We’re up early this morning, our last in Tokyo, so I thought I’d make one more post while I was here.  I am so ready to be home!  But on to more interesting thoughts…

There is no question, one of things I was looking forward to most about our trip to Japan was our stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, or guest house.  Friends of ours said that the stay in a ryokan was the highlight of their trip, and even though I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, I knew it would be a great experience.  This website gives a fairly good general description of what a ryokan is like.

Our ryokan was called Yazuya Hotel.  A yazuya is a citrus-type fruit, kind of a cross between a lemon and an orange, and it is very fragrant.  This was our first view of the ryokan:Img_0703_copy

There were many stone steps to go up before reaching the entrance to the lobby:


During the check-in process, they asked us what time we wanted to have dinner and breakfast the next morning, and whether or not we wanted porridge or rice (with breakfast).  Contrary to what one might expect at a ryokan, the staff here spoke English very well–I’m pretty sure that’s not the norm, however.  After we checked in, a lovely Japanese woman, called a Nakai-san, showed us to our room.  First, however, she led us to an area where we had to remove our shoes and don simple black slippers.  Our shoes were placed in boxes in a large cabinet, and were readily accessible whenever we wanted to go out.

Our room was on the second floor.  The stairs were steep and it was hard for me to walk in the slippers, but I managed.  I was so scared of doing something wrong!

When we got to the room, the first thing we saw was a small entry where you are meant to remove your slippers.  The floors of most ryokan rooms are tatami, and nothing heavier than a socked foot is meant to be placed on them.  One thing I learned on this trip is that as impractical as tatami flooring might be, it is very pleasing to walk on.  I’m sure they wouldn’t last two days with the sharp claws of Kramer and Stuart running around on them though.

Obviously, ryokans weren’t made for tall gaijin:

But I fit right in.

The Nakai-san explained our room to us.  There was a “living room” type area with a table, two chairs, and a chest which contained our yakutas and haoris.

The main room contained a low zataku table, and zaisu (legless chairs) with zabuton cushions placed on top.  Shortly after we arrived, the Nakai-san brought tea and Japanese pickles made from Kyoto vegetables as a welcome.

At this point, it was time to begin the relaxation.  Many ryokan have lovely gardens outside of its guestrooms, but ours did not.  Unfortunately, ours had a view of the busy street below:

We were pretty well shielded by shades, however, as you can see from the photo below.  It would’ve been nice to have a garden, of course, so if that’s very important to you, make sure you find out in advance.

Mick took a minute to review the some of the rules of the ryokan:

Bathing is a very important part of the ryokan experience, especially public bathing.  I chose not to participate in this experience, which I kind of regret now, not because I was self-conscious about public bathing, but because I was kind of just afraid of doing something wrong (a common fear I had on the entire trip to Japan).  However, our room did have a private bath so Mick and I were able to enjoy the tradition.

Before entering the bath, you must wash yourself, making sure that all soap is rinsed off.

Near the tub, there is a bowl of yazuya which are meant to be placed in the bath water.

The bath was fantastic–a great way to relax before dinner.
Even Mick liked it!  (Though again, the tub was not made for big gaijin).

After the bath, one puts on the yakuta.  When tying the robe, the left side is put over the right because the opposite is used for dressing the dead.

The yakutas are meant to be worn to dinner and around the ryokan, although it is not obligatory.  Mick and I opted for the full ryokan experience and wore ours to dinner and breakfast every day.

One thing that got a bit tiresome about the ryokan was the footwear issue.  There was a pair of slippers for every occasion–even for using the toilet (pictured below).  One is constantly putting on and taking off slippers in a ryokan.

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The routine is this:  You enter your room in slippers provided at the foot of the stairs when you enter the ryokan.  There is a small entrance area of your room where you slip off these slippers and leave them.  In the room you are either barefoot or wearing socks (preferably the toe socks called tabi).  When you leave the room you put your slippers back on, and go down the stairs, where you take off the slippers and put on a pair of geta, which is a type of traditional wooden clog.  You wear the geta into the dining room (some ryokans serve dinner in the room–ours didn’t) and slip them off before going to your table.  When you are ready to leave, the whole process begins again, but in reverse.

