Tokyo Sky Tree!

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Today is my birthday (yay!) so I’m looking forward to a special present I’m giving myself while in Japan, touring the newly built Tokyo Sky Tree!

11:00am JST

Headed out to 7-Eleven for a breakfast of onigiri and bottled tea which I leisurely consume in the nearby park. Breakfast at 7-Eleven might sound appalling but this is Japan, and onigiri and tea make an excellent breakfast.

12:30pm JST

I pick up a subway map and plot my way to Sky Tree… hey this is easy, I just take the Oeda line to Kisume-Shirakawa, connect to the Honzemon line and ride three stops to Oshiage Station and Sky Tree. My experience of the subway system from five years ago, and better understanding of the language, including kanji, are serving me well.

1:16pm JST

I enter the Tokyo Metro system at the Monzen Nakachou Station next to the Mister Donut. This is my first time on Tokyo Metro in five years!

1:30pm JST

I exit the Oshiage Station, walk out onto the plaza and am amuzed by the feeling of Deja Vu, entirely from watching NHK programs featuring this plaza beneath Sky Tree.

And there it is… after five years of waiting I finally get to see Tokyo Sky Tree in person!

Wow is that an impressive structure! The plaza is swarming with eager cell phones and point & shoot cameras blazing away. Sky Tree planners knew this was going to be a huge draw so they wisely built a huge shopping complex called “Solamachi” at the base of Sky Tree to cater to visitors.

They have a Totoro store!

2:00pm JST

Having a place to while away the hours is also important when waiting for your timed ticket slot. According to the current signage, assigned timed ticket holders are allowed entrance to Sky Tree some FOUR HOURS from now, which puts me in Sky Tree at 6:30 – 7:00, well after sunset.

My laid back birthday got a little too laid back.

Sadly, I decide to bail on testing the weight stresses of Sky Tree but also decide to rack up karma points by shopping for omiyage to give to my friends… shop shop shop shop…

3:54pm JST

It’s getting towards magic time and I feel like a snack, so I stop by the Taiyaki shop for red bean Taiyaki and soy milk cream filled Taiyaki…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiyaki

The information desk gives me directions (in Japanese) to the Starbucks where I buy a Venti Mint Green Tea. Armed with snacks and hot tea, I plant myself in a comfortable chair on a sunny landing looking out onto the sunset behind Sky Tree … along with a bunch of other old fogies snoozing in their chairs and couches. I guess this is what awaits me in my old age.

4:00pm JST

Munching on Taiyaki and sipping my piping hot green tea while watching the sun sink towards the horizon.

Watching rambunctious children and happy families swarm to the balcony outside to grab pictures of the sunset behind Sky Tree. The premium view, however, would actually be on the other side that captures the light of the setting sun.

4:30pm JST

Sunset and the magic hour arrives. The entire Solamachi complex, even down to the placement of the trees, feels like it was designed to accommodate Feng Shui and composition for a beautiful and dramatic view of Sky Tree.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for and I’m working the camera with paparazzi like fury.

5:15pm JST

The Sky Tree light show begins, a little at a time, starting with a violet colour that is compatible with the sunset. Oh man, someone put a lot of thought into even the most subtle details when Sky Tree was designed.

5:30pm JST

Time to head back to hotel. My friend Andrew just blew into town so if he isn’t sleeping off his flight into Japan, maybe we’ll have dinner at one of the old haunts in town.

On my way back to the subway, I note that this is a beautiful shopping space, large and with lots of family amenities. Like most of Japan, however, not enough space to sit and relax.

As I enter the B3 Oshiage Station I get the shake down for Y1000 from a bunch of feral children who need money to get home. I’ve already met The Prince of the Streets, now I feel like I’ve met The Prince of Thieves.

5:48pm JST

Studying the Honzamon line map, I’m wondering if the Chuo Rinkan Express stops at all the stations indicated despite the name “Express.”

A Japanese man approaches me and asks if I need help and I reply that I’m fine, I just like understanding the train system thoroughly. It turns out that he is a former train conductor and signal man so we discuss the subway and JR systems in both Tokyo and Kyoto.

He compliments me on my Japanese language skills.

[ First-Time Travelers Tip: It really only takes minimal language skills to get your intent across. Learn the basic vocabulary and grammar, and the Japanese will open up to you and at least see you as less of a burden to deal with! ]

6:30pm JST

Perfect execution navigating the subway back to Monzen Nakachou…

On the prowl in old Edo

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5:30pm JST

Time to prowl the old neighborhood in search of dinner. In the case of Monzen Nakachou, we’re talking Edo period old. The first change I notice is the new lawn ornament looming brightly over the Mifune Bashi Bridge: Tokyo Sky Tree towering in the distance and looking magnificent all lit up at night! I’ll bet they rack up quite the electric bill.

