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In Search of Traditional Japanese Food in Tokyo

It’s good when food tastes good, it’s kind of like proof you’re alive.
-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

For my fourth time in Tokyo, I was determined to seek out the best Japanese food I could–I had little interest in sightseeing more. Sure, I’d visit neighborhoods and sites that I hadn’t previously been to, but food was at the top of my list.

I took a short trip to Tokyo because my friend was visiting from the US and didn’t have enough time to take a side trip to Taipei. Fortunately, during non-holiday times, there are plenty of inexpensive flights between Taoyuan and Tokyo’s two airports.

spicy ramen tokyo

What’s a stop in Tokyo without spicy ramen?

Getting acquainted with Shinagawa

Although my friend’s connection for a place to stay fell through, he managed to find a nice hostel in Shinagawa, which is just a short train ride from Haneda Airport. ARTnShelter was a convenient location for both of us, and it provided me with the opportunity to stay in a new neighborhood–it also had a bar and a small outdoor area for guests so we could run down to FamilyMart and buy beer cheaper. The only problem was that there were many desirable restaurants in the immediate area. Of course, my friend and I weren’t in the area all that much.

soba

On our first day of wandering around Shinagawa Ward, we stopped by some interesting sites along the main road as we searched for a light lunch. As I had arrived on a red-eye flight that had me sleep on the floor at Haneda until the trains started running, I was exhausted and there were no available beds yet for me (a long nap was necessary before going out for dinner).

On the walk back to ARTnShelter along Higashiōi, we found a tiny soba noodle shop–the owner spoke a little English (just enough for us to figure out what the different soba noodle soups were). It was the best choice at a reasonable price in the area. The interior did not match the restaurant, however, as the walls were made of French wine boxes.

soba noodle restaurant

The soba noodle restaurant in Shinagawa

For dinner, we met up with my other friend and my student from Solaris Space PR agency in Iidabashi.

My student suggested we try Craft Beer Server Land because she knows I like beer. The food and beer selection was good, but my friend and I were really looking to eat more traditional Japanese food. Of course, I was happy drinking the Iwate Oyster Stout; I just wanted non-bar food for dinner. So, after eating a little with our beers, we went in search of a well-known yakitori restaurant that my student had heard about.

Eating the best yakitori in Iidabashi

Shin-chan しんちゃん

Shin-chan (しんちゃん) yakitori restaurant. The back wall is full of sake bottles held for regular customers

After searching maps, we found the restaurant, which was a nondescript storefront that didn’t look appealing compared to the rest of the area. Shin-chan (しんちゃん) is a barebones establishment that has been run by the same man for a long time (I think close to 50 years), and it has a loyal customer base. More importantly, this restaurant has excellent food. It’s even been featured in a manga series about a young man being introduced to better restaurants around Tokyo (Japanese manga here).

tofu

Some sort of tofu

Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about photos that night and ended up with only my phone for photos at Shin-chan.

We ordered a variety of small dishes, including the best asparagus wrapped in bacon that I’ve ever had. This is a yakitori staple that I’ve had before, but this one was by far the best. The bacon was thin and cooked to the point that it was melted to the asparagus and had the consistency of melted cheese.

bacon-wrapped asparagus

bacon-wrapped asparagus is delicious

We also had plenty of more common skewers of meatballs, peppers, and quail eggs. We even started off with whelk, which was better than the ones my friend and I cooked at our table in Tokyo on my first stay in Japan. That time around the whelk was tough and bitter, but this one was more tender (it’s still a bit bitter, but it wasn’t as strong this time around).whelk

Wandering through the salaryman’s paradise

After a bit of wandering through imperial gardens and unfamiliar neighborhoods with towering new buildings, I found myself walking in the direction of another friend’s office in Shimbashi. As it was approaching dinnertime, I began checking out the little restaurants in the area–and there were tons to choose from. Of course, I had to ask in each whether staff spoke English (which I can say in Japanese) or if they have an English menu.
sashimi

After failing in a few attempts at eating in restaurants because I didn’t have a reservation, I came across 雑魚 Public Bar Zako tucked down an alley away from the busy, slightly wider alleys. While they didn’t have an English menu, the staff spoke a little English and the menu had enough Kanji characters for me to figure out some of was offered. Plus, there was a seat for me.

fish lamp

Zako had these light fixtures that were mesmerizing

I ordered their special three piece sashimi, which was sardine, yellowtail, and mackerel. Usually I’d say the yellowtail was my favorite, but the other two were delicious–the mackerel melted in my mouth; I’ve never had mackerel this good.shimbashi tuna head

This place turned out even better as my friend was able to meet me after work. Unfortunately, his wife had to work late and wasn’t able to join us. As I had one serving of sake with my light dinner, I only had to order another while I waited for my friend to come along. When he arrived we shared a grilled tuna head, which was delicious.

sake cups

I choose my sake based on how entertaining the label is

Missing out in Yanaka

We made a mistake while walking through the touristy historic streets of Yanaka. We decided to check out the Daimyo Clock Museum before lunch. By the time we wandered back to the main area, many of the restaurants were closed for their post-lunch break.

We settled on what passed for a dingy Tokyo diner for lunch mainly because there was nowhere else to go. If we had been watching the time (funny because we were in a clock museum), we would’ve rushed to find something better. Fortunately, a light lunch made it easier for us to wander around and find snacks later in the day.

yanaka sushi display

I bet this place had great sushi

I would’ve liked to try more of the traditional restaurants around Tokyo, but we didn’t have enough time. Also, I don’t have the language skills to eat at the better restaurants in Japan and my Japanese-speaking friends are not always available to go out. For subsequent visits to Japan I will have to make lists of restaurants and foods to try–while I may not be able to read Japanese, I can match characters for reference.