All About Eating

Even more than the bathing, the ryokan experience is about food.  Ryokans use this opportunity to serve traditional Japanese cuisine, much of which is produced locally.  I have truly never had an eating experience like it.

I was very nervous at first because again, I was nervous I’d make a faux pas.  The staff was so nice, however, that I soon felt comfortable.  At our table, which was kind of a Japanese-Western hybrid (you sit low, but there is empty space below the table so you can sit as you would at a chair), there was a menu, napkin, and chopsticks (this photo only shows the napkin and chopsticks):

The same Nakai-san who showed us to our room brought a drink menu and we ordered the local sake.   
Now the real fun began.  The first dish they brought was abalone:

Before I continue–if you don’t like sashimi or sushi, a meal at a ryokan is probably not for you.  They can make allowances for vegetarians, but need advance notice.  Next came roasted bamboo:

I had to ask how to eat this.  It turns out that it is very similar in taste and texture to an artichoke.  It smelled wonderful.  Presentation is a huge part of the meals served.  I’ve never seen such beautifully presented food.

The next dish was sashimi.  One thing I learned in Japan is that wasabi is not served with sushi–only sashimi.  Sushi is eaten only with soy sauce.  In this picture, the clear liquid next to the soy sauce is a type of vinegar.

Next came a kind of roasted fish which Mick forgot to photograph until after he’d eaten some.
The food just kept on coming!  The next course was the most delicious shabu-shabu I’ve ever had.  Like tempura, the shabu-shabu in Japan is quite unlike anything I’ve had in the U.S.  I have a new appreciation for it.
The final dish was rice mixed with egg and yazuya.  It was had a very soft consistency and was very delicious.

The meal ended with fruit and a traditional Kyoto sweet.  They also served green tea.

While we were eating, a maid set up the futons in our sleeping area.  The photo below is the cupboard which all the bedding was stored in.

Unfortunately, Mick never got a photo of them all set up for sleep, but suffice to say it looked very inviting.  After such a long day and that huge meal, we tumbled into the futons for a nice sleep, preparing us for the sight-seeing of the following day.

Next chapter–More sights in Kyoto.

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos & video for this day here.

It being April 1 here in Japan, I’m obviously a bit behind in blogging since Mick’s birthday was on March 28.  Still, I don’t think I’m doing too bad a job keeping you all up-to-date on our trip.  That said, this will probably be my last post until we get back to the U.S. on Monday.  We leave Japan tomorrow (April 2) at 5pm and arrive in Los Angeles at around 12pm the same day.  On with the post!

Kyoto Bound

So, today was the day Mick turned 40, and we began it by checking out of our hotel and walking to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.  Read Mick’s thoughts about buying the tickets.

We arrived in good time for the train and went to wait on our platform.  Navigating train stations in Japan is really pretty simple since most of the signs are also in English.  The most confusing part is actually figuring out what fare to pay since quite often these signs have no English translations.  It’s not a big deal though because if you pay the wrong fare you can just go to the fare adjustment window when you get to your destination and pay the correct amount to leave the station.

Here comes the train!

We found our seats, which were very comfortable.  I love train travel so I was looking forward to the trip.  Almost immediately after the train left, an attendant came by with a cart selling snacks and drinks.

Since the ride to Kyoto was about 2 hours, I decided to use the time to get some of my blogging done.  In this picture, I am blogging about our day in Nishi Nippori and Ueno.


Even though blogging this trip has taken some time, it has been a wonderful way of recording everything we’ve done.  We are doing so much that it’s easy to forget this thing or that, and writing about it along the way has made it easier to remember.  I don’t regret the time spent at all.

When we arrived in Kyoto, we took a taxi to our ryokan (which I will blog about in excruciating detail in my next post).  We couldn’t check in until 3pm so we left our bags and began our sight-seeing.

One of the first things we saw was the five-story pagoda shown above.

Our next stop was at a small shrine, where I purchased an offering.  They came in all different colors and I chose a white one because I thought my writing would show up better.  I wrote "World Peace" and a peace sign.  I also wrote "Santa Monica, CA, USA," and the date.

