Osaka, Day 1

Osaka, Day 1

Today was our trek from Tokyo to Osaka. We checked out of our hotel in Tokyo hotel and walked to the train station to hop a few lines over to Tokyo Station and grab a bite to eat at a market. I had this delicious sandwich with cheese and a coffee. Once we filled up, we headed to the train. We had spent a little too much time at the station and were in quite a rush to get to the correct platform. Thankfully, we reserved seats on the JR Line to Osaka in advance to ensure we were able to sit together, so that reduced some of the stress, but navigating the thousands of people in the station  with our luggage during rush hour to catch a train was crazy!

IMG_4128-2

Finally, we made it to the platform with a few minutes to spare. Ryan decided to grab “train beers” for the 9:03 AM train ride to to relax and my sister and I had one as well. It definitely did the relax-trick! We were able to see Mt. Fuji from the other side of the train’s windows for about 15 minutes as we sped by at 200+ MPH! I spent the rest of the 2 hour ride journaling. I have to say, the train rides in Japan seem to go by quickly!

57473352897__9803F084-356B-405D-BB36-B930199A14EA-2

Once we hit Osaka, we hopped off the train and navigated the streets to the Candeo Hotel. It was centrally located in the Namba District which was filled with restaurants and bars. We could not check upon arrival, so we dropped of our luggage and took of to head towards to Castle Park. There were some restaurants at the park entrance and we stopped for lunch at R Baker Osaka-jo. It had a bunch of baked goods and Ryan and I shared 4 pastries: a potato pizza, Japanese curry fried pocket, sweet rolls, and a hot dog looking thing. They were delicious and it was so nice to sit in some green space while enjoying lunch after being in the busy cities for so long.

After lunch, we continued our walk through the park. It was a beautiful day and the first one warm enough to leave our jackets at home. Once we got through the giant stone walls to the center of the park, the main castle was visible and totally stunning. It was totally massive and we sat for a while taking in the view on some jade looking rocks. There was a Spanish performer playing loud music starting his act right in front of the palace and we were so curious how his life could have led him to performing street art in Osaka.

IMG_4143-2

We continued our walk through the gardens, passing some shrines and statues of Shogun and then it was back to the hotel to check in. The room was small and view was lousy, but the hotel was so central to the main areas it worked perfectly. The Dotonbori district with tons of shopping and restaurants was only a few blocks from us and we took of to explore and find something to eat.

IMG_4167-2

Being so close to Kobe, Yakiniku is very popular in Osaka so we found a restaurant with good reviews to try it out. We sat at a table with a grill pot in the middle of us and, for $29 per person, we had 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook and eat as much as we wanted.

The meat quality was excellent and we used a table next to the table to order plate upon plate of different meats, seafood, and veggies. It was delicious, though picking who was going to cook what was a little stressful as people like different cooks of meat. We opted to each cook our own food to our desired doneness which helped with the stress. The clock countdown also made out meal tricky. If you had too much food left over, you would get charged extra for wasting. Ryan was super hungry and took down at least a pound of steak and pork belly within the last 7 minutes to finish everything off.

My parents never really understood why Ryan thought sushi was not enough food until tonight when they saw how much he can eat! What can I say, he is a growing boy (man haha).

After dinner, we walked through the crowded streets of Namba, checking out all of the food vendors and shops along the way. The number of lights and signs were overwhelming but so cool; nothing like we have seen before. There were all of these fake food displays outside of the restaurants too that looks so realistic! It was pretty incredible but we were so stuffed we couldn’t even think about more food!  After about an hour walking off all of the meat we had eaten, we headed back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

Overall, Japan has been a bit stressful so far. I think it is a combination of the sheer number of people in the city, unlimited number of options for things to do, and how many opinions there are with the 5 of us. It makes it tough to make everyone happy for everything unfortunately. I think getting out of the hustle and bustle of the cities for a few days will do us some good. I am just very glad we have the technology we do because trying to navigate Japan without GPS and our phones would be next to impossible.

Tokyo, Day 3

Tokyo, Day 3

Another Tully’s breakfast morning in the books. We have loved eating all of the traditional Japanese food for lunch and dinner but it is kind of nice to have some more “Americanized” food in the mix too. After we loaded up on our regular toasted ham and egg sandwich, pancakes with a butter patty that looked like banana, coffee, and toffee almond cookie, we were off to start our day.

