Japan, Day 16 and Wrapup

Our final day in Japan wasn’t terribly exciting.  We had breakfast at a coffee shop, and then checked out of our room.  (Remember the crappy umbrella we bought on the first day and had been carrying around with us ever since?  We donated that to the hotel supply.)

We went to the department stores in Ikebukuro station and bought some souvenirs for friends and family, and then boarded the train to Narita airport. We had one critical task to accomplish at the airport – we needed to spend the rest of the money on our IC cards.  Fortunately, there’s a 7-11 inside the security cordon full of people doing exactly the same thing.

For our final meal in Japan, we had conveyor belt sushi, which once again was far better than it had any right to be.  And that’s the trip!  Our return flight was utterly uneventful, and we landed about six hours before we took off.  Thanks, date line!

To wrap up this journal, I’m going to post some pictures of interesting translations.  To be clear, our Japanese is terrible, and we give carte blanche to anyone to make fun of it.  But in return, here’s some of the more amusing ENGLISH text we saw on the trip.

Wasted Youth Budwiser
No smorking7 min if run a little!Eggslut set

Monkey's Feeds

EnglishifyNo paking

Again – the only reason we were able to function in Japan at ALL is that nearly everything is labelled in English.  We were EXTREMELY grateful for this fact.  But translation does go awry, and the fact that we are posting these doesn’t mean that we aren’t grateful for all the times it didn’t.

Japan, Day 15: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Shimokitazawa, Nakano

The main Tokyo fishmarket used to be in the Tsukiji neighborhood.  If you got there at 5 AM, you could watch tuna being auctioned off, then dodge forklifts to get to amazingly fresh food stalls.

A few years back, it was decided it might be better to separate the “tuna-and-forklifts” portion of the operation from the “crowds of people trying to get breakfast” part, and the wholesale market moved out to Toyosu. Not too far from the art exhibit we had been to the night before, in fact. The outer market with the food stalls largely remained in Tsukiji.

Since we didn’t want to spend the night in a karaoke parlor, we had gone back to our hotel the night before. But since we wanted to get breakfast in Tsukiji, we hopped on the train promptly at 8.

8 AM.  Rush Hour.  In Tokyo.  On a train headed directly into the city.

I have drawn a helpful map to explain the situation.

Tokyo Map

That 20 million people is a made up number, of course.  40 million people live in the greater Tokyo metro area, but how many of them were really between us and breakfast?

A lot.

We boarded a subway train with 12 cars, the platform for which was longer than a city block.  This train runs every 5 minutes at rush hour. Nonetheless, when it arrived it was as densely packed as I had ever seen a subway car. Despite this, a sold twenty or so people, including us, pushed into the car via our door alone. (This was repeating itself at all three doors on all twelve cars.) As standees, you are crushed together with everyone around you so solidly that breathing becomes restricted.  For 40 minutes.

I can now say a) that I have experienced one of the great wonders of the world that is the Tokyo metro at rush hour. and b) I have no desire to ever do so again.

But we made it to our station alive, and started walking towards the market.  We stopped to investigate an interesting temple, which is a strange mixture of Japanese, Indian, and Western architectural styles.

Tsukiji Honganji temple
This is the Tsukiji Honganji temple, and it dates from the 1930s, replacing one that was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake.  It belongs to the same school of Buddhism as the giant wooden temple just north of the Kyoto train station, Jodo Shinsho, or “True Pure Land” Buddhism.  It’s definitely unique among the temples we visited.

But we weren’t here for temples, we were here for fish.  The Tsukiji Outer Market is a maze of little twisty passages, all alike. As always, food needs to be consumed more or less where it was purchased. We started with some absolutely ridiculously good sushi, to the point where we had already eaten half of it before we even remembered to take a picture. It was also insanely cheap.


At this point, we pretty much fell down in the “photography” department.  According to my notes, we had Sushi, Squid on a Stick, Grilled Tuna Skewers, Fresh Fruit Sodas, and a Fish Burger. This was all a result of simply wandering up and down the tiny market streets and pointing at what looked good.  The fish burger in particular was excellent, and we’d never have found the tiny shop selling them if it weren’t for watching so many YouTube videos in advance – the shop is down a tiny offshoot alley that we’d likely never even have spotted.

Fish burger stall
The case on the left side of the picture has fish of various types.  You pick your fish, and they turn it into a fried fish sandwich while you wait.
Fish sandwich
It may look humble, but it was outstanding. The sushi was outstanding.  The squid on a stick was outstanding.  This guy was probably outstanding, I have no idea, we didn’t talk to him.

Our bellies full, it was time to go elsewhere.  Our plan was to visit the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, which was described to us as a neighborhood with a cool, hipster vibe. “Cool” would be nice… I know I haven’t bitched about it for a few paragraphs, but it was still incredibly hot.  Every day had a rhythm of “do stuff until we can’t face moving any more, then go find some A/C”.

On the train, however, we realized we would be passing right by Harajuku, and decided to hop off and see if the woodblock museum that we missed on Saturday was open.  Nope.  Change of exhibits.  We did, however, get a chance to walk down Takeshita street, which was merely crowded, rather than bonkers like Saturday.  Sadly, we appear to have neglected to take any pictures, so here’s one from a previous day of a cat flipping you off.

Cat mural
After that, we did make it out to Shimokitazawa.  As promised, it had a cool, hipsterish vibe.  Lots of vintage shops. Lots of coffee shops. Lots of statues of Mickey Mouse, destroying a guitar.

OK, just one of those.

Mickey mouse statue
Still, it was a fun place to wander around.  Very quiet, which was a nice change from the chaos of the last few days. When we needed our next AC break, we found a coffee shop with absurd ice cream sodas.

Ice cream sodas
We weren’t really hip enough to be allowed in here, to be clear.

