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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
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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Tokyo At Night
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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.

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Sega Joypolis – Website

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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.

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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.

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Our Article About the Cherry Blossom Season In Tokyo

Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
Bunkyo Azalea Festival At The Nezu Shrine
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)

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

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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
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July 8, 2014 at 6:09 am Comment (1)

The Beckoning Cats of Gotoku-ji Temple

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The Maneki Neko, or “Beckoning Cat,” is one of Japan’s most iconic images. Thought to bring luck and prosperity to their owners, these cats are frequently found outside businesses and within homes. And in the neighborhood of Setagaya, we found the Gotoku-ji temple, where the Maneki Neko plays a starring role.

The Cat Temple In Tokyo

Japan’s most famous cat has a few origin stories, one of which is set in Setagaya. Long ago, a lord who had been travelling to Edo was starting to feel weary. As he passed the Gotoku-ji temple, a cat caught his attention and seemed to beckon him inside. As soon as he followed the cat into the temple, a thunderstorm broke out and lightning struck the ground, exactly in the spot where he had been standing. He was so happy with his good luck, that he donated a small fortune to the Gotoku-ji and had it made into his family temple.

Worshipers at the Gotoku-ji often bring a Maneki Neko statue to leave for good luck at one of the shrines. The result is surreal, with hundreds of cats sitting atop a set of shelves. Except in size, they’re are all identical, exactly the same model with the same paw raised and the same beatific expression on their faces. Cats which don’t fit the strict criteria are removed by the temple’s staff.

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The Cat Temple In Tokyo
The Cat Temple In Tokyo
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July 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm Comments (4)

The Rainbow Bridge

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Spanning Tokyo Bay to connect Odaiba Island with the mainland, the Rainbow Bridge serves trains, cars and pedestrians along its 800-meter length. We crossed the bridge frequently with the Yurikamome Monorail, but decided to walk across on one our final days in Tokyo.

Rainbow Bridge Tokyo

“A Stroll Across the Rainbow Bridge” sounds delightful, but the reality isn’t terribly charming. There’s a broad pedestrian walkway, but you’re never far away from the roaring traffic, consisting mostly of semi-trucks that shake the entire structure as they rumble past. The smell of exhaust is nauseating and the noise is nearly unbearable. But the view of the Tokyo skyline, visible if you walk along the northern side of the bridge, almost makes up for it.

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Rainbow Bridge Tokyo
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July 7, 2014 at 3:16 pm Comments (2)

The Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa

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The best known of Tokyo’s Shinto festivals is surely the Sanja Matsuri, based in and around the Sensō-ji Temple. For three days in late May, the streets of Asakusa transform into a wildly drunken party zone. We braved the throngs on Sunday, which is the festival’s main day.

Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa

The Sanja Matsuri is among the most joyfully wanton religious parties we’ve ever seen. People don’t come to solemnly observe scripture, but to go nuts in celebration of their culture. The action centers around the Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, and its three movable shrines. On Sunday morning, these shrines are brought out of the temple, and groups representing various neighborhoods fight (sometimes violently) for the honor of carrying them.

We arrived in Asakusa shortly after lunch, by which time the streets were already packed with revelers, a good percentage of whom were completely wasted. And we immediately took note of the outfit for men: a short robe over white cloth diapers. To walk around like that, a certain level of inebriation surely helps.

The Sanja Matsuri is meant to honor the three founders of the temple: the fisher brothers who discovered the icon of the Bodhisttava Kannon in the river, and the lord who enshrined it, thus establishing Sensō-ji in 628. But for all practical purposes, it’s just an excuse to have a good time. The crowds around the temple ebb and flow with the appearance of a shrine… whether it’s one of the main three, or one of the many smaller shrines also making the rounds.

The festival is fun, but overwhelming. We followed the crowds, watching sweaty, shrine-carrying groups of guys and girls fight their way down the street. Even kids got in on the act, hoisting their own miniature shrines. We walked toward the temple and saw geishas playing musical instruments, as well as a group of people wearing traditional wooden masks. And after a couple hours, we’d had enough. This is largely a locals-only event, where the celebrating is done by groups of neighbors and friends, and we were neither Japanese nor drunk enough to get into the spirit. It’s an amazing experience, though, and if you happen to be in Tokyo on the third weekend in May, one that shouldn’t be missed.

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Strange Japanese DIY Candy

Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa
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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