Japan Trip Part 2: Day log

In the previous post I discussed my initial planning and costs for my two-week trip to Japan that I took last month, this post will just be about my personal notes as I wrote them up on what I did each day as well as some choice pictures. The whole picture gallery can be found here.

12/16

I left the morning of the 15th PST from Seattle, had a brief stop in San Francisco, then continued on to Tokyo and arrived on the 16th local time in the afternoon. I made it to the hotel (Hotel Villa Fontaine) around 4:30pm. The main flight was long but not as bad as it could have been, I had just enough leg room and could stand and stretch. The extra leg room upgrade was the correct choice. I managed to avoid using the crapper but it was quite the relief to land and use the first one I found at the airport. ;) I didn't test out the well-known common spray features until I got to the hotel though.

I had to pick up my pocket wifi from an area in the airport, which went fine, but then I accidentally left a paper with some useful first-day notes I made for myself on it so had to go back and get it. Hit my first language barrier trying to explain I left a paper there 10 minutes ago but I was understood and they found it.

I bought a Pasmo card and loaded $100 onto it, this saves me from having to deal with individual tickets for the train/subway station systems. Just scan in, and when you scan out at the destination it deducts the right amount. Google Maps is invaluable for telling you what systems you need to take (as well as some alternatives) but fortunately there are many signs to help direct you to the right location and overall it's pretty straightforward. I was a sweaty mess checking in since I was wearing my heavy coat and hauling my suitcase -- the underground stations are very warm compared to outside. There was a 7-11 across the street from my hotel, so after I checked in and freshened up a bit I just went over and bought some interesting drinks and snacks to eat before going to bed. Tried out the toilet later, having a heated seat is nice and I'm now in favor of the spray + paper system but given a choice of one over the other I'd take the paper. (Japan seems to agree because many public toilets just had paper.) I found the extra politeness immediately noticeable but pretty endearing too. Especially how people would hand me things like my credit card or passport with both hands, like it was some precious object. A few mornings later I took a couple pictures from my room's window. My hotel wasn't the highest but it was high enough. Here are a couple blurry pictures of the bathroom. Compact, but functional. I had to bend my head a bit in the shower, but the tub itself is deeper than my tub at home, about the same width, and only a bit shorter. Here's a video walkthrough: The bed was pretty firm, and I'm used to sleeping in a hammock, but after a few nights of adjustment I was fine. 12/17 Got up around 8am, had breakfast at the hotel. It was pretty decent. Their scrambled eggs were of the runny variety which I don't like as much as the firm variety but they tasted fine. Over the various days they had "bacon" (it was just ham strips), sausages, rice, curry, salads, breads/rolls, orange juice... Not bad at all. I had nothing planned ahead of time for today in case I needed to sleep more. So I initially just left and started wandering. I found my way to the Tokyo Dome area, there's a virtual "city" area there with lots of shops and restaurants. So many familiar US brands, too. I noticed there were some lights so I made a note to come back one night. Decided to make my way to Akihabara. (Nerd town.) Wow. The economics of that place make no sense. So many "UFO" style crane-games, arcade machines (only one DDR machine I saw), figurines and plushies for sale, lots of manga and books, lots of electronics (and not just consumer electronics, they've got everything for hobbyist engineers too like specific chips, switches, soldering irons, oscilloscopes, lots of older RF or audio equipment..) and what's more is so much of it was the same stuff shop after shop. I bought a couple things, had a good katsu chicken lunch at one of the maid cafes where all the waitresses were dressed in cute french maid outfits. One of the cat cafes I wanted to visit was in the area, so I went. (Images 268 through 285 in the gallery.) They had a few big maine coon cats as well as maybe a dozen others. Fortunately none of them looked like Walker or I would have gotten sad instead of finding the place nice and peaceful. I stayed for about an hour, then headed back to the hotel, stopping for some snacks along the way. A donut shop had some ok donuts but still far below the quality of the best donut shop out here in Redmond... I just had more 7-11 stuff for dinner, walked a lot today and was beat. It was only about 8pm but decided to sleep then. Plus I had a Tokyo bus tour scheduled for the morning. I was sort of concerned how small the buses would be, considering how I towered over most people (though I did see, more than I expected, several people taller / much wider than me) but turned out they were fine, generally a bit better than the airplane seats. 12/18 I booked a Tokyo bus tour for today. Normally they have everyone meet them at a certain spot, but they were also doing pickups from certain hotels and other locations. I got picked up around 7:30am from a McDonalds that was about a ten minute walk from my hotel. The bus was actually a couple minutes late (!), most things were right on time though. After a bus switcheroo at the original meeting place once everyone had been picked up (some were going on a Mt. Fuji tour), we were off with our guide Jack from Australia. Our first stop was the Imperial Palace front gate. There was also a statue of Kusunoki Masashige, an important samurai. People normally can't go into the palace grounds except on the Emperor's birthday or New Year's. Next we went to Asakusa and visited the Senso-ji Buddhist temple there, which is Japan's oldest temple. Our guide told us a bit about it then gave us some time to wander around. There were also a few shrines around, and right outside a bunch of food stalls. Just past the food stalls was a long street packed full of people and various shops. Again I was amazed at how the economics of all this shopping can work out. This was about the only place people came up to me, took some photos of three women traveling together and two school girls were completing a survey. After that the tour continued to the Tsukiji fish market. Apparently it's moving soon so it was neat to see it while I still could, but I was again amazed at the mysterious economics of it all. I wonder if Pike's Place in Seattle used to be like this? But the seafood was fresh and there was also a lot of cooked street food to buy, I had a pretty big and delicious shrimp on a stick. We drove through some other parts of Tokyo (Harajuku, Ginza, Chibuya, Roppongi) and some were pointed out as potential dropoff points later once the tour was over. Saw the godzilla statue on godzilla street, saw a sumo walking around in his kimono, and we traveled over Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba for lunch. I saw some people Go Karting in Mario Kart outfits. Odaiba has one of the three statues of liberty that France gave to Japan. It was kind of surreal to see. A lot smaller than America's but looks the same. (Rainbow Bridge is in the background.) Amusingly we had lunch at an American-style buffet. Pretty similar to Old Country Buffet / Chuckorama. After that we took a short ferry back to the main