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 2 - Kyoto & Nikko

The Shinkansen ride was fine; we always get Green car tickets. The Green car is like business class.  But even standard class has good leg room.  Green cars are much less crowded (although now with all the tourists back, it seemed much more crowded on the Kyoto-Osaka-Tokyo corridor). Quieter too in part because it's less crowded plus it's carpeted. It is said that seat reservations sometimes are hard to get on standard class cars during heavy traffic seasons (Golden Week, Obon, just before New Year), and Green cars are one way to assure yourself a seat. But our car was as crowded as I've ever seen a Shinkansen Green car.

One piece of bad news that we got during our trip, coincidentally, was that the cost of a JR pass will nearly double come October of this year. The standard rule of thumb used to be that if you were traveling Tokyo-Kyoto round trip, a 7 day JR pass was worth it.  Now, we'll have to refigure our rules...  I've read that a Tokyo round trip to Hiroshima is necessary to make it worthwhile.

The other bad thing that happened since our last trip was that Hyperdia.com stopped loading timetables into their searches.  For you Japan rail nubes, Hyperdia was the best way to plan long distance rail travel.  It was even great to plan local subway trips. 

When trying to get train reservations, it's really important to get accurate times. You now have to use one of the following: Navitime, Jorudan, or ekispert.  None of these have the user interface that Hyperdia had...  I used to get really tight schedules into our itinerary (like 8 minutes between train connections at strange stations), and it's really hard now.  One can make these tight connections because trains in Japan are extremely punctual. Fortunately, those times of squeezing every sight into our time in Japan are, for the most part, a thing of the past. I plan longer "layovers," in between train legs. Must be getting old.

We arrive and it's no time before I get my bearings at Kyoto Station.  This is like our second home base, behind Tokyo Station. It was raining quite heavily, so after we check into the Royal Daiwa just across the street from the station, we decide to just go to Kyoto Station and amuse ourselves.  We could spend days just roaming around train stations. We had trouble deciding on dinner, so we just ended up getting substandard (by our standards) ramen at the Kyoto Station Ramen Street on 10F. This floor used to be crazy crowded but it was practically empty that Friday night.  I'm not certain why.

I had not planned any Kyoto activities beforehand. We agree that we must go to Nishiki Market, and many stores are closed on Sundays, so Saturday has to have Nishiki as our main activity. Subway to Nishiki after breakfast.

No, we're not in Paris.  There are sooo many really nice bakeries in Japan.  You really cannot go wrong purchasing baked goods for a quick breakfast.

The other thing that Japan has is great coffee.  However, they don't have decaf.  Nowhere is decaf found.  I often have trouble sleeping if I drink coffee too late in the day, but somehow, in Japan, I can have coffee in the late afternoon, and still sleep soundly.

One of my absolute favorite things to have in Japan is Ice Coffee from a 7-Eleven.  It tastes sooo good! This is the procedure.  You go into the combini (it's basically the same procedure at Family Mart, Lawson, or any combini), go to the frozen food area, and purchase a plastic cup of ice that is labelled アイスコーヒー.  That says Aisu Kohi.  Sometimes, it says カフェラテ along with アイスコーヒー.   That's Cafe Latte. It's a multipurpose cup of ice. In that case, you have to tell the cashier you want ice coffee, which is a bit cheaper.  It should run you about ¥150 to ¥200 for a "large." Then you take the cup to the front of the store, open the cup, add sugar and cream, and put it in the multi function coffee machine.  Nowadays, there are English instructions in most combinis.  Just press a button, the machine freshly grinds coffee beans and brews/dispenses the coffee. You have a delicious ice coffee!  I haven't looked but I'm willing to bet money that there is a detailed youtube video outlining the steps.

At Nishiki Market, it used to be uncool to eat "on the street." However, I believe that those "in control" have given up, since there are so many tourists eating while walking.  We add to the problem, by getting a bunch of foods, though we eat in an upstairs sitting area.

Tempura scallops and prawn

Grilled scallops and baby octopus

Unagi (fresh water eel)

I think that if we had only one dish, we would have just walked along with the crowd.

Nishiki Market has been around for centuries. There is even evidence that fresh fish was sold in that area as early as the 8th century!  It's had ups and downs but at the present time, there is a certain charm that isn't to be missed.  There's so much variety of food available there.  Crowds too, though!

Warabi matcha mochi (it's a more delicate mochi than sweet glutinous rice mochi).  It's a fern (fiddlehead) root starch, sweetened and flavored with matcha.  