The plan for today was to see the Imperial Palace in the morning and then we would split off so my parents and sister could check out the Edo Museum (while it was open) and Ryan and I could see the Tsukiji Market and Harajuku areas. The train ride to get to the Imperial Palace was quite easy and we emerged from the station into this beautifully modern office building for Mitsui. Mitsui is a retail store that started selling Kimonos in the 1673. Before then, rich families would have the kimono makers come to their houses to make custom kimonos that were not very affordable. Mitsui opened the kimono market to be accessible for the everyday buyer but opening a department store for one-stop shopping and bulk creation.

We exited the Mitsui building to this massive park in the middle of a modern city. Sitting on 1.15 square kilometers and surrounded by trees, the Imperial Palace is almost impossible to see from the outside. The Place is only officially open 2 days a year and can only be seen by limited numbers in tours during the rest of the year. We did not have an official tour scheduled so we opted for the free version to go tour the East Garden. While we could not see the main palace, the gates, walls, and guard towers were pretty amazing to see.

Apparently, the gardens used to be filled with houses and various buildings. The buildings were mainly made of paper and wood and had a tendency to burn down due to cooking fires. The buildings were always rebuild after time and time again of fires until the 1800’s when they decided not to continue the restoration. You can still see some guard houses and structures made from rock, but the rest of the view is mainly of the garden and cherry blossoms that started to pop while we were there.

Ryan downloaded a tour app and talked us through the different points of interest while we wandered. We were there for about 1.5 hours before heading to Tokyo station to try and find Ramen Street for launch. The malls / shops / restaurants in the subway and train stations are insane. They are all clean and look just like any nice place you would go in the States, only they are underground at the station! We entered this long row filled with shops that had all kinds of cartoon characters and cherry blossom decantations adorning the store fronts. Eventually, we found the Ramen area and opted for one restaurant with a little smaller of a line. We ordered at the machine and were quickly sat at the bar area. Ryan and I both got versions of “dipping” noodles where you dip the noodles into the broth cup. It was insanely good and Ryan declared it was the best thing he has eaten in Japan so far hands down! While the slurping and noodle to chopstick experience was a bit messy, it was delicious.

After lunch, we agreed to meet back at the hotel once we were done with our activities and split off. Ryan and I excited the station and headed to the fish market. While the main part of the market that did the famous Tuna actions was closed, the outer ring of the market is still a highly recommended tourist spot filled with different vendors and food types. Along our walk, we saw a drip coffee place and decided to get some coffee for the long day ahead. While we sat, I Googled the market and, to our chagrin, it said the that market hours went until 2ish and it was already 1:30. With that in mind, the 20 minute walk definitely didn’t seem worth it. I was pretty disappointed but we decided to pivot to Harajuku instead.

The train station at Harajuku was packed. The main road for Harajuku, Takeshita Street, was also packed. It was a mob scene and the people-watching was amazing. There are so many people in Japan that wear brown trench coats and super thick (like 3-4 inches) platform shoes or boots. We also saw some traditional Harajuku outfits which were so weird (in a great way) and colorful. The shops were full with crazy colors, patterns, and kitchy cartoon animals. There were also crepe places that smelt amazing along with other weird food vendors like rainbow cheese sticks, fried potato unicorn horns, and 2 foot tall cotton candy rainbow pyramids.

We ventured through this wild costume store and I wanted to buy pretty much everything inside. It was so cool!

We also happened upon a owl café and, to the recommendation of at least 4 people I’ve talked to, we went down the steps to check it out. It was about $10 a person to walk through this room lined with fake trees and cherry blossoms. Each turn took you to a different owl breed. They were chained up which was sad, but they were beautiful. There are animal cafes of all types in Japan. You can see everything from cats and puppies to hedgehogs, owls, capybaras, otters, and meerkats. While I would have loved to see more, I don’t feel great about supporting places like that financially since most of them  do not provide adequate environments for the animals. Buyer beware if you decide to go.

Once we dogged through the crowd to the end of Takeshita street, we decided to go find one of Harajuku’s weirdest cafes – the Monster Café. It was one the 4th floor of a high-rise and we were immediately excited about the strangeness to come when we were greeted by a giant moving eyeball at the front door.

IMG_4100-2

The waitstaff were dressed in doll-like costumes and we were lead past a cake-themed carousel, through the mushroom table forest, into the “milk bar” for our table. I got a strawberry milkshake and Ryan got this weird red and blue sugar mixture to put in his gin base. The milkshake was good but everything else we got was just pure sugar! Ryan got this cute Pikachu looking lemon tart and I got a bunny doughnut topped with a strawberry jam centered white cream ball. I couldn’t eat even close to all of it.