city. I took the stop at Harajuku and wandered around. Another big street with mysterious economic sense. But there was also a big Meiji shrine, however it would be dark soon so I made a note to visit again later. I wandered around a few buildings, went up to the roof area of one that had a Starbucks and got a few photos of the city scape but they didn't turn out that well. After that I made my way back to the hotel, tired and worn out (a common theme!). I think I had a 7-11 sandwich for dinner (was still quite full from the buffet), I like these things: and I found a tasty canned coffee: 12/19 Today the only thing I had planned was going to the Robot Restaurant in the evening, I wanted a buffer day because tomorrow I'd have another tour. I decided to go visit the Edo-Tokyo museum, which the tour guide had mentioned was really interesting, unfortunately they were closed for renovations until March! Bummer. But something to do for the next trip. I decided to find the bus terminal where the tour meeting would happen tomorrow since it was about 35 minutes optimal travel time and I wanted to see how straightforward it was. I did mess up a bit (coming out of a station's underground can be disorienting and I misinterpreted one of the direction signs..) and it took me about an hour, so I made sure to buffer that for tomorrow morning. After that I wandered around. I found a really old garden that was neat. Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Gardens. It became the official Edo residence of the top ranking man of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1678. Pretty much all of the trees and buildings were wiped out in the earthquake of 1923 but it was restored. The stones though, and the stone bridge, are still from the early days. After that I started to wander again, in the general direction of Shinjuku where the Robot Restaurant is. I saw what looked like the Tokyo Tower in the distance and headed that way. Along the way I ran into Zojo-ji, another big temple. That cedar tree in the middle was apparently planted by President/General Grant in the 1870s. After that I continued on to Tokyo Tower and had lunch there. I guess I don't need to see the Eiffel Tower now, since the Tokyo Tower looks the same but is a bit taller. :) I continued walking towards Roppongi this time. There were many random Shinto shrines along the way, I stopped at some of them. Found a small park area with a small stream and geysers, rested for a while since I had walked a lot today. I eventually made it to where the Robot Restaurant was, and also realized this is where Godzilla Street is too. I had some time to kill so I wandered around. They had the arcade buildings and UFO crane games here, too. One more DDR machine, fortunately this one was being played by a couple, if not I might have been tempted to play but then my feet would regret it. By the time the day would be over I'd walk 32,500 steps! For me that's somewhere between 12-17 miles. I played Pokken for the first time, it's not a bad Pokemon fighting game, I fortunately got the tutorial before my first online fight so even through the Japanese text I could figure out how to play and some combos. I still lost the online match, I think it was best of 3, but I won one round... There was also an old light gun arcade game I'd never heard of that I had to play. It's actually composed of lots of minigames. Eventually it was time for the Robot Restaurant show. It's amazing, I can't really say much more than that, has to be experienced. After that I made my way back to the hotel. I took the most direct subway route. 12/20 Today I had a tour up to Nikko scheduled. The agenda was first to visit the Toshogu Shrine, where the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate is buried. Additionally there is a Buddhist temple. We did stop by a sort of pit-stop on the way up since it was a little over an hour by bus, but soon we arrived. There is a building with several art pieces of the classic 'three monkeys'. There's a story to it but I don't recall the details. The building in the back is supposedly an outhouse reserved for the gods. The entrance area. This bell was gifted by Korea to honor the shogun. Maybe this chandelier too, I don't recall. This lantern thing I think was gifted by the Dutch. But amusingly they got the Seal upside down... Two of the three leaves are supposed to be on the bottom. You'll see in a bit. Speaking of other "mistakes", this column is upside down compared to the other three: But it was supposedly intentional, so that there will always be something left to do for the work to be "finished". If something isn't "finished", it doesn't age. The decorations everywhere were just amazing though. Through a portal watched over by a sleeping cat... (And on the other side, two birds able to be there presumably since the cat is asleep.) Then up a bunch of stairs... and through another torii (note the proper Seal on it): And you get to the centerpiece/burial site. By the way there are lots of stone turtles (kame) around. A few are around the tomb. Back down, there's a building that you can go in if you take your shoes off. No pictures inside, but it was very beautiful. (And of course there's some construction going on, it's never "finished".) More random amazing decor. As mentioned before there's also a Buddhist temple here too. Again no pictures, but the most impressive part of the walkthrough is the "crying/roaring dragon" demonstration. In the biggest room there's a giant dragon on the ceiling. You can clack two sticks together anywhere in the room and it'll be a fairly dull sound, but if you clack them under the dragon's mouth, it will ring and echo out. It was soon time to go back to the bus and head down the road a ways to get lunch at the place on the left. I'm not quite sure how to describe what we had. :) I didn't take any pictures until I was finished. But it was pretty good. The only thing I didn't eat was a big mushroom. At the bottom of the building is sort of a souvenir / goods shop. I got some daifuku that was delicious (to me it's kind of like an improved turkish delight), it didn't last long when I was back at the hotel. After lunch we continued on to Lake Chuzenji, where a lot of foreign ambassadors have set up. We stopped briefly to take some photos. To get to the lake we had to take a steep (thankfully for the bus, one-way) road with many switchbacks. There's an interesting poem associated with the road. The road is Irohazaka and has 48 corners. The poem Iroha makes use of the 48 characters in the Japanese syllabary exactly once each. The way down was even steeper than the way up, so it was neat to see our bus driver handle it with such apparent ease. A little way from the top though we stopped at Akechidaira Plateau. There's a few little gift shops / food shops and some pretty good ice cream at this place. But also a nice view of Kegon Waterfall. And other various nice views. After that we headed back to the city. There was an interesting bit of info on Japan's freeways. They have tolls everywhere, but instead of something sensible like an automatic IR reader of a windshield barcode sticker + license plate photos, for those who don't want to slow down and pay the toll at a classic toll booth, drivers have to buy an expensive (~$200) "ETC" machine. When they get close to a toll, they insert an auth card, and the machine transmits a signal that will deduct the toll from the account. But it's hard to tell that it's successful because there are little toll gates, and they don't spring open to let you pass until pretty close to the last moment.