What are some of your favorite foods from Tokyo?

Wandering the Streets of Tokyo

It’s like a boulder rolling down a hill – you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can’t stop it. It’s just a question of where it’s going to go.
-Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

During my time in Tokyo, I enjoyed wandering semi-aimlessly through the streets. During the workweek I didn’t have much time to see much of the city–living out in Kawasaki meant that it was a significant distance from the center of the city. If I wanted a more urban feel, I had to take the Odakyu line farther out to Machida, which was at least close enough for a weekday excursion after work.Machida tokyo

On my lunch breaks I sometimes wandered the streets near my apartment–I found a couple little temples nearby, but there wasn’t much else. I stayed in what was possibly the least exciting part of Tokyo, though many people would not consider Kawasaki Tokyo but rather just a part of the metropolitan area.

Harajuku Tokyo

Between Harajuku and Meiji Shrine

As I rarely planned my weekends, I headed out to different parts of the sprawling city and wandered–for the most part I had at least one destination in mind but didn’t plan much beyond that. Had I planned a bit more of my weekends, I would’ve made it to museums earlier or found my way to historic sites when they weren’t closed. It didn’t matter; I enjoyed my wanderings and the sights I discovered.Tokyo Street Art

Wandering through streets with only a hint of direction led me to find interesting corners of the city. Tokyo has beautiful buildings; although there are still plenty of boring buildings that were built before Japan decided it wanted inspiring architecture. But there was also something to catch my attention–either the structures, shops, or signs.

King Kong Tokyo

I thought this was Godzilla country

I was fascinated by the ability to open spaces beneath bridges–I ate dinner one night in an archway alley beneath a railway line. And I discovered many more similar areas during my time in Tokyo; when space is limited, you take what is available.

Chiyoda Street

A stroll through Chiyoda

As I walked through parts of the city, I recognized that some areas hold an identity of sorts–a shared design and atmosphere. In some narrow neighborhoods, the alleys seemed narrower with smaller independent shops and restaurants, while other neighborhoods were modern with imposing towering architecture that most people associate with contemporary Japanese culture. Obviously, finding neighborhoods with more traditional structures were rare as much of Tokyo was destroyed during World War II, though there are still some such buildings outside the center of the city (and some have been turned into history museums like at Nihon Minka-en).Tachiaigawa

On my most recent short stay in Tokyo, I wandered more through areas I previously had not visited. My friend suggested staying in Shinagawa because of its proximity to Haneda Airport. This turned out to be a great suggestion as the main road through Shinagawa from our hostel had a pedestrian/bike path and was lined with some interesting shops and shrines. A little farther from the hostel and street was Shinagawa Kumin Park, which offered a pleasant walk through a park toward the aquarium that I did not go into because they only accepted cash and I needed to find an ATM. Nonetheless, in a sprawling city with little green space, the stroll through the park was a welcome respite.

On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour along the canal. While it wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped, it was still a better route to walk. The wildflowers along the embankment brightened the already sunny day. They certainly made the dull skyline across the way more colorful.Shinagawa wildflowers

In the evening, I wandered up to Shimbashi Station after walking through the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, a former imperial garden that closes at 5 pm. Situated between Roppongi and Ginza, Shimbashi is best known as the salaryman’s paradise. It’s surrounded by office buildings and reasonably-priced restaurants. Unfortunately, on this day I decided to try my wide-angle lens, and it really only distorts photos.

Tokyo skyscrapers

Along the way to Shimbashi

While the walk to the area was full of modern architecture and walkways that reminded me a bit of the High Line in Manhattan, the streets of Shimbashi are more reminiscent of a foreigner’s perception of typical Tokyo scenes.

Shimbashi

Narrow alley in Shimbashi

The busy side streets and crosswalks buttressed with train and road overpasses, the alleys lined with illuminated signs to entice the office workers with food and drinks before catching their respective trains home, turned this into a scene a traveler would expect to see on a travel show or movie.Shimbashi restaurant

Tokyo is a wanderer’s city–there is a seemingly endless number of neighborhoods in which to disembark a train and stroll. The senses are assaulted; the buildings demand one to take notice and the restaurants waft welcoming aromas out into the streets. And as the sun sets, the scene changes–the city illuminates in artificial light that sends crowds out from the office buildings and into the alleys. A travel could stand around and watch the crowds head for preferred destinations, follow along, and enjoy what the neighborhoods have to offer in the way of culinary delights, sake, and beer.

Walkway Tokyo

Pedestrian walkway through Tokyo

And when exhaustion from the overwhelming city finally hits, it’s time to head back to the hostel. The FamilyMart and 7-Eleven are nearby with offers of more snacks or just a final beer or three with new friends sharing the space in the Shinagawa.

The Streets of Osaka, Japan

No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home.
-Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography

As I wander through cities, I sometimes try to take in too much at once. The sights, sounds, smells of a city are what give me a sense of place–it tells either tells me that this is not a place I’ve been before or this is someplace familiar in a way. And the streets of Osaka were in the former category.

Dotonburi canal

A quiet path along the canal near Dotonburi

Osaka overwhelmed me from the moment I stepped off the train from Kyoto–I got lost searching for the exit that should’ve been nearest my hostel. I only got more lost when I exited Namba Station and found myself at a five-way intersection with a map that wasn’t oriented with north on top.osaka architecture

Despite wandering and getting lost, I found the area where I stayed in Osaka to be walkable. Of course, it was even better when I rode a hostel bike around the city.

