Joey Goes Tokyo: Week 1
Join Joe as he ventures into the land of the rising for the ultimate in otaku fun!
Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to do what most anime fans dream of, and thatís travel to Japan. I spent ten and a half days in Japan traveling, seeing the sights, and experiencing the way of life, and now Iím here to tell you all about it and hopefully give some helpful advice for anyone else interested in this wonderful experience.
Even before watching anime, I was interested in Japanese culture, but after years of anime viewing, the history and culture of Japan fascinated me even more. I started asking myself little questions, such as what exactly was the Meiji era like, which plays such a huge role in Kenshin, where is that huge Farris wheel thatís in the first Inu-Yasha opening, and does the country's population consist of ninety-five percent school girls? After my experiences in Japan, I was able to find some answers to these and many more questions that I had, as well as discover new experiences, as for the first time I spent time in a lifestyle that was entirely different than mine.
My trip was from June second to the thirteenth, but planning for it started back in February. I guess my first piece of advice is an obvious one: plan ahead. It becomes easier to book hotels and airfare. You can get cheaper plane tickets the closer you buy them to departure, but then you run the risk of not getting the flight you might need, and since I went with my brother, we wanted two seats right next to each other. These are just a few things to keep in mind. The total cost of my trip, including airfare, hotel reservations, two tours, a week-long Japan rail pass, and spending cash was roughly $2,800. I booked my trip through a travel agency, which made things a lot easier. For first time travelers, Iíd recommend this, but for seasoned travelers, you might want the freedom to plan the trip as you see fit. The total cost of $2,800 was actually quite cheap, and one of the reasons why was because this is an off-season time. Expect higher prices and more difficulty in arrangements when trying to go in early April (the peak of the cherry blossom season) and August (a month with many important and popular festivals).
June came around before I even knew it. I was all packed and ready to go. The flight was exactly thirteen hours and four minutes. In a coach seat, it wasnít the most comfortable thirteen hours of my life, but it was completely worth it, knowing what I was in store for. I left American soil on the second of June at 11:10 AM EST, and arrived in Japan on the third at a little after 1:00 PM. From there, it was a little over an hour bus ride to the Shinagawa Prince hotel.
One thing that you will likely notice right away in Japan thatís a huge plus is that the country is very English friendly. Many signs will have English on them, and for someone like me who only knew roughly six words of Japanese, I was able to get by without any serious problems. A lot of restaurants also have English language menus (although if you see some tiny little mom and pop yakitori place, donít expect one there), but pictures and plastic displays outside of the restaurants help to make ordering easy. All the big and even all the small tourist sites will most likely have English handouts for you. However, it would be best to know just a few simple words of Japanese. If you can say, "excuse me," "where is...," "thank you," "yes," "no," "water," "please," some of your favorite foods (I learned chicken and green onion very fast, because it was my favorite yakitori combo) and basic directions, such as "left," "right" and "straight," youíll be fine.
By the time my brother and I got ourselves all squared away in the hotel, it was a little after 4:00 PM. There wasnít much time left in the day, but I didnít want to just spend it in my hotel room. I wanted to just jump right in to experience the culture of Japan and how it differs from America, and I thought that a great way to do that was to see a baseball game. With the lack of light (there's no daylight savings time in Japan), and the day already halfway over, going to an evening baseball game was a great way to spend the first night. I just have to plug this as much as I can. Whatever you do, please go to a baseball game! Buy a ticket on the home side of the outfield bleachers, pick yourself up a pair of thunder sticks, grab a bento box from a vender, and chant away with the crowd. This is truly a great way to throw yourself into the culture, and for sports fans to see the difference. You think fans here get into the games, well, fans in Japan cheer the ENTIRE time that their team is up to bat, and they have chants for all the players, as well as songs for every hit and run scored. I was lucky enough to see the Swallows umbrella dance after they scored a run. After the game, we went back to the hotel, got some drinks from the many vending machines, watched a little Japanese TV and went to bed. After being up for thirty hours straight, I was ready for some sleep. Donít ever worry about being thirsty, because as youíve probably heard, there are vending machines EVERYWHERE. You wonít go more then five minutes tops without seeing one.