From here, we decided to go check out a mall called “Nakano Broadway”, which has been described as “Akihabara West.”  From the subway, you walk down a covered shopping street to the mall entrance. Nakano Broadway entrance
The mall itself is four BIG floors with a number of different stores. A lot of them sell watches, for some reason.  But the biggest category is anime merchandise. Figurines upon models, upon clothing, upon books, upon figurines.  So many figurines.

The most interesting part was the consignment sections. A number of shops consisted of nothing more than rows of floor to ceiling, neon lit glass cubes. Each cube was rented by a seller who was looking to display and sell their used anime goodies.  I don’t know how the actual sale process works, since I didn’t actually want to spend several hundred dollars on a rare Evangelion figurine.

After this, we decided to split up – I went to a nearby arcade to play some rhythm games, and Leigh went to look for Japanese skin care products.  While walking to the arcade, I snapped the picture on the right.  The one on the left is from Shimokitazawa.  Strikingly similar composition. Shows how much imagination I have.  At least you can’t see my finger in the left one.

Shimokitazawa streetscape   Nakano streetscape
Rhythm games in Japan continue to be incredibly fun, and very good value – I played for nearly an hour for about 3 bucks.

Dinner time, and it was our last chance to visit an Ainu restaurant I had been wanting to check out.  The Ainu people are the indigenous population of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island.  Like indigenous peoples everywhere else in the world, their culture has been violently suppressed for generations, and what’s been preserved is due to the dedicated efforts of the survivors.

My meal of wild boar and salmon broth was fantastic, and the hosts were extremely friendly.  The restaurant’s name is Harukor Ainu Restaurant, it’s near the Shin-Okubo station on the Yamanote line (just north of Shinjuku), and if you’re in Tokyo, I strongly recommend a visit.

And with that, it was time to head back to our hotel and pack. Over more than two weeks, we had Japanned all the Japan we could possibly handle. Time to go home.

City at night

Japan, Day 14: Tokyo – Asakusa, Akihabara, and Toyosu

Leigh’s conference theoretically had another half day to go, but she had basically conferenced all the conference she was capable of conferencing, so we decided to spend the whole day exploring the city.  We started with another delicious train station pastry breakfast, but while we were eating, she spotted an extremely critical item…

Moomin gachapon
… a Moomin gachapon machine.

Moomin, for those as unfamiliar as I was before meeting Leigh, are a Finnish media property involving creatures that look like Hippopotami, but are apparently trolls. And for some reason, are also located in a gachapon machine in Japan.

She got Little My, in case you were wondering.

Something else I learned while writing this pots.  Gachapon machines are named for the “gacha” noise the crank makes, followed by the “pon” noise of the capsule falling into the chute.  The more you know…

From there, we headed to one of the major tourist sites in Tokyo, the Senso-Ji temple complex.  It’s famous for a reason – the gates and the temples are imposing and beautiful.

Kaminarimon gate

This is the Kunarimon gate, which was originally built in the 10th century.  However, this one is from 1960.

The gate leads to a long shopping street, but much less cool than most of the others we visited, as it was more or less entirely geared towards tourists such as ourselves.

Nakamise-dori shopping street.

On the other hand, I’ll point out that this street has ALWAYS been geared to tourists visiting the shrine.  The only difference in the modern incarnation is that there’s more T-shirts and fewer… not T-shirts?  I don’t know what Edo period tourists would have considered a desirable 安ぴか. (What Google translate assures me is Japanese for “tchotchke”)

At the far end of the street is another massive, imposing gate.

Hozomon Gate
Again, while the original dates from the 900s, this steel-reinforced concrete structure was built in 1964.

I don’t mean to be glib.  The REASON this structure had to be rebuilt was World War II, which obviously no joking matter. (Although the previous Edo structure, was also built to replace the one before THAT that was destroyed in a different fire.)  It’s just a consistent pattern in Tokyo that you can appreciate the incredible architecture of these structures, while bearing in mind that they are copies, and also thinking about why these copies exist.

Inside the second gate was a number of shrine buildings, which were all quite packed, so we were startled to find a nice quiet little garden only steps away that we more or less had to ourselves.

Waterfall at Senso-ji
We also got a fortune from the fortune telling machine.  You shake a stick out of a container of sticks, and them open the drawer corresponding to the number on the stick and take the fortune.  Ours was a BAD fortune, so we left it behind, tied to the structure placed there for precisely that purpose.

Bad fortuneAbandoned fortunes

Also in the vicinity we found this interesting grave, which is apparently for a famous early 20th century actor and comedian named Soganoya Gokuro. (The birds aren’t real, but – are any?)

Gokuro Saganoya's grave
After wandering around a bit more looking at the other shrines and graves in the vicinity (including a sign for a ceremony for blessing pins and needles) we started moseying back towards the metro station, at which point I decided to follow the coordinates for a geocache.  They led through this tunnel, which I GUARANTEE was only ever visited by tourists if they were looking for the same cache we were.  Leigh can’t say I never take her any place unique.
Dingy tunnel
But we did find the cache, and ended up walking along the river a little bit.  This is the Tokyo Skytree and the headquarters of the Asahi beer company. (Which is which is left as an exercise to the reader.)
Skytree and Asashi headquarters.
And after that, we were off to our next stop – Akihabara!  Known as “electronic town”, Akihabara is famous for arcades, electronics stores, and anime and manga merchandise.  It’s also back in the penumbra of the curry district, so after perusing a little arts and crafts arcade for a bit, we did that for lunch.

I’ve not had cheese on a curry before, but I regret NOTHING.

There’s a large shrine in Akihabara called Kanda shrine, which is in many ways similar to the other ones we’ve visited. However, there was one really neat feature that we learned about once again from the “History of Japan” podcast.