I tied up my offering like the rest of them (all of the ones I saw had Japanese writing on them).

By this time, Mick and I were both pretty hungry.  We stopped at a traditional restaurant that served tofu.  I was particularly interested in it because they served yuba, which is made of tofu skin.  My friend Tracy had mentioned how good it is so I wanted to try it.  It was very good, but you had better like tofu if you want to try it because otherwise I doubt you’d like it.  Mick ordered another tofu dish.  Both of our meals included tempura.  Japanese tempura is simply delicious–much better than any I’ve had in America (I think I might’ve already said that somewhere else).  I’ll miss it.


Despite the look on his face, Mick really was enjoying his birthday lunch.

After all that worrying I’d done about having to remove my shoes in Japan, would you believe that this (day 5) was the first time we had to do it?  The restaurant had tatami mat flooring, so we had to remove our shoes at the bottom of the stairs and leave them on shelves.  This is me, putting my shoes back on.

Our main sight-seeing spot on this day was to be Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most visited temples in Kyoto.  The walk leading to it was full of interesting sights itself, however.


They weren’t kidding when they said it was one of Kyoto’s most visited spots.  There were tourists everywhere


Kyoto is known for its shopping, particularly its traditional crafts and sweets.  One of its specialities is Japanese fans, which is one of the traditional crafts that originated in Japan, not China (unlike pottery and dolls).

Kyoto pottery is some of the finest in Japan:

For Mick’s birthday, I bought him a beer glass, and then later I bought myself a tea bowl. 

Another specialty of Kyoto is sweets:

You couldn’t walk two feet without seeing one of these sweet shops.  Even a sumo wrestler needs his sweets!


Kyoto, particularly Gion, is known for its geishas.  I’m not sure if these women were real geishas, but they looked pretty anyway:

One option for those too tired to walk:  a rickshaw.


When we finally got to Kiyomizu-dera, we turned around on the steps and Mick got this picture, which I love:

Here we are at the entrance:

Kiyomizu-dera is beautiful and unique among the temples we’ve seen, as it is built into a hillside with 139 giant pillars supporting part of its main hall:

The view from this spot is wonderful–and inspires the question "Have you the courage to jump from the veranda of Kiyomizu?" which is a Japanese saying asked when one sets upon a daring new venture.

Mick purifies himself, above, while I ring the prayer bell:


I took a moment to rub the Buddha for good luck.  The woman ahead of me took it very seriously.  She was rubbing that Buddha like there was no tomorrow, then rubbing parts of herself–her hair, shoulders, back–even her bottom!  I settled for a quick rub on my hair.


On our way back to the ryokan I was lucky enough to see some corgis.  I’m actually surprised by the number of purebred corgis I’ve seen here.

Kyoto, far more than Tokyo, captured my imagination.  I really loved it.  This Japanese tour bus says it all:

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos of this day here.

On our 4th day in Japan, Mick and I decided to take a day trip to Yokohama.  One of our guide books said that while going there is interesting, it isn’t necessarily better than going to Nikko or Kamakura.  But for some reason it appealed to both of us and since it was just a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo we decided to do it.

Our first stop when we got off the train was the Yokohama Museum of Art which displayed a lot of traditional Japanese art done in the early-mid 20th century.  The special exhibit was the collection of Kojima Usui, a Japanese art collector and author (among other things) in the early to mid 20th century.

Our next stop was the tallest building in Japan, the Yokohama Landmark Tower.  It has about 70 floors, and the world’s second fastest elevator (about one floor per second).  The observation deck and restaurant at the top boast a gorgeous view, but it would’ve been especially beautiful at night.

Next we went to a buffet restaurant at the top of the hotel at the Landmark Tower.  It was a lovely buffet which included both Japanese and Western food, though most of the guests on this day were Japanese (I don’t think I saw any westerners, which is something you start to do in Japan–look for the other westerners).  During lunch, I reminded Mick that it was his last day of being a thirty-something.  He promptly ordered a cocktail to get through the sharp pangs of regret (of course I joined him). 

