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Sayonara, Tokyo

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91 days ago, we stepped out of a plane and directly onto the roof of a skyscraper, where a woman clad in a kimono was bowing to greet us. “Welcome to Tokyo! We’re so glad you’re here!” She beckoned us to the edge of the building, so we could gaze out upon the city’s incomprehensible size. “Look at all that awaits you,” she said. Then without warning, she pushed us off. As we plummeted toward the ground, scenes and images of the city flashed in front of our eyes, before the inevitable THUD. We’ve since picked ourselves up and re-adjusted the broken bones, but we’re going to need a long time to fully recover from Tokyo.

Goodbye Tokyo

Never before has one of our 91-day stays passed by so quickly. Tokyo was intense. For three months, we tried to match the city’s pace, rarely taking time off and packing as much into every single day as possible. Tokyo demands it. Tokyo does not have time for your lethargy. By the way, while you were sleeping in, a great new band debuted who everyone’s listening to. That huge line stretching around the block is for gourmet hot dogs. Hot dogs are the trendy new thing, as of this morning. Didn’t you know? Oh, that? That’s a new skyscraper and, no, it wasn’t here yesterday. Get with the program!

Tokyo is tiring but, man, is this city fun. Getting out of bed was a daily struggle, but by the time we boarded the subway, we were fully awake and ready to go, usually assisted by a hot can of coffee from the vending machine. As draining as the city is, it’s equally inspiring. As long as you’re outside of your hotel or apartment, you’ll be consistently (and constantly) entertained. You don’t have time to remember how exhausted you’re supposed to be.

We loved Tokyo. Not everything about it, of course, but almost everything. We loved the architecture and food and bowing and sumo, and the city’s efficiency and cleanliness. We loved our fellow passengers on the subway: the uniformed schoolgirls who just could not stop giggling, the salarymen who were either drunk or asleep (or both), the kids playing Puzzles & Dragons on their phones, and even the gruff older gentlemen who clearly wanted us out of the way. We’re going to miss you guys!

Goodbye Tokyo

But even more than the people, I’ll miss Tokyo itself. It’s a place with a personality all its own. From now on, every other city we visit is going to seem ridiculous. After leaving Tokyo, we flew into Frankfurt and, seeing its skyscraper district from above, I laughed out loud. This is a city? It is, of course, and quite a large one… but look at it. It’s hardly the size of Shinjuku! As far as cities go, Tokyo is an entirely different beast. Comparing it to Frankfurt is like pointing out that a gorilla and a kitten are both mammals.

So, we say sayonara. Usually, upon leaving one of our temporary homes, I find myself getting emotional. But that hasn’t been the case with Tokyo, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just too big to get to know as intimately as we did places like Savannah or Iceland. Maybe because, as fun as the city was, our over-taxed bodies and minds were ready to escape. Maybe it’s because we know that it’s only a matter of time before we return.

And there’s the distinct possibility that, as Tokyo grows distant in our rear-view mirror, we’ll become more attached. The experiences which we’ve spent three hectic months crushing into little balls and cramming into our minds will be given time to unfold. Although the 91 days we spent here seemed to pass in 91 seconds, the space which Tokyo occupies in our memories will probably come to feel like 91 years.

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Goodbye Tokyo
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July 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm Comments (2)

Tokyo at Night

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Tokyo At Night

It should come as no surprise to learn that the world’s largest city lights up spectacularly at night. Whether you’re in Shinjuku or Ginza, Tokyo changes completely once the sun goes down. Cities often seem more sinister in the dark, but not Tokyo. People are more relaxed, the atmosphere is more lively, and the illuminated buildings are even more stunning. Following a long day of sight-seeing, there’s nothing we loved more than walking home at night, especially after a rainfall when the air was crisp and the city’s lights reflected off the wet pavement.

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July 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm Comments (2)

Sega Joypolis

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It was our last day in Tokyo. Although we weren’t leaving until the early evening, we had finished packing by 10am and found ourselves with time to kill. Should we go see one last museum? Take a leisurely farewell stroll through our favorite neighborhood? Or… should we scarf down a final fix of ramen and spend our last couple hours in Tokyo playing video games? Sega Joypolis, here we come!

