Jun 2018: Japan – Trip Report

Photos

Statue of Benkei in Ningyocho, Tokyo

Background

In Kagurazaka, Tokyo

I loved my time last year in Japan. When discussions came up about another trip for work, I was hoping to be able to be one of the people to go. While I wasn’t expecting to, it turned out (for various reasons) I got to be the “senior” person along with one of my UK colleagues. Suzanne still wasn’t able to make it, especially as it would be during Kyle’s final week of school. Instead, I offered my mom the opportunity to join me which she jumped at. The work week was scheduled for the last week in June, which worked out as it wasn’t quite so hot as last time. (In fact, if we had gone the same time as I went in 2017, it would have been nearly 100 degrees and we would have been hit by a massive typhoon.) For this trip, we flew over the week before my work week as I felt this would help my mom get a bit adjusted before having some time on her own. This ended up working out well, especially as I ended up starting a new job just after we returned. As it was my mom’s first trip, we decided to redo some of the highlights which I did last year, spending several days in Kyoto, a night in Kanazawa, which was new to me, and then a bit over a week in Tokyo, for most of which I would be working.

In terms of preparation, I did put together a few things but had a good handle from my last trip. For this trip, I did watch a lot of Youtube videos which was quite helpful and, often, entertaining. I especially liked Paolo from Tokyo, TabiEats, and Begin Japanology (a whole series of videos on various cultural topics produced by the Japanese national broadcaster NHK). I also tried to learn a bit of Japanese using Duolingo which worked okay for Italian a while back but I didn’t have good luck with it. It starts with hiragana (one of the phonetic alphabets) but I just couldn’t remember it. (By the end of the trip I did learn 5 or 6 characters, including the two that make up the word sushi.)

Itinerary

Fri 15-Jun-2018

Waiting at Newark Airport

To make travel a bit easier, my mom flew up the day before. It worked out well as she got a really good deal on airfare (Southwest) and got to see Kyle and Suzanne. This way she could fly over with me from Newark. (We then flew back from Tokyo to Atlanta on the same flight, at which point I went back to Newark and she went on to Tampa.) As it’s a long trip, we left the house at 4am for a 6:15 flight to Minneapolis. We even had a bit of time to hang out in the lounge before the flight. While we were a hour or so late into Minneapolis, we had a long enough layover to have no issues, still having a couple of hours to kill in the lounge. The flight to Tokyo was as fine as a 12 hour flight can be. I was lucky as I was in Comfort+ due to to status but couldn’t get my mom upgraded.

Sat 16-Jun-2018

We arrived in Tokyo a bit early. Immigration and customs was quick and painless. While we were going to head straight to Kyoto, we did have to do a few “errands” at the airport before hopping the train. We dropped off our checked bags to ship to Kyoto via Takuhaibin, which, at around $30 for both bags, was a great value to not have to haul them on the train. It does take overnight, but we had each packed a night bag to take out of our big bag before sending them along. We also go some cash and exchanged our JR Passes before heading to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo and then on to Kyoto.

The ride down was fine, though I did doze a bit. We ended up having to change hotels in Kyoto as the original one, where I stayed last year, had only booked one room instead of two. They let us know Friday morning and made the change which was fine. We ended up at the Daiwa Roynet Kyoto-Shijokarasuma. After 26 hours of travel, we had a quick dinner at a so-so ramen place by the hotel and crashed for the night.

Sun 17-Jun-2018

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

After a good night’s sleep, we headed out to the Arashiyama district in western Kyoto. The trip there involved an historic streetcar which was kind of cool. This was new to me so was interesting to see. After a wander through the famous Bamboo Forest, we visited a few  temples, Jojakkoji, Nison-in, and then Seiryo-ji, all very nice and quite peaceful. We wandered back toward the Arashiyama station. We were glad to have arrived somewhat early as this area was very busy now. Before heading back to the city, we visited the wonderful Tenryuji temple and its gardens.

Back in “downtown” Kyoto, we did a wander through the Nishiki market before having some great ramen at Gogyo. (I had burnt miso and my mom had burnt soy sauce.) After lunch, we finished our wander through the market and headed over to Gion. I was hoping to hit Kennin-ji in Gion and their wonderful dragon ceiling but we decided we were beat and headed back to the hotel. After a rest, we headed out for a so-so dinner at some Spanish steak place.