Yokohama is one of the few cities in Japan that has a Western influence in a chapter of its history.  In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Yokohoma with a request (demand?) from the U.S. that Japan open its ports to trade with the U.S.  As a result, Yokohoma became a port city with a Western presence for over 100 years, though much of that has been destroyed either by earthquake, fire, or bombing in WWII.  The monument pictured below is the site of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the U.S. and Japan.  Mick just thought it would make a cool picture.

There is a lovely section of the Yokohama waterfront called Yamashita Park which is a very nice walk (and loaded with people walking their dogs, which of course I loved).  There is a Japanese song about the Girl in the Red Shoes.  The story of the song is a bit complicated, so read the link if you’re interested.  This statue commemorates the Girl in the Red Shoes.

As with any city, Yokohama has many museums, some more important than others.  During our walk we passed the Silk Museum, which we decided might be interesting.  The only reason for it’s existence is the promotion of silk, as it is located in the upper floor of a silk factory.  It was interesting however, and having never given a thought to how silk was made, I did learn a bit.  I bought a pair of black silk toe socks called tabi in the gift shop.

Another museum we went to was the Yokohama Doll Museum.  I have loved dolls since I was a child, though I was almost too tired to go into this one.  There were hundreds of dolls from all over the world and it was cool to see, however I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you happen to have an hour or two in Yokohama with absolutely nothing else to do.

One of the main reasons I think both of us were attracted to Yokohama was its China Town.  Of course I love the China Towns I’ve visited in America and I thought it would be cool to see one in Japan.  Turns out it’s just like the ones in America!  There were loads of restaurants and junky souvenir shops.


A nice lady caught my attention because she wanted to give me a hand massage with these plastic things she had on her fingers.  Being the tired traveler I was, I couldn’t resist.  As she massaged, she explained what each point in the hand affected in the body, such as the neck, head, liver, legs, etc.  Next she started massaging my legs with some kind of wooden rolling pin type thing.  I would’ve been happy to stand there all day but I started feeling guilty.  I ended up buying a pair of shoe insoles with pressure points on the bottom which are actually very comfortable.


I think Mick has a fascination with the plastic food here because he keeps taking pictures of it.  It’s funny because sometimes this "food" looks very appetizing and other times it just looks dusty and plastic.  This was one of the good ones:


On our way back to the train station there was a Hawaiian-themed restaurant in an Airstream trailer that I thought was funny, so I made Mick take a picture.  Japan is full of quirky stuff like this.

This being the 4th day of travel, Mick and I were both pretty exhausted by the time we got on the train to go back to Tokyo.  We joined the countless sleeping business men in a quick snooze.

Dinner on this night was to be a 7-11 (or the equivalent) special.  It turns out that convenience store food is pretty delicious in Japan, and not an uncommon meal for the busy Tokyoite.  On our walk back to the hotel from the train station we stopped and got sandwiches (which, unlike the American-type found in similar stores, boast the softest, freshest bread you can imagine).  Add some boxed sake from the mini-bar and we were set!


Tomorrow:  Kyoto bound and a new decade begins for Mick…

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos and video of this day here.

Though I am blogging our third day in Japan, it is actually the fifth day.  Mick is 40 today (March 28)!  Can you believe I’m married to such an old person?  I’m not sure this May-December romance can last, but we’ll give it a try.

We’re actually on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and I thought I’d use the 2+ hour trip to get some blogging done.

So, for our third day, I’d planned a fairly detailed walk around “Old Tokyo.”  This walking tour was something I’d read in Little Adventures in Tokyo and it seemed like it would be a good chance to view some of the more traditional neighborhoods in Tokyo.  While I’d written up notes on the trip, I’d failed to write directions to each stop and of course that was one of the books we left at home.  We decided to modify our walk slightly and go further north to Nishi Nippori which seemed similar to the original walk I’d planned.

It started in a very large Buddhist Cemetery, which was beautiful and fascinating, but also a little creepy, as most cemeteries are.

Having come in through a side entrance, we took this path through a small part of the cemetery to a Buddhist temple called Tenno-ji.  There is a large Buddha here, cast in 1690.  It was magnificent.