Joypolis Tokyo

Honestly, I’m amazed that we held off on visiting Joypolis for so long. From the moment we saw this arcade/theme park in the Decks Mall on Odaiba Island, I’d been obsessed. Video games, thrill rides, electronics, haunted houses, music, wonderful Japanese weirdness… Joypolis didn’t just press all our buttons, it mashed on them like a frustrated noob playing Tekken. “Patience,” we told ourselves. “If we survive 91 days in Tokyo, Joypolis will be our reward.”

It was as fun as we had hoped. The place is out of control, with some of the craziest arcade games I’ve ever seen. The first one we tried was Halfpipe Tokyo, a snowboarding simulator that’s equal parts roller coaster and rhythm game. You’re strapped in with your partner and then sent screaming from side to side, twisting in the air as you crest the halfpipe. You’re supposed to tilt your board when you’re in the middle of the ramp, and you score points for how accurately you do so. It’s hard! Four teams race at the same time, and Jürgen and I finished third.

Our performance didn’t improve in the next game, Veil of Dark, a zombie-shooting roller coaster. You’re strapped into a car, given a laser gun, and then progress slowly through a tunnel. Screens pop up in front of you, and you have to shoot monsters. After the final battle, the screen lifts and the car is propelled with unbelievable force into a roller-coaster that zips around the compact quarters of Joypolis. At the end, you get your scores: I finished last, and Jürgen second-to-last.

Joypolis Tokyo

These are the two biggest attractions at Joypolis, but there are many, many others. We played a bobsled game in which you’re rotated 360° (we actually won this one). There are car simulators, rides in which you seem to soar through the air, track-and-field competitions, a “fantasy forest” which tells your future (I’m apparently due for some good lovin’), quiz games, and a number of horror-themed attractions.

Jürgen has a serious aversion to anything resembling a haunted house, so I had to venture into Sadako 3D alone. I was asked to play the role of an photojournalist, investigating grisly crime scenes and taking pictures of the horrific things I saw. As I walked down a long hallway, looking for bloody clues, the lights started flickering and I heard a noise like shuffling behind me. My stomach sinking, I turned around. At the other end of the hall was a long-haired freak lady, straight out of The Ring. Then the lights went totally out, and I heard her approaching… when the lights came back on, she was right in front of me, dead eyes peering from behind her hair, hands reaching toward my neck. Screaming, I ran away.

Joypolis is great fun, and offers more than enough to fill an entire day. We had to leave before even getting to play with half the stuff, and I would have loved a second go at Halfpipe Tokyo or Veil of Dark. As you might expect, the place isn’t cheap; after paying an entrance fee, you have to pay individually for each ride. This adds up quickly, so it’s usually smarter to pony up for the flat-rate “passport,” allowing you to ride anything you want as often as you want. We had made up the cost of the passport within two hours.

This wasn’t the most profound or traditional way to spend our final hours in Tokyo, but we had an absolute blast in Joypolis. And so I suppose it was appropriate: if one sentiment defined our three months in this city, it was “crazy fun.” And as far as crazy fun goes, Joypolis is hard to top.

Location on our Map
Sega Joypolis – Website

Sonic the Hedgehog Speed Energy Drink

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July 14, 2014 at 6:32 am Comments (0)

Why Is Tokyo So Cute?

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The Cute is everywhere in Tokyo, and you’re not going to escape it. You shouldn’t even try. This is a city with fluffy animals on every corner. Where buses prowl the streets disguised as pandas. Where every corporation and even the police force have their own charming mascot. The Cute cannot be avoided, so you might as well embrace it.

Cute Tokyo

Cuteness is so pervasive in Japanese society that there’s even a term for it: Kawaii. Kawaii encompasses everything from mascots, to girls talking in exaggeratedly-affected voices, to boys shaving their legs, to cosplay fashion and cutesy stickers and Pikachu and making hearts with your hands and countless other obnoxiously darling mannerisms.

The nationwide obsession with cute can be infantilizing (the police mascot Pipo-kun seems especially frivolous, and there’s nothing more irritating than a 25-year-old woman blathering on like a toddler) but on the whole, we like kawaii. Cute things make people happy, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to maximize that.

-Cute Toys From Japan And The USA

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July 13, 2014 at 4:28 pm Comments (6)

Bunkyo Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine

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Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine

From late April to mid May, the garden of the Nezu Shrine bursts into life, as thousands of azalea bushes bloom, dabbing the green hills with their rainbow-colored foliage. This garden is over three hundred years old and contains a hundred different species of azalea. Nezu’s Azalea Festival is a highly-anticipated event, and when the flowers are in full bloom, the garden can get extremely crowded. Whether cherry trees or azaleas, it seems nothing drives Tokyo crazier than blossoming flowers.