We did make one last stop at a sort of pit-stop to get food/bathroom/whatever. As I mentioned before, I am quite fond of these little chicken sandwiches.

One final side note, there were two Japanese girls on the bus who constantly made the "ehhhhhh" sound you find emitted by ehh-chans in some animes. Kawaii. ;)

12/21

Today was a rest day. I got up in time for the hotel's breakfast, then I went back to sleep for a while. Got up later and did some planning for the rest of the trip. Around 3pm I left and had a late lunch at a Sichuanese place nearby that I found on google maps. I'm not quite sure what I ate (there was some meat and tofu..), the system is you order from a vending machine and then give the ticket to the chefs, but it was delicious. I foolishly thought I could handle a 4/5 spice and had a coughing fit near the end but worth it. Here's a blurry pic.

After it got dark I made my way up to the Tokyo Dome area to check out the christmas lights there. It was pretty neat. They also had all the rides like the roller coaster going.

Later I got back to the hotel. One of the tour guides mentioned that while Uber was pretty actively being fought by the taxi industry (apparently Uber's only allowed to run their black car service), things like UberEats are available. I wanted to support them so I got a pretty good tonburi with garlic and egg as extra bits. I think there'd be a niche market for a dish that where instead of having rice underneath the layer of pork belly, there's just more meat.

12/22

Today was the day my JR pass activated and first thing on my agenda was to visit Fox Village.

Getting on the bullet train wasn't too difficult. I found the office (a guard helpfully pointed me in the right direction when I asked for the "midori no...") and reserved a seat. I was more worried about how big the seats would be. But they're actually quite roomy, with lots of leg room and you can recline without worrying about being a dick to the person behind you.