Dotonburi crowd

Crowds at Dotonburi

However, near my hostel in Naniwa Ward was the most intriguing Shinto shrine I’ve seen. Nanbayasaka Shrine is quite small, but is home to a fearsome lion’s head that encloses a shrine–certainly grabbed my attention as I walked by.Nanbayasaka Shrine

There is a lot to see along the streets of Osaka. Despite the history, the city is home to some of the more interesting contemporary architecture I found in Japan (alright, so I only saw metropolitan Tokyo (including Yokohama), Kyoto, and Osaka). These were not buildings I expected to see on my trip, but I was certainly impressed enough to stop and admire what I found.

Osaka architecture

My favorite building in Osaka

Of course, the main attraction for walking in Osaka is Dōtonbori–a touristy area for food. Of course, locals eat in the area, but it is crowded around dinnertime. The appeal in Dōtonbori isn’t always what’s on the plate, but what’s on the building above the entrance to the restaurants.

Dotonburi blowfish

I assume this is the place to get some fugu

Giant mechanical seafood to entice customers, perhaps? Or cartoonish depictions of Japanese culture and food. Either way, this area is fun to wander through as long as you don’t stare up too long and cause a traffic jam. It would be easy to walk with your head tilted skyward to admire the artistry of Dōtonbori, but it would most likely end in an accident. This section of the city has a kitschy appeal, but it’s well worth wandering through–there’s a reason it’s popular with tourists. Dotonburi restaurant

While the city is centered on Osaka Castle, everything surrounding it is contemporary–it’s rare to find a street with older structures, but there are some hidden away from the crowds that wander the streets.

Osaka Castle

View from the moat at Osaka Castle

Although at times I seek quieter avenues to escape the overwhelming feeling that comes with the crowds, those bustling streets are almost a requirement to get a better understanding of the city. Watching the people in the streets from a coffee shop window, or gazing at the buildings from all angles provides me with a sense of place–an image to associate later on as I recall my journeys through these cities.

dotonburi octopus

Takoyaki restaurant or anime shop?

Of course, with all this wandering through streets of a major city, food is desired. Osaka is known for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both of which I had in Tokyo and was desperate to try again. Unfortunately, as I was unemployed at the time, my budget did not allow me to enjoy everything Osaka had to offer on a plate–I still managed to eat at one of the popular okonomiyaki restaurants.dotonburi canal

As it isn’t a long flight from Taipei, I could easily plan another weekend getaway to wander the streets of Osaka again and enjoy the architecture and culinary delights that the city has to offer. It doesn’t feel like as much of a tourist city as other places I’ve been, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

Watching the Sunset Over Tō-Ji in Kyoto

“We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”
-Commoner, Rashōmon

Before setting out to Kyoto with my limited itinerary, I read that the sunset was beautiful around Tō-Ji, Eastern Temple. Or maybe I read that it was meant for sunrise, but I wasn’t about to wake up that early.

Tō-Ji pagoda

Tō-Ji pagoda

I figured it would be easy enough to visit the temple because it was a short distance from the train station, which wasn’t far from my cramped hostel. As I mentioned before, objects on the map appear much closer than they really are; fortunately, Tō-Ji wasn’t that far.

The temple dates back to 796 and was one of three Buddhist temples in the city when Kyoto was the capital. It is the only of those three to have survived, though plenty of other temples are now a part of the city’s cultural heritage. It’s also one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto–they’re all pretty much lumped together in official listings.

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

Tō-Ji pagoda and miedo

The only part of the temple that people really visit is the five-story pagoda that stands out in this part of the city–there isn’t much else of this height in area. It is also the tallest wooden structure in Japan. Don’t plan on entering the pagoda because it’s only open a few days each year, and I was not fortunate enough to be there on one of those days. Of course, I was also there late enough in the day that the other buildings were closed; I couldn’t enter the kondo or miedo.to-ji-pagoda

There are other buildings on the grounds of Tō-Ji, but nothing was all that inspiring. It could’ve been that I had walk a few too many miles in the sun on that hot day in September and only reached the temple before wandering in search of a decent dinner (note: the area surrounding Kyoto Station does not have much for dining options). There were beautiful gardens at the temple, which were relaxing with the light crowd milling about in the late afternoon.

to-ji-filter

The camera settings made this one look like an old postcard

As there wasn’t much else to see at Tō-Ji and I wanted to stay at the temple longer, I played with my camera’s settings to see if I could capture more colorful photos of the pagoda and garden.

Some settings certainly work better at different times of day, as I’ve discovered in the last year. It’s rare that I alter the settings to create brighter colors, but the effects are sometimes more interesting than reality.to-ji-trees

I found a spot to sit and relax while awaiting the sunset with the pagoda in the background. I think others were waiting as well. But we were kicked out of the temple. That’s right, the temple grounds close just before dinner. I tried finding an angle from outside the gate to set up for a sunset photo, but there wasn’t a good enough spot. There also wasn’t a seat in the shade to wait for the sunset.

Tired and defeated, I headed out for food, which ended up being a quick meal at the chain shop Yoshinoya. I gave up on planning sunset photos for the rest of my time in Japan, though I did manage to photograph a few around Tokyo.

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji

Have you ever been disappointed by a sunset or missed an opportunity to watch one from a comfortable location?

Wandering Through Castles in Kyoto

Even in Kyoto,
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.
― Matsuo Bashō

Sightseeing in Kyoto did not go as smoothly as I had anticipated. Most of it was my own fault. But I still managed to see most of what I wanted.nijo castle

I did little research before heading to Kyoto in the early fall–I just wanted to get out of Tokyo and see more of Japan and this was the time of year to head to Kyoto before the tourists crowd the city to see the autumn foliage. I didn’t realize the highway bus from Machida really would drop me off on the side of the highway, a mile from the metro station that would take me to Kyoto Station, at which point I got lost because there’s no open WiFi and the maps are not all situated with north pointing up (that screwed me up more than a few times during my time in Japan).

