Ray and Traci, accompanied by Ray’s mother, decided to trade the gray gloomy skies of Seattle frequently encountered in March for identical weather 5,000 miles away in Tokyo, Japan. Since all have made multiple visits to the land of the rising sun, they planned a combination of day trips away from and exploration of some lesser known areas of Tokyo. Their Friday morning journey started with a short flight from Seattle to Vancouver BC, followed by a pleasant Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo. After the 10 hour flight arrived 30 minutes early, the travelers managed to catch an airport bus to their hotel without delay. Due to Saturday evening traffic, the bus ride took 2 hours and dropped the tired passengers off at the Grand Prince Takanawa in the Shinagawa area.
Ray had booked the Grand Prince hotel based on its location very close to the Shinagawa train station which is one of the two giant terminals giving direct access to Japan’s high speed trains, the Shinkansen. He and Traci also stayed at the nearby Shinagawa Prince hotel during their 2008 visit to Tokyo and enjoyed the location. The Grand Prince is the oldest of the four Prince hotels clustered together in Shinagawa, and has recently been renovated. The travelers found their rooms on the club floor quite spacious and modern, plus access to the club lounge was a great bonus with its combination of buffet breakfast and all day snacks and drinks.
On their first day (Sunday), the trio met up with a former classmate of Traci’s and his wife at Sarabeth’s, a restaurant in the Atre building adjacent to the Shinagawa train station. The brunch menu was mainly American, and all of the diners enjoyed their dishes – french toast, pancakes, spinach omelet, macaroni and cheese, and salad. From Shinagawa, the travelers went to Harajuku, a neighborhood known for young people and their fashions. Retail stores both big and small line the area – a retail alley on Takeshita Street attracted crowds looking for everything imaginable. After leaving Harajuku, Japan’s exclusive shopping district Ginza was next. Ray and Traci marveled at the size and elegance of department stores like Mitsukoshi. Not all retail catered to the ultra-rich though as a visit to Uniqlo’s 12 story flagship store revealed much more reasonable pricing. Amazon.com may be killing retail stores in the US, but the industry appears to be thriving in Japan. It is truly amazing how small stores often selling very similar items remain in business. Service has always been a top priority in many Japanese industries, and the cost of personal service may be headed in a collision course with cheaper pricing in web based stores. Still battling jet lag, the travelers returned to the Grand Prince. For dinner, Ray and Traci visited an alley of ramen shops near the Shinagawa train station. Ramen shops, like many casual restaurants are a marvel of efficiency serving lots of patrons in very small spaces. Diners begin by ordering and paying at an electronic kiosk then sitting down with meals rapidly delivered. One nice amenity at most restaurants (even the low end ramen shops) are bins that sit under chairs for handbags (and presumably coats). Ray and Traci retired for the evening after enjoying their ramen.
Monday started with Ray running from the Prince hotel along the Sumida River. He noted that Tokyo seems to be a relatively late starting society as streets were devoid of much traffic. Few joggers were encountered although in parks, more than one father was attempting to teach his child the fundamentals of baseball in the early morning hours. Running in the streets of Tokyo is somewhat challenging as the streets are not set up in a grid pattern, and the huge train stations serve as obstructions. Fortunately, Google Maps serves Tokyo well and proved invaluable during the trip. Many of the large US cell phone carriers now offer “unlimited daily plans” for travel abroad with a flat $10 daily fee for talk/text/data and Ray thought it was worth every penny!
After a fulfilling breakfast at the hotel, the trio decided to take a river boat down the Sumida river from Hinode pier to Asakusa. The boats serve as a somewhat scenic tour for visitors although the limitation of narration to the Japanese language limited the ability to appreciate the terrestrial highlights. Given the crowds usually encountered on the main trains in Tokyo, the 40 minute cruise on a mostly empty boat was a refreshing change. Besides the endless buildings lining the river, a collection of tents (presumably belonging to homeless residents) showed Seattle is not the only city having a housing crisis.
The cruise boat dropped passengers off at Asakusa which is near the Tokyo Skytree – a tower standing 2,080 feet, making it the second tallest structure in the world as of 2018. Asakusa is also the home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji.
From Senso-ji, the trio went to Kappabashi street which is the world’s mecca for kitchen enthusiasts. While American cooks (professional and otherwise) have few options for their kitchenware, Japanese have a neighborhood full of shops selling any conceivable tool for cooking and operating a restaurant. One of the most quirky items is plastic food which eateries all over the world use to model their dishes to prospective diners. At least half a dozen different stores sell plastic food models of every conceivable dish – one actually sells kits for customized models and teaches classes on how to create them!
The highlight of the visit was the Dolphin show performed periodically throughout the day. In the covered dome stadium, music & lighting effects highlighted the acrobatic abilities of the dolphins with their trainers and provided a very entertaining 12 minute show.
