Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tokyo: Day 3 (Tuesday)

Tuesday was always the day that was rather up in the air for me. On the original docket, if you recall, I had Ghibli Museum, Shibuya Crossing, and Skytree (the current tallest tower in the world). However, I discovered that Ghibli Museum isn't even open on Tuesdays, but it didn't matter because they were sold out of tickets all week. Then I read up more on Skytree, and it's apparently a total pain to experience and not worth the insane lines or price of admission. That took my schedule down to Shibuya Crossing, which is basically something that could take no more than 20-30 minutes if I stretch it out.

So I needed other stuff to do today. Due to yesterday's weather, I decided to move my trip to Ueno Park to today (which was actually a blessing in disguise, as it turns out the Ueno Zoo--which is what I really wanted to see--was closed on Mondays anyway). So there's one thing. Then I figured I'd take in Harajuku, despite it not being Sunday when they say is the day you have to go (an impossibility for me). And also in Harajuku, besides the shopping district, is Meiji Shinto Shrine, which would help with the Scavenger Hunt. I also, if there was time, planned to head to the Minato area to knock a couple more things off the Hunt, but both time and difficulty did not permit this one. Anyway, let's get to this, shall we?

So I started my day off a bit lazily, sleeping in and trying to rejuvenate my legs from yesterday. But I got the ball rolling around 10 - 10:30 AM and set off for Shinjuku Station.

Ueno Park/Zoo

This place was pretty awesome, to say the least. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and could have spent the entire day at this park alone. The place looks really nice and is filled to the brim with museums and all sorts of things. But it was the zoo that caught my attention the most, particularly since I knew there were pandas. And that's about all I knew.

What I didn't know was the scope of the zoo itself. I spent roughly 3 hours at the zoo, from about 11 AM to 2 PM, and it was worth every minute of it. I was sad at first when I got there and the pandas were asleep, but I went throughout the rest of the park and came back to them before I left, and they were awake and eating, which was cool. This park is so massive that there are two "gardens" with different types of animals in each, and you can actually take a monorail from one side to the other (though it's not necessary. It's maybe a 5-10 minute walk otherwise. I took the monorail to the other side but then walked back later). In a short review, the first garden I was at--the East Garden--was much better than the West Garden, in my opinion. The West Garden felt a bit more run down and cheap, and the animals didn't exactly seem all that happy or playful. But it did have its good parts, too. In fact, why am I still rambling when I can just show you? I took tons of video and photos for your viewing pleasure (for the sake of this blog, I edited the photos into the video file, as well, because there were just so many. Individual pictures will also be uploaded separately on my Facebook, if you follow me there). Also, I apologize in advance for some of the chosen music in this video. I couldn't help myself.

Harajuku: Part 1 (Meiji Jingu (Shrine))

This Shinto Shrine's entrance is immediately off to the side as you leave the Harajuku Station, so it's super easy to find. I've been to a number of Temples and Shrines in Asia now, and I have to say this one still had its own charm to it. You pass through these enormous arches and walk down this incredibly peaceful, shaded, gravelly pathway.

Outside the Harajuku Station

You can keep going all the way down to the shrine itself or take a little detour (if you're not against paying just a small fee) to experience what I feel was the highlight of the shrine visit. You end up going down this tiny forested path that leads to all sorts of little areas, like a fish pond, a garden, and a cool little well where you can bend down and cleanse your hands in this little cold spring-fed river well. It was a very peaceful and, dare I say, nearly spiritual experience walking around there.

It's an old tea house.

The well. You rinsed your hands with the water.
Then you can head to the shrine itself, which is pretty bare bones. There's also a wedding hall for Shinto Weddings that are held there. The most interesting thing about the shrine itself was this circular wall off to the side where visitors wrote prayers to whatever God, gods, or higher spiritual being they believe in to ask for blessings and give thanks. This was really cool to walk around and see all these wooden planks hung up all around the wall with different notes in every language you can think of. Of course I could just read the English ones, but it was a very nice experience.

Entrance to the shrine itself.

A purification station. You washed your hands and could drink the water.

