Saturday, September 24, 2022

Visitors! Tokyo in August

 We had our first visitors in two years come in August.  First thing we learned is DON'T VISIT TOKYO IN AUGUST.  Seriously.  It is hot, humid, and miserable to walk around.  Because, we walk A LOT in Tokyo.  Japan also is eco conscious and keeps minimal airconditioning in buildings and trains.  So, one doesn't even get much relief when coming out of the sauna that is the city. 

In the end, we settled on about half days of activities, with resting in the house or at our pool in the afternoon.  We also opted with this group of visitors to not do any day trips (Kamakura, Nikko, Hakone, Enoshima, Karuizawa, etc etc) because we know they will be back.  This was truly a "family visit with some Tokyo thrown in," rather than a "see everything Tokyo has to offer" visit. 

Day 1: arrive about 4pm at Narita.  Enjoy the Narita Express, get a look at Tokyo Station, dinner at home, and crash around 8 or 9pm

Day 2: slow morning.  Fancy sushi lunch at Sushi Ten (for the sushi eater) or burger the floor below at Counter Burger (for the carnivore).  Walk around Tokyo Midtown to see the fancy shopping mall, gift fruit store, mini food hall.  Take the subway to Shibuya to see the big scramble (sadly, the Starbucks viewpoint was a fail) and the Nintendo Store.  

Day 3: Fancy lunch at Maison Marunouchi, with table overlooking Tokyo Station to watch the shinkansen coming and going.  After walk about Tokyo Station Character Street to do a little shopping.  Walking by the Imperial Palace was on the agenda, but one step outside and everyone bailed and went home.  Another time when it isn't 90+ degreed and 90+ percent humidity.

Day 4: Early morning visit to Toyosu Fish Market (this has replaced Tsukiji).  Optional sushi breakfast.  We had planned to possibly visit Odaiba and Team Labs that afternoon, but for various reasons didn't.  We had tickets to a Yakult Swallows game, but ended up only enjoying dinner at the ball park because the game was rained out.  (cultural note: the game tickets were refunded 14 days later ... not sure how this would have worked for tourists!)

Day 5: Haircut in the morning (yes, Japanese salons are lovely!).  We had planned to go to a waterpark (either Yomiuri Land or Summer Land), but still raining so ... hung out at home. 

Day 6: Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit and mini summer festival at Kadokawa Culture Museum in Saitama.

Day 7: Morning in Asakusa and knife shopping.  We had planned a lunch out, but it was Sunday and many things were closed (no tourists yet).  We had also thought about adding on Tokyo Sky Tree, but again the heat was just too much so ... we went home.  Late afternoon tour of the Olympic Stadium (this option is now closed).

Day 8 / 9: I forgot to document!  I think there was a visit to a mini pig cafe.  And Tokyo Tower.

Day 10: Return home

Here's a list of things to make sure and eat in Tokyo.  There's more than just sushi and ramen (of course, do eat those)!  Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), gyoza, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), yakiniku (grilled meat over open fire, usually do it your self), yakitori (grilled chicken, usually done for you), soba or udon (noodles), Mister Donut, Japan McDonald's for the seasonal/Japan specific things.

Other things in Tokyo do do that weren't listed above: Ueno area (zoo and museum).  Zojoji Temple near Tokyo Tower.  Meiji shrine followed by Harajuku walk (and a cute ice cream shop).  Hanging out at Arisugawa park, getting snacks from the convenience store (only if you have kids, bring balls/stuff to play with).  Check out what festivals might be around (e.g., Nakameguro Obon festival was during this time, and then could have visited the Starbucks Reserve near by)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Travelogue: Nagoya

 We headed to Nagoya out of desperation.  We had been planning to welcome grandparents to Tokyo and then travel to Kyoto, but omicron revoked their visas.  Then we were planning another trip to Tohoku, but we waited too long and all the hotels in our budget were full.  Universal Studios and Disney were sold out.  So, I thought, maybe the boys are still young enough to enjoy Lego Land? 

I found a hotel that sleeps 5 and booked it.  As we started researching, so many options kept popping up we didn't end up at Lego Land at all.  I'm sure it would have been fun, but 14 is a bit old for it - and it looked very similar to the one we enjoyed in KL a few years ago.  So, what did we do in Nagoya?

Day 1 - Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya.  Lunch and leave luggage at the station.  Train out to Inuyama Castle, one of five "national treasure" castles in Japan.  We had visited Matsuyama Castle earlier this year, so somehow we'll have to make it out to the other three before we leave (two are fairly remote, so that will take some planning).  Train back and then over to our hotel in the Osu area of Nagoya, checking in about 4pm.  The boys then took a little screen break, while Greg and I walked around Osu - it had a lot of used clothing shops and some traditional Japanese shops from rice crackers to kimono.  In addition to the window shopping, I found some used haori (kimono-like jackets) that I can use for koto concerts if I don't want to get all dressed up in kimono.  

We scouted many delicious dinner locations, but settled on miso-katsu, the Nagoya version of fried pork cutlet.  And, we opted for the biggest chain, Yaboton, over some of the tiny places, because they had no problem seating five people at one table.

