Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Japan 2023 - Part 1 - Tokyo

It's been five years since our last trip to Japan.  That was Summer 2018, when Em spent a summer abroad in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan University. We ALL missed coming back!    

It's also been a while since I posted in this journal.  I guess, with age, I've lost some edge.  I just have to work harder now!

I didn't do as much research for this trip as with our prior visits.  Partly because the "newness" of Japan travel was gone, and partly because I felt I was experienced enough to wing it.  I guess I was testing myself. In retrospect, now that we're back, things all went well, but I should have practiced my Nihongo a bit more. As I've said before, enough to get in trouble but enough to recover.

We planned 4 nights in Tokyo, 3 nights in Kyoto, 2 nights in Nikko, then 6 nights back in Tokyo.  Tokyo is huge, and we could have spent all 15 nights here. We had a very simple itinerary with a 7 day JR Pass in the middle, and with an extra day for a day trip.  A long day trip.

We love staying close to the big Shinkansen stations in cities.  This time, we started our trip at The Tokyo Station Hotel, which is located you-know-where.  It's one of the nicest hotels we've stayed at, with excellent service!  We got two adjacent rooms for the four of us, since they don't have rooms that accommodate more than two.  Connie and I got a larger room, which actually had an upstairs bedroom loft and a downstairs sitting area.  Here's the classic view of the recently restored Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station right at the entrance to the hotel.

I will point out that the arrival process at Narita wasn't swift.  First, ANA allows business class passengers to debark before any of the remaining passengers leave the plane. Then, once off the plane, we use our previously completed Japan Web apps to go through Quarantine/Immigration/Customs.  At the time of this writing, Covid Quarantine is no longer done.  But, Immigration was definitely the rate limiting step, and it will always be necessary.  We waited a long time, but not the 2+ hours that I'd read about.  Customs wasn't an issue, fortunately.  Then, I messed up purchasing our Narita Express tickets to Tokyo Station.  I know very well that one needs to purchase seat reservations AND the basic fare, but I only bought the seat reservation at the vending machine.  Fortunately, my fellow travelers didn't give me too much grief and the efficient JR East personnel were very helpful when our tickets didn't work in the automated gates.

Once situated at the hotel, we ate at Shichisai, a classic ramen place that we've eaten at more than any other in Japan. It has a light assari broth, pork and fish based, with hand made noodles. I lost track, but we ate there three or four times this trip!  They have a branch in the basement Yaesu Depachika on the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station, which we coincidentally passed on our walk to the main branch.  The main restaurant is technically in Hatchobori, but is just a few blocks away.  That's where they hand cut the noodles right in front of you at the counter. Thicker broths are more in vogue at ramen places nowadays, with some ramen looking more like tsukemen!  But I also really like their Niboshi broth, flavored with Iriko (dried anchovies). I think it still has a light pork base.

Later, we go to Mihashi in Tokyo 2nd Avenue (in Tokyo Station), to get dessert.  But, no ice desserts like we're used to!

The following morning Connie and I went out to do some chores (mainly to pick up our JR passes), and the lines at the JR East travel center in Tokyo Station weren't bad at all.  As an aside, if you do purchase JR passes prior to arrival in Japan, do so at the official JR pass site (even though it's a little bit more expensive).  It's worth the extra ¥.  You can purchase up to 1 month prior to activation, and you can actually make Shinkansen seat reservations throughout Japan up to 1 month prior to the actual train ride. In the past, one could only make seat reservations after getting the actual pass.  More info later about the actual pass.

We strolled around the new Tokyo Midtown Yaesu building, directly across from Tokyo Station.  It just opened a week or two before we arrived.  It now houses one of the long distance Tokyo bus stations in the lower basement levels. It connects seamlessly with Yaesu Depachika and is next door to one of the (less desirable) hotels we've stayed at in the past, the Super (Lohas) Yaesu. Here's a treat we purchased from Family Mart there.  Hot sesame/Bean bun! 

We have lunch reservations in Asakusa this first day, so we head to Sensoji and Nakamise Dori first. Crazy crowded!

It's Ichigo season and we see and eat lots of Strawberries this trip. We also see lots of Sakura, even though Sakura blooming is much earlier (a record) than usual. We hear many people complaining about the Sakura timing...