After exploring the temple, we made our way back to the cemetery path.  Mick stopped to observe what looked to be some kind of prayer or offering nook.  I wonder what he was praying for?  To be 25 again, I guess.

There was a great variety of headstones in the cemetery, many of them as large as this one.  Not being familiar with the particulars of Buddhist burial, I don’t know why some people had such large stones while others were very modest.  I suspect it’s the same reason someone in the U.S. would have a larger or more elaborate stone than someone else–money.  But it could have something to do with a person’s status in the community.  Another tidbit to research when I get some time.

The stones in the photo below are more representative of most of the markers in the cemetery.

Upon leaving the cemetery, our walk took us through a residential area.  There was laundry, including futons, hanging off of many of the balconies, and I’ve since seen huge apartment complexes with laundry hanging on every balcony.  This is obviously a common way to dry clothes in Japan.

During this portion of the walk, we saw a temple or a shrine every few yards.  To my untrained eye, one was pretty much the same as another.  At first I thought it interesting that there were so many tucked into this largely residential neighborhood, but then I realized they’re no different than the community churches in America in that sense.

Eventually we became tired of seeing shrines and temples and went slightly off our path to a more “retail” area.  Of course I had to stop at the local pet shop and miss my dogs for a minute (alas, I have reached that point in the trip when I am longing for them).

This Indian restaurant called Darjeeling made it into the guide book and at this point we were really hungry.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t open yet so we had to look elsewhere for food.

Many of the neighborhoods in Tokyo have decorative arches or gateways at their entrance, kind of like you sometimes see in Chinatowns.  This gateway was the entrance to a street filled with novelty shops, restaurants, and different types of food shops, most very traditional.

We stopped at what I thought was a very cosmopolitan tea shop (given the area).  We were given tea as soon as we walked in and they had a wonderful selection of teas as well as guides in English expaining what was what.  They also spoke English and the nice lady explained what kind of tea we were drinking (sencha).  I bought some roasted tea (genmaicha) and another, which I will post the name of when I get a chance.

Our walk took us to Nippori station where we planned to get a train to Asakusa.   We must have looked confus
ed at the ticket box because a very nice young Japanese “salary man” asked us in English if he could help us.  His English didn’t turn out to be great, but he was able to help us figure out the correct fare and told us what station to transfer at.

The first leg of the trip took us to Ueno, which is a very big station.  It was tempting to go to the Hard Rock Cafe there, or even the English pub.

Mick couldn’t resist taking a picture of the plastic “pub food.”  You don’t find that in England!

Instead we opted for something more traditionally Japanese.  Somewhere along the way we decided to explore Ueno instead of going to Asakusa so we made our way out to the street.

There were loads of shops here, including the Gap and I’m sure other Western mainstays though I can’t remember specifically.  There were also lots of pachinko parlours and since this was much less busy than Shinjuku was we ducked into one, hoping this time to figure out how to play.  We gave it our best shot, and had a look at the machines themselves but I told Mick it seemed stupid to just try to play without having any idea what we were doing.  So again, no pachinko playing.

After exploring this vibrant area, MIck looked at the map and said there was a shrine and a temple close by.  We went first to Kanda Myo-jin, a Shinto shrine.  When we go there it looked like they were setting up for something (see the red carpet and photographer) and it turned out we got to see the procession of a Shinto wedding ceremony (see Mick’s photos for pictures and video–if they’re not up yet, they will be soon).

Here is a photo of the wedding procession:

Our last stop on this day was a temple called Yushima Seido, which was right next to the previous shrine.  It is said that Shinto and Buddhism coexist peacefully in Japan and it is evidenced in the proximity of the religions’ sacred sites.

Yokohama, here we come!

We woke up this morning to a rather bleak day, which kind of changed our plans.  Originally I’d wanted to go to a museum and then stroll to Ginza because they block off one of the main streets to traffic on Sunday afternoons.  Instead, we decided to visit a couple of museums and then see where the day took us.

Imperial Palace East Garden

We began our sightseeing by purchasing two umbrellas at the hotel gift shop.  Everything we planned to do was within walking distance so we figured we could handle a little rain.  Then we walked across the street to the Imperial Palace grounds.  I was surprised there were so many people walking around because it really was raining hard.

