Tokyo to Manila, Day 10: Easy Saturday morning

It was our last day in Japan. Although our flight was still at around 7 pm, we didn’t want to be running around Tokyo, trying to cross off things we didn’t get to do in my almost-forgotten itinerary. Like the day before, we just wanted to take it easy. Since we hadn’t explored the side of Sumida Park near our hostel, we decided it would be a good idea to go there and cap off our trip during sakura season with a last round of cherry blossom viewing.

We walked to the riverside park, where the cherry-tree lined pathway already had food stalls, low makeshift tables and mats set up (no blue sheets for this crowd) and families starting their hanami. Those who were not lucky enough to get those prime spots, contented themselves with eating their lunch overlooking the river. We followed suit after buying some yakitori, chicken karaage and yakisoba, which were all sooooo good. My mouth waters just looking at the pictures again. (Now that I think about it, it should be part of My top 10 Japanese eats; maybe dislodge number 9 or 10).

While we feasted on our humble hanami spread, we watched Sumida River cruises filled with tourists pass by, a yacht with a family having their own (I imagine, not so humble) feast, and—the surreal sight for the day—an airship gliding across the sky.

Welcome to another hanami. Families enjoying the hanami festivities at Sumida Park

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Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum

On the ninth day, we had originally planned to head over to the Ghibli Museum. We knew you have to book months ahead if you plan to go during the peak tourist season, which was when we were going. Purchase of the tickets can only be done at certain travel agencies in certain countries—the Philippines not included. This meant we had to ask someone in Japan to buy our tickets in a Lawson’s convenience store. So we did. Two months before we arrived. But by the time our friend headed over to Lawson’s to get the tickets, the only ones available were for sometime in May. My Studio Ghibli dreams were crushed. (But check out this one blogger who got to go.) Oh, but there remained a silver lining. We were still in Japan and it was a free day without anything planned. (Pardon the low-res photos, my net connection sucks so these are easier to upload.)

Bandai mothership calling

P had originally wanted to see the life-sized Gundam statue that was erected in Odaiba a year before. But it had been moved out of Tokyo and into Shizuoka. So when he spotted the Bandai logo on top of a building as we were about to cross the blue bridge over Sumida River, it was like the mother ship calling out to him. I have friends who’ve gone to Paris and who headed to the Eiffel Tower just by keeping it in its sight. (Not a recommended thing to do.) This is how we ended up across the street from what looked like the Bandai office building, where statues of Bandai characters lined the sidewalk—including Ultraman and Kamen Rider. P had a nerdgasm. We took an embarrassing amount of photos before going inside, where toys and more Bandai characters were in display on the ground floor.


Kamen Rider equals nerdgasm for P

Hello, Ultraman

My favorite sight inside the Bandai building--it's the sergeant!

Keroro toys, hmmm.

Of course we had to go inside. (Too bad you can't take pictures inside)

When we got out, it started raining. We were hungry and I was still craving for tapsilog (which is a Filipino breakfast consisting of tapa or cured salty beef, sinangag or fried rice and pritong itlog or sunny side-up egg) or any –silog for the matter. I didn’t want tea, miso soup, beef bowl, ramen or onigiri that morning. Without a Filipino restaurant in sight, we ended up in McDonald’s.

Then with our one-day Metro card (bundled with the limousine bus ticket we bought in Narita the day we arrived) and our JR Pass, we took the Ginza line from Asakusa to Ueno, then from Ueno we took the JR line to Harajuku. Yes, we were creatures of habit and Harajuku seemed to be a pretty straightforward and manageable area to explore for the day as Meiji-Jingu and Yoyogi Park were also just short walking distance from the station exit. (I just promised P we were not going to set foot in crowded Takeshita-dori again.)

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Kyoto to Tokyo, Day 8: A few days before going home

Waiting for our bullet train back to Tokyo

Four days in Kyoto was just too fast. While we got to see most of the places we wanted to go to being the dutiful tourists that we were, we didn’t get to simply wander around most of the areas (downtown Kyoto, Nanzen-ji, I know you still have so many little corners to be explored). I was in love with this city and it was time to break up. (Or at least engage in a long-distance love affair, which is sort of the whole point to these blog entries, really.) The plus side to leaving Kyoto was getting to ride the shinkansen again (this time I knew how to close the lock in the toilet to avoid anymore dreadful flashing incidents), and eating the bento lunch we bought at one of the glorious food stalls at the depachika of Isetan at Kyoto Station.