Tablets at Kanda shrine
The tablets you see in this picture are a standard feature at shrines and temples around Japan.  Visitors will write wishes on them for benefits from the resident deity.  Some of them are simple things like “I want to do well at school this semester,” while others are quite poignant requests from folks with a lot of terrible stuff going on.  Because of the latter category, we opted not to photograph these from any closer in, but what makes Kanda unique is that a LOT of the tablets here have art on them!

Akihabara is not only the district where a lot of anime merchandise is sold, it’s also home to some of the animation studios where it is made, and there’s really impressive artwork on a number of these tablets.

We did visit one other shrine in Akihabara, at the absolute other end of the imposing spectrum.

You know “Up?”  The Pixar movie that you can never, ever, watch a second time because of the first ten minutes?  The one where they build an entire skyscraper around Ed Asner’s house, because they can’t get rid of it?

Tiny shrine in Akihabara
This is the Hanabusa Inari shrine.  It has been here significantly longer than any of the surrounding buildings. It’s in a tiny space between two buildings, located off a narrow alley located off an only slightly less narrow alley.  It’s pretty damn cool, isn’t it?  It’s apparently dedicated to a spirt of food.

I suppose we should post a picture of Akihabara itself, too.

Yep.  Pretty much exactly as advertised.  We did go into some game, electronics, and anime stores, and they were fun to poke around in, but mostly didn’t allow pictures.  We played a … what’s the opposite of virtual? Actual Reality? Virtual Virtual Reality?

Anyway, we played Pong with real pieces.


You spun the knob, and the physical paddle physically moved and utterly failed to prevent the physical ball from scoring.

We also went to an arcade with a lot of rhythm games, and had fun trying to figure out how they worked while local teenagers next to us were playing so fast I’m surprised they weren’t giving off Cherenkov radiation.

We needed a break at this point, so we went and had some NON blue beer at a local brewery located under a train bridge.  After this it was time for dinner, and we spent a while trying to locate a restaurant recommended by a friend of ours on the Discord for the Youtube channel “Chinese Cooking Demystified.”  (Great channel, you should watch it.  Start with “Old Buddy Noodles.”)

Tokyo is absurdly dense.  We finally realized the restaurant we were looking for was in a four story building with a tiny restaurant on each floor surrounded by uncountable other buildings with restaurants on every floor.  The one we wanted was on the third floor, had eight seats, and served one of the most amazing pork bowls I’ve ever had. Which, including the beer, came to less than ten bucks.

Pork bowl

While at the pork bowl place, we started looking at tickets for an art exhibit we had been considering, and realized that we could get in that evening if we bought the tickets online and hustled.  So we did.

This exhibit is called “TeamLab Planets.”  Most stuff we did in Tokyo was actually pretty cheap – even the National Museum was only about ten bucks to get into.  This was closer to forty per person. And VERY certain of its own profundity.

TeamLab Planets
We were informed that we were going to be connected to the experience of the shared humanity of… whatever. Something.  The verbiage was too pompous to take seriously, but the actual exhibits were pretty neat. Plus, it was fun trying to photobomb wannabe influencers’ selfies.

This one felt like you were in the middle of a 3D starfield.

Starfield exhibit.
This one had you wading through water with fish projected on it.Virtual fish
This one had giant balls.
Big balls.
One of the most interesting, though, was a room full of orchids trained onto strings, which automatically lifted out of your way as you walked toward them, and lowered behind you, so you were always surrounded by orchids.
Orchid room
Overall, a very cool experience, as long as you didn’t take it too seriously. In other words, do NOT take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Whew.  What a long day!

Japan, Day 13: Tokyo – Ueno and Takadanobaba

On Sunday, Leigh had another full day of conference stuff to attend to, so I was once again left to my own devices.  I planned to spend some more time in Ueno Park, particularly at the Tokyo National Museum, but since I had some time before the museum opened, I decided to check out Yanaka Ginza, a street described in the tourist guides as “old-fashioned”.

Unfortunately, not much opens early in Tokyo, but that did mean I was able to get a nice shot of the art on these shutters.

Painted shutters
I also caught the very end of some sort of procession featuring senior citizens with flowers on their heads.

Senior citizens
From there, I started making my way towards Ueno.  I passed this, and was absolutely baffled.

Temple with statue of cartoon character
Why is there a stone sculpture of what appears to be a cartoon character in front of what appears to be a Buddhist temple?  After-the-fact research seems to indicate that that is “Baikinman“, the villain from the “Germ Planet” and leader of the Viruses. And the Buddhist temple may also be a kindergarten?  I’m really not any less confused.

My route continued through a graveyard, where I was able to (though a fence) photograph the grave of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Grave of the last Shogun
Moving on, I had timed my trip to arrive at the Tokyo National Museum just about as it was opening.  The museum grounds are enormous, and consist of quite a few buildings.  This “black gate” is one of two remaining Edo period gates in Tokyo.

Black Gate
Plus, “The Black Gate” sounds metal as hell.

Once I entered the grounds, I spent all of my time in the “Japanese Gallery” of the museum. Visiting all of the buildings would take at LEAST two days to give the entire museum its due.  Surprisingly, almost everything in the museum can be photographed.  Here’s some samples.

The Imperial Palanquin

TriptychSamurai Armor

Rabbit Plate


This frog has seen things…

Crab bowl

This crabs on this bowl are all one piece with the bowl itself.

And as an interactive exhibit on the way out, visitors could make their own Ukiyo-e wood block prints.  Ukiyo-e is a distinctive Japanese style of color woodblock printing, where each color is applied to a carved block which is then applied to the final image one at a time.  When you think about Japanese visual art, you are very likely thinking of this style of printing.

Here’s a stunning one from the museum.

Ukiyo-e print
The way the interactive one works is that you are given a blank piece of paper and there’s a series of stations with frames to hold the paper in place and a large rubber stamp.  You stamp each color onto the paper, and voilà!