Little has changed in Monzen Nakachou in the past five years, although there are now two Lawson’s on Eitai-dori and one of them has actual groceries. There’s a Yoshinori on the corner across from the Star Dust and I had beef curry and rice with egg there tonight. Their take-out window rather livens the street up a bit at night too.

Mos Burger, Freshness Burger, Mister Donut and McDonalds are still right where I left them.

Bought vitamins at the kusuriya, across the street from Akifudado and stopped off at Family Mart for an incredibly evil chocolate and cream filled eclair. Wrapped up my walkies with a visit to the 7-Eleven.

There’s a cool breeze picking up like a storm on the seaside as I walk back to the hotel with my conbini treasures. This is very pleasant…

6:47pm JST

Just realized that, unless you like Pachinko, there’s really crap loads of nothing to do in Monzen Nakachou at night!

7:00pm JST

Finally, I’m hunkering down with that scary cream filled chocolate thing, a blackcurrant, raspberry and acerola drink, laundry and an NHK television program about Japanese steampunk and costuming! Here’s an artisan who creates beautiful art objects and jewelry with a steampunk flair, out of used tin cans.

1:30am JST

Laundry is finished and now it’s time for bed!

On to Tokyo!

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Normally this blog is about “First TIme” things, but today we’re going to start with “Last Day” things in Kyoto. Has it really been a full week in Japan? It seems like I just arrived!

9:45am JST

Although I am up early to watch the sunrise against a crystal clear sky, I have only now finished packing my clothes, video and photo gear for transport.

“Three pieces of luggage, camera bag, leather jacket”

10:00am JST

Before I check out of the hotel, I’m headed down to “Naka-u” for my last meal in Kyoto… and who cares about a reprieve from the governor when you’re chowing down on the best udon soup ever created!

11:45am JST

Dropped my keys off at the lobby desk, walked out the door, walked straight into a taxi (with automatic doors of course) and I’m entering Shinkansen ticketing within 15 minutes. Total faire for the cab ride was only Y800.

Purchased a “reserved regular” Shinkansen ticket to Tokyo but the train leaves the station in only five minutes! I’m rushing to the upper level Shinkansen platforms where my train awaits … only to be greeted by a closing door.

I watch forlorned as my Y1520 Shinkansen ticket pulls out of the station. Yes, I have just missed my train!

11:15am JST

Missed my train by mere seconds! Hand it to the Japanese, they keep those trains running on time, no matter what.

I ask one of the JR platform attendants what to do and he dismisses this as a non-problem, just queue up to car 3, 4 or 5 of the next train and take an unreserved seat. That seems like a fair compromise. I wait for the next Nozomi Shinkansen and it does have a few empty, unreserved seats (although not many). I now have a seat on a Nozomi bulet train to Tokyo.

11:33am JST

Aside from the linoleum flooring that graces the unreserved seating cars, and the ability to choose a specific seat, I see little or no difference between unreserved and reserved seating. Choice and different flooring is what a Y5500 reserved seat fee buys you.

If you desire a window seat because you like to photograph the landscape whizzing passed, you take your chances with unreserved seating, its first come first serve and this time I lost out on the window seat… no scenery photography.

In my future travels I think I’ll try unreserved seating again, especially at off-peak times.

[ First-Time Travelers Tip: Do you feel lucky punk? Then try unreserved seating for the transportation, not the amenities! ]

Something similar happened to me five years ago when I wanted a Shinkansen ticket from Kansai area to Tokyo and my JR Pass had expired. The only recourse was to purchase a ticket with cash but there were no reserved or green car seats available. Yup, I had to sit in the unreserved car with drunken businessmen and the linoleum floors.

[ First-TIme Travelers Tip: Crisis’ of any size are never welcomed but small crisis’ like this give you experience you can use later! ]

I just noticed the convenient flip down hooks at each seat, for hanging your umbrella or jacket, how clever!

1:00pm JST

Flying past towns and fields and mountains on a warm sunny lovely day! I don’t have much to do except enjoy the trip so I take a cat nap…

1:30pm JST

And a few minutes later we roll into Tokyo Station. Disembarking, I recognize the platform immediately as the platform I photographed five years ago on my last Shinkansen journey to Kyoto.

2:05pm JST

I deliberately make my way, to the Marunouchi South Exit and the new Tokyo Station renovations. Wow, the dome interior looks great! And the exterior rebuild is something else, like stepping back into the 1920’s!

I step outside and almost directly into a taxi with automatic doors.

2:10pm JST

Tokyo Station is actually quite close to my destination, across the Sumidagawa in Monzen Nakacho. Now we shall find out how much convenience costs. I’ve hoofed it through the Tokyo Metro system with luggage before and it is not a pretty sight. Door to door taxi service is far preferable!

