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.
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)
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???