Tokyo

July 9-11, 2009

On July 9 Pnina and I left Bangkok and flew to Tokyo to start our three weeks in Japan.

Why Japan?

When we started our round-the-world trip we didn’t have any plans to visit Japan at all.  When you go on a big trip like this, you try to save money where possible, and Japan is just not the kind of place where you get to save money 🙂

But, several months into the trip we heard from our friend Emmy, who lives in Tokyo, that she’s planning to get married in July.  We weren’t sure exactly where we would be in July, but we knew it would be somewhere “in the neighborhood”, so we decided to see what we could do.  In the end we found a relatively cheap flight from Bangkok to Tokyo and back, so we altered our itinerary to make it happen.

And then we found another good reason.  We heard that on July 22nd there would be a huge solar eclipse; in fact, the biggest in the last 100 years.  My uncle Ron (actually dad’s cousin, but I call him uncle) is a big eclipse chaser, so he proposed the idea of meeting up somewhere to watch the eclipse together.  At first we talked about Shanghai, but that got nixed when the Chinese authorities refused to give Pnina and I more than a 1-month visa.  After more debate, we decided on southern Japan.  Then my parents heard about our scheme and decided to join the party.  So, before we landed in Tokyo we had plans to meet all this family (my parents Adi & Suzy, plus his cousin Ron & Marlene) in a week’s time down in Kyoto.

By the way, this was actually my second time visiting Japan, and Pnina’s second time as well.  Pnina was here with her family back in 1989.  Her aunt, Trudy, was living in Tokyo at the time with her husband, Robert, and three children.  Pnina’s visit was half about seeing family and half about seeing sights, so she didn’t get to see that much, especially outside Tokyo.  Plus, she doesn’t remember all that much because she was only nine years old.  She does remember, for example, that she was too short to go on most of the rides in Tokyo’s Disneyland :-(.  As for me, my last visit to Japan was back in 2001.  I took 10 weeks off between finishing college and starting work to travel in east/southeast Asia.  But Japan was just a short part of that trip (about 1 week) and I spent nearly all my time in Tokyo.  So the short of it is that Pnina and I were happy to be back in Japan and looking forward to exploring more of the country.

Pnina at the immigration hall in Tokyo airport.  At the desk with all the entry forms we found corrective eye-glasses (tethered to the table) that you can use to fill out your paperwork; those Japanese – they think of everything!  🙂  A moment after I took this picture one of the immigration officials came over to tell us that photography is not allowed.  Oops!  For this reason I didn’t take a picture of the digital fingerprint scanner they had at each station – very cool.

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Japan Rail Pass

Japan is very expensive.  We knew it before coming here, but still it was one shock after another.  Maybe part of the issue is that we’d spent the last few months traveling in very cheap places (India, Nepal, China, Laos), so the contrast was just too jarring.

Anyhow, before reaching Tokyo we did a lot of research to try to save money where possible, and one of the things we heard from many sources is that it’s too expensive to rent a car in Japan; it’s not just the rental and the gas, it’s also the tolls you have to pay on most roads.  Lots of people recommended getting around by train using the Japan Rail Pass, and that’s what we ended up doing.  After we reached Japan we met other backpackers who got around by bus (including overnight busses) and from what we heard it sounds like that might be an even cheaper way to go.  But anyhow the rail pass worked pretty well for us.

Here are the basic facts…

First off, you must purchase the rail pass before arriving in Japan.  I don’t know why they have this silly policy, but that’s how it is.  When you make the purchase outside Japan you get a kind of voucher.  Then when you reach Japan you need to visit one of the rail pass offices to trade this voucher for the actual Rail Pass.  We purchased the vouchers from a travel agent in Bangkok; there was no processing time, they did it on the spot.

Our Japan Rail Pass

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The price for us was 57,700 yen each ($646) for the 3-week pass.  Crazy right??  We thought so too.  But after we got over the sticker shock and did some research, we realized that in our case it really does pay off.  For example, to simply ride from Tokyo to Kyoto (one-way) costs about 13,000 yen ($140).  After our three weeks in Japan I did a little exercise to find out how much it would have cost if we paid for all our train rides individually, and the total price was about 92,000 yen (just over $1000).  So, yeah, the rail pass definitely worked out for us.  But it helped that we went all the way from Tokyo to the southern tip of Japan (Kagoshima) and back — it was a pretty large distance.