About half way through our time there, the lights shut off and all of a sudden a rave broke out by the cake carousel. This big purple monster started dancing with the waitresses and it was a mix of chaos and high pitched yelling. This was exactly the side of Japan we were looking for haha!

IMG_4076-2

We left pretty quickly after that and couldn’t put into words how to describe the experience overall. About 5 minutes into the walk back to the train, Ryan realized he left his backpack at the table. We hurried back and it was right where we had left it. Phew! I have to say, Japan feels very safe and is so respectful. People don’t even use bike locks here for their bikes because people don’t steal them. It is a very trusting and nice environment to be a part of.

The trek back to the hotel was easy and it felt great to take our shoes off and relax for an hour. We met my parents back at the rooftop bar for another drink around 6. Ryan wasn’t too hungry so he opted to stay at the hotel while we went to find a place for dinner. My dad wanted Sukiyaki for dinner – kind of like a hot put but slightly different. My sister found a tiny place only a few blocks from the hotel. It had 3 tables and 3 private rooms and we were welcomed in by a English speaking owner. His father opened the restaurant 20 years ago and now this kind gentleman owns it. He sat us down, gave us an English menu, and walked through the options. There were two flights of courses and 3 grades of meat. Since I was already pretty full, we went for the smaller course option, the medium grade meat, and sake all around. The sake was much better than the $1 sake I had with sake bombs in college!

We all got a bowl with a cracked egg in it and were instructed to scramble the egg. Our waitress started to cook the food on the grill in front of us, using a chunk of pork fat as the grease for the pan. Boy did it make things flavorful!

F0B2A6C7-266A-4ED8-A8AF-9540C38A0A69-2

She started cooking the meat with sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce, and, once browned, put it into our raw egg bowl. The egg was so fresh and added this intense flavor to the meat. I am not usually an egg gal, but this was eggsalent! (Excuse my pun haha).

She then added the veggies to the pot and, once cooked, in they went to the egg mix. This meat then veggie pattern went on for like 4 courses and we were getting so full! It was all so delicious! After the final round of veggies, the cooked noodles for us as the last main dish. We were stuffed, but still had slight room for the cherry blossom ice cream and strawberries for desert. What an amazing meal!

We asked about the price on the menu when initially ordering to make sure it was a group and not individual. The owner confirmed the price but, we got lost in translation. What we thought was going to be a 4K Yen dinner ($40 USD) ended up being 37K Yen or roughly $340. OOPS! It was so worth it though.

We walked back to the hotel and told Ryan the story of our dinner. We were going to check out the Golden Gia district for bar hopping and drinks, but it was already 9 PM (on jet-lag time) and we had an early morning so we called it a night and fell quickly to sleep.

Continue on our journey through Japan…

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park, Texas

More and more, gift giving in my family has turned from things to experiences. Personally, I love this trend, and for my birthday this year, Ryan surprised me with a trip to Big Bend National Park!

Big Bend is a national park along the Texas / Mexico border that spans over 800K acres. While my birthday is in July, we took off on our road trip to Big Bend in September so that the heat wouldn’t be in full force. We left after work on a Thursday evening and., after 7.5 hours of driving, podcasts, and yelling at our two dogs to behave in the back of my Jeep, we arrived at our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas at 1 AM.

Our dogs on our long road trip to Big Bend National Park

Our AirBnb was a traditional adobe looking building and was pet friendly, so it was almost perfect for our dogs. I say “almost’ because the fenced in back yard was missing about 6 feet of fence so we couldn’t let the pups romp around off-leash, but the inside was super cute.

Our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas

We chose to stay in Alpine to reduce the drive from Dallas to the Park and stay in a in a more populated area, but that meant some early mornings to get to Big Bend. Big Bend was about 80 miles, or an hour and ten minutes, from our AirBnb, so we only got about 5 hours of sleep after arriving in Alpine before waking up to head to our kayaking experience. We woke up around 6, walked the dogs, cooked some breakfast, and took off on the hour long drive to Terlingua to meet up with our guide.

We met at the one gas station in Terlingua and gas cost $3.15! To set expectations, gas was $2.11 when we left Dallas, was $2.83 in Alpine, and over $3 in Terlingua! We are so glad we listened to the warnings about filling up before we left to the park. The drive to the park was spectacular and went relatively quickly at 80+ MPH.