The wall of prayers

The inside of the wedding hall
From there, I left the shrine and somehow walked not only to the complete opposite side of Harajuku, but found that I had actually walked all the way to the next little sub-town over. So I had to hop back on the train and go back to Harajuku to experience the other thing I wanted to see there.

Harajuku: Part 2 (Takeshita Street)

Harajuku is famous for its fashion. Its busiest day is on Sunday, which is when you can supposedly see all sorts of crazy outfits and styles. Though I still saw a handful of them on a Tuesday afternoon. And if today wasn't the busy day, I can't imagine what a Sunday is like, because this place was insane as it was. Takeshita Street is a long pedestrian-only street filled with cute and stylish shops, predominately for young girls. Shopping wise, it wasn't very interesting to me, so I mainly used it as just another sight-seeing experience. The most annoying aspect was a bunch of African guys who had taken up residence in Tokyo and would literally come stalk you down to show you their clothing stores. They weren't mean, and the one guy I actually talked to was super friendly and chatty, but it was a total pain when they'd cross the rivers of people to come right towards me every time I walked by one of them (because they all had "big clothes" for me). And you could even see them following people in the crowds and yelling after them if they were ignored. They were very much a "don't take no for an answer" bunch of guys.

However, the other thing about Takeshita Street that I'd read was the Crepe shops. There are competing crepe shops all over that street, and they are the most insane crepes you've ever seen. They hand make the dough right then and there and fill it with whatever insane fillings--cream, real fruit, cheesecake, chocolate, ice cream, etc. I just had to get one, and it was huge and delicious. But then I was done with that place and figured it was time to move on to the last area of the day.

Entrance to Takeshita Street

One of the many types of shops
My epic crepe
I snuck a picture of a "fashionable" teen at Harajuku Station


It's basically right next door to Harajuku (which in and of itself is almost right next door to Shinjuku, so I was never too far from 'home'). I think I came out the wrong side of the train station, but after walking for about 5-10 minutes, I found my way to the world famous Shibuya Crossing. If you're unaware, it's basically like the Times Square of Japan. Now, I've never been to Times Square, but as far as Shibuya Crossing is concerned... man does it look bigger in the movies. The movies make it seem like this enormous stretch of streets, but it's really not all that massive. So I made my way to the Starbucks that everybody goes to in order to watch the Crossing and take pictures from above, got me some kind of triple-orange drink, and tried to find even an inch where I could get in at the window to take pictures and/or video.

I stayed maybe 10-15 minutes total after getting my drink, taking a handful of pictures and a little video. Then I went down and crossed it myself to get back over to the train station. I also took a bit of a concealed video of me crossing so that you can get a first person perspective of what that's like. And here's the whole video compilation of that and some pictures.

Lost in Shinjuku #5 Million

I decided to take my time upon leaving Shinjuku Station this time, looking at every possible map so that I didn't get as lost as I did yesterday. And while I still got minimally turned around in parts, I did eventually find the hotel alright. I still have no idea why it's so complicated to get back to the hotel from the station. It's like a labyrinth of tunnels and zigzags and stairs for what otherwise seems to be a straight line. But oh well. I guess it's just something I have to deal with while I'm here.

Also, I wanted to share that I haven't eaten so unhealthy in a very long time as I did today. If you can call what I did today as even eating. At the zoo, I had a coke, french fries, and a strawberry shaved ice. In Harajuku, I had the crazy strawberry/ice cream/cheesecake crepe. In Shibuya, I had a Starbucks orange drink, then got another orange drink from a vending machine afterwards. And then like two bottles of water otherwise throughout the day. I was pretty hungry for actual food by the time I got to the hotel, as I hadn't had an actual real meal since the Maid Cafe (I don't count the convenience store sandwich and chips). So I went down to this little Italian place in the hotel and had a super greasy pizza. And that was pretty much my day!

Tomorrow... DisneySea!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tokyo: Day 2 (Monday)

When people said that Tokyo was an insane amount of walking, I did believe them. However, I wasn't worried about it much since I had already spent 5 months in Korea and experienced the insane amount of walking there (particularly in Seoul). I figured it couldn't be that much worse.

Oh how wrong I was.