Tuesday brought rain and colder weather. The group decided to venture to Yokohama, a nearby city 20 minutes away from Tokyo on a train. After arriving, the first stop was at Landmark Tower, the second tallest building in Japan. Located near the harbor, the waterfront office tower/hotel/shoppingcomplex offered some incredible views from its 69th floor observation deck despite the cloudy weather. Unfortunately, Mount Fuji was obscured by the clouds. Across the street, a small amusement park stood open although very few patrons were present (due to the rainy cold weather and the fact that it was a school day.) Incredibly, a few hearty souls rode a river water slide despite the cold water soaking at the end. Ray’s group settled for a ride in a giant Ferris Wheel. The next stop was the Cup Noodle museum. Momofuku Ando founded the ubiquitous food company Nissin, by preparing ramen noodles for dry storage using hot oil – a trick which opened the way for his products Top Ramen and Cup Noodles.
The museum celebrated both the product as well as the journey of its founder. Inside, there was a replica of Ando’s home workshop where the process was invented as well as an informative video and various activities. In one room, visitors created a Cup Noodle by decorating a Cup Noodle container, choosing a soup flavor and dried toppings, and having it vacuum packed for a customized Cup Noodle to enjoy at home.
The group shared pork humbows. After returning to Shinagawa station take out food was purchased at the train station for dinner back at the hotel.
Wednesday brought even colder and wetter climate to Tokyo – temperatures fell in the mid 30s later in the day resulting in mixed rain and snow precipitation! The travelers decided to spend much of the day at Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science – a showcase of technology especially focusing on research endeavors into particle physics, space exploration, robotics and medicine. A surprisingly long ticket line already formed at Miraikan, taking 30 minutes to navigate before getting admission tickets – which were never checked or scanned on entry. Japan seems to operate more on the honor system than other places. On this day Japan had a national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day, which brought many more families than usual to the museum. One of the most popular attractions at Miraikan was the Honda robot Asimo who entertained the crowd with dancing and even singing.
Thursday brought the end of the rain and better temperatures, allowing outside tourism again. After breakfast, the visitors took the train to the Tokyo Station again, and walked to the Imperial Palace – home of Japan’s Emperor Akihito. Unfortunately, only limited tours of the grounds are available so photographs have a very limited view of the palace.
Friday’s plans called for a day trip to Kyoto, about 280 miles away from Tokyo. As with past trips to Japan, JR Passes (Japan Rail) were purchased from on-line agents prior to the trip, then vouchers were mailed to the travelers in Seattle and exchanged in Japan for the actual pass. The price of a 7 day pass was less than the trip to Kyoto, and it allows free access to JR trains including the high speed Shinkansen. Not all of the trains taken during the visit were JR trains, so sometimes Suica cards, the Japanese version of Seattle’s Orca transportation cards were required. Fortunately Google maps was quite useful at identifying the best trains and connections. The trio left on the 8:40 AM Shinkansen to Kyoto – travelers should note the Shinkansen are always on time, so don’t be late! Ray’s iPhone app showed a rather impressive speed (in miles per hour!) during the trip.
From Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama Monkey Park was the next stop. Over 170 Japanese macaque monkeys live in the wild life preserve. After a 20 minute hike up to the top of the mountain, visitors are treated to some amazing views of Kyoto and large numbers of monkeys. The creatures are very docile and for the most part, behave as if the humans were not there. Visitors are allowed to purchase peanuts, apples and bananas to feed the monkeys – they readily pick the food right out of human hands. Bamboo forests surround the mountain top so the monkeys have ample natural habitat to enjoy.
Their visit rapidly drawing to a close, Saturday brought out great weather and blooming of sakura, Japanese Cherry Blossoms. Sakura play an important role in Japanese culture, and many festivals mark the blossoming which for Tokyo, usually takes place in late March. The beautiful flowers bring out huge crowds and make parks highly congested.
Sunday brought a conclusion to their Japan experience. Brilliant sunshine highlighted the blooming Sakura and the temperatures hovered in the 50s. Ray found an excellent running path following what appeared to be a single lane alley called Ryu Tokaido to a covered outdoor mall area Tachiaigawa. In the alley, many unlocked bicycles were parked along the road – although it didn’t look like any were expensive road bikes.
Before heading to the airport, Ray and Traci took the train to the Ebisu station and joined thousands of sakura viewers along the Meguro river.
Many of the major parks in Japan were packed with people enjoying the annual cherry blossom blooming which unfortunately lasts a short period of time. The Meguro river was lined with beautiful sakura trees as well as many pop up refreshment vendors serving the large crowds. Fortunately, the weather cooperated allowing Ray and Traci a final sunny day in Japan. With the conclusion of their trip, Ray and Traci returned to the hotel and joined Ray’s mother on the airport bus ride followed by a long but peaceful flight back to Seattle.