I figured I’d get everything I needed once I checked into my hostel (another mistake). The hostel had little information other than tours that I didn’t want to pay for–and most of the brochures and maps were haphazardly stacked (this was possibly the most disorganized place in all of Japan). It also had staff that was rarely around and only spoke a few words of English (the hostel was also closed for a few hours in the afternoon for “cleaning”).

Ninomaru Palace

Karamon, the main gate to Ninomaru Palace

After consulting my map that I picked up at the train station, I made a plan to walk from my hostel to some of the tourist destinations in Kyoto–nothing looked that far from where I was staying (another mistake). The map I had did not have a guide for measuring distance–the walk I took was much longer than expected. My main destination was to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which I again neglected to research because it requires a reservation and it was entirely booked for the day (I managed to get a ticket for the morning tour the day before I departed for Osaka). But I stopped at Nijo Castle along the way, partly to get out of the sun and because it looked cool while walking nearby.

honmaru

Honmaru Palace

Nijo Castle was a little more than two miles from my hostel–it felt farther because of the sun and heat. The Kyoto Imperial Palace was another half mile, though the surrounding park is huge and took longer to walk around before I found that I needed a reservation. After all that walking, I headed back toward my hostel and a little farther south to Nishi Hongan-ji and Toji Temple. In all, it was at least a 10-mile walk for the day (renting a bike the following day was necessary to get to Kinkakuji, even though the bike had a broken seat), and I was exhausted enough to sleep early.nijo castle

Nijo Castle is one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto–it was built in 1626 as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns; Ninomaru and Honmaru Palaces are contained within the walls. It’s a beautiful site and parts of it are reminiscent of Osaka Castle (or maybe that’s just my impression from the white structures along the fortification walls).

honmaru

Overlooking Honmaru Palace

Buildings within the fortifications were twice destroyed by fire in the 18th century. The castle wasn’t used again until 1862.nijo castle

Today, the moat surrounding Nijo Castle looks a little fetid, but at least it isn’t completely dried up like the one surrounding Osaka Castle.

There’s a lot of beautiful architecture and historic works of art to gaze at while walking through the 275,000 sqm. that the castle encompasses. There are 3,000 screens just in Ninomaru Palace, although some rooms were closed for preservation efforts, so not all the screens are on display.

ninomaru garden

Ninomaru Garden

For tourists who get tired of staring at buildings that tend to look similar after a while, Nijo Castle also has three well maintained gardens, each planted during a different era. The most impressive of the gardens is the Ninomaru Garden, which is the most often photographed. It isn’t, however, as impressive as the Secret Garden in Seoul. It’s still an enjoyable and relaxing walk through the gardens, though it can be tiring on a hot day like I had.ninomaru garden

While most historic sites around Japan charge admission, Nijo Castle is reasonable at 600 yen, though those admission costs can add up fast while sightseeing all day. Photos aren’t allowed in Ninomaru Palace, which explains why I have none here–unlike other tourist destinations in East Asia, Japan enforces photography bans.

Finding Nature in Tokyo at Mt. Mitake

As the weather cooled in autumn, I searched for new outdoor activities around Tokyo–it was almost late October and the foliage was beginning to change with the season. I hoped for a better view of the fall colors than I had the previous year.mitake-view

The previous year I hiked Mt. Takao and Mt. Oyama and even spent days in most of the parks throughout the city. I searched for hikes that weren’t too difficult or too far from my suburban apartment–most destinations were at least an hour from that home in Kanagawa.mitake-river

I decided to head to Mt. Mitake, which is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park (a fact I didn’t know at the time), because it wasn’t too far out of the way and wouldn’t be too crowded (or so I had read). I was also inviting a friend to hike along with me, so I didn’t want to find anything as challenging as Mt. Oyama.mitake-bridge

It was a bit of a walk from the train station to the trail–a cable car was required to get to the trail; it was insisted upon by my hiking companion. We walked along the road in the hope that it led in the right direction–it was a while before we saw a sign that sort of pointed in the right direction; the sign came after we crossed the footbridge over the river.mitake-cable-car

We wandered from the cable car through a town along the way that had some old-style houses that were mixed with newer additions for remodeling.

House in town near Mt. Mitake

House in town near Mt. Mitake

Before embarking on the adventure through nature, we stopped at Musashi-Mitake Shrine, which seemed to be intended for dogs and dates back to 1307 (though most of it was built much later). This shrine is at the summit of the 3048-foot mountain.

Musashi-Mitake-Shrine

From the Musashi-Mitake Shrine we hiked into the forest, away from the few people who were spending the day in the park (mostly with their dogs).

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

We didn’t really choose a path through the wilderness on the outskirts of Tokyo; we just followed the nearest trail that sounded interesting–it claimed to lead to waterfalls and a rock garden. We had no idea how long the hike would take us or how difficult it might be. We wandered up and down some hills and hoped that the next turn around the mountainside would take us to our scenic destination.mitake-waterfall

The hike felt like it took longer before we reached Nanayo Falls. It was a pleasant stop at the small waterfall before heading back to the cable car; we didn’t even make it to the rock garden and second waterfall. Had I been hiking alone, I might’ve taken a longer route through the park in an attempt to find Mt. Otake and probably would’ve gotten lost along the way.mitake-forest

It was probably best that we departed Mt. Mitake when we did as evening was approaching with the early autumn sunset. We boarded the train for central Tokyo where I could change lines and head back to the suburbs and my hiking companion could do the same but in the opposite direction (and much closer). The long train ride felt good on my legs (though not so much when I had to stand again). I slept for a significant portion of that ride that took me close to two hours.

mitake-gate

The entrance to Musashi Mitake Shrine

After numerous hiking adventures on my own, it was a different experience having someone with me. It was more fun to have someone to talk with along the way, but more difficult to go at my own pace. Sometimes I prefer to be alone with my thoughts in nature–the cathartic experience of hiking.