Though don't get me wrong, there are specific reasons why the walking is so much more here than in Korea. First and foremost, I have no idea what I'm doing, where I'm going, or how to get there. In other words, I get lost. A lot. So endlessly walking and looking around for hours on end is basically the best option. The second reason for my extensive walking, which actually also ties into the first reason, is Shinjuku Station. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let's start with the morning.

I finally pull myself out of bed (which is roughly the same comfort level as I've been used to back in Korea) at about 8 - 8:30 and get ready for the day. I contemplate breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants, but decide against it. I figure I'll just get something in Akihabara. So after fighting with elevators and people checking out of the hotel, I finally get my act together and head on down. To discover the rain.

Yes, oh yes... the joys of this vacation continue to rise as it appears there will be chances of thunderstorms the entire time I'm here, with today being an 80% chance. This was automatically a bummer considering almost all of my plans today required being outside--wandering Akihabara and then checking out Ueno Park. But I buy an umbrella from the little store in the hotel and head on out anyway.

Lost in Shinjuku #1

The first step is to find Shinjuku Station itself. It's about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The downside is that I'm not exactly sure in which direction. I don't have an international plan on my phone, so unless I want insane roaming charges, I'm stuck to wifi signals. But unlike in Korea, I've found wifi access here is very limited and almost all of it password protected. So there goes my ability to use an map apps. And if you're lucky, you'll run across posted street maps (the "You are Here" kind) that are incredibly, incredibly helpful... but way too uncommon for my liking. I need these suckers on every street corner. Or maybe I should invest in Google Glass so I can have a little video game-esque map in the top corner of my screen and follow it RPG style. How fitting for Tokyo, right?

Anyway, I do get a bit turned around, but find my way to one of the many entrances to the station. (If you're unaware, Shinjuku Station is the largest and busiest subway station in the entire world. The place is like the Catacombs of Paris--no joke.) Unfortunately, it's not the entrance I needed to be at. So after about 5-10 minutes of me basically spinning in circles, I take a long walk to the JR Station area. This is where I find the green Suica machines (Suica cards can be given to put transportation money on for easy train access). Unfortunately, it appears that after about 10-15 minutes of fidgeting with the machines, none of them are equipped with the ability to give you the card itself (though I knew this was possible... somewhere). So I end up just buying a ticket instead (which was actually pretty easy to figure out) and make my way to the train itself (which was also pretty easy to figure out). The train ride to Akihabara was painless and only took 20-ish minutes. So then it was time for the next part.


It's a rare thing in life to build something up so much, to set your expectations for something so high, and then end up coming out of it completely satisfied. And that continues to be the case here, as I must admit that the Electric City, while definitely interesting, left me a little disappointed. When otaku (fanboys/girls) think of Japan, they think of Akihabara. It's considered the heart of everything they generally love about Japanese pop culture--anime, manga, video games, etc. But there were also some extenuating circumstances that played into my lessened experience, as well. The first and biggest being the rain, which was on and off for the entire time I was there.

The second was perhaps the time. I might have gotten there a little too early to start, as it appeared only a third of the shops were even open when I had arrived. So I started off walking around to a lot of closed and/or gated buildings. So I started off my big Akihabara adventure walking around aimlessly in the rain and humidity with nowhere to go and nothing to see. It wasn't the greatest way to start off the day.

I went into a few little shops here and there and browsed the rows of sealed manga (all, of course, in Japanese). And even more shops with anime figurines of all varieties and styles (from kids fair like Dragonball Z to the more adult, nude types). I finally decided to hit up an arcade which, at the time I entered, wasn't bustling with people. It was a multi-floor building with different styles of games on each floor. No pictures were allowed inside the building, but I couldn't help but sneak a couple anyway (one of which was to grab a Scavenger Hunt photo). I wanted to play the arcade Super Mario Bros. game, but it got snatched up pretty fast, and I ended up killing time playing a fighting game, BlazBlue.