We grabbed some extra water and snacks from the gas station upon arrival and then met our guide, Erin, and the dad / daughter duo that were the other guests on our hike. We loaded into Erin’s van with all of the kayaks in the back. The drive from Terlingua into the park was about 20 minutes, and then it was an additional 40 minutes or so to get to the river entrance. Erin was full of fun facts about the park and it’s history, living in the small town of Terlingua, and her background from Tennessee. Her accent made the stories that much better.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We were in awe of the views along the park and couldn’t believe the river close to the road was the boarder between us and Mexico. We finally pulled up to the parking lot and had to unload all of the kayaks and fill up our dry-bags for the trek. We even got these really sexy looking boots to wear through the mud. My boots were about 2 sizes too big so I was slipping and sliding all over the place! This made carrying the kayaks quite difficult but we eventually got to the Santa Elena Canyon entrance. We waded into the water and took off our boots to get into the kayak. The mud felt so good on my feet and was only about 1.5 feed deep, but there were some sections where you feel into quicksand like mud and it went up to your hip! It was so crazy.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Once we were all in, we started our semi-relaxing ride. I say semi because we were able to paddle about 80% of the time and were stuck in mud and had to pull about 20% of the rest of the time. The Rio Grande river is damned up in El Paso and, unless El Paso releases some of the water, the Rio Grande river is very shallow in the Santa Elena Canyon. It was still an amazing experience in between the massive cliffs, especially since there were only 5 of us. It was so relaxing. Ryan couldn’t have done a better job planning this.

Pulling our kayak through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We make it about 2 miles up the river before stopping for lunch. I made some PB&Js and we enjoyed some Sun Chips while taking in the view. I found a nice-looking log and pulled it into the shade as my lunch chair. It was a truly great spot.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Eventually, finished lunch and relaxed in the river for a little bit. The water temperature was absolutely perfect. We really lucked out. While the other duo on our trip power-paddled back to the exit, Ryan and I took our time to really enjoy the view and take it all in.

The most difficult part of the whole day was getting the kayaks back to the van. We were covered in mud, our boots were super slick, and there were rocks all over the place to push you off balance. We had quite the time trying to carry the heavy boats back but, eventually, made it. We got quite a workout in for the day! After loading up the van, we hit the road for the hour long, educational drive back to the gas station. It even rained a little and Erin joked that Big Bend judges rainfall by “drops per square foot” since they get so little.

We were pretty exhausted and didn’t dawdle in Terlingua once we arrived. It was back in the Jeep and off to the Airbnb. Our pups couldn’t be happier to see (and smell) us when we got back. We showered off all of the mud, took the pups for a walk, and relaxed a bit before finding a spot for dinner.

There is a pretty popular place in Fort Worth that we have both been to called Reata, and apparently, the original location is in Alpine! We went around 6:30, were starving, and ended up ordering waaaay too much food. We started with some delicious corn bread and biscuits, had crab stuffed, bacon-wrapped peppers, split a goat cheese salad, and then got two massive entrees. Ryan’s chicken fried steak should looked like two entire chickens, and my steak with enchiladas had two bread-plate sized pieces of steak, corn, beans, and enchiladas.

We were soooo stuffed and had to take the majority of the food back home. Since it was my birthday celebration, they even boxed up some apple pie and ice-cream for us, which we enjoyed cuddled up on the couch at the Airbnb before hitting the sheets for bed.

Day 2 – Big Bend Hike & Marfa, Texas

Our 1 year old dog, Dixie, was not a happy camper at night. She was barking in her kennel all night and we had a rough time sleeping. I had to get up at 3 AM to take her potty, which actually turned out OK because I looked up into the night sky and saw millions of stars. It was beautiful!

Combined with the 6 AM wake up to head to Big Bend for our hike, we were so tired. Thankfully, we grabbed a bunch of caffeine at the gas station which perked us up for the 2 hour drive to our hiking spot within the park. The drive was beautiful and we got to watch the sun rise over the mountain range in all of these amazing pastel colors. It made the drive much less boring. We even passed a Target along the way!

Target by Marfa, Texas

We arrived at our hike and were excited to start on the 4.8 mile journey up to the top. Originally, we were going to hike the Emory Peak Trail, a 12 mile rigorous hike that reminded us of the Tongariro Pass that we hiked in New Zealand. However, we opted to hike the Lost Mine Trail instead so that we could check out Marfa in the second half of the day.  We were not disappointed by Lost Mine in the slightest. The views were amazing there was some cloud coverage so we didn’t get too much sun. The temperature was perfect for hiking and there was even a cool breeze to cool us down. We got so lucky.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Even though Big Bend is technically a desert, the plant life is so diverse and beautiful. There are cacti of various types all over the place, flowers in different colors, grasses, and other weird looking plants that, when combined, made for a gorgeous looking landscape.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the ridge top. Again, you couldn’t beat the views. We spent some time at the top taking it all in. We even took a snack break and attempted rock climbing on a big boulder just to enjoy it further.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

The dad and daughter from our kayaking journey the day before were also supposed to hike Emory Trail, but we ended up running into them on our hike down from the top! They said that they got to the Emory trailhead too late and the park rangers were cautioning people not to go since it was going to get too hot! I am glad we didn’t waste time driving over to that trail only to get rerouted to Lost Mine.