The second day started off early. I got up at 7:30 AM to make the tour I had scheduled at 8:05 AM. I feel I should stop and just give the pros and cons of the tour. Personally, I would highly recommend the tour, especially for first timers. Itís a great way to see a lot of the major sites in a relatively short amount of time. You donít have to worry about travel, since they provide the bus and admission for the stop locations, since youíve already paid for the tour. On the negative side, they can feel a bit rushed, so for anyone that really hates being rushed, even if itís only a little bit rushed, you might not enjoy the tour quite as much. Iíd still say that itís well worth it. My tour of Tokyo took me to the Meiji Shrine (remember that a Shinto shrine is the equivalent of a Buddhist temple); the Imperial Palace garden; Asakusa for the Makamise Dori, a famous street with many small open-air shops; the Sensoji Temple; and lastly, Ginza. This was a great tour that hit three of the most important locations in all of Tokyo, and dropping us off in Ginza was great, because itís basically the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo; a very nice high class shopping area.
My brother and I grabbed lunch at Gonpachi, which served a variety of Japanese food. The best part was walking by the Mexican restaurant, with the man standing outside of it dressed up as a cowboy to greet people who walked by. Youíll notice this A LOT. There are people everywhere whoís only job seems to be to greet you. One of the best things about Japan shined through on our walk to Gonpachi, and thatís just how incredibly nice everyone is. We asked someone for directions, and he took us into the store where he worked and went to Gonpachiís website to print off directions for us. Donít ever be afraid of asking someone for help, because every time I had to ask someone a question or for help, they were as nice as someone could possibly be. Make sure that you bring a small gift to give to people who help you out; itís a nice token of appreciation, since everyone there will do their best to help you. I brought Airheads and Nerds candy, and tiny American flag stickers, but everyone loved them.
In the afternoon, we hit up Shinjuku, but unfortunately, it was raining pretty heavy for the first half of our time there. We went to East Shinjuku, which is like the Times Square of Tokyo. You have lots of shopping, bars, restaurants, and arcades. Most of stores in East Shinjuku are easy to spot, with huge neon-colored bright signs. While in Shinjuku, I was able to play the Initial D 3rd Stage arcade game, which was a goal of mine before coming to Japan, and we had dinner at Tsunahachi, a tempura restaurant. This was the largest branch of this well-known tempura chain with over forty outlets.
Though itís almost impossible to pick a favorite day, this one was certainly one of the best. We started off at a location that everyone who goes to Japan should try and hit, and thatís Harajuku on a Sunday. Right outside of the train station is an area where teenagers will gather together to basically stand around all day, dressed up in some very elaborate costumes. If you think cosplaying here is a sight, wait until you go to Harajuku and see people just doing it outside on a busy Sunday afternoon. When you can see women dressed up in kimonos walking right by these kids, you get to witness the generational gap at itís most extreme. Right by this group of kids was the Tokyo Rockabilly Club. You donít need to re-read that, because itís exactly what you think it is. The Tokyo Rockabilly Club was just a group of Japanese men dressed up as 50ís greasers, dancing to everything from Pat Benitar to American 50ís music, certainly a sight to see.
From here, I went to the Iris Garden, located right in the Meiji Shrine area. Even though the flowers werenít in full bloom, it was still a gorgeous place. From there, I went to perhaps the coolest place out of my entire trip that any anime fan would go crazy for: the Japanese Sword Museum. It was in a little out-of-the-way place in a residential section of Harajuku, about fifteen minutes walking from the Meiji Shrine. They had an impressive collection of swords, as well as English handouts to learn more about them. Iíd strongly suggest checking this place out.
Following a sinful shopping spree at Kiddy Land was lunch at a conveyer belt sushi restaurant. This concluded an afternoon that ran the full gambit of Japanese culture. Iíd recommend trying the crab and horse mackerel that was kindly recommended to me by my tour guide, and my brother really enjoyed the eel.
The day concluded with one of the best finds in all of Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building located in West Shinjuku. Unlike the Tokyo Tower, this place is free to enter and offers just as good, if not a better view, and for anyone traveling around with a significant other, itís an incredible date spot, as you could clearly see from the number of couples enjoying the spectacular view.