Mon 18-Jun-2018

Nijo Castle

Our first stop this morning was Fushimi-Inari shrine, famous for its trail up the mountain lined with 1000s or Torii gates. I had been last year and it was a true highlight so was excited to go back. We didn’t hike the whole mountain, which would have taken couple of hours and involved lots of steps, but did spend a while there. Our plan had been to hop the train and continue to Nara but that changed. As we had gotten off the train to visit the shrine, an earthquake had hit. We didn’t think much of it as it didn’t seem that strong. However, it turned out more serious than we thought as it was a magnitude 5.9 only 15 or so miles away. Several people were killed by falling walls or furniture close to the epicenter and there was some damage in Osaka. Part of the response was that the trains were all shut down for track inspections. We ended up walking a bit to get a packed bus to the train station. From there, we were able to catch the subway to Nijo Castle. After lunch, we had a nice visit to the castle. I had not been there before so it was cool to see. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow photos inside but the surrounding gardens were nice as well

After a break at the hotel, we headed back out to Gion to wander the back streets. We also visit Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park before heading back into town for a great dinner of okonomiyaki at Donguri.

Tues 19-Jun-2018

Mom tasting sake

Today was our day for Nara. After breakfast at the hotel, which was nice as it was a buffet and we tried some unusual-for-us things, we hoped the subway and then the train to Nara. In Nara we visited Todai-Ji temple, home of the Great Buddha, which was cool to see again, before wandering around a bit. We did make it the Harushika Sake Brewery were we did a tasting of 5 sakes (and 5 pickles) for ¥500 (a bit under $5). After a lunch of pizza a cafe (so-so), we hopped the train back to Kyoto. While I spent a lot more time in Nara (and did a lot more walking) in 2017, it was cool to go back and see it again. Besides, we timed it just right as it started to rain as we got to the station in Nara. For dinner, we hit a yakitori bar. I though it was okay but my mom wasn’t impressed.

Wed 20-Jun-2018

At Kenrokuen Garden

We picked a good day to leave Kyoto as it was pouring in the morning (and Kyoto is very much an outdoor city in terms of tourism). After checking our bags for transport back to Tokyo, we grabbed some breakfast and headed for the train to Kanazawa. This is in Western Japan and was somewhere I hadn’t been. It was about 2.5 hours. After dropping our night bags at the hotel (Dormy Inn), we headed out the great Omicho Market before wandering though the castle park and the castle grounds themselves.We then headed for lunch which was tough to find as there wasn’t much right around. We ended up having sushi at a place that sold local food and crafts. It was the first time my mom had sushi and it wasn’t really her thing. I thought it was okay aside from the whelk (really tough). The food market downstairs was great and I was able to get something as a gift for our agent.

Next up was a visit to the Kenrokuen Garden, considered by many to be one of, if not the, top garden in all of Japan. It was quite impressive. As we finished up there, the rain started so we hopped a taxi back to the hotel. (It wasn’t too expensive and worth it to stay dry.) After a break, we headed across the street to the mall for a dinner of tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork) at Tomikinton.

Thur 21-Jun-2018

In Ikebukuro

After checkout and a breakfast at a bakery at the station, we hopped the train for the 3 hour ride back to Tokyo. After dropping our bags at the hotel (Tokyu Stay Ikebukuro – I stayed there in 2017 as well) and a quick lunch at Mos Burger, we headed out to Shibuya to get tickets for Disney the next day. We wandered around the district a bit, seeing the famous Shibuya Crossing. We headed back to the hotel for a break (and to toss in some laundry – the rooms have washer/dryers). For dinner, it turned out there was a branch of the Hanamaru Udon right by the hotel (in the Echika “mall”/Fukutoshin line Metro station). I had hoped to eat at the one in Shibuya for lunch so it worked out well.

Fri 22-Jun-2018

Mom at DisneySea

This was our Disney day. It turns out there is a bus that leaves from Ikebukuro station which worked wonderfully. The drive was about an hour and we arrived about 8:30 for a 9:00 opening. The day was okay. It turns out that two of the big rides were down, Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I knew about) and Toy Story, which made the other rides much busier. We did hit Tower of Terror (the one in Florida is better), Indiana Jones, and (just me) Raging Spirits roller coaster. We did a lot of a walking as well. As we were getting ready to leave, we did end up doing Aquatopia which was pretty cool and there’s nothing similar in Florida. (I had though the line was wickedly long but that was for the Nemo ride. I had also thought we might get very wet but that’s only in the summer.) We ended up being done by around 2:30. It turns out, the bus back to Ikebukuro doesn’t run in the middle of the day so we hopped the train to Tokyo station where we picked up the Yamanote line back to Ikebukuro. This was also good as my mom could get an idea of the trains in Tokyo. For dinner, we headed out to Ichiran Ramen which was really good (might have to check out the NYC location) though my mom thought the ordering, etc., was a bit weird.