The hike was the perfect length and we were sore but feeling good once we got back to the Jeep. We ate our PB&Js on the 2.5 hour drive to Marfa. Marfa is a town of 1.8K or so in the middle of nowhere. Marfa has become well know among the art community for Chinati Foundation which is on 340 acres and is a permanent house of certain artists work. There is also a random Prada store (similar to the target) about 30 miles north of Marfa which is now an iconic image for Marfa. With all of the driving we did to and from Big Bend, we decided to skip the Prada installation and check out the gallaries in Mafa instead.

We started by going to the Chitani. When we got there, the two people at reception did not even look up to greet us. It was pretty strange and they told us that the only thing we could check out there was the outside cement block installation. We walked through what sounded like rattle snake infested grasses down to the art- which really just looked like a dumping ground for giant concrete blocks. We didn’t get it, but that’s OK. Every type of art is not always for everyone.

We then went to the Ballroom – another gallery. This one had this creepy exhibit of motion triggered things – like ladders with dog heads that had long wigs and the ladders moved closer to you when you walked towards them. It was very strange and, again, not my cup of tea. We went to Inde / Jacobs Gallery and had a great conversation with the owner. We actually liked the style of art at this Gallery. We kept walking, got some coffee, and checked out the Marfa Store. It was run buy this young guy from Minnesota who moved to Marfa with his boyfriend. We talked to him about transitioning to such a small town and he had some interesting perspectives.

 

We the checked out the town square and the shops / galleries within. There was one gallery with 3 massive Andy Warhol paintings! It was so crazy seeing such high caliber art in Marfa, Texas! We walked past a few places for sale and decided to check out the real-estate prices on Zillow. Holy cow it was expensive. The homes were comparable price-wise to Dallas, but some of the homes didn’t have city water or even AC! We were so shocked!

We took off back to the AirBnb to spend some time with the dogs. Ryan and I hung out in the hammock in the backyard for a bit before we decided to go find some food. We went into the town and settled on an Italian place called Guzzy’s. It was strangely decorated insides and reminded us of a night club. I got some ravioli with Alfredo and Ryan got some pizzas. The food was average but did the trick and we spent the remainder of the evening with the dogs before passing out around 9 PM.

Guzzy's in Alpine, Texas

Tokyo, Day 2

Tokyo, Day 2

This morning we had a game plan. We went to Tully’s for our now “regular” ham and egg sandwich and coffee before breaking off for our morning activities. Mom and Dad’s Christmas present from my sister and I was an Ikebana class experience to learn the art of Japanese flower arrangement. They took off for their 10 AM appointment and my sister, Ryan, and I set off to check out TeamLabs Boarderless, an interactive, immersive and modern, no idea how to describe it, exhibit.

IMG_3882

We hopped on the train for the 58 minute journey to the TeamLabs area by the ocean. We arrived with time to spare and just beat the line rush. As we got to the front, one of the workers told us we were at the wrong place! I had no idea there were more than one of these things in Tokyo! Apparently, I bought tickets for the TeamLabs Planet experience, not Boarderless, so it was back onto the train for another 20 minute ride to the correct location. Thank goodness the trains in Japan are so easy to navigate. We were at the new building in no time and had a short wait outside in a quickly moving line.

We entered a black room and watched a short intro video that told us to remove our shoes and hike up our pants to at least our knees. Wait….. what? My super tight skinny jeans were not going to budge more than 3 inches above my ankles and my sister and Ryan were looking at me quizzically and I had no answers for what we were about to experience.  With shoes off, we were instructed to move into a locker room to put our stuff up. I was not allowed in with my pants, so I got to wear these super sexy cut off sweat-shorts instead!

IMG_3885

Once we got the go-ahead for our pant situation, we started the journey into a black corridor with the softest velvet black walls and dim colorful lights to indicate our course. The first area we came across was an upward slope with water running down it from a waterfall at the top of the slope. It was so relaxing to walk up and the water looked beautiful with a blue light shining through it. At the top, we were given towels to dry our feet before entering the next room – a giant bean bag! When I say giant bean bag, I mean that then entire huge room was one massive bean bag and it felt like you were climbing through quicksand to get through. It was so unstabalizing and we kept pushing each other over since we were so off balance. It was hilarious and so comfortable! We need one of those rooms in our house!