And the trains themselves are just amazing.  You’ve probably already heard of Japan’s Shinkansen (“bullet train”).  I used to think that this was one particular train on one particular line, and that it hovers using magnetic repulsion.  Well, none of that is true.  Shinkansen refers to a few different kinds of trains on several lines.  All of them are damn fast but none of them float on magnets or anything like that – they use plain old wheels.  The fastest of the trains is called Nozomi and they reach 300 km/hr.  But those trains, for whatever reason, are not included in the Japan Rail Pass.  That’s OK, though, because next up are the Hikari trains which are included in the rail pass and they are plenty fast.  At one point we used a GPS to measure the speed of one of our trains, and it reached nearly 250 km/hr.  With this kind of speed, distances between many cities in Japan effectively shrink.  It’s possible to sleep in Kyoto and to visit Himeji on a day-trip; it’s about 130 km away but it only takes 55 minutes to get there (including stops along the way), so it’s not such a big deal.  This kind of thing was just not possible anywhere else on our trip.  As far as I know, it’s not even possible in America (Obama keeps talking about building high-speed rail, and I don’t know if it makes sense financially but it would be damn cool).

Also, the trains are very comfortable.  The ride is smooth so you can read a book or work on your laptop.  The seats are cushy so you can also take a nap easily.

With the rail pass you can reserve tickets in advance if you’re worried that the train will fill up.  It doesn’t cost anything extra, and you can even cancel at any time with no penalty.  But in our case we found it convenient enough to just go to the station and hop on the next available train.  All the trains have some compartments that are for reserved seats and some that are strictly for non-reserved seats, and in our experience they were never full.

If you want more info, the best website we found for info on trains in Japan (and elsewhere) is www.seat61.com.

Accommodation

As with transportation, accommodation is expensive in Japan (I know I sound like a broken record; sorry, we just couldn’t get over this).  Luckily there are hostels in most cities, but even they are pricy in comparison to the rest of our trip.  Generally you pay 2000 to 3000 yen (roughly $20-$30) per dorm bed.  In other words, Pnina and I found ourselves paying $50 just to sleep in a dorm, whereas in other countries we would pay $8 for our own room and $50 would easily cover all our expenses for a whole day!  🙂

In Tokyo and some other cities you can find capsule hotels.  Each capsule is like a high-tech coffin, and outside the capsule room you have shared showers and other facilities.  I was actually kind of interested in sleeping in one of these, just for the experience, but in the end we decided to pass.  One issue is that it costs a little more to sleep in a capsule hotel than to sleep in a hostel (e.g. 3000-4000 yen per capsule).  But the main issue is that most of them don’t allow women.  These capsule hotels are generally geared towards Japanese businessmen who missed the last train home and need a simple place to crash for the night.  From what we heard, some of them are kind of seedy (e.g. the businessmen missed the train because they were busy getting sloshed with friends at a bar), which explains why they often don’t allow women.

Another alternative we considered was www.couchsurfing.com, which would have been even cheaper.  We were surprised to learn that in Tokyo alone there are over 700 couch surfers!!  But the catch is that most people living in Tokyo have very small apartments, and as a result very few of these couch surfers are able to host even one person, let alone two.

And besides that you have hotels, which generally start around $100 per room and go way way up from there.

So, long story short, our suggestion is to go with hostels and to make your reservation well ahead of time because they tend to fill up fast.

While in Tokyo, Pnina and I ended up staying in a hostel called Khaosan Annex.  It was relatively close to the subway, and it had a slick lounge with a big TV and free wi-fi.  But the rooms upstairs were pretty cramped and very hot (the tiny A/C units were powerless against the summer heat).  So it was an alright place to stay, but we ended up finding much cooler hostels later in our trip in Japan (especially K’s House hostels – they seem to be awesome everywhere).