2:25pm JST

We cross the Eitaibashi and look look look at Sky Tree over the Sumidagawa!

2:30pm JST

The taxi arrives at the hotel and I pay only Y1430, very reasonable considering the alternatives.

This hotel is really just a temporary place to sleep before I can pick up the keys to the apartment, where I’ll be living for the next month. The apartment is just 100 feet away from the hotel, making the transition a snap.

I’m a few hours early for checkin, so I check my luggage in the lobby and wander around the neighborhood a bit. Yes, as I suspected the Sunkus has been replaced by a Lawson’s.

It;s a strange feeling returning to this neighborhood after five years… and I never in my life imagined that I would be staying at this hotel which I’ve walked passed so many times before.

2:47

I found Sky Tree and man is it impressive! Very picturesque with the Mifune Bashi Bridge in the foreground. The fact that you can see it looming in the sky from this distance is impressive enough.

4:00

I check into my hotel room in Tokyo and it’s so small the door to the room, opens into the hallway… now that’s a closet!

Ponto-chou

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6:49pm JST

Getting a quick bite to eat at the udon restaurant down the street before heading out to Osaka for a night of … well who knows what. I have a simple, inexpensive bowl of udon but good lord is that udon good!

7:15pm JST

I arrive at Kyoto Station with time to kill, so I graze in the book store, and hey, they have Doraemon volumes 2 through 42!

7:30pm JST

I begin to stare at my cell phone, pretending to be popular and busy, as opposed to frightened and confused in a big city train station.

8:00pm JST

Eric arrives and we decide to head down to Ponto-chou, another of Kyoto’s geisha towns, for sushi and sake. This relieves me of worrying about catching that “last train” from Osaka before the rail system closes.

8:30pm JST

After much wanderage, we settle on a sushi restaurant, other than the one Eric originally had in mind. Apparently that restaurant has closed and been replaced by who knows what. What we’re ordering tonight:

Cold Sake: “Momo-No-Shizuku” and “Super Dry”

Maguro, Salmon, Unagi
Tora-Maguro and Tora-Salmon
Specialty Unagi Tempura
Conger Eel Tempura Style

[ First-Time Travelers Tip: Order two pieces for one by saying “Toro-Salmon Ichi Ni Mae” ]

10:30pm JST

We leave the sushi restaurant and are back on Kawaramachi-dori within five minutes. Instead of walking a half a dozen blocks, I hail a cab and am in the hotel in another five minutes for only Y650.

Toji Temple

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7:33am JST

What a lovely sunrise against a crystalline sky! I was too late to video tape the sunrise, but I did capture scenes of the Komagawa in the morning, and heron against the river. Also captured the early morning sounds of Kyoto on audio.

8:30am JST

Back at the hotel started loading this morning’s shoot onto the computer. Then headed to 7-Eleven to pick up some onigiri for breakfast, while the videos load and render.

10:00am JST

Packed and ready to role to today’s photo shoot: Toji Temple, home of the five story pagoda that is the tallest pagoda in Kyoto. Once again I exercise my new found super powers of bus navigation by purchasing a City Pass and catching the number 4 bus at Kawaramachi Matsubara headed to Sanjo.

Ah, the air is fresh and the warm sun under a blue sky feels so good, especially after the past few rainy days.

Here comes the number 207 bus, headed through Ponto-chou on its way to Toji Temple!

10:45am JST

We pass one of many large and impressive temple/shrines as we turn onto Karasuma dori (????) and head south to Toji.

11:26am JST

The Toji pagoda is directly ahead as the bus drops us off at the dates to Toji! You can enter the gates for free but entry to main area, including the five story pagoda is Y500. More impressive than the pagoda are the grounds and garden, and pond filled with monstrous prize winning koi!

12:00am JST

Huge koi the size of Hakuho!

1:30pm JST

Wind is really picking up, but a cool breeze in the hot sun is pleasant.

2:00pm JST

Walked through the Kodo Hall admiring the Buddha’s, guardian kings and bodisvavas (one of which I believe is the fearsome Enma Daiyo) brought to Japan by Kobo Daishi from China. Truly national treasures. Disposed of my loose change in the offering box appropriately and paid my respects to the deities.

4:00pm JST

Time to stop whipping this dead horse and go home.

4:25pm JST

Found a store right next to Toji Temple that apparently sells kokeshi dolls, at least they have a huge collection of them and these are OLD too. I wonder if they could help identify the maker and other details of my sister’s kokeshi. I catch the 207 bus as it loops around Kyoto and back to Kawaramachi Shijo.

5:06pm JST

It’s that time of day, the time when crows serenade us good and loud. I like the sound of crows.

