My latest adventure was a bucket list item: Japan! Every two or so years I take a big trip with a couple of my closest friends. It’s become a pattern, actually, and if I haven’t already, I’ll try to post a few more travel posts of the last few years. This year was slightly different. One of these travel buddies had the awesome opportunity to go on assignment for 6 months abroad. Naturally, that meant we were ALL going to Japan.
Preparing for the trip was a little overwhelming. This was my first time visiting a country where I not only knew nothing of the verbal language but had absolutely no idea of how to read it! The mad rush to research, get tips from friends and family, and the back-and-forth of planning can make your head spin, but in the end, everything worked out. Before I get into the amazing sights, I’ve got a few helpful recommendations:
- Pocket WIFI – You pay by the day, but IT IS SO WORTH IT. We reserved ours a couple weeks ahead of time and picked it up at the post office in Narita International airport. It’s better than getting a temporary international calling plan, in my opinion, and you always have access to information, whether it be Google maps (hellz yeah, we needed that for both public transit as well as walking routes) or Yelp or the Wiki’s on the history of what we visited. Also, it was a good resource to have if we needed to contact people back home… or update social media of your adventures real time. (I posted on Instagram a lot.)
- Japan Rail Pass – This handy document is available to foreign visitors and gets you through a lot of Japan’s rail system. This is especially useful (and economical) when reserving a seat on bullet trains (Shinkansen). Note: The JR Pass won’t get you on the private city lines. This confused us when we first arrived because we initially thought the JR Pass could be used anywhere. You’d need to purchase a Suica or Pasmo card (available at the train stations) for the private city lines. They are the equivalent of a Metro Card in New York City and very easy to use, plus most of the convenient stores, some grocery stores, and some museums accept payment through the Pasmo or Suica.
- Learn Basic Phrases – I tried to cram some useful expressions into my brain a couple weeks before leaving. While I wasn’t wholly successful, I learned the numbers and was able to understand – though not able to speak – some sentence structure. Needless to say there was a lot of “Sumimasen” (pardon me) and gesturing involved.
- Ghibli Museum – If you’re a Hayao Miyazaki fan like me, grab your ticket online at least a couple MONTHS ahead of time. These bad boys sell out fast, and much to my dismay, I was too late to score one.
Flying to Japan – We had a 14-hour direct flight from Newark, NJ to Tokyo. Left Thursday morning, arrived Friday evening. After getting lost and dragging luggage through impressively clean metro stations, we finally made it to a much-anticipated reunion with our 3rd travel buddy! Hugs ensued, luggage was dropped off, and an exploration through the welcoming Mizonokuchi area began! This area would be home base for the next couple of weeks. We ate delicious local food in a warm atmosphere outside the craziness of the busier areas of Tokyo and met extremely friendly, happy people.
Odaiba / Ahikibara / Shibuya On our first full day we hung out on this artificial island in Tokyo Bay where we shopped till we dropped, had our first sushi meal, and unintentionally witnessed a gorgeous sunset over the water. At night we ventured into Ahikibara, the electronic area lit up like a video game and bustling with the unknown. Our last stop (yes, we packed these days like it was our job) was Shibuya, sometimes referred to as the “Times Square” of Tokyo, where we witnessed the action of the scramble crossing, where almost 3,000 pedestrians cross at the same time. It’s nuts!
The next day we returned to Shibuya to have brunch with another friend from work. The four of us have known each other for several years, and it was a little surreal to be chilling and laughing it up in Japan. A short stroll afterwards took us past the statue of faithful Hachiko, whose sad tale of loyalty and expectance is sure to pull at anyone’s heartstrings.
Ginza / Kabuki Theatre / Tokyo Tower
That evening we experienced one act of Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza. The sets and costumes were impressive, but we probably should have rented the translation device. While we knew what was happening in the play, it would have been cool to understand the specific jokes.
We finished the night off with a stroll by Tokyo Tower, which looked like a smaller, different version of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was beautifully lit and remarkably crowded for a Sunday evening. Oh, and did I mention that it happened to be Valentine’s day? Oh yeah, it’s a whole ‘nother level over there. These folks don’t play games when it comes to the holiday of love.
Alice in Wonderland / Meiji Shrine / Robot Restaurant
We again ended up in Shibuya the next morning to tackle one of my must-visit spots… ALICE IN DANCING LAND!!! I read that there are at least 5 different Alice in Wonderland themed restaurants in Tokyo, so in the aftermath of failed Ghibli Museum attempts, my giddiness rose to new heights. After a stop at the info desk in Shibuya station, we arrived about fifteen minutes before the restaurant opened. It was all I hoped for and more! Not only were we the second set of customers to arrive and thus didn’t have to wait for a seat, but also I had a moment to snap pictures like crazy.