The next room was my absolute favorite. It had what seemed like thousands of strings of lights with mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and floors. The lights changed colors and patterns and made all of these wonderful designs as we walked through the maze of a room. It was totally mesmerizing.

We continued on and encountered a slope that led us into knee high milky water. After turning a corner, we waded into this massive room of water with various light patterns materializing around us. There were giant coy fish, flowers, and all of these other wonderful patterns. It was so relaxing and felt so good!

IMG_3936

After another quick towel dry, we couldn’t wait to see what was next. We entered this room with massive, white balls! They had some helium in them so they floated around and the various neon lights made it look so cool! We pushed each other into them, bumped off of them, and explored the massive room for quite a while. Again – so weird and cool!

The last room in the experience was a giant dome that had a mirrored floor and a video of flowers moving all around it. It was kind of like a planetarium theater but, instead of planets, there were flowers of all shapes and sizes coming at you from all angles. We laid on the floor for a while to watch and relax. The walk to the exit was pretty disorienting and the angle to which the flowers were flying made it seem like the room was turning upside-down.

Sadly for us, that room led us to the exit but we were so pleasantly surprised by how different the entire experience was. A “must do” if you ever see a TeamLabs experience by you.

After TeamLabs, we set off to meet up with my parents at the Edo Museum. The plan was to grab lunch around there and then learn about Japan’s history at the museum but, unfortunately for us, the Edo is closed on Mondays so we had to adjust. We decided to grab some snacks and go check out the tech district of Akihabara instead. We hopped back on the train and rode for 20 minutes to the station. It dumped us out right into a mall and I kept getting side tracked because, well, shopping!!

We exited and immediately felt like we were in another world (like an Anime one!). There were cartoon signs crawling up the sides of the massive high rises on both sides of the road, tons of shops with tech gadgets, powerhouse brands like Sega taking up huge buildings, video games everywhere, shops with figurines, and lines and lines of surprise toy dispensers. Of course, Ryan had to try his luck with one.

Your tummies were rumbling so we found a Yaki Udon place to grab a bite. There were two vending machines on either side of the restaurant (shown below) to place your order and then we found a seat. We showed our tickets from the machines to the waitress and our food was on our table in under two minutes. Boy was it good! I got hot udon noodles with tempura.

After lunch, we ventured out to meet my parents. It took a little to find them and, while my mom went on a bathroom break, we sampled some Macha, strawberry, and pecan, chocolates for a chocolatier. Once we all regrouped, it was off to explore. It was hard to know where to go since most of the shops are on different levels within each building.

We decided to go into the Sega building and it was nuts. Like, I am trying to find different adjectives to describe this place but none can do it justice. There were 9 total floors of games. The first 3 floors were just toy-grabber machines. I tried my luck to get a giant Yoshi but it didn’t work out in my favor. The next two floors had video games of sorts, then there was a floor of music games like DDR. One of the games was like guitar hero but, instead of a guitar, you played a piano instead. One of the guys playing it was on the hardest level and had over 1,000 perfect moves! He was a total piano-hero savant! It was insane to see.

The last floor was the VR floor and had multiple areas for VR shooter games. There was even one where you rode a fake horse and killed bad guys as you rode through a valley (picture to the right above). It was weirdly funny to watch.

We made our way back out of the chaotic lights and sounds of this building. There were quite a few other buildings just like the one we were in. What a place! We browsed through a few figurine stores and souvenir shops before heading back to the station to go to the Ginza district. Ginza is known for its high end shopping. We just wanted to check it out and had no real plan. Ryan was not to keen on walking around the shops and was peeved we didn’t stay behind in Akihabara. I think there was some jet lag involved and we were not in the best mood. We walked some blocks but were all pretty tired after walking +20K steps or so already. We decided to head back to the hotel, rest, and regroup at our favorite rooftop bar at 6. It felt great to take a break for a bit.  We also decided we needed to make our full “game plan” the day prior so that we made sure to make the most of our days in Tokyo since today was a little all over the place.

After a few glasses of happy hour wine, Julia, Ryan and I took off to find dinner. Julia’s boyfriend spent some time in Tokyo a year prior and recommended a goyza place and a meat skewer place in Koenji, about a 25 minute journey from our hotel. We didn’t really know what to expect and Koenji was much less populated than Shinjuku. We walked down an street lined with thrift stores and then to another street with a few restaurants. Unfortunately, the gyoza place was closed, but the other restaurant was open! It was a Chinese place with 4 tables total. The chef was also our waiter and he recommended a few things.