Asakusa

Our hostel was located in a neighborhood called Asakusa, which sits on both sides of the Sumida River.  Most of the attractions are on the west side of the river, but our hostel was on the other side.  We could always find our way to the hostel by first spotting the bizarre building of the Asahi Beer Headquarters.  It’s supposed to look like a black glass with the foam of a beer, but to us it looks like a golden carrot on a black pedestal.

The weird Asahi Headquarters building

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Asakusa is sometimes called “temple town” because on the other side of the river you have several temples including a famous one called Senso-ji.  On the weekend we arrived there happened to be a festival at this temple, so we went to check it out.  We quickly entered a mass of people, many of them in traditional clothes, all of us heading towards the main temple building.  Along the way where were shops on either side selling a kind of plant with flowers that resembles red lanterns – those were a bit hit.  At the temple people said prayers or donated money.  The other big activity was fortunes: for a small fee you can pull a random stick out of a box, and then find the corresponding paper fortune for that stick.  If you end up with a bad fortune, you can avoid the bad luck by leaving it somewhere in the temple, e.g. tied to a rail.

Pnina in front of the big red lantern at the entrance to Senso-Ji

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Pnina with a couple of local girls dressed in summer kimonos for the festival

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The mass of people making their way to the temple

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Some of the lantern-looking plants that were a huge hit with festival goers

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Notes with bad fortunes left behind at the temple

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Another part of the Senso-Ji complex

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Mmm, Japanese Food…

One other major activity at the festival was eating 🙂  There were booths selling a bunch of different Japanese snacks, but there was one in particular that I was curious to try – takoyaki (octopus balls).  They look like egg-sized balls of deep-fried dough with a piece of octopus inside (or sometime shrimp), topped with a kind of teriyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, fish flakes, and mayonnaise.  I first tasted this dish when I visited Japan the first time and I couldn’t get enough of it.  It wasn’t just the food; it was also hypnotizing to watch the cooks prepare these balls with cooking utensils that resemble knitting needles (example from YouTube).  Anyhow, we tried them at the festival and Pnina was actually kind of disappointed with the dish (maybe I talked it up too much?); she just found it too fishy-tasting.  I still thought it was still pretty good.

Takoyaki (octopus balls) at the festival

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And there were other booths with various snacks, way too many for us to try…

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Our first dinner in Japan was Okonomiyaki – a kind of savory pancake.  We sat at a table whose surface was mostly hot-plate with just a little space for plates at the edge.  The waiter could tell that we had no idea what we’re doing so he offered to cook the dish for us at the table, which we gladly accepted.  The pancake consists largely of cabbage and egg, and again it’s topped with the same teriyaki-style sauce, seaweed, and fish flakes.  Once the pancake was ready, we each got toy-size spatulas to grab small chunks of the pancake straight off the grill and into our mouths.

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The okonomiyaki meal cost about $20 a person.  It’s OK to do once or twice, but for day-to-day meals we needed to find something cheaper.  In many cases we opted for basic noodle shops.  The noodle shops often have an interesting payment system where you use a kind of vending machine to choose your item and pay for it.  You get a voucher that you bring inside the shop and give to the cook to get the actual meal.  Makes a lot of sense – no need to keep a cashier on staff.  A bowl of noodles at a place like this might cost about 450 yen ($5), which is about as cheap as it gets.

A vending machine at a noodle shop; you use it to select your meal and pay

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Pnina sitting at the diner-style noodle shop getting ready to eat

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And finally there are standard vending machines.  In my last visit to Japan, I remember having warm corn soup from vending machines.  I was looking forward to having this soup again, but this time it was nearly impossible to find.  I should have realized the reason – my last visit was in December/January (when it’s cold and people want hot soup) whereas this visit was in July.  OK, no soup.  But instead the machines had a large selection of tasty cold coffee drinks (frappuccino-like).

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Fish Market

One of the big attractions in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market – the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.  Back in Seattle we have our own fish market (Pike’s Place) and we like to think that it’s hot shit.  Well, Seattle’s fish market is still picturesque and fun, but it’s nowhere near the size of this place.