The establishment was absolutely delightful, and it played the Disney soundtrack on a loop as you ate. We opted for a prefixed menu that consisted of an open bar of juices, coffee, and tea, delicious choice of entrée (we had 2 different risotto dishes), and an adorable dessert platter… all Alice, all the time. While our meal was of the non-Japanese variety, it was surprisingly delicious!
After Alice (yes, I know that’s a Gregory Maguire book), we made our way through Yoyogi park, past Harajuku (the Kawaii, or“cute”, area), and towards the Meiji Shrine. The walk through the wide path flanked by towering trees gave us a chance to stretch, breathe, and finally take a moment to let the reality of this unique country to settle in. Until then we’d been hopping from place to place, train station to train station, crowded city area to crowded city area. All of it is very exciting, but sometimes you just need a moment.
Later that evening we took in the show at Robot Restaurant. I saw a photo of Guillermo del Toro on the wall, among MANY other famous faces, so it’s an oddly popular attraction. I… I don’t even know how to properly describe this ridiculously awesome show.
It’s like a rock concert and unicorn joined forces in an enchanted forest dominated by evil robots from outer space. It’s like an epic battle in the jungle complete with lasers and magic and the forces of nature. It’s like a rainbow threw up happy feelings and music and lights and color. It’s like a pleasant hallucination. It’s like a party, and everyone’s invited, including the giant, white spider warriors and the sharks. And at the end there’s another celebration with parades and dancers and more robots. Watch it. Seriously, if you’re ever in Shinjuku, you just make that Robot Restaurant Show happen. You don’t even have to eat. Just watch. Enjoy. Cheer loudly. Dance in your seat, and wave that sparkly rave baton around like you just don’t care.
Kamakura / Hasedera Temple / Hokokuji Temple Bamboo grove
Unfortunately, we were not able to see the Great Buddha. The big guy was covered up and undergoing restoration when we arrived. That was a little disappointing, but the rest of the area made up for it. We saw neat roads flanked by shops (including a cool Ghibli store!) and lush vegetation on mountainous terrain all on a beautiful, sunny day. We visited Hasedera Temple where we walked through peaceful landscape, up to the main temple and its surrounding courtyards, and were greeted by unexpected blossoms scattered throughout.
We didn’t think we’d see anything in bloom. It was February after all, but imagine our surprise when soft pink petals loomed above and danced in the breeze.
We had just enough daylight to visit Hokokuji Temple and its adjoined bamboo grove.
What a marvelous time of day to walk on narrow, stone paths with the last of the setting sun casting shadows and golden light through the trees. We closed the day with great food and High Balls at a local pub in Mizonokuchi. Wide grins, bursts of laughter, the clinking of glass, and good company… the adventure had barely begun!
Tokyo Sky Tree / Sensoji Temple / Disney
If you go all the way north, up the Hanzomen line, you’ll reach Tokyo Sky Tree, the last stop. From here you can purchase a ticket and zoom up this needle-like architectural feat, which became Japan’s tallest structure back in 2010. From the top we saw all of Tokyo, including a cloudy, though decent view of Mt. Fuji.
Within the SkyTree station, we visited the Sumida Aquarium where varieties of jellyfish are aplenty and we got to witness the penguin (yay, penguins!) feeding frenzy. And, of course, a mid-day pick-me-up: seasonal Starbucks drinks of Sakura and Strawberry (holy cow, those were delicious). Sidebar: Every cup of coffee I’ve had in Japan was pretty damn good.
Again, just in time for a remarkable sunset, we visited Sensoji Temple. Oh my! The giant hanging lanterns, the intricate roofs, the surrounding landscapes of koi and bonsai… breathtaking.
I must admit that on our way home, we stopped in Harajuku again where I kind of went bonkers at the Disney Store. So many items that I can’t get in the States!
Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum / Coffee
Nestled in vast, pleasant Kogenai Park is an outdoor museum that houses historic Japanese buildings from several different eras. The majority of these structures have been brought in from all over the country and restored. I had heard of the place from following author, illustrator, and travel blogs. I didn’t think we’d have a chance to visit, but somehow we managed to make it happen.
The day was a bit overcast, but the entire area evoked more of a beautiful gloom. We learned about the different establishments and towns each building had been a part of and received a splendid dose of Japanese history. There were several school trips that day, and the kids running about, crossing items off their assigned lists, only added to the charm of this marvelous, highly underrated place.
Well, that’s the end of Japan Part I. Stay tuned for another gigantic post on Part II!