Interactive woodblock demonstration
Remember, this page was BLANK when I started.  Pretty nifty souvenir.

At this point, it was lunch time, so I wandered out of the museum and toward the shouting and music I heard from further into the park.

When later describing to Leigh what happened next, I opened with “The nice Australian man said the blue beer was delicious, but I shouldn’t have listened to him.”

There was a beer festival going on, familiar in a lot of ways from any similar festival in North America.  Tourists who could show their passport got in free. Dozens of tents selling beer and food on sticks.

Beer fest

The entertainment was wannabe idol groups, mostly set on proving unambiguously that they did not have the aid of Autotune.


And there was blue beer.  It was not good, no matter what the nice Australian man said. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting.

Blue beer

The park contains lots of other stuff, like a memorial to that time Ulysses S. Grant planted a tree.

Plaque of U.S. Grant

There’s also a shrine dedicated to the FIRST Tokugawa shogun, coming full circle from the gravesite earlier.

Tokugawa Ieyasu shrine entryway
At this point, I was ready for a break (the heat had NOT magically abated, and I’d been doing a lot of walking), so I headed back to Ikebukuro to relax in the hotel for a bit before heading down to Takadanobaba to do probably the LEAST relaxing thing I had planned for the whole trip.

Before we get to that, a quick note on Takadanobaba.  Every train station in Tokyo plays a little jingle to announce the train doors are closing.  At the subway stops, the jingles are all unique, but that’s not necessarily the case for the above-ground rail lines.

However, it’s DEFINITELY the case for the Takadanobaba stop on the Yamanote line, which plays the theme to “Astro Boy.”  Apparently Astro Boy was actually based in the neighborhood.  There’s a big mural under the train tracks that I didn’t photograph because there were a bunch of protesters in front of it.  What were they protesting?  No idea, my rudimentary Japanese only sufficed to determine that they were not professing a desire to be taken to the train station.  That would have been silly anyway, considering they were directly under it.

But not taking pictures of murals is NOT the stressful thing I had in mind.  Rather, as someone with a whopping year and a half of jazz piano lessons under my belt, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to go to a jam session.  In Tokyo.

Not to bury the lead, the experience WAS pretty cool.  The place was tiny, and the owner bounced back and forth between playing saxophone with the house band and tending bar.  If you wanted to play, you put your name down on a list, and after the house band’s set, they started calling people up to play.

I was paired with a local on drums, and three other Americans, two of whom were friends and colleagues of Leigh’s that she had brought with her from the conference.

Jam session in Tokyo

So… yeah.  That happened.  We played Corcovado. Leigh’s friends were amazing, and I am informed that I did not humiliate myself TOO badly.  And the bass player rapped “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” instead of taking a solo.  That happened too.

The second time I got called up didn’t go as well, but the fact that I was even able to force myself to give it a go at all is something I’m proud of.

Afterwards, the three of us and Leigh went and got ramen.

Friends at the jazz club

Japan, Day 12: Tokyo – Harajuku

Saturday morning was Leigh’s conference presentation, using her freshly rebuilt slides.  I came out to watch, and as far as I could tell, it went over very well.

The conference would only last a half day, so I headed back to town with plans to meet Leigh later after she got done.  Not wanting to get too far away, I spent the morning in the vicinity of Ikebukuro.  The first thing I visited was a girls’ school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Unfortunately, there was some sort of event going on, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was still pretty neat.

Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Next, I wandered down to a lovely little neighborhood Japanese style garden park, which had a sternly worded sign out front.  Google Translate informed me that a TURTLE had been found in the pond, and anyone caught dumping turtles in the pond would be in big trouble.  Remember kids – when you go to Japan, don’t dump turtles.  (Don’t do it anywhere, they’re a serious invasive species issue in a lot of places.)
Small park

Leigh messaged at that point that we would be having lunch with two of her undergrad students, who had made the trip all the way to Japan for the conference.  I had read that the department store on the WEST side of Ikebukuro station had a nice food area, so I spent half an hour trying to locate the correct elevator to get to it.

I should mention – there’s two department stores in Ikebukuro station.  The one on the west (西) side is called Tobu.(東武) The one on the east (東) side is Seibu. (西武) It is apparently an absolutely deceased equine to point out that the western store has the character for east in its name and vice versa. “Park on a driveway and drive on a parkway” level of eye-rolling “we know.”

We ended up not eating in that food area anyway.

After lunch, we went to see a dance festival that I had found an article about before we left.  Called a Yokosoi, it’s an ancient style of dance that dates all the way back to (checks notes) 1954. Still, that’s getting pretty ancient at this point.  And the dances were amazing.

Each group consisted of a large number (20-50 or so) dancers, a few people waving very large flags, and a hype man, who narrated and chanted along with the music. I’m pretty sure the actual term is not “hype man,” but I’m going with it. (Which is not to imply that this person was always male-presenting, as they absolutely were not.)  The other defining feature of yokosoi is a small clapper called a naruko, which is always incorporated into the dance.

The groups ranged from reasonably good (including one delightful group that seemed to consist entirely of senior citizens) to absolutely spectacular, with phenomenal dance moves, costume quick changes, and flags the size of Luxembourg.

Yokosoi group
This one had two small children on stage for no apparent reason other than it was cute. Which it was.
Yokosoi group
The amazing thing is how MANY groups there were.  Each performed for about three minutes, and then a minute later there was another one.  For HOURS.  Over two days and five stages.

This stage was at the corner of Yoyogi park, a large park that contains the shrine to the Meiji emperor.  In addition to legendary figures like Inari, shrines can also be constructed to memorialize specific people.  The Meiji emperor was “restored” to power at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the Americans showed up in the mid 1800s.

However, it’s important to note that what “restoring” the emperor actually meant was moving the real power from the shogun’s “advisors” to the emperor’s “advisors.”  The emperor himself didn’t have any MORE power than he’d had for centuries, he was just being used as an excuse for replacing one faction with a different one.

