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.

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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!

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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!

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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…

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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…