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.

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