Ice cream everywhere!

Sammie spies a 10 yen cheese pancake snack place (she actually thought these really cost ¥10) that is popular on social media.

We're stuffed with snacks for now so we are ok until dinner. Our group decided we wanted yakitori, so I eventually found a tablet yakitori place very close to Kyoto Station.  I finally have figured out Tabelog, Japan's Yelp.  There is an english web version, which I use on my phone.  There is a mobile version of Tabelog, but I use the standard view (I'm nearsighted anyway).  As I always do, I digress, but Tabelog is something useful to know.  Tori Kizoku is a bargain Yakitori joint, and the chicken is quite high quality.  And it's a chain, with a branch near Tokyo Station, which we go to later in the trip!  Crowded, so we know that the chicken is fresh.  

Oh, the mega beer is the same price as the regular, which I found out a bit too late!

The next day, Sunday, we decide to go to Kiyomizudera.  Actually, just the area around it, because it was so crowded...  We've been inside Kiyomizu several times already, so we really only wanted to stroll the streets around there. Kiyomizu is a must go to place in Kyoto, along with Kinkakuji. So many "must see's" in Kyoto.

First Chawan zaka, one of the streets leading to Kiyomizudera. Snacks!

Then to Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka.  We found a place with Mont Blanc desserts (it has ground chestnut puree extruded onto frozen matcha soft serve ice cream).

Walked to Asaka Shrine, and then through Gion to Choice, a vegan place that the others wanted to go to.  They were all disappointed; I think it was because they were just tired of the place, after having eaten there so many times before.  Disappointed, we walk all the way to Premarche Gelateria to get our fill of frozen dessert!  Many say it's the best Gelato in the world!

We have kaitenzushi at a familiar place in Asty in Kyoto Station.  Reliably excellent, and at a bargain price too!  We always say that the worst xyz-food in Japan is better than the best xyz-food in the USA (not that this is the worst kaitenzushi in Japan!).

Monday, we have a moderately long travel day, though we've had many longer days in the past.  Kyoto to Nikko, about 5 hours rail time.  

On all our previous trips, we'd never seen Mt Fuji, except from a plane going to Miyakojima. but the weather is clear this day, and I thought that this might be the day.  Mt Fuji is in between Kyoto and Tokyo. There are numerous tunnels through which our Shinkansen travels. Once in the target area (use your map app), I keep my eyes peeled.  All of a sudden we emerge from a tunnel and I see a huge imposing sight!  Remember that the seats on the West side of the train have the Fuji view (left side on the Kyoto to Tokyo ride, right side on the Tokyo to Kyoto ride).

A beautiful sight! Connie, Sam and Em are all amazed at how clearly we can see Fuji-san!

We get to Nikko early afternoon, and a short taxi ride gets us to our ryokan, the Okunoin Tokugawa Hotel. Our taxi driver was a talkative chap.  He was born in Nikko 72 years prior.  He hates living there, because it's boring.  I get it.  It's rural area. 

Our ryokan is pretty small, and off the beaten path.  I had reserved one of the larger rooms with a private bath and its own little pool (for visual only, it was about 6 inches deep). Nice and roomy.  Having a private outdoor bath is pure luxury, even if it is just "tap water."

I really enjoy the public bath, which has true hot spring water.  And the food at the ryokan is great.  We get two dinners and two breakfasts in our own little private dining room, which is ours for the duration of our stay. 

This ranks up there as one of the best Onsen Ryokans that we've stayed at, with great food, great service, great Onsen, and really nice atmosphere!

Good night!

Tuesday, we go to the touristy areas of Nikko.  Nikko is all about the Tokugawa clan.  Tokugawa Ieyasu is credited with unifying Japan after centuries of factious, and often violent, existence. This was in the early 1600's.  His son and grandson built the structures in Nikko 400 years ago in tribute to Ieyasu, who is entombed there. His family (the Tokugawa Shogunate) was in power until the mid 1800's. 

This is the Yomeimon, the most famous part of the Nikko complex. Intricate carvings covered with gold leaf and special mineral based paints.

The gate to Ieyasu's tomb is "guarded" by the sleeping cat

Famous monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil)

Shinkyo Bridge, said to have been built by two snakes for a Buddhist monk who wanted to cross the river.

We do see a fair amount of Cherry Blossoms in Nikko.  Nikko is at a higher elevation and latitude than Tokyo, so there are still blossoms to be seen.

Next post is part 3!