Is it a better experience to hike on your own or with other people?

Comparing Prices: Venice and Tokyo

I departed Italy after a little more than a month. I took a few days in the most expensive city I’ve ever visited before boarding my flight back to Tokyo.

Seriously, I think Venice is more expensive than Tokyo. Granted, I lived in an apartment in suburban Tokyo and cooked most of the time, but I was still able to go out and enjoy myself on a budget around a city that is known to be expensive.

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

The water bus in Venice costs EUR 7 (EUR 1=USD 1.31) for a one-way trip, or EUR 20 for a 24-hour pass. And I thought paying JPY 300 (JPY 117=USD 1) for a one-way train ride from the Tokyo suburbs to Shinjuku was expensive. To be fair, the bus from Venice to the airport was only EUR 6 (EUR 15 for the boat that would’ve required less walking) while the bus from Narita to my suburban Tokyo apartment was JPY 3100 (of course, it’s also a two-hour bus ride from Narita as opposed to about 30 minutes from Venice to the airport). Tokyo now offers a half-price airport express ticket (about JPY 1500 to Shinjuku Station) for tourists that can be taken only from Narita; it’s full price to exit Tokyo.gondola2

Tokyo is known for the most expensive taxis in the world–I was told that if I stayed out after the trains stopped running, it’d cost at least $100 to get home (probably much more considering how far outside the actual city I lived). I didn’t ask how much the fancy water taxis were Venice, but I assume they’re ridiculously expensive. I found out that a half-hour gondola ride is EUR 80 plus tip, which is another EUR 15-20. I guess that’s why I saw gondolas regularly carrying six people.

Anyone want an expensive gondola ride?

Anyone want an expensive gondola ride?

Both cities can be expensive, depending what you do in each–tourists pretty much get gouged in both. There are, however, bargains in Venice and Tokyo for those who seek them out.cheap-eats-venice

In Venice I managed to find a few places that served really good paninis and small sandwiches–the small sandwiches were only EUR 1.5 each and the paninis were EUR 3.5, which made for a nice lunch. I also found places that served wine or a spritz for only EUR 2 (they were usually EUR 5 or more along the popular tourist routes). A meal in a nicer restaurant, where the food wasn’t mediocre, was usually EUR 20 or more. Those rare restaurants were worth trying if they could be found. If you want less expensive food and drinks, you have to go to places that don’t have seating–I managed to only pay EUR 1 for an espresso because I didn’t have to sit down.venice-coffee

After speaking with a friendly couple from a town not far outside Venice, I found that even the locals don’t think much of the food there except for a few places, like Paradiso Perduto where I met them.

In Tokyo, most decent meals will cost JPY 1500 or more. But, there are some good small restaurants for less than JPY 1000 (many of the good ramen shops are less than that). Beer is another problem–Japan taxes beer based on malt content, and it raises the price significantly. In an average bar, a cheap beer like Asahi or Kirin will be about JPY 700, while better beers can cost up to JPY 1400. Similar to Venice, some places in Tokyo charge a seating fee of a couple hundred yen.shinjuku-road

While I can’t comment on prices of rent in Venice, I can comment on the price of hostels. On my first night in Tokyo last year I stayed at a business hotel in Asakusabashi, which is a more central location than my apartment, for JPY 6500 per night. The room at the Belmont Hotel was comfortable with plenty of space for a short stay. In a hostel in Venice, just off the main tourist street through the city, I paid about EUR 30 per night and definitely was not as comfortable as I was in Tokyo. Most hotels during the summer, particularly on weekends, were at least EUR 70.

The free view of Tokyo

The free view of Tokyo

The main attractions in Venice are also more expensive than in Tokyo (privately-run museums can be a bit pricey in Tokyo as well, but the major sites are free or reasonable). It seems Tokyo would prefer to draw attention to its historic sites free entrance, while Venice would rather charge admission to everything except Basilica di San Marco (fortunately, I was tired of visiting churches and could save that money for food).

This dish was only JPY 500

This dish was only JPY 500

Overall, Venice is the more expensive city. As a tourist, Tokyo can be very expensive, but it gets less expensive when you know where to go (and it would’ve been less expensive for me if I had lived in a more central location to cut down on transportation costs). Venice, on the other hand, doesn’t get much less expensive. Travelers also don’t get the same value in Venice that they get in Tokyo–almost everyone complains that the food around Venice is mediocre (and just about every restaurant on the main streets should be avoided for this reason).

Does this mean travelers should avoid Venice? No. It only means that travelers need to be aware of the cost before heading to a destination with a reputation for high costs–the same as Japan. I wasn’t surprised by the prices in either city, but I was disappointed in the quality of food at most restaurants in Venice.

 Have you been to Venice or Tokyo? What did you think of the cost of traveling around the cities?

Holiday Lights of Tokyo

In the run up to Christmas, I noticed the prevalence of Christmas lights all over Tokyo. Every shopping area was decorated to attract more customers and all the people were busy taking photos in front of the displays.yomiuri-land-lights

Last year my landlord took me on an after-work excursion to see the light display at Yomiuri Land, the local amusement park in Kawasaki. My landlord somehow had free tickets to the park to see the light display–one other short-term tenant also joined us for the evening.yomiuri-lights

It fortunately wasn’t too cold on that early December evening and we were able to walk through the crowd at our pace without stopping for the rides–it was the lights that interested us.jewellumination

I enjoyed this one because at first glance it looks like they’re putting up the lights for the Jews of Tokyo to celebrate Hanukkah (alright, maybe I was just hoping for that–it’s even in the right color of Hanukkah). yomiuri-fountain

There was even a fountain light show set to music in the park, which was much more difficult to get a decent picture of but I managed a few.yomiuri-lights1