We heard the thing to do is to get to the market very early in the morning (like 5 am) to watch the live auctions.  We also heard that this is specifically not the thing to do because the auction is in Japanese so you won’t understand anything, and you’ll be groggy for the rest of the day, and anyhow you can get fantastic sushi anytime of day around the market.  So we compromised – we tried to get there early enough for the auction, but we ran late and got there shortly after the auction ended 🙂  So unfortunately we can’t say whether the auction is worth the effort.  But we can say that the market itself is an enormous labyrinth, and that you have to be careful or you’ll get run over by all the electric cargo carts going by.

Just outside the fish market – electric carts and people going in all directions (watch your feet!)

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Pnina pretending to drive one of the fish carts

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One of several hundred narrow aisles where you can peruse fish on display

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Red fish with glassy eyes

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Sea urchin?

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Octopus

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Some kind of oyster maybe?

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When we were done getting lost in the fish market, we took a tip from our friend Emmy and went to a restaurant called Sushi Zanmai.  Emmy says it’s the best sushi place in Tokyo.  We’ve only tried 2-3 sushi places in Tokyo now so we’re in no place to confirm or deny this, but the food at Zanmai was definitely good.  In fact, it’s clearly the best sushi we’ve ever had.  We ordered a combination platter with different kinds of tuna in varying degrees of fattiness.  There was also one that was slightly flame-broiled (using the kind of torch that a dessert chef would use to make crème brulee), and topped with salt and lemon.  It was probably the least traditional item on the platter, but it was our favorite (we ordered seconds).  Oh, and here’s just one indication of how incredibly honest people in Japan are.  The sushi chef noticed that in our case it’s actually cheaper to order the sushi a la carte instead of as a combination platter because they were running a special on tuna, so he pointed it out and saved us at least $10 each.  Japan rocks!  Right, so the total was about $30 each, which is not a cheap meal as far as our trip is concerned, but it was money very well spent.

Shahaf and Pnina in front of Sushi Zanmai

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Shahaf at the sushi bar

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Our platter of fatty tuna; the pair on the right is the flame-broiled variety that we loved

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Hamarikyu Garden

Tokyo is a huge city.  There are gardens and parks everywhere – you could never see them all.  We chose this place, Hamarikyu garden, entirely because it’s located right next to the fish market.  In retrospect we probably would have skipped it.  While many of Tokyo’s parks are free to enter, this one charges a fee, and it’s not as nice as some of the gardens we saw later (especially in Kyoto).  But the garden has a neat central-park feel, in that you can see city buildings beyond the edge of the park (though it’s tiny  in comparison).  It also has a place in the center where you can do a traditional tea ceremony, but we skipped that.

Looking at Tokyo buildings at the edge of Hamarikyu Garden

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The tea ceremony place in the center of the garden

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A strange insect I saw in the grass

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Ginza

Ginza is an upscale shopping district; we took a walk through Ginza after the garden, again because it was pretty close.  As we understand it, Ginza used to be the place to find the most stylish western-influenced shops, but recently the district has lost some of that luster to other neighborhoods (e.g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuki, and perhaps now Roppongi).

The very impressive Swarovski store-front:

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We paused at the Leica shop, which was part-store, part-gallery.  We’re mixed about the gallery – Pnina liked it, I was kind of bored.  But it was interesting to peruse their cameras on display.  Leica’s cameras continue to look and feel old-school, but that most of their popular cameras these days are digital.

The Leica M8 camera

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We also stopped at the famous Sony store.  This store must have been pretty impressive ten years ago, but these days I feel like Sony has lost most of its cool factor to other brands (e.g. Apple).  Plus this store didn’t have any special Sony items, nothing you can’t find at a local Best Buy.

Laptops at the Sony store – kind of underwhelming:

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While wandering around we also paused for a minute at a random Pachinko place.  Pachinko is a kind of gambling game that involves feeding silver marbles through a series of pegs (kind of like Plinko in The Price is Right).  A lot of Japanese are pretty addicted to Pachinko in the same way some people in the states get addicted to slot machines.

Pnina staring at people playing Pachinko; what this photo doesn’t convey is the incredible noise that filled the room:

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Emmy & Alex’s Wedding!