We started with pan-seared soup dumplings which are filled with meat and soup broth. You put them on your spoon and cut a small hole in the top of the dumpling to slurp out the soup before eating the rest. Oh my goodness it was AMAZING. Literally the best thing I have eaten in Japan so far. Ryan got a sweet and sour chicken and Julia and I split Chinese shaved noodles with pork. So yum!

We were stuffed by the end of our dinner and the walk back to the hotel felt really good. I tell you, walking upwards of 12 miles a day is intense but at least you can enjoy all of the food guilt free!

Continue on our journey through Japan…

Tokyo, Day 1

Tokyo, Day 1

Getting to Tokyo:

In 2015, we treated my dad to a trip to Peru for his 65th birthday. That trip was so amazing that my mom wanted to fast-forward her b-day trip to her 60th (typical mom!) and she wanted to go to Japan. After 7 months of researching and planning, our late March / early April cherry-blossom-season Japan trip was in full swing. My mom, dad, and sister flew in to Tokyo Friday night and Ryan and I arrived Saturday afternoon to start our two week journey.

After navigating the busy Tokyo Airport, grabbing our (very worth it) Rail Pass, hopping a few trains and walking through markets with our luggage, we arrived at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Since there were 5 of us, my sister Julia was bouncing between staying with my parents and bunking with Ryan and I. The Shinjuku had this really cool loft suite so we started the trip off with a sleepover!

We unpacked and took a quick shower before hitting the streets to find some food. We ended up at a sushi train place with melt-in-your-mouth sushi! All 5 of us got our fill of so many types of seafood for only $50 total. It was a very impressive start to our culinary part of the trip.

After we filled up, we walked back through the crowded streets to our hotel for some much needed sleep.

Day 1:

Thank goodness for Melatonin. If you don’t know what that is, it is a natural sleep aid that tells your body when it is time for bed. When you are traveling and in a place with a totally different time zone, like Tokyo which is 14 hours ahead of Dallas, it helps you reset your body clock. My sister, Ryan, and I all had a gummy version of it before bed, slept like logs, and woke up ready for an 8 hour tour day!

We met my parents in the lobby of the Shinjuku Granbell hotel at 8:15 AM to grab breakfast before our tour guide arrived. It was only 40 degrees outside and it took one step out the door for me to start patrolling for a heavier jacket when we passes markets and shops. We walked about 5 minutes down to road to a more Americanized breakfast place for coffee called Tully’s. Ryan had half a ham and egg sandwich and pancakes to load up for the day and I had a coffee. This is going to sound really strange, but my sister and I both opted instead to go to 7-Eleven for breakfast. 7-Elevens in Japan look similar to those in the US but are much different. They have a wider variety of fresh food and are much cleaner / nicer. I had heard the rumors about them and read tons of info online so my sister and I decided to Japanese foods from there instead of the American place. I grabbed a pork version of the triangular shaped rice balls stuffed with meats, veggies, or fish, a steamed pork bun, and Korean rice ball. All three were really different but tasty! I don’t know how I feel yet about seaweed for breakfast though, according to our guide, traditional Japanese breakfasts consist of rice, veggies, fish, and always, always miso soup.

After our 7-Eleven stop, we went back to the hotel to chow down and wait for Misa, our 8 hour, private tour guide. She showed up right at 9:30 in a sun hat, fur-lined hooded jacket, and boots. Her face was bright and personality brighter, and we all hit it off with her immediately. She gave us an overview of the customized tour for the day and we headed off to tour gardens.

Our hotel was located in the middle of the Shinjuku district. While it is a modern, 4-star variety hotel, it is surrounded but all of these other themed hotels which were really interesting looking and strange. A lot of them had pictures of the various rooms in front of the hotels and private entrances. Misa told us that they were all “love” hotels that can be rented by the hour. Apparently, most of the houses in Tokyo are very small and people live in very close proximity with paper thin walls. To get privacy, most people in the city, from young lovers to parents, go to these “love hotels” and it is a widely accepted but secretive process. That conversation definitely brought a new perspective to our ideas of our neighborhood!

It was about a 20-minute walk to the garden and the sun was finally starting to poke out. For the sake of time, we decided to walk the Japanese portion of the garden only, about 1/3 of the full experience. There were some large and beautiful white flowering trees and the cheery blossoms were starting to bud as well!

IMG_3798-2

My mom was ecstatic when she saw her first blossom. After all, the blooming of the trees was the reason we booked our trip at the end of March! The cherry blossoms bloom from mid-March-May all over Tokyo and are so beautiful.

