Adventures in Japan!

1 Nov

After a year of planning, we finally took off on our trip to Japan a couple of weeks ago.

We left DC midday on October 18th and arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 19th.  Shibuya, the neighborhood in Tokyo we called home base, is about 80 minutes from the airport via the Narita Express train. By the time we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we were pretty exhausted so we spent the evening at the hotel bar talking about what we wanted to do the next day.

The next morning, I got up and walked to a local gym in Shibuya to work out. I was honestly impressed that I found it on the first try. Directions in Japan rarely involve street names. Anytime I consulted Google Maps, it was “cross the crosswalk,” “go up the stairs,” “go over the walkway,”…etc. Nothing super specific, so I ended up using a lot of landmarks like shops or subway stops to find exact locations. But I did find the gym, and had a good workout that definitely helped shake the jet lag. I also happened to find the statue of Hachiko on my way there. This Akita came to Shibuya Station to greet his master, a professor, coming home from work every day. The professor died in 1925, but Hachiko kept coming to the station daily faithfully until his own death 10 years later. The statue was erected in memoriam.

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I headed back to the hotel to meet Joe and we decided to head to Kōrakuen, and wandered through the Koishikawa Kōrakuen gardens before heading to Yasukuni-jinja, which means “For the Peace of the Country Shrine.” It is a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million people. It’s unusual and massive torii (gates) are constructed of bronze and steel. Housed in the shrine complex is Yūshū-kan, a fascinating and somewhat controversial war history museum that begins with Japan’s samurai tradition and goes all the way through World War II.

After a full day, we grabbed some karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and sushi from Shibuya Station’s massive food hall called Food Show, and took a quick break at the hotel. We spent the evening walking the neon-lit streets of Shibuya, wandering in and out of shops and arcades before winding up at a place called the Living Room Café, a really relaxed bar with some great live music. A perfect way to close out our first full day there.

On Saturday, we headed to Harajuku to visit Meiji-jingū, Tokyo’s largest shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. The sprawling forested grounds contain over 120,000 trees collected from all over Japan. There are several torii as you walk along the path toward the main shrine, the tallest of which stands 12m high and is made from a 1500 year-old Taiwanese cypress tree. Also along the path are rows of decorative sake barrels, gifts to the shrine.

After leaving Meiji-jingū, we made our way to the famous Takeshita-dōri. Even on a rainy day, this street was packed with people filling the unique, funky shops lining it from end to end. We explored, snacked on street food, and even popped into a cat café to grab a coffee and pet some fluffy creatures. In the evening, we went to Shinjuku to explore the nightlife, arcades, and shopping there. A lot like Shibuya with tons of stores, neon lights, and music just pouring into the street.

Sunday I got up and made my way back to Shinjuku for class at Bikram Yoga Shinjuku. Even though I don’t understand more than a few words of Japanese, I know the sequence so well that I was able to follow along just fine. It reaffirmed how special this yoga is, that I have found it so many places and been able to share practice with so many people.

Joe and I spent the rest of the day wandering Akihabara, which is a ton of sensory overload. Arcades, manga shops, giant 8-floor tech stores, media, and book stores are everywhere, and we went to as many as possible before the rain got too heavy and sent us back to Shibuya.

Monday we got up to catch the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto. The train reaches speeds of up to 186 mph. By car, the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto would take approximately 6 hours, but on the Shinkansen, the trip took just under 2 and a half. It was pretty awesome.

After checking in at the New Miyako Hotel, we visited Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine built into the side of Mt. Inari. The entire path through the shrine goes about 4km up the mountain, and I would say we went about 2/3 of the way up. It is lined with hundreds of orange torii as you walk up and is a really breathtaking place. This shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. There are many stone foxes along the pathways, and foxes are considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the harvest. We spent a full afternoon exploring, and then wandered the surrounding streets and shops into the evening.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel to the Kyoto Aquarium and spent a couple hours exploring the exhibits there and seeing a dolphin show, before hopping back on the Nozomi Shinkansen to make our way to Hiroshima.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, the city was buzzing. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there were signs that read “We ❤ Carp!” About a 1/3 of the people we saw were in baseball jerseys, and we eventually figured out that the local baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, were the current Central League Champions and had a playoff game that evening vs the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. We even got to see their trophy because we just happened to wander into the store where it was on display. Later, we found a good pub to watch the game, but unfortunately the home team lost.

On Wednesday, we took the streetcar to Genbaku Dome-mae to visit Peace Memorial Park. The first thing was saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was the former Industrial Promotion Hall, but the atomic bomb in 1945 exploded directly above it, and this is all that remains of the structure.

We also visited the Korean Atomic Bombs Victims memorial, the Peace Clock Tower, the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and finally the Children’s Peace Memorial where we registered and donated 2 paper cranes to add to the thousands already there.

We then took the streetcar over to a shopping area called Hondori and spent the afternoon shopping and exploring the surrounding area. After heading back to Hiroshima Station, we went to the rooftop of nearby Fukuyu department store for some panoramic views of the city before catching the Nozomi Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The trip took about 4 hours, but would have taken about 9 and a half by car. Pretty cool.

Thursday morning I took an early trip to Tsukiji Market to see all of the vendors, and treated myself to a delicious sashimi breakfast.

Joe and I met up and went to nearby Shinjuku, where we went to VR Zone, a virtual reality park, to try out a few VR experiences on the HTC Vive. I have to say, it was pretty immersive and a lot cooler than I could have expected. Mario Kart in VR was WILD. After a little bit of lunch in Shinjuku, we decided to go back to Akihabara and check out some of the shops and a retro arcade that we’d missed when we went the first time.

Friday, we got up and met up with our tour guide to head for Mt. Fuji. Most of our trip thus far had been a little bit grey and rainy, but we woke up to a perfectly clear day. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride, we stopped in a town nearby Mt. Fuji for lunch before heading to the Fifth Station. The Fifth Station is about halfway up Mt. Fuji at approximately 2,305m above sea level (the mountain is 3,776m tall). Our guide Yoko remarked that there were only about 3-4 days of full visibility this time of year, so we were extremely lucky to have such beautiful views.

After Mt. Fuji, we traveled about an hour and 45 minutes to nearby Hakone, where we took a boat cruise on Lake Ashi before ascending to the summit of Mt. Komagatake via the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway. The summit of Mt. Komagatake had some stunning views, and we even saw Mt. Fuji in the distance.

After a trip back down the ropeway, we grabbed some ice cream before hopping back on the bus to Shinjuku, then caught the subway to home away from home in Shibuya.

Saturday we visited the expansive Ueno Park and spent several hours at the zoo there.

In the late afternoon we headed to Shinjuku for a quick meal before heading to the Robot Restaurant for a show there. Pictures and videos will never, ever do the experience justice. All I can say is if you are ever in Tokyo, treat yourself. It was a whole lot of silly fun.

Our last day in Tokyo, we headed to Ginza, where we visited Café de l’Ambre, a shop where the sign above the door reads “Coffee Only.” It has been in business since 1948 and specializes not just in roasting different varieties of coffee, but also in ageing its beans. After a delicious cup of coffee, we headed back out toward the main street in Ginza.

We spent some time wandering the shops and had a really great lunch at a place called Tsubameya before heading back to Shibuya. Then it was time for one last waltz through the neon lights of Shibuya. Even in the pouring rain, the streets were packed with people (many in Halloween costumes!) and the mood was lively. What a cool, special place.

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We’re already talking about where we want to go when we go back!

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