Upon entering the gardens, you are given a white plastic "pass" which you must return as you exit, which is a tidbit I thought I’d include for anyone who ends up visiting some day.

We are very lucky.  Cherry blossom season is begining a couple of weeks early this year and on this day we were seeing the very beginning of it.  Even though they weren’t any where near full bloom, it was easy to see how absolutely magnificent it will be when there are more.  We will probably return to this area when we get back from Kyoto just to see them.  I absolutely love this photo:

After returning our passes to the guard, we exited the Imperial Palace Gardens:

We were on our way to the National Museum of Modern Art, the Science Museum, and finally, to Yasukuni -jinja, which is a controversial Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead.

Our first stop in this trio of sights was the Science Museum.  Though I read that it was primarily for children, it also claimed to have fun, interactive exhibits that both Mick and I were interested in seeing.

We entered the museum and were amused by a vending machine featuring one of my favorite actors, Tommy Lee Jones, hawking a beverage called Boss:   
All I could think of was Bill Murray saying, "For relaxing times, make it Suntory times…"

A word about the Science Museum–if given a second chance, I’d skip it.  I could see that it would be a great place A) if you are a child, B) you understand both written and spoken Japanese, or C) you have even a slight bit of scientific knowledge and can figure out what the exhibits are meant to be.  Since I fall into none of those categories, the museum was of interest only because it was a place where there were lots of typical Japanese families enjoying a day out.  Frankly, that can only go so far.


Our next stop was a place of great interest to me:  Yasukuni-jinja.  I had read about it’s controversy–namely, that it’s account of Japan’s involvement in WWII is considered revisionist, or at least downplays Japan’s culpability.  More on that later though.  The path leading up to the shrine was full of stands selling all sorts of yummy treats–unfortunately the rain put a damper on things and many of them were closed.  I could see how the place would be hopping in good weather though.

There were lots of visitors to the shrine, mostly Japanese.  This is a holy place in Japan.  It was completed in 1869 to enshrine the remains of two and a half million war dead–these souls are considered deities.

A common sight at shrines are little strips of paper with prayers for good fortune tied to trees and in various other places.

While we were at the shrine, an event was going on and a school marching band was there.  I didn’t get to hear them play but I would’ve loved to, having been in marching band myself in high school.

One of the more controversial aspects of this shrine is that in 1979, a number of Class-A war criminals were surrepticiously enshrined here.

Yasukuni’s War Museum was fascinating, and luckily, most of the exhibits feature English translations.  There was so much information there it was hard to absorb it all, but reading about it from the Japanese perspective was very interesting.  I will not say whether I thought it was revisionist since I’d like to do more research, so I will just say that it was a good starting point for me.  Frankly, I never understood why the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and I still don’t entirely, but I intend to learn more.

There was a performance going on outside of the museum but we couldn’t tell what it was.  Women dressed as geisha were on stage singing and dancing.  I don’t know if the one below was part of the performance or not:

On the way back, we encountered a pathway for cherry blossom viewing:

Unfortunately, the blossoms are minimal at this point but it was gorgeous just the same.  We both want to come back here when we get back from Kyoto, and hopefully, there will be more blossoms.  There were a lot of Japanese visitors here, getting a head start on the viewing.

The rain had stopped by now and we were starving.  We found a random restaurant on the street where they unfortunately spoke not a word of English.  Our pointing skills came in handy here, though not as handy as one might hope.  I chose a noodle dish and Mick chose a shrimp dish, but when he ordered the waitress paused as if waiting for him to order more.  When the food came, it turned out that Mick had just ordered a small appetizer.  Altogether it was enough food however.

Ginza by Night

We decided to walk to Ginza, which was about a mile away or so.  On the way, we stopped at Monsoon, a name which some of you might recognize.  It is one of our all time favorite restaurants in Santa Monica, and it turns out there are several in Tokyo:

One of the waiters spoke English and we ordered sake, which was sorely needed at this point.

Afterward, we headed to the busy part of Ginza, which was a lot more fun and beautiful at night than it was in the early morning hours.  We stopped in a couple of stores, including a department store which was as luxurious and expensive as one would expect in Ginza (which I’ve heard referred to as the Beverly Hills of Tokyo).  Frankly, Ginza is a whole lot more exciting a place than Rodeo Drive.