IMG_3793

After about 45 minutes of taking in the garden, we took off to our first temple. Along the way, Misa had us try these fried red bean and sweet potato fish snacks. They were so hot they burnt by tongue, but were delicious and so cute!

Misa reloaded our Suica cards and we hopped on the train. I have to say, public transit in Tokyo is so well signed and easy once you get the hang of it!

We walked to the Meiji Shrine entrance and bowed in respect. We saw a lot of girls dressed up in kimonos while we walked. Misa told us that the end of March was graduation season and that was the traditional dress for the graduation ceremony. It was super cool to see so many in their traditional garb and hear about the cultural traditions. We opted to grab some Sakura (cherry blossom) tea so we could rest for a few minutes and people-watch before heading into the temple.

The temple was huge and there were two wedding ceremonies going on while we were there. The bride’s white wedding kimonos were gorgeous and they wore these large round hats. Apparently, most kimonos are passed down from generation to generation and cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. There were also some 100-day old babies celebrating their first 100 days of living with their parents and grand parents. Again, the mothers and grandmothers were wearing family kimonos with their family crests embroidered on them. It was a treat to see the traditional wear and ceremonies of the people.

We walked up to the shrine and threw a lucky 5 yen into the entrance to make a wish for our futures. The word 5 in Japanese, “Go”, is also the word for destiny, so throwing 5 yen helps ensure your wish for your destiny.

Our stomaches were starting to rumble and we hopped back on the subway to go to a lake teppanyaki lunch. We arrived at this random building and I would never have found the restaurant, up this tiny elevator to the the 7th floor.

We sat around massive grill and Misa taught us how to make these seafood and pork grilled pancakes. We got a big bowl consisting of tons of veggies, egg, and meat with butter on top. We put the butter on the grill and then added the meat and seafood to cook first. Then, we stirred the egg and veggies together into a doughy mix and put that on the grill. Once the meat was semi-cooked, we put it on top of the cake and then flipped it around halfway through the cook. Once done, we added bbq sauce, Japanese mayo, and fish flakes. THE END RESULT WAS SO GOOD! Misa also made us veggies and noodles.

If you go to Japan, you must try teppanyaki out after a long day of walking.

It was such a treat to have Misa show us how to make lunch. She was such a great guide for our day. After we filed up, we took off through the market streets back to the subway to make our way to our next stop, the Ueno Park. The park was quite crowded and the blossoms were also starting to appear.

IMG_3839-2

This garden is massive and surrounded by museums. Misa told us that all of the museums and buildings over 5 stories in Tokyo are on rollers so that they can withstand earthquakes! Really inventive.

Then we headed to our last stop, the Asakusa Shrine. At the forefront of the Shrine was a gate with a massive lantern. There was a very long street with vendors lining it on both sides from the 1st massive lantern all the way to the 2nd that was right in front of the main building.

IMG_3848-2

We were getting a bit overwhelmed with all of the people so we took a side street the rest of the way down to the temple. We walked down the market and Misa bought us some various treats to try like sweet rice balls and savory rice cakes with sake.

IMG_3851

By this point, we had been walking for 7+ hours and we were all starting to get weary. By the main gate, there were these shaker cups with numbered sticks. We shook the cup and got a random numbers that indicated which box to open to select our fortune. The fortunes were these long pieces of paper and all of them were positive, except Ryan’s, so he had to tie his to this rack so his bad fortune would “blow away in the wind’. Poor Ryan!

We were already feeling pretty low energy, so we found a vending machine and grabbed some espresso. It came out piping hot from the machine and Misa explained that drinks with red prices are hot and blue prices are cold in the same machine! Such cool technology and such a good idea to have some caffeine which helped us get home.

Misa took us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. She was such an excellent guide for our day. We decided to take a 1.5 hour nap / recharge break and met back up at 7 PM to decide on plans for the next day. My parents wanted to go back to the “Robot Sushi” aka sushi conveyer belt place again, so Ryan and I broke off to try a Ramen place. What a good idea that was! It was delicious. We split a thick wavy noodle, pork belly Ramen with gyoza and fried chicken for like $12 total including drinks. It was so good and warmed us up on the cold evening.

After dinner, we decided to check out our hotels Sky Bar. We texted my family to meet us and sat at a table under the space heaters. The staff even gave us warm, fuzzy blankets so we could enjoy the view comfortably. We had a glass of wine and discussed our itinerary for the rest of our time in Tokyo before calling it an night.

Continue on our journey through Japan…