I eventually decided it was time to move on and continued my endless wandering outside in the drizzle. It was also at this point I was starting to get hungry and my legs were really starting to hurt me. I really needed to find a place to eat. Now, I saw a couple advertisements for a couple different Maid Cafes, including the dressed up maids on the streets with fliers and whatnot. But I could not, for the life of me, find the actual cafes themselves. I probably walked in circles for an hour, even leaving the Electric City and having to make a giant circle back into the main area. I had gotten completely turned around and was, by this point, moderately tired and wet from the rain and humidity.

Oh, and for the purposes of the Scavenger Hunt...
It was after noon before I somehow found a proper sign that not only told me of a maid cafe but told me what floor it was on. The cafe was called MaiDreamin, and it was on the 4th or 5th floor of this particular building. So, not knowing what I was getting myself into, I got in the elevator, hit the button, traveled up, and the doors opened to... pink. Lots of pink. And two smiling Japanese girls in maid outfits welcoming me. One of them spoke a small amount of English, so she tried to communicate that I sit at this shared counter area. 1 hour was 500 yen. She showed me to my seat, introduced herself and took my name. Then they brought this little electric candle thing out and had me count down from 3 with her as she blew the light on (for good luck or something? I don't know). Then I placed a lunch package order. You had a few combinations you could do, all of which involved food (whether lunch or dessert) and a picture with your maid. Oh, and no other pictures were allowed inside the cafe itself, so I couldn't really do anything in that regard. If you want to see what it's like, check out this promotional video. The place looked almost identical (if it wasn't the same place); the key difference being there was, of course, a bunch more people inside (and not just creepy men, but parties of women, couples, and friends just having fun. (And there wasn't any of the singing shown at the end of this video, either)):

The experience itself was very awkward and mildly embarrassing. The girls never break character and are basically there to be as cute as possible, treat you like their master, and be super polite and accommodating. The food itself was actually really good--I got a tonkatsu with rice and cheese in the shape of a bear floating in a pool of curry. And the maid who brought it out to me took the tonkatsu sauce and drew cute little hearts with smiley faces on it. They also, on both the food and drinks they bring you, make you do these little chants with them to make the food cute and delicious (or something like that). So I enjoyed the atmosphere, ate, got my picture that they draw and design on (and a little gift bag they draw on for you, too, with a complimentary folder thingy inside), and paid the bill. They even walk you to the elevator and wave and say bye the whole time until the doors close.

From the website, but it looks pretty close, minus the sauce drawings.

The bag with the hand-drawn picture.

The free folder thingy.

My name card they gave me when I arrived.

And there you go.
By this time I was finally full and ready to be done for the first half of the day. Now I just needed to find the train station (and on the way, I actually ran into one of the maids from the cafe who was now out advertising on the street. She waved and said hello since she recognized me. It was actually the one who drew on my food).

So long story short here, I eventually find my way back to the station and, lucky me, actually find the correct machine that will give me a Suica card. So I snatch one of those and hit up the train back to Shinjuku.

Lost in Shinjuku #2 & A Little Rest

At first I thought I had the station directions down. There were signs pointing to the Government Building, which was right near my hotel. So I followed those until... they just kinda stopped. So I entered the street and realized I had no idea where I was at. After wandering around for ages, I finally found one of those street maps and discovered I was literally on the opposite side of Shinjuku from where I needed to be. So I just kept walking and following signs to the best of my abilities. To keep this short, let's just say what should have been a 10-minute walk from the station back to the hotel turned out to be at least 30 minutes, if not longer, until I finally found my way back to the hotel (and my legs killing me).

So that basically brings me up to now, taking a break halfway through the day and resting up a bit. But I wondered--what can I do on a rainy day in Tokyo when it's already mid-afternoon? Ueno Park is getting moved to tomorrow when the rain hopefully dies down. I read about an aquarium, but it would take close to an hour to get there and then I'd only have about 45 minutes before they closed. Not worth it.

And that's when I read something... something that could quite possibly turn my Akihabara experience around (not to say Akihabara was bad--it was fun and interesting in its own way... I was just expecting a bit more from it). Only an 8-minute train ride away is a place called Nakano Broadway mall, and it's apparently touted as the "new Akihabara." The biggest difference? It's all that you'd expect from Akihabara, but almost entirely inside and in an easy, single building. Heck yeah! Let's do this.