Classic Cocktails at KFC in Japan

“Open the whisky, Tom,” she ordered, “and I’ll make you a mint julep. Then you won’t seem so stupid to yourself.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Did you know there’s a KFC in Tokyo that serves alcohol?colonel sanders tokyo

No, really, it’s a legitimate KFC with a full bar. Street level is a typical KFC outlet with a creepy Colonel Sanders statue in front; there’s a large seating area on the second floor and a classy bar that serves food other than fried chicken on the third floor. All of this is just a couple blocks away from Shimokitazawa station. This was a welcome experience after going out for a McBeer in Italy.KFC toyko menu

I was told about this place by an Australian expat in my quiet Kanagawa neighborhood who hadn’t been to the bar in years–he wasn’t even sure it still existed. On the first night my friend came to visit from Taiwan, I decided we should head out to Shimokitazawa for some dinner and the variety of bars (including the craft beer bar that I enjoyed). While wandering around for an hour or so, we came across the KFC–how did I miss this place that was so close to the station?KFC tokyo japan

There’s a small sign on the side of the KFC for Route 25 KFC on the third floor. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we entered a chic bar decorated with classic KFC memorabilia–there was even a Colonel Sanders phone behind the bar. As we perused the menu, we noticed that the drinks were reasonably priced–under JPY 600 for an average cocktail is pretty good in Tokyo. Food options go beyond the usual KFC fare with onion rings, pizza, and pasta–I didn’t order anything, but it looked pretty good.colonels-dishes

The cocktails weren’t great, but what do you expect for the price? Obviously we had to order the bourbon cocktails made with Jim Beam (now owned by Suntory). There’s nothing quite like drinking a mint julep under the watchful eyes of Colonel Sanders while small plates of fried chicken adorned with a sprig of parsley are served.KFC cocktail tokyo

After the mint julep, I decided to try the bourbon and ginger. Both cocktails could’ve used a little more bourbon; the mint julep definitely needed more mint.

Have you been to the Route 25 KFC? What did you think?

Sunny Sensoji & Sumida River Walk

A friend from the Taipei Beer Lovers meetup came to visit Tokyo–my little apartment has a futon, so I could offer a little space to save money on travel (even with the expensive train ride from the suburbs to the city, it’s a large chunk of change to save on a hostel). We didn’t have much in the way of plans for the weekend–I came up with some sightseeing options depending on the weather, but we mostly planned for wandering the city for food and drinks, of which we had plenty in Shimokitazawa.

sensoji temple

The crowd at Sensoji

In lieu of hiking with the crowds of Japan, we decided to head to Asakusa and Sensoji Temple–the same temple I visited in a downpour on my first day in Tokyo last year. This time around the weather was beautiful–the crowd was another story. It’s a long metro ride, with two train line changes, from my apartment (this is why I usually bring my Kindle on the trains).sensoji temple

As beautiful as Tokyo’s oldest temple is, we decided to escape the crowd and walk around the area, which isn’t all that interesting. Actually, there are some nice streets and interesting shops, but those are on the so-crowded-you-can’t-walk-faster-than-a-tortoise streets. The combination of tourists and locals makes Asakusa almost unbearable in pleasant weather.sake-ice-cream

We stopped for a bit at a vendor to try the sake and wasabi ice cream. Not sure which flavor I enjoyed more as they were both delicious.

sumida rive tokyo

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

To escape the crowd, we took the riverside walk along the Sumida River toward Akihabara to see a bit of the weird side of Tokyo. Akihabara isn’t all that weird, really, but it does have a bit more of what tourists expect to see in respect to fashion and products in Tokyo.akihabara cosplay

Aside from the the first steps down to the river walk, there isn’t much of a view of the city. But it’s also not at all crowded–there were surprisingly few people on the quiet path for a sunny Sunday afternoon.bond-boat-tokyo

We did see a few of these James Bond-esque boats along the river–we expected them to submerge, but it never happened.

As we arrived in Akihabara, we wandered the streets and browsed shops filled with anime figures and tech products that do who-knows-what. Seriously, I have no idea what that thing does.akihabara-electronics

We ended the day with a stop in Shinjuku for an evening view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Once again, I managed to arrive at the building with no line for the elevator and no crowd to block the view of the city.tokyo night

It was an exhausting day of walking, but well worth the views and the few snacks we found along the way.

Biking to Osaka Castle

A few days in Osaka was more than enough to see everything in the city–there really isn’t much to do there. It did, however, provide me with more time to relax before heading back to Tokyo. Besides, Ema, the Italian owner of Vitti Lodge, was quite friendly and made staying in a cramped hostel room more bearable. (I realized that hostel dorms in Japan are much smaller than what I’m used to.) He also provided guests with free bikes to ride around the city (and the bike was a million times more comfortable than the broken one I had to pay for in Kyoto).osaka-castle-moat

I decided to not make the same mistake as I did in Kyoto and walk a few too many miles to see the sights and took the the bike on about a three-mile ride to Osaka Castle (actually, the ride was probably longer because I wasn’t sure where to turn and ended up on the wrong street).osaka-castle

The park around Osaka Castle is beautiful, with plenty of locals and tourists enjoying the paths on a sunny day. There are also small festivals every now and then with performances and food–I was fortunate enough to find such food on my bike ride after walking around the castle.

Osaka Castle is a picturesque building that attracts every tourist to Osaka, because there isn’t much else in the city other than that and food. This is a modern reconstruction of the castle on a smaller scale. The original Osaka Castle, which was constructed in 1583, was burned down and the structures that surrounded it were also destroyed. Only a few other buildings have been reconstructed on the grounds.