It’s difficult to learn much about the actual PERSON of the Meiji emperor, but it’s pretty clear he had a serious alcohol problem, which made this massive display of sake barrels at his shrine somewhat ironic.

Large display of sake barrels

Irony or not, it did still feel somewhat awkward to take too many pictures of the shrine itself.  Yes, EVERYONE was doing it, but the shrine was full of actual Japanese people, performing the rituals of veneration with apparent sincerity.  Instead, here’s one of Leigh from just outside the shrine, sporting the latest in portable air conditioners.
Leigh outside of shrine
Seriously, we traded that thing back and forth all trip.  It was an absolute godsend.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we walked back through the park to the bustle of the city again.  In particular, Harajuku, which is known for being the center of cosplay / kawaii / youth culture in Tokyo.

Although it probably isn’t.  From what I’ve read, it was the center twenty years ago, and now it’s the center of tourists taking pictures of other tourists looking for the center of youth culture.  The main street is Takeshita Street, and we were NOT walking down there.
Takeshita Street
Nope.  We wandered around a bit and looked at some other stuff.  We found the shrine to Admiral Tōgō, who defeated the Russians in the Battle of Tsushima.  It’s a very important story, which I am not going to go into here except to point out that this long form video about the “Voyage of the Damned” that the Russian fleet took to GET to its destruction at Tsushima is great.

We then realized we were right near a woodblock museum that I had thought about taking us to, but also that it was about to close. Shoulda gone straight there after the dancing.

Which was STILL going on, by the way.

Yet more dancers
We also so this guy trying to wrangle an absurd number of dogs.

Many dogs

However, at this point, we needed to leave to meet friends for one more quintessential Japanese experience – Karaoke!

We headed back up to Ikebukuro to a place called “Karaoke-kan”.  No, not the one at 1 Chome-23-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo. The identical one two blocks away at 1 Chome-25-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo.  Seriously, there are a LOT of karaoke places in Tokyo.

This was organized by one of Leigh’s fellow conference goers, and over the course of our two and a half hour slot, more and more people kept arriving.  We started in a private room that held about ten people, and by the time it reached twenty or so, the staff realized they needed to move us to a larger room.  There were two tablets that we could use to select songs and perform other functions, although given that the other functions were all in Japanese, we didn’t use those much.

As these were all goers to a music perception conference, the average performance level was perhaps somewhat higher than normal.  Or not, who knows.  I sang “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”

What the Karaoke place DIDN’T have was food other than small snacks, so after the singing broke up, Leigh and I went to a tiny, tiny gyoza place I had found online earlier.

How tiny, you ask?

Tiny gyoza shop
There were only six seats, three of which were occupied by the owner’s family.  The dumplings were, unsurprisingly, fantastic. We even managed to deploy our terrible Chinese to say “Thank you” to the owner, who was from Taiwan.

My, that was a long day, wasn’t it?

Japan, Day 11: Tokyo – Random Wanderings

Day 11 was not terribly exciting, from either a photography or a reportage perspective.  Leigh was in her conference all day, so her pictures are full of things like this:

Academic poster
Interesting stuff, but requires a bit of background, and not particularly Japan-specific.

Meanwhile I didn’t do any big things – I just wandered about.  I started the day in Ueno park, which DuoLingo informs me is “a very pretty place.” (とてもきれいな場所) It is, too, although I did see my first evidence of homelessness since we had arrived in Tokyo.

Paddleboats in front of a city skyline
I only wandered around the south end of the park, and mostly failed to find a few geocaches.  I returned to the north end of the park later in the trip, so more here later.

Most stuff in Tokyo doesn’t open until at least 10, so I was at least partially killing time at this point.  Looking at a map, I noticed a nearby shrine (Yushima Tenjin), which as it turns out, was dedicated to education and learning. I like those things, so I wandered over and had a look.

Oh good, more stairs.  Did I mention it was still really, really hot?

Still, the shrine itself was pretty cool, and among other things, still had a functioning gas lamp.

Gas Lamp

The reason I was killing time is that I wanted to check out the bookseller’s district.  Tokyo does this thing where a lot of the vendors of a particular thing will cluster in one place.  The downside is that you may not have a good used book store near you (although you probably still do).  The upside is that there are DOZENS of used bookstores all right next to each other.

It was REALLY fun to walk past and look at all of them.

Naughty French Spot Illustrations (book)
However, unsurprisingly, the books were mostly in Japanese, which three months of DuoLingo was really not enough to prepare me for.  I was hoping to find some sheet music, but the one store that had some didn’t have anything that really jumped out at me.

Just down from the bookstore district is the musical instrument district, so I had a peek down there, but I certainly wasn’t buying any of those, and I was too self-conscious to ask to try out a French horn.

And overlapping with both of those districts is… the curry district!  If you Google for the national dish of Japan, the most likely result isn’t ramen or sushi – it’s curry, made with sauce cubes out of a box.

Fortunately, in the curry district, they go a BIT nicer than that, although it’s still a similar sweet-mild flavor profile.  Found a great place where I could try two different styles, separated by a fortification of rice.

After lunch, my plan was to go explore the east gardens of the Imperial Palace, but… I just couldn’t do it – I got maybe a third of the way from the nearest train station to the entrance, and realized that I just wasn’t going to be able to appreciate them properly while trying to stave off heat exhaustion.  So instead I went back underground and made my way to the Seiko museum, more or less reversing the route we had taken a few days earlier to get from Ginza 6 to Tokyo station.

Apparently, most big companies in Japan have a museum dedicated to how great they are.  (This isn’t a Japan-only phenomenon, as anyone who’s been to Battle Creek or Hershey can attest.)  The Seiko museum is full of fascinating old clocks and watches.  Here’s a bunch of them that were fused together in the fire after the Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Pile of melted watches

And here’s probably the most famous Seiko in Ginza. (This is not the museum, which was on a back street.)