Nakano Broadway

Not only do I navigate my way to Shinjuku Station just fine, but I get to Nakano without any problems whatsoever. The shopping area that leads to Nakano Broadway is directly in front of Nakano Station, so that was easy enough to find, as well. And so I see the sign:

The second you step in, it's suddenly a little different. There are more otaku-related things lining the walls. But it's really once you start heading upstairs that things really get interesting. In short, this mall is one of the coolest places I've ever been to. It's definitely what I would have expected from Akihabara (though more spread out there, of course). It was a little tricky to get visuals because there were "No photos" signs everywhere. But I snuck a few anyway, and even snagged a couple videos! Before I let the pictures do the talking, let me explain the kind of place this is.

Over 4 floors you have basically anything otaku you can think of, and then some. There are stores filled from wall-to-wall with manga. There are bookstores, DVD stores, toy stores, video game stores, card stores, doll stores, train stores, clothing stores, art stores, knickknack stores, and so much more. There was a store that sold old Japanese movie posters (even if the movie wasn't Japanese, it was the Japanese version of the poster). There was a store that focused primarily on kaiju (i.e. Godzilla) figures, another store that focused on sentai stuff (think Power Rangers, but original Japanese versions), another store that focused on figurines that could fit in your pocket, and other stores that sold/auctioned original artwork from anime and manga artists (like original print sketches of famous shows/movies). Unfortunately, everything was absurdly expensive. The closest I came to splurging was for a set of original Dragonball Z sketches from "Jump" (the company who put out the original manga), but the set was basically over 80 bucks, and I just couldn't bring myself to spend that kind of money on them, no matter how cool it would have been.

I could keep rambling on about the place, but let's just say it was definitely the highlight of my day (OK, so the Maid Cafe is something I'll never forget, too). The only reason I left, besides the fact my legs were going to commit seppuku if I didn't, was because a lot of the shops started closing up for the night. I think I walked around that place for at least 2 hours. And here's the best I could do with visual representation:

(First, a short video of a couple shops. The first is the giant manga store--it was seriously ridiculous. The second was a very bizarre little collectibles shop.)

(Now some random pictures. Not even close to everything I saw, but it's the best I could do with the no pictures rule everywhere.)

Movie poster store

More of the movie poster store.

I just thought this was hilarious.

These were wall-sized and you'd see them randomly about.

Actual original sketches.

More original sketches

Creepy doll supplies

Part of a cool thing that stretched across a wall.

People reading manga in the hall.

A blinking-light Xenomorph while classic rock is playing

And to further add to the Hunt, cigarette vending machine.

Lost in Shinjuku #3

Oh, Shinjuku... how I'm coming to hate thee. My legs were already near the point of collapse as I left Shinjuku Station. Or so I thought. I don't know what it is about that place, but I can't figure out how to go back the way I came for the life of me. I ended up in that same tunnel from the second time, except this time I kept going straight to see if the signs for the Government Building showed up again. And sure enough, they did. I just followed them out and thought I was doing pretty well.

This was the worst I'd done so far, and I can't figure out how. I think I walked in circles around Shinjuku for an hour, unable to find my way to the freakin' Government Building (since that's a major marker on the maps, and my hotel is right across the street). It was getting dark by this point, and I was utterly exhausted. Oh, and for those curious, Japan has Denny's! I know, because I came across the same one 3 times from 3 different directions. I was really close to snapping when I realized I was finally finding my way. I seriously don't know what the deal is about getting back from the freakin' train station, but I just cannot figure it out. It's like the bane of this vacation for me. Who knows... hopefully by the time I leave on Friday I'll have mastered it. All I know is that I had walked so much that I was actually starting to get pangs in my side--something I haven't felt in quite a long time (even with the Muay Thai!).

By the time I made it back to the hotel, I was hungry and didn't want to be bothered with even going to one of the hotel restaurants. So I just went and got some disgusting convenience store food (and I do mean disgusting), fought off the urge to buy hard liquor (which was also sold in said convenience store), and came back to my room.

And so ends Day 2. Let's hope Day 3 has some other good surprises in store, with rain or otherwise! (Hopefully otherwise.)