What shall we do tomorrow?          

Here we are, safe and sound in Tokyo.  We arrived on Friday evening, which was actually late Thursday night for all you Americans out there.  The flight was uneventful and not altogether unpleasant, though as with any long plane trip I generally feel like killing myself (anything to put me out of my misery) about halfway through.  This one was no different.  Three things to note, however:

1)  While we were taxiing, the music playing was the "Theme from Taxi."  Not sure if it was intentional, but I thought it an amusing touch.

2)  There was a camera during taxi, take off, and landing that showed the pilot’s view.  I’d never seen that before, and being a nervous flyer, I’m not sure I need to see it again.

3)  The airline food was beautiful (Japan Airlines).


When we arrived at our hotel on Friday evening, it was about 7pm Tokyo time, which was about 1am pst.  Both of us were exhausted, so we tumbled into bed, understanding we’d be up very early the next morning.  We figured it was okay since we’d planned to visit the Tsukiji Central Fish Market, hoping to see the tuna auction around 6am.

We set off around 5am and had a pleasant walk through the streets of Ginza on our way to the market.  It was nice to get a look at Tokyo before the bustling crowds ensued.


I actually didn’t realize just how pleasant it was until we toured Shinjuku later in the day, but more on that later.

Upon arriving at Tsukiji Fish Market, we saw workers everywhere, zipping quickly here and there on little carts carrying all manner of sea creatures.  Mick had warned me about the carts–boy, he wasn’t kidding.  They were everywhere, and the drivers didn’t seem too bothered by the idea of hitting a happless tourist.


It was not immediately evident where we were meant to go, but a nice Japanese man working the market noticed our confusion and laughingly pointed where we were supposed to go.  Once in the auction area, I felt happy to see many tourists just like us.  There is a passage way where visitors can watch the auction, and it was packed with a variety of faces, both western and asian.


On the floors of the auction rooms, huge frozen tunas were lined up for close examination by potential buyers.  Sure, there were a lot of fish, but what was really amazing to me is that this happens every day.  Here is where the wholesalers purchase the tuna from the fishermen, then it’s moved to the actual market where it’s then sold to restaurants and retailers.  To put it in some kind of perspective, about 2246 tons of fish worth over US$15.5 million are sold here daily.


The actual market itself was, to me, a whole lot more interesting than the tuna auction. 


Multiply what you see in this picture by, oh, I don’t know–1000, maybe more.  The atmosphere was less chaotic than the auction, but no less intense. 


Mick and I had no idea what most of what we saw was, but we were reasonabley sure it was all edible and that with any luck, we’d get to try it in some Japanase restaurant or another.



As is the tradition, Mick and I finished our visit to the market with a sushi breakfast at one of the nearby sushi places.  There were several to choose from, and most had long lines.  The one we chose was called Ya Ma Za Ki, which featured picture menus in English and Japanese and frankly was no different ordering wise than being in the US.  Our chef, who was very nice, spoke English, though he appreciated my attempts to order in Japanese. 


The sushi was delicious–much more flavorful than I’ve had in most places in LA and the texture of the fish was lovely.

The walk back to the hotel was punctuated by a cursory visit to a McDonalds:


Various other sites included the Wako building, which I hope to blog about later and Kabuki-za, a famed Kabuki theater.


An afternoon in Shijuku

After a brief nap, Mick and I headed out by taxi to another area of the city called Shinjuku.  We’d pondered on whether or not to take the train, but I think both of us were feeling a little tired and unsure of ourselves.  With taxis right outside the hotel it seemed a lot easier just to take that than braving the scary world of the subway.

Our first stop in Shinjuku was the Japanese Sword Museum.  It was a small, out of the way museum (seemed like it was in a back alley) that had swords on display from about the 13c to the 19c.  Unless you are interested in swords, I wouldn’t make the trip, but Mick is very interested in them and has done a lot of research into them.  A few years back I bought him a modern Japanese katana made in the traditional way, so both of us were interested in seeing this museum.