Location on our Map

Our Article About the Cherry Blossom Season In Tokyo

Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
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July 12, 2014 at 4:32 pm Comment (1)

Across and Above Lake Ashinoko

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We had enjoyed a deeply restful night of sleep at the Mount View Hakone ryokan hotel in Sengokuhara, and awoke eager to tackle our second day in the mountainous Hakone region southwest of Tokyo. After an early breakfast, we were at the northern shore of Ashinoko, a picturesque crater lake nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji.

Lake Ashinoko

Scenic tours leave frequently from one end of the lake to the other, and we joined the earliest departure, at 9am. Lake Ashi (as it’s normally referred to) is known for its views of Mount Fuji, but sadly it was a hazy day and we could barely make out the flat, snow-covered top of the famous mountain. And as the day progressed, clouds would roll in, obscuring it completely.

But the boat ride was still beautiful, and within no time we had reached the southern shore. We relaxed at a cafe with an outdoor foot bath, and then rented a swan boat in order to get a better view of a huge orange torii along the lakeside. After climbing a hill to the Hakone Temple, where a wedding was underway, we walked almost a mile to the Hakone-en Park, to board a gondola that would take us to the summit of Mt. Komagatake. It’s a good thing we had slept so well, because this was turning out to be a busier day than we’d anticipated.

From the top of the mountain, we had a tremendous view of the lake, but still couldn’t see Mount Fuji. In fact, the clouds were turning a distressing shade of black. While we walked around, a speaker from the retro-looking gondola station blared out something in Japanese. Fifteen minutes later, after the lightning and thunder had started, we realized what the loudspeaker message must have been: due to the storm, the gondola service was suspended. Everyone else had naturally heeded the last call, leaving us alone at the top of the mountain with the staff and a couple other non-Japanese-speaking stragglers.

This could easily have turned into a disaster, but the storm was brief and within an hour we were able to descend. The wait even turned out to be rather fun… we were never rained on, and were able to enjoy an impressive lightning show over the lake.

We took a bus back to Odawara, where we boarded the train to Tokyo. This had been a short two-day vacation, but our escape from the capital was just what we needed. After three months in Tokyo, you start to forget what a forest looks like, or how beautiful a lake like Ashinoko can be.

Locations on our Map: Scenic Boat Departure | Hakone-en Torii | Mount Komagatake

Great Gifts And Toys From Japan

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July 11, 2014 at 3:41 pm Comments (0)

The Mount View Hakone Ryokan Hotel

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The forests, lakes, mountains and sheer natural beauty of the Hakone region are all great, but to tell the truth, we were most excited about the hotel which had invited us to stay for the night. The Mount View Hakone is a traditional Japanese ryokan in Sengokuhara, and we planned on taking full advantage of its baths, food, and relaxing atmosphere.

After checking in, we were shown to our suite. This was exactly what I imagined a ryokan to look like: the floor covered with tatami mats, the decoration minimalist, the furniture comfortable, and the futon bed large and inviting. We were each provided a yukata, or Japanese robe, which we were meant to wear throughout the extent of our stay in the ryokan.

We had scheduled both a private bath and a full kaiseki dinner in the evening, but now had a few hours to stretch out and relax in our suite. After three months in Tokyo, it was wonderful to be somewhere spacious and so blessedly quiet. For perhaps the first time since we had arrived in Japan, we had no urgent plans driving us forward, no work to be done, no special sight that had to be visited. We were able to enjoy simply existing for awhile. I got into my yukata, stretched out on the tatami floor and fell asleep.

Soon enough, dinner time rolled around and, after shuffling downstairs in our robes and slippers, we were shown to our private dining room. Our meal had already been laid out onto the table, and I nearly burst out laughing at the sight of it. So much food! This was going to be a struggle, but one I’d enjoy every bite of. Sushi, soba, miso soup, a beef hot pot, marinated octopus, rice and much more, the meal was like a Greatest Hits collection of all our Japanese favorites. (Well, the Greatest Hits… plus a giant, slimy black snail).

When we finally stood up from the table, our stomachs were bursting, and it was an effort to waddle down the hall to our next appointment: a nigori-yu, or private bath, in the cool evening air. We stripped down, and stepped outside to reach a bath that looked out on a garden of bamboo. The bath was already filled to the brim with revitalizing volcanic water straight from the hot springs of the surrounding mountain. The water is apparently good for muscle tension and the endocrine system.

