24 hour so that I could change clothes, take some photos, eat a sushi meal, and get a bird’s eye view of the city. Kabukicho is a red light district within Shinjuku and full of bars, night clubs, pachinko, and even a robot themed restaurant for tourists ($80 for a crazy show and dinner, Youtube it if you are curious). After my first official Japanese sushi meal, I headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building which was a 15 minute walk. Why? Because its free to go to 45th FL observation deck and get a view of the city. You can already see that Japan is getting ready for the 2020 Olympics.

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At night, the building signs light up and its all quite overwhelming at first since there are so many people (coming from a New Yorker) and so many things to look at. One thing to notice is how every floor has something that may interest you, not just the ground floor, which is why you should also pay attention to the vertical signs as well.

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I think a few hours of sleep is long overdue. Day 1 officially begins tomorrow…