We eat at Bentenyama Miyako, a centuries old Sushi place.  Reservations are strongly recommended, only by phone.  It isn't crazy expensive and it isn't difficult at all to grab a place at the counter (ask for counter seating when making reservations). The second in command is Yamashita, not related. It's very old school, so you won't get Uni or Ikura.  Just plain Edomae nigiri.  But it's really good. It isn't really Omakase; there is a picture menu with several assortments.

Stewed Tuna

"Flatfish" and Hirame

Kajiki (Marlin) and Akagai

Kohada and Surf Clam

"Kiss fish" and Shrimp

Tamago (in an interesting presentation) and Akami

Kampyo and Maguro

Afterwards, we walked to Suzukien, by far, one of my favorite eats of the trip.  Super rich Matcha gelato.  Seven intensities, and you specify.  I got a double cone, and I found that their rules are you can't get both #7's.  So, I got a 5 and a 7 just so I could taste the difference, and I could! There's a number system queue; we had to wait about 45 minutes!

That night, the kids went to T's Tan Tan (vegan) and Connie and I went to Katsukichi in the Shin Marunouchi building.  The Tonkatsu was good, but the coating was not crispy to my liking.  The pork was excellent, but I judge the whole package. 

Next morning Sammie and I went to line up at Rokurinsha, the best tsukemen place that I know of, anywhere.  Their morning set is perfect with a slightly smaller portion.  The chewy noodles, rich broth, ultra tender pork.  Since it is 7:30 in the morning, the smaller portion is fine. The queues are not crazy anymore, but we still were about 15th in line at 7:15.

Besides, we have a long day (with lots of eating) planned...

Tsukiji Outer market.  This was Wednesday, the classic day off for the old fish market.  But it was crazy crazy crowded with tourists.  No one told them it was a day off.  It was unpleasant, actually. If someone yelled "fire," well...

Ikura Uni Don

Grilled Squid


Afterwards, we went to Ginza to shop, mostly window shop, fortunately!  But there is the flagship Uniqlo store, which the shoppers in our group kind of go crazy for.  The exchange rate is very favorable now, so bargains are to be found.  It's a far cry from the 80 yen per dollar rates we had back in the early 2010's.

We didn't get too much Kakigori this trip, unfortunately for me.  I guess it's gotta be in the 80's or 90's with 120% humidity before Kakigori sells well.  But we did go to this place a block off the main Ginza street.  Highly recommended.

That night, we split up again, but this time Connie and Em go to En in the Shin Maru building, for Dashi Ochazuke, and Sam and I go to a tablet sushi place (called Haneda) inside Tokyo Station.  It was quite good.  And not expensive at all!  Really a pleasant surprise to have a "bargain" vacation.

The next morning we head to the Aoyama / Omotesando area to eat fluffy pancakes.  Micasadeco was a small place, so we had to wait in line for quite a while but I must admit that it was worth it. Apparently, it's a hit on social media, so our daughters insisted that we go.

This is a quiet area of Tokyo, and there are a bunch of small shops.  Within a small area, there are several vintage purse places.  I don't remember the names, but it was quite amazing to see such expen$ive purses, with fancy names.

That night we all head to Shinjuku to go to Katsukura.  It is a chain, but the Tonkatsu there is my favorite.  Crispy crust which stays crispy until the last bite.  Moist, flavorful pork.  Unlimited barley-rice and cabbage.  Very consistent, and there are locations in Kyoto and Tokyo. I've been many times, and I've NEVER been disappointed.

Just an aside, on Tabelog, Narikura is the highest rated Tonkatsu in the greater Tokyo area.  We went there (when it was in Takadanobaba) a number of years ago.  We waited a crazy amount of time (just search this blog for our ordeal) just to sit.  Anyway, they moved and became a true high end restaurant plus it's become very challenging to get in.  I thought the pork quality at Narikura was superb, but the crust just separates from the pork, and though crispy, it wasn't crispy crisp like Katsukura.  

It's Friday, and we are headed to Kyoto. Supposed to be rainy today. Early breakfast first, though. We found a Soba place which is ideal for breakfast!  Komorosoba, with branches all over the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station. Like many restaurants, this place had vending machines to order our meal prior to entering.  It really is an efficient way of running a restaurant, but it makes it a challenge when you're basically illiterate, like me. One of the workers came out, after seeing that we were challenged.  She was very nice and helped us choose what we wanted.

Japan 2023 - Part 3 - Back to Tokyo

Wednesday, we have a short travel day back to Tokyo via Utsunomiya.  This was an interesting sight in Utsunomiya station.