Seiko House

I also went to the Yamaha main music store, which had an absolutely amazing sheet music store on the third floor.  Still too shy to ask to play either any pianos or horns, though.

After all this walking and museum viewing, I decided I deserved a treat, and stopped off for some gelato. Matcha and salted watermelon.


I made my way back to Ikebukuro to have dinner with Leigh, who discovered that all of her slides for her presentation the next day had randomly borked themselves, so after a brief flurry of cursing and fixing stuff, we went out for a rather frustrating attempt to find dinner.

I had planned to take us to “Gyoza Stadium”, which is a cluster of different kinds of gyoza shops, inside an amusement park, inside a shopping mall, which I had been assured was tasty and entertaining.  However, the admission price to the amusement park had been raised a LOT since the reviews I read, and most of the shops were about to close anyway.  So we spent quite a while wandering around neighborhood trying to find somewhere to eat that didn’t look too skeevy, but still wasn’t a Denny’s.

We eventually got some chicken skewers at an extremely understaffed restaurant, and vowed to find some good gyoza later in the trip.  (Spoiler: we did.)

So… yeah. Went to book stores – didn’t buy books.  Went to music stores – didn’t play instruments or buy music.  Went to gyoza store – didn’t get gyoza.  Went to park – didn’t actually go to park.  On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but it’s fun to just BE in a new place.

Japan, Day 10: Tokyo – Ikebukuro and Shibuya

Leigh’s conference started on this day, but as we were still getting accustomed to the Tokyo rail system, I rode out with her so I could see where it was.  The conference was at a university in a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwest suburbs.

After dropping her off, I wandered past a nearby shrine. This one has an ersatz Mount Fuji, so if you, a pilgrim, can’t climb the real one, you can climb this:

Ersatz Mount Fuji

Or at least you could on the three days a year it’s open.

I had breakfast at a tiny little bakery that clearly doesn’t get many tourists, but I managed to order some nice cheese toast.  And then I had the rest of the day left to my own devices.  Apparently, left to my own devices, I forget to take pictures, because there isn’t a single one on my phone for the remainder of the day until I reunited with Leigh.

After not making it to an arcade in Osaka, I headed for the Round One arcade near Ikebukuro station. This is a building with ten floors of various forms of entertainment, but I was only interested in the fifth floor – rhythm games! Turns out, there’s a lot of new ones since I last played DDR and Rock Band on the regular, and they’re a lot of fun.

There were also some terrifyingly good teenagers playing, but I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t laugh at me, so it all worked out.

I then wandered over to the Sunshine City Mall to check out the world’s largest gachapon store.  Gachapon are machines that sell you a plastic capsule with a toy in it.  A given machine will be dedicated to a theme, like “Dinosaurs”, or “Moomin,” or “Midcentury Danish Furniture.”

You think I’m making that last one up, don’t you?

I swear I am not making that one up.

At any rate, at the world’s largest gachapon store, there were several THOUSAND of these machines, and people wandering around sticking money into them to get plastic toys, and then going over to tables to look at what they got, and then going back to get more plastic toys, ad infinitum.

Tokyo is kind of the final boss of late stage consumerism.

After that, it was lunch time, and the department store on the east side of the station had a food hall, but also a roof garden where you could EAT the food hall food.  I settled on a chicken karaage bento, but the clerk insisted on “omikase” – picking out the BEST chicken bento for me, in her considered judgement.  Who was I to argue?

Took the bento up to the roof, where there were also a number of small food stalls including one selling Cornish pasties. (!?!)

After lunch, I bonked around a bit more looking for geocaches and was eventually joined by Leigh, since the first day of the conference was only a half day.  We went down to Shibuya to look at the famous “scramble” street crossing, and this is where I can finally break up the wall of text with some pictures.

Oh, sorry, did you want a picture of the crossing itself?  Sorry, too hot.  Here’s a parfait.  You can sort of see the crossing in the background.

We then wandered over to see what else there is to see in Shibuya.  There’s this, in a park built OVER the train tracks.

Doraemon sculpture
That’s Doraemon!  According to Wikipedia, Doraemon is “an earless robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century to aid a boy named Nobita Nobi.”

Okay then!

Then we went to an art gallery in the basement of a Diesel store, which I’m going to let speak for itself, because it was AWESOME.
Dan with art

Leigh with art

We wandered around a bit more, and managed to run into friends in an art gallery on the 6th floor of a nearby high-rise.  Running into friends at a tourist destination is one thing, but running into them at a weird art gallery was even LESS likely. Small world, I suppose.

There was also a nice view of the sunset over the scramble crossing from there.

Sunset over Shibuya
And here’s what it looks like while waiting to cross at ground level.
Scramble crossing from ground level.
For dinner, we decided to do the quintessential tourist thing of going for conveyor belt sushi.  (Apparently non-tourists ALSO do this, but probably not right in the heart of Shibuya.)  It is just as silly as you’d expect, but the sushi quality is still pretty darn good, given the circumstances.  Better than most neighborhood sushi joints in Vancouver, which is not a slouch in the sushi department.
Sushi on a conveyor belt
In addition to taking stuff off the belt, you can make special requests of the chefs.  I ordered a taco.

Sorry, I ordered “tako”, which is Japanese for octopus.

The final damage:
Empty sushi plates

And this pile of plates is how you are billed – the attendant comes around, counts up your empty plates, and gives you the total.  Which, for this stack of plates, came out to less than 30 dollars.  It’s an insanely good deal.

And with that, it was time to head back to the hotel.