We fell asleep early, and awoke the next morning fresh as newborn babies, ready for another big day. First, though: breakfast. Western options are available, but we chose the Japanese set, and were served another massive meal of delicious cuisine.

As we removed our yukatas and put back on our boring Western-style clothes, I felt nothing but contentment. Our stay in the Mount View Hakone had been exactly what we needed. Ryokans are normally expensive, but the prices for rooms and baths in this hotel are down-to-earth. So if you’re planning a trip to the Hakone region and want to experience a traditional Japanese lodging, this is a great choice.

Location on our Map
Mount View Hakone – Website

Japense Cookbooks

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July 11, 2014 at 2:37 pm Comments (2)

Escape from Tokyo: A Trip to Hakone

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On our last weekend in Japan we abandoned Tokyo and headed for the hills of the Hakone National Park, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Centered around a large crater lake, this is an area of hot springs, spas, traditional hotels, forests and mountains. It was the perfect antidote to the Big City Sickness with which we’d slowly but surely become infected.

Getting To Mount Fuji

In order to arrive at the Hakone region, we made use of every transportation method ever conceived by man, with the sole exception of Segway. We had made a reservation at a traditional ryokan hotel in the mountain town of Sengokuhara, and the day before leaving, I sat down to the considerable task of figuring out the directions:

1. Subway from Sumiyoshi Station
2. Bullet Train from Tokyo Station
3. Funicular Rail from Odawara Station
4. Mountain Railway from Hakone-Yumoto Station
5. Cable Car from Gora Station
6. Ropeway from Sounzan Station
7. Bus from Togendai

This sounds hopelessly complicated, but it was a lot more straightforward than I had feared. Though there are a large number of individual steps, the road to Hakone is firmly established, and we would step off one train, ropeway, or cable car, directly onto the next. From Odawara, the route climbs steadily into the hills, into increasingly beautiful nature, necessitating ever more extreme modes of transportation.

Getting there, as the saying goes, is half the fun. But in Hakone’s case, it might be more like 70%. At one point along the ropeway, as you’re cresting the hill before Owakudani Station, Mount Fuji suddenly appears, impossibly large on the horizon. Its profile is among the most famous in the world, and the view from our suspended car was unforgettable.

Getting To Mount Fuji

Midway along the ropeway is Owakudani, which is an area of geothermal activity. We disembarked to explore the hissing springs and “enjoy” the stench of sulfur. Owakudani is known for its hot spring hard-boiled eggs, whose shells have turned a beautiful color of purple-black, due to the mineral properties of the water. The area reminded us a lot of our time in Iceland, albeit with sixty thousand times the people. Not even in Hakone, it seems, can one rid oneself completely of Tokyo’s crowds.

Luckily, Japanese groups tend to stick tightly together, and if you can manage to peel yourself away, finding solitude isn’t impossible. Instead of rejoining the lines waiting for the ropeway, we walked from Owakudani to Ubako Station on a wooded path leading down the hill, and were the only ones doing so. Near the path’s end, we encountered a quiet spa with an adjoining temple, seemingly forgotten in the woods. There was nobody here, so we sat down in front of the main shrine and made a snack of our blackened sulfur eggs.

The ropeway then continues to Togendai Station at the northern shore of Lake Ashi, a large lake formed by volcanic explosions. A boat ride sounded tempting, but we decided to leave it for the next day. This had already been a long journey, and we were anxious to arrive the ryokan where we’d be staying the night…

Locations on our Map: Odawara Station | Owakudani Station | Quiet Temple/Spa in the Woods | Togendai Station (Lake Ashi)

Cheap Flights To Tokyo

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July 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm Comments (3)

The Shinyokohama Ramen Museum

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It was 1958, and we were hungry. Luckily, we were near Narutabashi Station, where there are at least a dozen ramen shops to choose from. We sat down to big bowls of steaming noodles, and talked about the news of the day… Khrushchev seems a reasonable new leader for the Soviets, doesn’t he? Then my cellphone rang and I remembered: this isn’t 1958. And there is no train station called Narutabashi. The year was 2014 and we were inside Shinyokohama’s Ramen Museum.