You never see pay phones anymore.  And vending machines for bottled beverages are everywhere in Japan, but one that has only strawberry drinks?

This time around, we're staying at the Mitsui Garden Hotel in Kyobashi; it's still just a short stroll from Tokyo Station, so the location is fine.  I was unable to get rooms at The Tokyo Station Hotel because, at the time I made reservations, they were full, unfortunately. I would recommend the Mitsui.  It is a lot less expensive than The Tokyo Station Hotel.  Rooms are smaller, but not really small, like some business hotels in Japan.  Not luxurious, but very serviceable, and we just need a place to sleep, shower and ...  

As an aside, during check in, I had forgotten that I used Takyubin to "ship" a bunch of our luggage from The Tokyo Station Hotel to the Mitsui. By using Takyubin, we traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to Nikko back to Tokyo for 5 nights with just a small carry-on per person. In typical Japanese efficiency, our shipped luggage was brought out to us during our check in. It's probably only about 8 city blocks between our hotels.  But this is a great strategy to "store" luggage for a duration of time.  The standard charge for storing a suitcase is about ¥500 to ¥700 per day.  Using Takyubin for three of our suitcases, with delivery five days later, cost about ¥5,000. Cost effective and convenient for hotel to hotel delivery of luggage!

We find a small Italian place close to our hotel for dinner, Orenoitarian.  A very good Caesar Salad, a couple of fantastic pizzas, a so-so bucket of mussels (we still ate them all), and some seafood pasta.  I'd go back, especially for the pizza! The crust was crispy and light as a feather.

The next day, we had to catch a very early train, 6 AM, in order to start a long day trip to Kitakami.  This was our last chance to catch the Cherry Blossoms, which emerged the earliest date on record. Three hours on the Shinkansen each way, along with about 3 1/2 hours to walk along a path lined with Cherry trees! We'll arrive back at about 3:30, enough time to shop, dine, then drop.

These were two of the more pleasant train rides we've had in all our trips.  No luggage, 3 hours to just relax, not crowded at all, like the Tokyo-Kyoto trips we took.  265 miles each way.

Kitakami is in Tohoku, a region in Northern Japan.  To the East, just 20 to 30 miles away, the coast was devastated in 2011 by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami.  Because it's north of the more popular areas of Japan, it is cooler and the Cherry Blossoms are a little bit later.  However, we're still a little late.  There is a large poster in the Kitakami train station with daily photos of the status of the flowering.  

If we were one day earlier, we'd have seen many more blossoms.  The fierce winds that we had during our visit didn't help!  But we did witness "snow storms" of petals.

A really nice day trip.  I wouldn't go to Kitakami if not for Cherry Blossoms though.

This is a "weeping" cherry variety, which we saw a lot of this trip.  This variety has a peak bloom a little bit later than the standard "Yoshino" variety.

Quite windy!

We even saw a street performer with his pet monkey.  It's amazing that this monkey understands commands in Japanese.  Even I can't do that!

Connie yields the right of way to a passing horse cart.

An aside. JR Passes are small, the size of a standard train ticket, so that they'll go into and out of the automated gates at train stations.  Not like the approximately 4" x 5" folded cards that they used to be. So, there is a bigger chance that they'll get damaged, or worse, lost.  Sammie mangled hers, but didn't lose it, fortunately. On our last long leg of the JR pass validity, it couldn't be read by the automated gate.  She needed to go through the manned gate at the Kitakami Shinkansen station.  I read that if it is too mangled, then it will be replaced. I also read that, if lost, you're out of luck. Also note that technically, one needs to carry a passport along with the pass, because each JR Pass is not transferable from person to person.  Each pass is coded with your passport number.  You can even read the last four digits of your passport number right on the pass. But, in actual practice, your passport will never be checked. unless you have to get a replacement.

Sammie had to depart back to the USA soon after we arrive in Tokyo from Kitakami.  So I help her get to Haneda Airport with a ton of luggage on the subway.  Fortunately, it was 8:30 in the evening, and we luck out with a half empty car.  

We spend Friday and Saturday just aimlessly roaming around Tokyo, which is very fun!  It's nice to have days with no specific plans!  We ended up going to Kagurazaka, as well as back to the Omotesando area. In Kagurazaka, I find the familiar market I've seen before (Kimura) with a really small but nice Japanese whisky selection.  They have Yamazaki 12 year for about ¥20,000, which is actually a bargain! I decide not to bite; there are other whisky's that I'd rather have. It's really great when the exchange rate is in our favor!