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The largest stone was too big to destroy

The castle first burned down in 1660 when a supply of gunpowder was struck by lightning. It was also destroyed in the 1800s during civil conflicts. It was again damaged during an Allied bombing raid in 1945. Other than the outer walls and moat, there is nothing left of the original structure. There are some huge stones that make up the fortification walls. Still, it’s a beautiful sight to see on a clear day. osaka-castle-crowd

Visitors are instructed to go to the top of the castle for the panoramic views of the city before walking down to each floor for exhibits about the history of Osaka Castle and the families that went to war for control over the country. The views of the city are spectacular, but you have to go to the nearby museums to get a better view of the castle.osaka-from-castle

The museum is educational, but it can be difficult to go through all the exhibits with all the tourists visiting at the same time–it would be better to get there as early as possible to avoid the organized tours that pass through. Most visitors walk up to the top for the views of the city and quickly walk through the exhibits. Most Japanese tourists will read through the history on display.

Have you been to Osaka? What did you think of Osaka Castle?

Painful Bike Ride to Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion

On my second full day in Kyoto I decided to rent a bike from my closet hostel to see the sights as I had walked too many miles the day before. I saw a sign that said the bikes were 500 yen, but it turned out to be a late-day rental price; I had to wait until 9 am when the front desk opened so I could rent a bike at the full-day price of 1000 yen.

kinkakuji ticket

The ticket to Kinkaku-ji

The bike rental didn’t go as smoothly as expected. The bike was so rusted that I had a difficult time raising the seat to an appropriate height. I realized then that all bikes in Japan are about an inch too short for me to ride comfortably all day (I’ve had this experience with three other bikes), but I struggled through the discomfort in my knees. Unfortunately, that was not the only discomfort I experienced during the day–after riding my first 10 miles and walking around my first temple of the day, I discovered that beneath the cover on the seat was an exposed spring, which would explain the sharp pain in my ass.

golden pavilion

First glimpse of the golden pavilion

My first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji, the temple that is home to the golden pavilion. It may have been my return to Japan, and I hadn’t been to any temples in a long time considering the month of churches I encountered in Italy, but I was already suffering from temple fatigue. Call it leftovers from my previous months spent traversing East Asia and visiting temples almost every weekend. At least Kinkaku-ji had one interesting aspect to make my bike ride and pain in my ass worthwhile.kinkakuji

Most of Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful Zen garden, but everyone visits to behold the golden pavilion–it’s a beautiful sight from any angle despite the crowd that descends on the temple.  The golden pavilion was the oldest building surviving from the original temple, which dates back to 1397, but the pavilion was destroyed in arson committed by a novice monk in 1950.kinkakuji

The golden pavilion is covered in gold leaf that shimmers in the sunlight and creates a beautiful reflection in the pond that surrounds it. Visitors, however, cannot enter the pavilion, probably because so many tourists would put a serious strain on the structure.

There are other shrines at Kinkaku-ji. One of the shrines allows visitors to swing the rope to ring the gong for luck after prayer. There are even vending machines for fortunes–and they dispense English fortunes for tourists like me who can’t read Japanese. Kinkaku-ji provided me with the best fortune I’ve received from a temple, but it still was more or less a meh-quality fortune (it was better than the one from Sensoji Temple that told me I’d have to work to succeed).

kinkakuji fortune

An English fortune for about a dollar. Why not?

I returned my bike a few hours later–I made a couple more temple stops (to be written about later) before heading back to the hostel in the hope that I could return the bike. Of course, the hostel front desk was closed from 11 am to 3 pm, which left me with time for a nap while wondering where to go should I procure a more comfortable bike (an unlikely event because my ass was in such pain that even a more comfortable bike would be painful). I managed to get another bike when I found a hostel employee before 3 pm, and I went out for another ride.

Returning to Familiar Tokyo

What
has happened
makes

the world.
Live
on the edge,

looking.

-Robert Creeley, “Here”

I started my current journey in Tokyo–I had wanted to visit Japan for a long time, and it was my first opportunity to travel to the country. Now, I find myself back in the Land of the Rising Sun, more specifically back in the same neighborhood in Tokyo.

I was disappointed last time that I didn’t take any trips outside Tokyo–it was nearly impossible to find a room in Kyoto or Osaka for a weekend (autumn is one of the worst times to find weekend accommodation in tourist centers with a lot of outdoor activities). I wanted to return to Japan to at least see more of the country, and to reunite with friends I made.

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

I’ve been asked a few times why I decided on Japan so soon. The real answer to that is the price of airline tickets. When I booked my flight in May from Seoul to Rome for the end of July to attend a wedding and travel a bit, I knew I’d head back to Asia–I had a job that required me to work on Hong Kong time (little did I know that I would no longer have that job before heading back to the continent). I browsed every combination of return ticket–various Italian airports (and a few other European airports) paired with the various airports around East Asia–and Venice to Tokyo came out at $500 cheaper than any other combination of airports.

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

Staying in Tokyo was not a top priority when I booked my flight back at the beginning of May. I figured with the price of the flight, I could even book a budget airline flight elsewhere if I really wanted and I’d still come out ahead. Or I might find an apartment to rent in another city in Japan. As I searched Airbnb, I came up empty for my criteria–I needed a private apartment with internet, a washing machine, and kitchen within a 15-minute walk of public transportation. Well, there were plenty of options that fit that criteria, but not even close to my price range (I wanted to spend less on rent in Japan than I did back in New Jersey).

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

As my departure from Italy approached and my options faded, I took a chance and emailed the woman from whom I rented on my first trip through Tokyo. The apartment was a bit far from central Tokyo, but it was quiet and comfortable. Sure enough, the apartment was available. At least I knew I had a place to live while I searched for a new job and other accommodation.