Sat 23-Jun-2018

Ningyoyaki sweets shop in Ningyocho

After breakfast, we headed out to Ningyocho for our Airbnb Experience Japanese Sweets Walk. This was a great couple of hours walking through the neighborhood with a local, sampling some Japanese sweets, some freshly made, and visiting some temples/shrines. While in the area, we stopped by the main store for Mitsukoshi (oldest department store in Japan and main branch of the store at the Japan pavilion in Epcot) before grabbing some burgers for a late lunch near the hotel. For dinner, we ended up at a tempura place in the Seibu department store which was great. (Many department stores have a bunch of good quality restaurants, something I didn’t take enough advantage of last time.)

Sun 24-Jun-2018

Street vendor in Sugamo

This was our day with our guide from Tokyo Free Guide. This is a great service which connects you to a personal guide in Tokyo, with whom you create a plan for the day. They meet you at your hotel and take around for the day. The only charge is the guide’s expenses, transport, lunch etc. It’s is wonderful. Our guide was Yuka, a professor of law at one of the Tokyo universities. We started in Sugamo, wandering though the monthly shopping event and then wandered over through Kagurazaka. Here, we had a great lunch of okonomiyaki at a small local place. We then headed for a wander around Yanaka, including a visit to the wonderful Nezu Shrine (which has it’s own small section of gates as at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto). Dinner was at Beer Saurus (pricey and so-so).

Mon 25-Jun-2018 — Fri 29-Jun-2018

Mom at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

This was my work week so I’ll be a little briefer. Monday was a day at our agent’s office to go over our talks and logistics. Tuesday was a long day with two site visits, including one starting at 4pm. Wed was another site visit followed by a trip to Niigata where we (my colleague, our agent, and I) spent the night. Our agent took us for a phenomenally good meal there were we had Fugu and snails among other things. On Thursday, I gave a talk at the Protein Society of Japan meeting which went over well. We headed back to Tokyo that night, meeting up with my mom for a great “cook at our table” meal in the biergarten on the roof of one of the department stores. Friday was a final wrap-up day at our agent’s office. We all met for a very formal dinner with some excellent food that evening as a final send off.

While I was working, my mom did do some stuff on her own. She spent most of Monday shopping near the hotel. (There were four huge department stores attached to the train station.) Tuesday, she ventured out on her own to Asakusa. Wednesday and Thursday, she had her own free guide from TFG. On Wed, they headed up to Kamakura which seemed really cool (and I was a bit jealous not to have been able to go). Thursday, they spent in Tokyo seeing Meiji Shrine and Sibuya among other things.

Sat 30-Jun-2018

Train between Kyoto and Kanazawa

This was our day to head home. I spent some time doing a bit of shopping in the morning. I also got our tickets for the Narita Express train. We checked out just before 11 and headed to Ikebukuro Station for the 90 minute or so trip to the airport. It was a fine ride. Once there, we made it though security and exit control quickly, spending most of our Yen cash at one of the gift shops. After hanging out in the lounge for a while, we boarded the plane for the 12 hour flight back to Atlanta. We actually arrived a bit early. Immigration, customs, and security was quick. I used my Global Entry and had just gotten our bags when my mom got through. There wasn’t even much of a line for the recheck security. Here it worked out well as my mom’s flight, which left about an hour before mine, was at the gate next to mine. We spent one last bit of time in the lounge before we each headed off our separate ways to head home. I actually arrived back in Newark ahead of schedule and was home by 9:30pm.

Summary

All in all it was a good trip. It was helpful to have been there before as I sort of knew the “lay of the land” and felt a lot more comfortable. While I did see some stuff from the last year, I did get to see some new things and visit some new places as well. As before, the JR Rail Pass (purchased from Japan Rail Pass.com) and the mobile wi-fi hotspot (from Global Advanced Communication as before) worked out really well. Eating was still a bit tricky, especially for my mom, but I felt more prepared and thing it was better this time. Traveling together to Japan worked really well and otherwise coordination could have been tricky. I still can’t recommend the luggage transfer service enough. It was so nice not to have to worry about large bags on the train to Kyoto and to Tokyo. My  summary comments from last year still stand.

In Kamakura