P's bento lunch in the shinkansen

I got chicken karaage with some kind of fish tempura, while P got chicken teriyaki. Both came with rice, some shredded cabbage, some tsukudani and those cute cut-up vegetables in a plastic bento. I thought, if we’re to judge a culture’s level of refinement by how it prepares take-out food, the Japanese will likely win hands down. The only downside to it—where do all those nice, little packaging go after we’re done with them. (A quick web search on Japan’s garbage situation would immediately lead to articles on its effective waste management and recycling process.)

When we got to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, we took the JR Yamanote line to Ueno (where we could still use our JR Pass, yay!), then the Ginza line to Asakusa. Considered one of the city’s few districts that retain the supposed vibe of the old Tokyo, Asakusa is also home to a number of affordable guesthouses and hostels—in one of which we got a room for our remaining two nights in Japan. Asakusa is also where you can find the popular Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, and the popular hanami spot of Sumida Park. So after P and I checked in and got settled in our room, we headed out.

Sumida Park

There’s always joy in trying to find your destination—unless you’re lugging a heavy baggage or your companion/the weather is miserable. That afternoon, our bags were stashed, the weather was fine, and P and I were happy to be back in Tokyo (even if it did mean saying goodbye to Kyoto) and to not have to wear four layers of clothing (only three this time). We got a bit lost on our way to Senso-ji, but ended up in Sumida Park, another popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. After a stroll in the park, we finally found Senso-ji.

Kaminarimon, entrance gate to Senso-ji

If I thought the number of tourists in the temples of Kyoto were a lot, standing in front of Senso-ji, by its large entrance gates (Kaminarimon), I realized we had stumbled upon the mother lode of Tokyo tourists—bus loads and boat loads (coming from the nearby river cruise). With the free admission and located right along a busy avenue, Senso-ji attracts multitudes and is considered the most popular of Tokyo’s temples. (The fact that it houses the golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, supposedly fished out of Sumida River in year 628, might also have something to do with it.) The crowd thickens even more past the first gate and into Nakamise-dōri, a shopping street of 250 meters lined with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies.

Even after only spending a week in Japan, a visit to its restaurants, marketplaces and shopping streets should clue you in that the country is big on rice and beans and all its byproducts. Like other Asian countries, rice figures heavily in its meals. Then there are its byproducts—sake (rice wine), mochi (rice cakes made of glutinous rice), and rice flour used to make dango, various wagashi (Japanese sweets) and crackers. And because of Japan’s rich Buddhist history, the bean or mame is also big. It’s the source of Japanese staples such as tofu, yuba (soy milk skin), miso, soy sauce and anko (sweet paste made from azuki beans).

Nakamise Shopping Street—so this is where all the Tokyo tourists are

At Nakamise Shopping Street, stalls selling snacks and boxes of local goodies seem to be only made up of those two things. There were rice crackers of different shapes and sizes and Japanese sweets (such as ningyoyaki) filled with red bean paste. (I admit, I originally thought the red-brown filling was chocolate, which prompted me to buy a bag to snack on.)

Want some rice crackers?

Homemade fried bean-jam bun

Japanese sweets such as ningyoyaki, which is pancake or waffle batter filled with red bean paste and cooked in a mold

After P and I got through the crowd of Nakamise (though not without losing each other at some point), we got to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. The crowd had thinned considerably and only then did we realize that the main hall of the temple was already closed for the day. We contentedly took photos of the five-storied pagoda next to it (no other tourists on the background!) and the less crowded Hozomon gate. It was closing time, after all.

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Tokyo to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)

Shibuya Crossing on a quiet and rainy Monday morning

Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)

Outside the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station

There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.

One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.

Hello, shinkansen!

At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.

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Tokyo, Day 4: Akihabara, geek heaven

In my list of things to do and experience in Japan—see the cherry blossoms, go to Studio Ghibli, see Tsukiji, cross the Shibuya intersection, see the cityscape of Tokyo, check the cos players in Harajuku, ride the bullet train, walk the streets of Akihabara, sing in a karaoke box, see a geisha, eat where and what the locals eat, and get my fill of beautiful temples, shrines and castles—getting pissed drunk and waking up with the worst hangover I’ve ever had was certainly not included. (Though I should have known it would be a consequence, what with the amount of things I wanted to do.)