Before going to bed, I had to try out the Lupin the 3rd arcade game. My brother and I were able to make it to the last level, but lost. Even with that disappointing loss, it was still an incredible day.
The fourth day was one of my two traveling days. On that day, I went from Tokyo to Kyoto, getting to enjoy the bullet train and see one more example of just how amazing Japanís public transportation system is. As soon as I entered Kyoto, one thing stood out besides how beautiful the city is, and thatís the massive swarms of Japanese school children on class trips. You get to witness busload after busload coming in, and a lot of the kids enjoy saying hi to the westerners.
I arrived in Kyoto a little after 10:00 AM. Right after checking into the hotel, I got immediately on a train and headed to Nara as to not waste any time. If you only have a limited time in Japan and want to see the most important locations, donít forget Nara. Although it is not as well known to us foreigners, Nara is an extremely important city for anyone in Japan. In Nara, I was able to see a famous five-story pagoda on my way to the Todaiji Temple, home of the largest Buddha statue in all of Japan. Itís a popular spot for class trips, and one of the more impressive sites that youíll see. I mean, this Buddha is enormous, and more often then not during my time in Japan, I was in awe of the temples and shrines, and just wondered how they were able to make such impressive buildings, statues and gardens. This is also the location of a famous age-old myth in Japan.
One of the pillars supporting the temple has a hole in it and itís said that if you can crawl through it youíll have good luck for life or good health; something close to that. However, only the grade school children on class trips were going through it. I remember one child in particular making it through the hole and celebrating with a joyous pelvic thrust.
On your way to Todaiji Temple, youíll walk through the well-known Nara Deer Park. Now where I live, deer are as common as people, so it didnít seem too special, but where Iím from, the deer also donít let them pet you, so that was quite interesting.
This was my first full day in Kyoto, and probably the most visually stunning day. I went on another great tour that hit a lot of the major spots, including the Nijo Castle, Golden Pavilion, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangendo Temple, and the Kiyomizudera Temple.
The Nijo Castle has a beautiful garden, and the castle itself was beautiful, with magnificent paintings and cravens. This castle could actually be best known for its floors, which were designed to squeak when stepped on to prevent assassination attempts. Lined in gold, the Golden Pavilion earns its name, and it was the next stop on the tour. When you actually get to see it in the sunlight, itís simply amazing. Continuing along on the tour, I got to see the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Heian Shrine. What stood out about the Imperial Palace was just how large it was, and the best part of the Heian Shrine was the garden behind it. One of my favorite things about Japan was all of the gardens that I was able to see, and the Heian Shrine might have housed my favorite out of all of them.
Even though everything I mentioned above looked amazing, the most visually spectacular thing that I saw during my time in Japan was the Sanjusangendo Temple, which houses 1001 statues of Kannon. It is Japanís longest wooden structure at over 100 meters long. As soon as you walk in, you look down this long hallway and just see statue after statue of Kannon along with a large Buddha in the middle. Statues of many of the major Buddhist deities are in the front, and Buddha is flanked by statues of the god of wind and the god of thunder, whom you see quite often in Japan.
In the middle of the tour, we were able to grab a buffet dinner at the famous Kyoto Crafts Center. This is a great one-stop shopping center. Give yourself easily an hour in here to look around at all of the goods they have. In case you werenít sure what to get people back home, come here and you can easily find something for everyone.
To end the tour, we went to the Kiyomizudera Temple, which is placed perfectly on a mountain side. It created a beautiful setting for the evening. I was able to try some green tea ice cream, which is extremely popular. You will notice giant green tea ice cream cones outside of a lot of stores. I personally was not a big fan of the ice cream, but fans of green tea will love how Japan offers green tea in everything. Green tea is a dessert flavor that you will come across a lot. We ended the day with a meal at my favorite kind of restaurant, one that serves yakitori. It had a nice view of the city at night, and it was certainly a great ending to a great day.
In our next issue, I will finish up with what I did during my remaining time in Kyoto, and my last four days back in Tokyo.