Friday night, we abandon Em and go back to Shichisai.  Here is their special Shio Ramen.

Oh, one hint about vending machines at the vast majority of Ramen joints.  They nearly always put their "special" ramen in the top left of the selections.  

Breakfast on Saturday:

A cool place with custard-like French toast and super soft bread, toasted to your taste.  This was located at the junction of the Yurakucho, Ginza, and Kyobashi areas.

On this slightly rainy Saturday, just at the entrance to Tokyo Midtown Yaesu, we see a sculpture of individual orchid blooms in individual water reservoirs, which is pretty cool!

Curry pan (Connie and Em loved it!)

Connie suggested that we take a day and go to every Yamanote station, but that would be difficult.  30 of them.  Believe it or not, we've never been to Ebisu, so I choose that station; 1 rather than 30. Beautiful area!  And on a Sunday, it is not even close to being crowded.  The people walking around there seem affluent, and they're local.  We are practically the only tourists who look like we don't belong. I'd stay there long term, if I were staying in Tokyo for an extended period. Look at this photo of the monument in Ebisu Garden Place, where Doumyoji and Tsukushi met in my favorite J-Drama, Hana Yori Dango.  

We explore the complex and there are a number of nice shops.  Plus a really nice grocery store, where we purchase food for an impromptu picnic in the plaza.

About the wedge shaped thing on the lower left... it isn't a dessert. It caught my eye in the grocery.  It is a layer of maguro, with fish flakes and then sushi shari. It was pretty good, but I should have gotten a nigiri selection. 

After lunch, of course I'm still hungry, so I decide to go to my favorite steakhouse, Satou, in Kichijoji.  I've been here numerous times, and I arrive at 5PM sharp (opening time), since there've been long lines before.  I am alone, until another group enters at about 5:15.  I am offered a table or counter, and I decided to sit at a table, alone, to just relax. I've never seen it this uncrowded. I've sat at the counter before, and it requires energy!  The steak was marvelous, as usual.  It's a Matsuzaka wagyu, one of the better Japanese breeds.  And I get the special ¥15,000 set for 200g of rosu (loin).  I just looked at my credit card bill, and it was only $117.  Connie and Em won't eat meat like this! I know, not cheap, but good luck finding this kind of quality anywhere! And it's a relatively great bargain!

We (I) had a really nice Kakigori at Tokyo Midtown Yaesu.  This is a popup, and another Kakigori place will be there soon.  Fluffy citrus.  Mmmm.  I had to wait in line, but much more manageable than Friday or Saturday, when the lines were huge with Japanese tourists in town for the weekend.

I love frozen desserts!

Monday, our last full day, we go to Ginza yet again. But not before breakfast, back at the custard-like French Toast place.

I drag Connie and Em to Ginza 6, and we go to the roof garden.  It would be a nice place to eat some Depachika food from Mitsukoshi, just across the street.

Later, we go to Kinshicho, a non-tourist area just NE of Tokyo Station.  We eat dinner at a chain called Obon de Gohan.  Simple Japanese food.  Kind of like a Japanese Denny's.  I wouldn't recommend this place to a foodie, but it's comfortable eating.

Last day, flight at 5.  Hotel check out is 11.  Several days before, we hear about an assassination attempt on the Japanese Prime Minister, Kishida. Some guy tossed a homemade pipe bomb at him at a campaign speech. For that reason, all the coin lockers at Tokyo Station were disabled for several days. I guess they had some fear that a bomb would be placed in one of them.  I was going to use lockers to stash all our stuff after check out.  Hotels will generally hold your luggage for free after checkout for a few hours while you sightsee, but I didn't want to go back to the hotel, since it was several blocks from the Narita Express (the main train between Tokyo Station and Narita Airport). We had a fair amount of luggage!

Last meal in Tokyo was in the Shin Maru Building (we ate there a lot!).  Soba / Tempura place. Highly recommended.  "Teuchisobaishiduki" on Tabelog.  Haha! You really can't even make up that kind of name. (it's actually Ishizuki Soba)

This is "lobster" prawn

Standard Prawn

We actually even had Ippudo ramen at Narita.  I have no decent pictures :(  It was pretty good!  Though, at Ippudo, you generally get to specify firmness of the noodles. No such choice here.

Where to go our next visit to Japan???