Waiting for the number 4 bus, easy as pie

Another elderly person wants to help me with my bus schedule and etiquette. I think they see themselves as the local village elder, with plenty of knowledge and wisdom to bestow upon the young. Little do they know that I’m not far behind them…

5:20pm JST

Back at the hotel I’m loading the video and photography from the day’s shoot. Need to rest up for more fun in Osaka tonight.

Gion: Antique and Geisha District

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11:30am JST

Getting a late start this afternoon, so much so that housekeeping is pushing me out to get their job done. Think I’ll visit the Gion district, famous as Kyoto’s last old world enclave of geico, maiko, tea houses and antique dealers. Gion is conveniently located just Northeast of my hotel, allowing me to take the City Bus part of the way to Kawaramachi-Shijo and then walking East towards the river on Shijo-dori.

12:00noon JST

I haven’t eaten yet so I stop by the Matsuya shop just before crossing the river. Matsuya is a major restaurant chain serving beef bowl, donburi and curry dishes using a food “kippu” machine. I’m ordering the beef strips on rice with miso soup.

12:20pm JST

Oishii desu yo!

1:00pm JST

I’ve arrived at the Shijo-dori bridge and, despite the cloudy weather and the incipient rain, I have a lovely view of the Kamogawa to photograph. Crossing I find myself at the Keihan-Sanjo train station and the gateway to Gion!

1:30pm JST

I find the statue of legendary samurai Hikokuro Takayama, stop briefly to take his picture (I’m sure he won’t mind) and head towards Nawate-dori and the center of Gion. Gion is hard to miss, frankly, there’s signage everywhere reminding you of where to find this charming unspoiled section of town.

I walk along Nawate Street, peeking into antique shops along the way. This is pretty high end stuff which I really can’t afford to buy. One shop stocks real period pieces including hilts and parts from ancient katana. I found an exquisite pair of “seppa” sporting rampant tiger motifs in gold, but they also cost Y55万円, or Y550,000. As you might imagine that’s also a lot in American dollars. In fact most prices in these shops start with multiples of 万円 or Y10,000.

2:00pm JST

Turning left onto Shinmonzen-dori we find Edo period tea houses, once used by maiko and geico to entertain guests, preserved in their original state. I turn right and follow a narrow back street until I come to a Shinto shrine at the interseciton of Shinbashi-dori and Shirakawa-minami-dori. This part of town has been preserved as a little piece of Edo with its willow lined streets following the Shirakawa river though a town.

Walking further South we are suddenly plunged back into the 21st century at Shijo-dori, the big commercial street with souvenirs and things to buy galore.

3:30pm JST

Time to head back to Kawaramchi-Sanjo for something to eat. By this time, my dogs are barking and I don’t want to get caught in a sudden downpour, so instead of crossing the river on foot, I head to the local bus terminal near Keihan-Sanjo station. Might as well take the bus, I have a City Bus pass!

4:00pm JST

The return trip is shorter than the wait for the bus and so short I don’t really have time to sit down. I arrive at the Kawaramachi-Sanjo stop in less than five minutes.

4:25pm JST

Started buying stuff, before I have to leave town on Saturday. First purchases: a pair of lovely soy sauce dishes in the shape of fugu and a pair of chopstick holders in the shape of colorful koi, both from a folk crafts place. Fans and chopsticks are notoriously overpriced at these arcades.

4:30pm JST

Found the most wonderful furoshiki of all time in one of the street stores. Made the entire day worth it.

4:49 JST

Need to get off my feet and imbibe liquid refreshment, this time at the St-Marc Cafe where they don’t understand the word “decaf” so I drink green tea and eat cro, “choco cro” in this case. I feel so Bohemian, sipping on my hot tea and munching chocolate goodies at a little cafe table.

5:00pm JST

Searching for usable WiFi hot spots and not having any luck.

5:35pm JST

Back to the Shinyogoku arcade to explore more dark alley ways and stores! This time, I found one of the Shinto shrines where rubbing the head of a bronze seated cow is supposed to bring you prosperity. I remark that I think the cow has a smile on his face, probably from all the rubbing. Alright, I’m leaving.

6:14pm JST

Walked into a beef bowl place on Kawamachi-dori and stuffed my face on curry beef, soft boiled egg and rice for only Y640. The proprietors at even the dingiest hole in the wall will treat you like the emperor because its all about serving the customer!

7:00pm JST

Stopping off at Family Mart for night time snack and Match, walk back to the Shijo-Kawamachi bus stop and I’m on the number 4 bus and back to the hotel in ten minutes. This time no mistakes!

8:00pm JST

Kicking back with Match vitamin drink, a choco eclair and the NHK drama “Sarutobi III” while the day’s video and photography loads. I could get into this Edo period soap opera if only my language skills were better.

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