But of course the main event in Tokyo was Emmy and Alex’s wedding!  🙂

Some context is in order.  Emmy and I met at the University of Michigan where we sang together in an a cappella group called Gimble. After school our lives went in different directions but we somehow always stayed in touch.  Emmy and her parents hosted me when I traveled in Japan the first time.  Emmy joined me when I took a cross-country drive from Michigan to Seattle before starting my job at Microsoft.  And more recently Pnina and I met Emmy when she traveled from Tokyo (where she now lives) to Seattle for business (Emmy works in advertising and she’s done some work for the xbox 360.  So Pnina had already met Emmy, but neither of us met the groom, Alex.

The wedding itself was held on July 11 at St Paul International Lutheran Church.  It was a beautiful little hall and a great ceremony, not too long and very musical.  There was pipe-organ from above, Alex sang a song, and there were a couple of poems and other readings.

Pnina and I sat next to Emmy’s college friend, Caricia, and her husband Anthony.  I’d met Caricia a couple of times before but I never really knew her.  Caricia just finished a PhD in Public Health, focusing on how multimedia can be used to improve health.  Anthony has appeared in some TV shows (e.g. Sex in the City), and has created a kind of rap-improv group called Freestyle Love Supreme.  Now Caricia and Anthony have a not-for-profit organization called Video Voice (http://video-voice.org) that aims to improve health around the world by giving people the equipment (cameras, computers) and instruction to create their own documentaries.  They spent the two months prior to the wedding traveling throughout Indonesia, partly to learn about Caricia’s roots and partly to bring some Video Voice equipment and training to a community in one rural island.

Anyhow, here are some photos from the wedding…

One of Emmy’s young relatives watches for the bride to enter:

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Photographed after the ceremony – Pnina, Shahaf, Alex, Emmy, Anthony, and Caricia

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Tossing flower petals at the newlywed couple as they descend outside the church:

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After the ceremony, Alex and Emmy went off with the photographer to get some shots in the city.  The rest of us went to the reception venue, a restaurant called Beacon, to start snacking, drinking, and chatting.

Emmy and Alex photographed on a bridge; Emmy said the photographer went to extremes to catch them at different angles and they started to worry that she would fall off:

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Pnina at the entrance to Beacon:

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Shahaf, Robert (Emmy’s dad), Teruko (Emmy’s mom), and Pnina:

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Well, the reception was also a lot of fun.  The food was fantastic.  The waiters would clear the buffet table and you’d think “damn, I wish I got more scallops”, but then they’d re-fill the table with a whole new set of awesome dishes, then another.  Emmy and Alex performed a duet (Lucky by Jason Mraz), accompanied on guitar by their friend Joseph.  Emmy’s dad, Robert, made a nice, simple toast.  Alex’s dad, who is far more outgoing and, dare I say, eccentric, made a wild toast that somehow managed to reference Al Capone.

Pnina and I sat with Caricia and Anthony and a few others.  At one point conversation at our table turned to mama jokes, and we wondered whether there’s a Japanese equivalent.  Joseph, who has been living in Japan for a long time, said that the closest thing he can think of is the following kindergarten ditty: baka kaba, chin don ya, omea no, kasan debeso.  Which roughly translates as: stupid hippo, sandwich board guy, your mother, has an outtie!

After the ceremony, Pnina and I went off with Caricia and Anthony to their pad to relax for a while.  Caricia flipped on the TV just to show us the ridiculous porn they get – naked women kissing and copious saliva (“who finds that sexy?”).  Then we wandered off to grab a bite before meeting Emmy and Alex and a bunch of the younger crowd for an after-party.

Pnina walking with Caricia and Anthony

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An interesting artwork outside one of the buildings we passed:

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Bonus Picture

At the Tokyo airport we ran into a couple of Japanese guys who had just returned from a trip in Thailand and Vietnam.  One of them was wearing a t-shirt advertising Pink Elephant Car Wash, which is a minor Seattle institution.  I asked him about the shirt and he said that he got it in a random shop in Tokyo and he had no idea that the place really existed, let alone where.  Funny how a place like that would end up on t-shirts in Japan!

Shahaf standing with a Japanese guy wearing a Pink Elephant Car Wash t-shirt

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