Prediction from the night before: your head will feel like this after all that shōchū

Every time I would lift my head in an attempt to get out of bed sent me back to horizontal position as the room felt like it was spinning. The fact that we downed more shōchū after we left the dry noodle place the night before suddenly came back to me. C wanted to show us this tiny bar a few meters away called Bar Dr. FeelGood (the name of which I only remember because of the photos), where he also knew the owner—a tall, lanky, long-haired Japanese who also played in a band and tended the bar himself.

While the bar was dimly lit, you could tell that almost every inch of the walls were covered in posters and postcards of music festivals, bands, art exhibits, different beer brands, and even tattoo places. Polaroid snapshots of people were also there somewhere. And before we really called it a night, Dr. FeelGood bartender/owner snapped a picture of us, and tacked it on his collage of a wall. So somewhere in a bar in Tokyo, there is a photo of me, my husband and C, happy, feeling good (but not for long), and far from sober. Another unexpected addition to the growing Japan list of “done that.”

When I finally managed to get out of bed without the room seeming to spin as much, I realized there was no way we were going to have enough time to check the flea market in Hanazono-jinja in Shinjuku and the cosplayers that descend Harajuku on Sundays as we have planned for the morning. (I really had an ambitious itinerary.)

We needed to have our seven-day Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) exchange orders exchanged for the actual passes in the JR Station Information Center in Shibuya for our shinkansen ride to Kyoto the next day (and more importantly, reserve seats), then head to Akihabara for a guided tour after lunch.

While I prefer to explore a place on my own, P wanted to make a pilgrimage to Tokyo’s geek center for electronics, gaming, manga and animation with a knowledgeable guide in tow. The fact that the Akihabara tour he stumbled upon online had a guide dressed as Goku (a character from the anime Dragon Ball) made him instantly book the tour.

As the Japanese are known for their punctuality, we were there in the JR Yamanote Line of Akihabara Station an hour before the designated meeting time. We had a quick lunch at a casual Japanese curry restaurant outside the station, which served the tastiest and perfect-for-the-cold-weather katsu-karē or breaded deep-fried pork cutlet with curry sauce that we’ve ever tasted. (Though our taste buds might not have been the most reliable since we gorged down the hot sticky rice, katsu and spicy curry in record time.) Once we polished off our plates and stuffed ourselves ready for the tour, we walked back to the station where we found our guide Patrick Galbraith in his Goku cosplay costume and spiky Super Saiyan hairpiece waiting for the tour group, which would be composed of a family of four from Spain, an American teenager with his mom, and a Japanese magazine crew of three.

Goku as our Akihabara tour guide

A PhD candidate at Sophia University in Tokyo, our guide tells us later on that the tour was going to be his last, because he needed to finish his studies, appropriately on otaku (“geek”) culture. And if you wanted to behold geek culture in Japan, Akihabara (or Akiba as it is often called) is the place to go to.


Walking the streets of Japan’s “Electric Town”

Though cosplayers and street performers have been banned from its streets in an apparent attempt to uphold a cleaner, more normal image (a consequence from past disreputable antics and the tragic knife attack in 2008), Akiba still house a dizzying concentration of stores and cafés catering to the otaku; because beyond its many electronic shops, it has also become a mecca of stores featuring a mind-boggling array of anime and manga goods and video games. I swear I heard my husband let out a squeal more than once, trying to contain the giddy, geeky boy inside him for finding his own little piece of heaven.

MaskRider, Ultraman and so many other anime toys. P found his geek heaven.

Seriously, I don’t know what to put as a caption for this.

We went inside several hobby stores and toy stores that held different manga and anime-themed toys of all kinds, including P’s favorite Mask Rider, Classic Ultra Man, and Gundam models. Many were for sale; some were personal collections being displayed for fellow otaku to appreciate. This included dolls in underwear or French Maid get-ups. There was a store that sold those French Maid outfits. A gallery called Art Jeuness with paintings of doe-eyed anime-looking girls in slinky outfits in exhibit. Oh, and the maid cafés.

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