I won't be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

I won’t be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

Familiarity is helpful, but it can also make one lazy. Oh, it’s going to rain today? Better stay inside and do nothing. Or maybe just sleep off the jetlag (I haven’t had jetlag since I left the US last October, so this feeling really sucks right now). Or I could take my sweet time in the morning instead of rushing out to go explore parts of Tokyo I missed last time–those second and third cups of coffee aren’t going to drink themselves.

After so many months of new experiences, however, it is pleasant to see the familiar. Not much has changed in this Tokyo suburb–I noticed a new restaurant that looks interesting with reasonable prices. On my first night back, I headed to a bar I frequented and ran into the Australian expat who took me to a local karaoke bar until 5 in the morning on my last weekend here. Last night I went to the wine bar in which I used to sit for a drink to read after work and found that the waitress remembers me (guess the beard doesn’t change my appearance that much), as did one of the regular customers. All this means I don’t have to go out of my way to be social–I can easily find the people I already know.

Normally I don’t want to return to places because there’s so much more to see in this world, but I’ll accept it this time around. How do you feel about returning to destinations?

Visiting Tokyo’s Ramen Museum

no-ramen-no-lifeJapan loves ramen so much that there’s an entire museum dedicated to it. And I love ramen so much that I visited the museum on my day of walking around Yokohama.

The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum was a short walk from the Shin-Yokohama train station–the streets in the area are more organized that those in central Tokyo, so getting around is much easier. The station is accessible by the JR Yokohama and Chuo Lines and the Blue Line city subway. There really isn’t much else in the neighborhood, so it’s a quick stop for ramen before heading to the port of Yokohama.

The most educational ramen information was all in Japanese

The most educational ramen information was all in Japanese

The museum itself isn’t large or all that educational, but it is fun for lunch (even if it is a little overpriced for ramen). And you are expected to purchase at least one bowl of ramen when you visit–really, it’s in the museum rules. The entrance fee is JPY 300 (about $3)

Inside the ramen courtyard

Inside the ramen courtyard

The basement area of the museum is set up as an old Tokyo street scene. Visitors can walk around the alleys and into shops. Scattered about the alleys are some ramen shops, but most of them are in the central area. During lunch (and I assume dinner), there are lines for some of the ramen shops. I hate lines and chose the Hollywood ramen shop.

Ticket vending machines remind visitors to eat

Ticket vending machines remind visitors to eat

All the shops have ticket vending machines to choose what ramen and/or drinks you’d like to order. Insert money, press buttons, hand ticket to server, and wait for your ramen. It should come as no surprise that I ordered the spicy ramen. It was good and spicy, but only the second-spiciest ramen I’ve had–it didn’t even come close to the ramen I had at Nakamoto.

Hollywood spicy ramen

Hollywood spicy ramen

The museum isn’t really worth the trip unless you’re already traveling through Yokohama and want a little distraction.

Beers of Japan

Japanese beer isn’t all Kirin, Asahi, and Sapporo, although those three breweries make a wide variety of beers and cover most of the market. Kirin even makes Heartland, which is the brewery’s attempt at a craft lager–it was better than most other rather generic Japanese brews and cost about the same at bars and restaurants.coedo beer

But I quickly discovered that there was much more to Japanese beer than the boring lagers that are so prevalent around Asia. I quickly found the major brewers’ stouts on the shelves of grocery stores. I also began asking bartenders and patrons about microbrews around the country. I even began noticing a few such beers in grocery and convenience stores.

Beer costs how much!?

The first thing I noticed about good beer in Japan is that it’s very expensive. Japan taxes beer based on malt content, so rather flavorless beer is reasonably priced while better beer is much more expensive. A single bottle or can at a store can range from a little more than $1 to about $7 or $8. And the government is raising the tax for the new year.

Discovering beer bars in Tokyo

I discovered most of the beers at a small place in Shimokitazawa, simply called Beer Bar in English (I showed the Japanese name to some people I met and they laughed because it’s apparently an odd name for a bar). There are actually two bars for this single establishment (separated by a small restaurant). The smaller bar area is standing room only, while the other has a larger seating area at the bar as well as tables. Each part of the bar serves different beer, and the beers range from about $11 to $17.

One of my favorite breweries was Coedo. They make a wide variety of beers, and a few of them were available at my local convenience stores. For the better ones, like the imperial IPA, which was 11%, and Coedonado, which was 9.5%, I had to travel to Beer Bar in Shimokitazawa.

sorry beer

Why is this beer apologizing for being awesome?

During my first visit to Beer Bar, I met a small group in the smaller side of the bar–they didn’t speak much English, but they were a lot of fun and liked to talk about beer (I introduced them to the Untappd app). One from the group handed me a can of beer before leaving–a strong malty beer called Zenryaku Konominante Kiitenaize Sorry Strong Ale.

On the shelves of Odakyu convenience store and even 7-Eleven, I found some less expensive Japanese microbrews. Most them weren’t as good as what I had at Beer Bar, but they were still pretty good for the price. There were beers like Echigo amber, which was a flavorful amber lager that I purchased more than once.echigo beer

And on a trip to Enoshima, I found some local beer, Kamakura Enoshima Beer, that was sold almost everywhere for about $6 per bottle. There were a couple brands and varieties, but I waited to buy it as I didn’t want to carry it around all day. When I got back near the train station, I had difficulty finding a store that sold it. I finally found a cold bottle at 7-Eleven and a warm bottle at a liquor store. Unfortunately, I missed out on trying more of the variety.

gargery beer

Great way to leave Tokyo

And on my last night in Japan, I stopped in Bar Chit-Chat, which was right near my apartment in Shinyurigaoka, for the first time. They had another beer I hadn’t yet tried, Gargery 23, which was a bottle of rich dark porter that went well with the chilly weather that forced me to depart Japan for the warmth of Vietnam.

Have you tried any of these Japanese beers? What did you think?