Shinyokohama Ramen Museum

The Ramen Museum’s claim to the word “museum” is tenuous at best. On the top floor there’s some information about the history of ramen, but most visitors skip right by this. No, the reason for this museum’s considerable popularity is its restaurants. On the lower two floors, twelve excellent ramen shops are spread across a setting meant to evoke the year 1958, when the dish was invented.

In essence, the Ramen Museum is nothing more than a food court, but it’s a great food court. We had a blast walking around the fake neighborhood, looking at the old movie posters and photographs, buying sweets at the candy shop, and watching classic wrestling on a TV found in one of the house windows. The attention to detail was impressive. There was even a guy in uniform calling out fake train schedules.

After taking a couple laps, we decided to eat at a shop called Nidai-me Genkotsu-ya, where we enjoyed big helpings of ramen in a rich, golden broth. As we were slurping down our noodles, we noticed that most of the other patrons were ordering small bowls; they were probably planning on sampling variations at the different shops, and we kicked ourselves for not doing the same.

The museum costs ¥300 to enter, and then you have to pay for your ramen, normally around ¥800 for a bowl. The Ramen Museum is a strange place and not incredibly easy to reach from Tokyo (halfway to the city of Yokohama), but we had a lot of fun here… and a great lunch.

Location on our Map

Buy Ramen Noodles Online

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July 8, 2014 at 2:09 pm Comments (3)

The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa

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The most popular spa in Tokyo is found on Odaiba Island. The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari isn’t cheap, but it offers more than just hot baths. While inside, you can dine at a variety of restaurants, sleep in a capsule hotel, watch TV, or enjoy the festive atmosphere in a hall designed to evoke Old Edo.

The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa

After paying at the front desk, we were asked to pick out a yukata: a traditional robe which we’d be wearing throughout our stay in the spa. But for the first hour, our yukatas were to be left folded inside the locker… along with the rest of our clothing. It was time to get naked. The bathing rooms of Japanese spas are sex-segregated, no-clothing zones.

Luckily, we had been acclimated to the Wonderful World of Male Asian Nudity during our time in Korea, which has a similar spa culture. At our first such experience in Busan, I had been shy, but after visiting a few spas, I eventually became accustomed to it. And today, I have no problem running around naked in front of total strangers. (See, Mom? See how travel has helped me grow?)

So where were we? Oh yes, naked in the bathing room. In Japan, it’s important to be exquisitely clean before entering communal pools, so we sat down on stools in the shower stalls, and scrubbed ourselves thoroughly with soap and water. And now we could enter the hall. There were a couple tubs of piping hot water, one that was extremely cold, an inferno-like sauna which I could tolerate for only a couple minutes, and an outdoor pool of pleasantly warm water.

The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa

After our bodies felt sufficiently relaxed, we donned our yukatas and returned to the main hall of the spa, where a traditional neighborhood has been re-constructed around an artificial stream. We took a tea break in the tatami room, and then went into a outside garden for the foot baths. Gingerly, we stepped into a pond whose floor consisted of rocks of varying sizes, designed to massage your feet as you walk through. This was painful, but after emerging, my feet really did feel like new.

Unfortunately, the foot-torture was just beginning. The Ooedo Onsen also has (at additional cost) a tank full of Garra rufa fish, a kind of small Turkish carp that loves to eat dead skin. We paid for fifteen minutes, and sat down at the tank. As soon as I submerged my feet, they were covered in fish. It felt weird as they nibbled away my detritus, like mild electric shocks. Jürgen loved it, but this was not for me, and I had to quit before our time had expired.

We finished our day with a long nap in the “relaxation room,” where at least a hundred cushiony black recliners were lined up, each with a personal television. I flipped around for a couple minutes, but soon fell into a deep sleep. After waking, we took our leave of the Ooedo Onsen, totally refreshed, with cleaned bodies, relaxed muscles, nibbled feet and lightened wallets. Though a few hours had been enough for us, you’re allowed to stay for the whole day, and I imagine most visitors do.

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The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
The Ooedo Onsen Monogatari Spa
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July 8, 2014 at 6:09 am Comment (1)

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Sayonara, Tokyo 91 days ago, we stepped out of a plane and directly onto the roof of a skyscraper, where a woman clad in a kimono was bowing to greet us. "Welcome to Tokyo! We're so glad you're here!" She beckoned us to the edge of the building, so we could gaze out upon the city's incomprehensible size. "Look at all that awaits you," she said. Then without warning, she pushed us off.
For 91 Days