Japan, Day 9: Tokyo – Ghibli Museum

I mentioned in the planning post that we had schemed to acquire tickets to the Studio Ghibli museum.  And by “schemed” I mean “set an alarm on my phone two months ahead of time.”  Tickets for the museum go on sale once a month, and they sell out within an hour or so.  Incidentally, if you’re not sure what Studio Ghibli IS, they’re an animation company that has made a bunch of really incredible films that you owe it to yourself to watch.  Maybe don’t start with “Grave of the Fireflies.”

The museum is out in a suburb called Mitaka, which also contains a cat / capybara café.  We never ended up going to that one, because we couldn’t figure out how to make the online reservation system work.  Among other things, you have to enter the pronunciation of your name in katakana, which proved to be challenging.

Does this mean we didn’t see a capybara today?  It does not!  The Ghibli museum is in a medium sized park, which also contains a small satellite zoo to the Tokyo Zoo.   I’m willing to bet that after the construction of the museum, something like half their traffic on weekdays became tourists, like us, waiting for their admission time.

For some reason, I thought it would be entertaining to take selfies with a bunch of the animals.

Selfies with animals

This should give you an idea of the type of zoo we’re talking about.  It has an entire enclosure where visitors can walk around and get an up close and personal view of… squirrels.

Anyway, here’s the aforementioned capybara.

But with that, it was time to go to the museum!  It’s an amazingly whimsical building.  Random spiral staircases.  Balconies with tiny doors. Bridges over courtyards. SO MUCH WHIMSY.  Are you not bemused?  Sadly, it does not allow interior photographs. But here’s the box office attendant.

Totoro at Ghibli museum

Given that ticket sales are online-only, I suspect there’s some boredom at play here.

In addition to exploring the space, there’s amazing exhibits about Ghibli’s animation specifically, and animation processes generally. There was a temporary exhibit about Miyazaki’s one TV show, “Future Boy Conan,” which we’d never seen but now kind of want to.  I also had a pork cutlet sandwich at the café with a potentially inappropriate decoration.

Pork cutlet sandwich with biplane flag.

On our way back to the train station, we stopped by the capybara café again to confirm they didn’t have any slots available.  They didn’t, but we did get to see the capybara through the door, so that’s cool. Two capybara sightings in one day!

Heading back into Tokyo, we decided to go to Shinjuku, and meet a friend of ours at the Giant 3D Cat Café.

Fancy coffee drink

To be clear, the Giant 3D Cat Café is NOT a cat café.  Rather, it’s the café located under this…

3D cat billboard

…a giant 3D cat.  The 3D effect from the billboard on the left is really quite striking. And the giant cat meowing down at the square is a pretty damn Tokyo thing.  So’s this sign, not to mention all the lights around it.

Kabukicho sign

That’s the entrance to Kabukicho, a “red light district”, although our understanding is that that mostly just means hostess clubs and the more seedy types of maid cafes. (i.e., NOT the kind you take your kids to get an omelet with a happy face drawn on it in ketchup.)

Shinjuku at night is CROWDED.

Shinjuku crowds

We went and got some delicious ramen, which I remembered to photograph after already having eaten half of it.


And then we went up to the best free observation deck in Tokyo, at the Metropolitan Government Building.  Tokyo is really pretty at night from up high.

Finally we headed back to the station for the night, but along the way we passed a crowded square, packed with people cheering for… something? going on on a stage.  One by one, groups from the audience were going up to the stage and joining a growing crowd, to big cheers from the crowd and excited Japanese from the hosts.

Awards ceremony?

A bit of Googling when we got back to our hotel, and as far as we could figure, this was a singing contest for all the companies with offices in the adjacent skyscraper.  Each company could enter a group, and we had caught the award ceremony.  But none of the actual performances.

At this point, it was time to crash, as Leigh’s conference started the next day.

Japan, Day 8: Atami to Tokyo

As if the incredible meal the night before weren’t enough, the ryokan also provided breakfast.

Ryokan breakfast

You know, just a small something to take the edge off.

Here’s a view from the grounds in daylight.

View from Ryokan

And the picture of the pair of us the concierge offered to take as we were leaving.


At this point, however, it was time to leave the calm of the inn and head to the insanity of Tokyo.  I was able to successfully deploy my approximately eight words of DuoLingo Japanese to tell the cab driver “The train station, please,” and that was probably the most use I got out of them the whole trip.

Also the hotel probably told him where we were going.

But we were off to Tokyo, a short 40 minute ride from Atami.  Just enough time to get in some quick Japanese practice.

Duolingo quote: "Tokyo Station is lively, isn't it?"

That’s… certainly one way of putting it.

We arrived around noon, and had reservations for a sushi dinner near the station. We didn’t want to go all the way to our hotel on the opposite side of Tokyo and back, so we put our luggage in a coin locker and went for a wander around Ginza, the ritzy shopping neighborhood.  Maybe I could find some nice Jimmy Choos…

No, I’m just kidding,  we went to another stationery store. But we were also getting hungry, as we hadn’t actually had lunch yet. And what should suddenly appear before us but…

Fluffy pancakes

Finally.  And they were everything we had hoped for.

We also wandered into a large bookstore with an art gallery attached.  Most of the art had “no photography” marked, but we did get a picture of the BOOK for an artist we really appreciated.

Jeremey Yamamura book.

We also went out on the roof of the department store, but it was REALLY hot, so we came back inside.  I know we’ve been carping a lot about the heat on this trip, but it does explain what we did NEXT.  Rather than look around at more of Ginza above ground, we decided to see if we could successfully navigate all the way back to Tokyo Station from the basement of the Ginza 6 department store without once setting foot on the surface.

A brief travelogue:

Department store counter with fake tree
Stained glass in Tokyo underground corridor

Robot in Tokyo convention center

Do you want Skynet? Because this is how you get Skynet.

Train wheels in Tokyo station
Art near Tokyo station

Tokyo Station

So yes, you can totally walk from Ginza 6 to Tokyo Station while remaining underground the whole time.