Next we wanted to go to the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Tokyo (of Lost in Translation fame) but were disappointed to find it didn’t open until 5pm.  We settled for beers in their lounge:


As you can see, I look like I needed some form of alcoholic beverage at that moment.

The Park Hyatt offered views of the city that kind of put it in perspective a little.  Tokyo, at least to my untrained eye, is a bit of a mish-mash.  That seemed apparent as we gazed from one side of the Park Hyatt, which was high rises:

To the other side, with reminded me of a kind of permanent shanty town:

I don’t mean that to be negative, just that the contrast was interesting to me.

Next we made our way to Isetan, which is a high end department store on Meji-Dori and Shinjuku-dori.  On the way, we ducked into a pachinko parlour, something that I was looking forward to seeing since as a kid we had a pachinko machine.  Pachinko is technically illegal in Japan, but they get around the law by making you purchase tokens for the machines.  Payouts are in the form of little metal balls which you exchange for "prizes," which you can then "sell" at another window for cash.  I really wanted to play, but everything was in Japanese and it was too loud to communicate with the attendant so we ran out like scared children.

Isetan reminded me of a less luxurious version of Selfridges in London.  By "less luxurious" I mean that the building itself was rather plain and utilitarian, however the brands sold and the prices, are not.  Every high end designer I’d ever heard of and a whole lot I hadn’t were represented here.   As much as I sometimes wish I was, I’m just not the designer clothing type and I can’t justify spending so much money on something just for a label (sure, I know they’re quality goods, but you know what I mean).  I went to the Paul Smith department and almost bought a bag or a rain hat, just to say I did, but I resisted the temptation.  Now I wish I hadn’t, because it is raining dreadfully here at the moment and I wish I had that Paul Smith hat (or any hat, actually).  Isetan was interesting, but not being hardcore shoppers, Mick and I explored a couple of floors and left.

Our next stop was another department store called Takashimaya Times Square because Mick wanted to meet with an American artist named Rodney Allen Greenblatt who was having an exhibit there (they are going to be collaborating on Mick’s next article for Game Developer Magazine).   Not being sure where Rodney was in the store (14 floors) we explored this one in much more detail than we had Isetan. 


Floor after floor of almost anything you can imagine was being sold here and a whole lot of other things you could never imagine even existed.  We had a lovely lunch of tempura on the 14th floor, then resumed our search for Rodney.  When we finally found him, there was a long line of Japanese waiting to talk ot him and get things signed, as well as a crew filming him.  Mick decided to just email him later.

I wish we would’ve taken more pictures in Shinjuku because frankly, it defies description.  I think perhaps we were scared into submission but the crowds, noise, and flashing lights.  We did, however, decide to brave the train home and a nice Canadian named Damien noticed we looked confused and he helped us buy tickets and rode part of the way home with us.

We ended the day in the tradition of weary travelers in Tokyo:

In bed, in our kimono robes, and with a bottle of sake from the mini bar.

The adventure will continue tomorrow…

Today is take off day.  The dogs are going to the kennel (sob!), our bags are packed, and we’re ready to get our groove on in Japan.

Of course as soon as the suitcases came out the dogs got nervous.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re looking forward to their vacation as
much as we’re looking forward to ours.

Even though this is technically a blog about my creative endeavors–namely making jewelry, knitting, and painting–I am temporarily turning it into a travel blog for our trip to Japan.  My plan is to write a daily post about what we’re doing and to include a photo or two if I can wrestle the laptop away from Mick.  We’ll see how that goes.

The flight is about 11 hours, which is about the same as the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to London.  When we arrive at Narita Tokyo Airport, a shuttle will take us to the Palace Hotel which is very near to the Imperial Palace:

The Imperial Palace (photo:  Imperial Household Agency)

I think what I’m looking forward to most in Japan is the food.  And the sake.  Is that pathetic?  I guess it is a little pathetic.  I’ve never thought of Japan as a big food place but my research (and friends) tells me it is.  And god knows I loves me some food.  I plan on trying everything, even things I never in my life thought I’d eat.  Except onions.  I hate onions.

I’ll leave you with that for now…