It certainly is lively, isn’t it?

We wanted to have one omikase (chef’s choice) sushi meal while in Tokyo, but we couldn’t afford a three-star Michelin place where you can’t get a table unless a friend of the chef vouches for you six months in advance.  We did, however, have an excellent mid-priced meal near the station.  However, nice sushi places kind of prefer you EAT the sushi when it is handed to you, rather than stopping to take pictures of each piece, so eat it we did.  It was excellent.

And from there, a train to our hotel!  The Tokyo train system is fiendishly complicated, but it’s well signposted, in both English and Japanese. So as long as you have data to allow Google Maps to handle the routing, and an IC card so you don’t have to worry about purchasing tickets on the correct network, it’s actually perfectly manageable. As long as you don’t try to ride inbound during morning rush hour.

But there’s no way we’d be dumb enough to try that, right?

Japan, Day 7: Kyoto to Atami

We had a Shinkansen to catch around noon, and we didn’t want to drag our suitcases around Kyoto in the broiling heat, so we spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast and then poking about the station to see what else we could find.

We found Legos, for starters.

Lego model of Kyoto station

It’s meta to find a large Lego model of the building you’re currently standing in, right?  I think that’s meta.  Or maybe recursive.  Something like that.

We also found a public piano, which I spent a little time playing, and Leigh photographed from a very long way off so that I wouldn’t get self-conscious.

Dan playing piano in Kyoto station

It’s a very nice piano.  When I had walked past it the previous evening, there was a line of people waiting to play it, but there wasn’t anyone else around at 10 AM.

But, out of further ideas, we went and purchased our lunches for the train, and then just hung around until it was time to board the Shinkansen for Atami.

Leigh got a perfectly cromulent set of sushi, and I got this bonkers thing.

Large Bento box

Some of those were better than others, but most of them were pretty darn good.  Each one had identifying information printed UNDER it, meaning you had to eat it before you could find out what it was. I’m going to have to figure out how to make the crispy lotus root dish. (Which Google informs me is called Kinpira Renkon.)

I have skipped an important point, namely – WHY were we going to Atami?  It’s not exactly the most famous of Japanese tourist destinations, at least not for international tourists.  The answer is that we were taking a scheduled break.  We had been in Japan for a week at this point, and we had just over a week to spend in Tokyo.  That meant that this was the midpoint of the trip, and it seemed a good time to spend a night in a Ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn.

One of the traditional places to PUT a Ryokan is near a hot spring, and Atami is a seaside resort with lots of those.  We would get to have a nice quiet evening in an inn, take a hot spring bath (onsen), and be unsettlingly pampered by the staff at this extremely expensive hotel.

First up, here’s the room:

Ryokan room
This one had western style beds, but it still had the ceremonial alcove, tatami mat floors, a small private hot spring bath, and yukata for us to wear to dinner.  (Definitely not pictured: us wearing yukata.) Here’s what it looked like from the outside:
Ryokan room from the outside
Did I mention it was a private building? This was definitely a splurge.

In addition to the small onsen in our room, there was an open air one you could reserve, so we worked out how to put on the yukata in the manner that DIDN’T imply we were corpses (seriously), and clopped down to it in our provided sandals.

A hot soak was EXACTLY what we wanted at this point in the trip.  You are expected to use the onsen naked, so DEFINTITELY no pictures of that part of the afternoon.

After that, we were off to dinner, which was another kaiseki multicourse meal. A terrifyingly polite server brought us all of the following: (There was a printed menu, which we kept, and is the ONLY reason I am able to describe these dishes in detail.)
Ryokan meal, part 1
Plum wine, (not pictured, because we drank it before remembering to snap a picture)

Cold savory steamed egg custard, tomato and clam jelly, plum, Genovese sauce with wasabi, foie gras, shrimp, wheat gluten, water shield, pickled Japanese ginger

Hors D’oeuvres:
Sushi of sea eel, vegetables pickled in sake lees, apricot with cheese, skewered wakame seaweed with herring roe, cucumber, boiled Malabar spinach and dry-cured ham, pine nut, red bean tofu, sea grapes, carrot, soy sauce with broth.

Ryokan meal, second course

Dumpling of shrimp, seaweed, burdock, small melon, bamboo shoots, carrot, shiitake mushroom, yuzu.

Tuna, baby sardine, chives, grated ginger, cucumber, red shiso, wasabi.

Ryokan meal, third course

Note that that is a small pot full of actual glowing charcoal on the table.

Grilled Dish:
Spanish mackerel grilled with Japanese pepper, grated okra and yam, bell pepper, paprika, boiled soybeans, corn, gingerroot.

Food Boiled and Seasoned: (It probably sounds better in the original.  It certainly TASTED delicious)
Fried eggplant simmered in soy sauce, mirin and broth. Fried sesame tofu dressed with rice cracker. New Zealand spinach, butterbur, scallop and broth syrup, wasabi.

Ryokan meal, fourth course with duckRyokan meal fourth course with fish

Meat Dish:
Simmered roast duck (top picture), or sauteed golden whitefish and vegetable wrapped in pie and grilled.

Ryokan meal, fifth course

Vinegared Food:
Akamoku seaweed, soy sauce with onion and yuzu, cucumber, dried chrysanthemum, pickled potus roots, stem of taro.

Rice Dish:
Steamed sticky rice with green tea and eel broiled with soy sauce, snow pea, shredded baked egg, miso soup, pickled vegetable.

Ryokan meal dessert

Muskmelon, kyoho grapes, arrowroot starch noodles of Shikuwasa, dumpling, bayberry simmered in sugar syrup.

I wouldn’t even know where to start talking about this meal.  I’m going to let the pictures and the menu speak for themselves.  Just no words.

The ryokan stay here in the middle of the trip was a good plan.  We planned good.