Day 2 - breakfast at a delightful breakfast-only place called Early Birds.  Little did we know the day we visited was their 9th anniversary, so we had to wait for a table as many regulars were eating that day, too.  Highly recommend the biscuits and bacon!  The boys enjoyed the last friend chicken and gravy (only one left - they had to split it.)  Given that it only sat about 20 customers at once, somehow we all squeezed around a table meant for three.  

Then we went out to the redeveloped port area (Nagoya-ko).  After Odaiba's sparkle, we all felt like this redevelopment needed a little sprucing up, but it didn't detract from the fun.  The public aquarium was fantastic, with two giant tanks for dolphins and orcas.  Because it was a random Tuesday, it was only us and parents with preschoolers ... so plenty of time to plop down and simply watch the tanks. 

After a few hours, we headed over to the Fuji Antarctic ice breaker ship.  That was a pretty quick exploration, but fun all the same.  Though the boys complained at first, the small Maritime Museum had some really fun moving dioramas of how the new port works - and two simulators where one could drive a ship into a port and also time yourself to take cargo off a ship and into the port.  A trip up to the observation deck rounded out the day. 

The area also houses a small amusement park and a human-size maze.  We tried to go to the maze, but missed the hours ... and then the boys were too tired to walk all the way back to the other side to the amusement park, so we decided to call it a day and went home for an hour rest in the hotel. 

Dinner was out and about in Osu.  I had seen a delicious-looking three table yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant - but apparently it was so delicious it was all booked all night.  So we ended up at a random Turkish restaurant - the authenticity was questionable, but if the kids ate it up, I'm not complaining.  And then we enjoyed walking around to find some sweet treats for dessert. 

Day 3 - Breakfast at Denny's.  Reliable, quick, comfortable seating for 5, and affordable :)  Then we headed out to the JR Central museum - shinkansen (bullet train!) galore! Definitely recommend for any train enthusiast of any age!  In addition to going in various trains, you can get tickets for a shinkansen driver simulator, a normal train driver simulator, and being a conductor on a train.  The parents mistimed lunch, however, and we almost had a meltdown on our hands when all three boys wanted the same type of sandwich and only one was left.  So, that grumpiness cut our time at the museum slightly shorter than we had anticipated. 

After we filled up the stomachs and moods stabilized, we headed to the Nagoya Science Museum.  At only 400 yen / adult (ages 15 and up, so only me and Greg) for the standard exhibits, this was an amazing deal.  Also amazing - all of the hands on exhibits were open (with hand sanitizer everywhere).  Had we gone in the morning, we could have also gotten tickets to the planetarium and the deep freeze lab room (not sure what that was, but donning parkas was involved).  There was an awesome looking playground outside the museum - but as we went in the afternoon, it was getting dark and cold by the time we were done.  So, note to future travelers: visit the science museum first thing in the day!

Greg and the boys went home for a little screen time, while I headed into a koto shop we had passed on the bus on Day 1.  The shopowner was so surprised to talk to me, but he of course found what I had needed (a stand that broke during our move here) and also recommended some new pieces to me.  

For dinner, we met up with the one State Department officer stationed in Nagoya and his wife - for Nagoya chochin chicken.  We tried it many ways (fried chicken wings, grilled on a stick, as fried nuggets, with a sauce over rice, and then pudding made from its eggs) and all were very tasty!  For this meal, given that we'd be 7 people, I did make reservations.  I had to call four places before I found one that could seat us! 

Day 4 - while Greg and I could have stayed longer, the boys were getting tired.  They are out of practice for sightseeing and experiencing so many new things after two years of COVID staying home.  So, we decided we'd go one place and then head home. 

Breakfast again at Denny's, where the waitress couldn't believe we wanted to order 6 plates of french toast.  But, hey, keep the boys fed!!  Then we headed over to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, at the site of its first weaving company (before it became a car company).  We chose it because of its proximity to Nagoya Station - though there were two other Toyota museum options!  

The museum had a hands on activity center for kids (currently time-limited to 30 minutes due to COVID restrictions) and plenty of exhibits about how weaving looms, steam engines, car parts, car manufacturing, etc etc and so on work.  And a big open floor with Toyota models over the ages.  

Lunch was the famous "Toyota curry" at the museum shop.  Tasty, filling, and reasonably priced.  We walked back to Nagoya Station through the Noritake Garden, with a quick stop for me in the Noritake shop and outlet.  I wish I had time to actually shop, but maybe better for my pocket book (and my limited Tokyo kitchen storage space) that I didn't.  

2pm shinkansen back to Tokyo, and we were home to start laundry and dinner without being too tired.  

All in all, a very surprisingly enjoyable excursion - and we probably could have spent another day, had we gone to Nagoya Castle, Atsuta Jingu (shrine), one or both of the other Toyota museums... or even added on LegoLand.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Travelogue: Sleeps 5

 In a country with a declining population, the tourism industry seems to have adapted.  Meaning, I've found it quite difficult to find reasonably priced hotels that sleep a family of five.  Certainly upscale ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are abundant - and one can simply throw in more futons on the floor.  But these are quite the experiences including elaborate traditional breakfast and dinner, that can run $200+ per person per night.  Yup, you read that right.  

So, for our domestic travel, I've generally stuck to AirBnB.  I can find houses or apartments in most places for around $2-300/night.  Not a "deal," but at least within the realm of acceptable.  This is Japan, after all.  

Sometimes, though, I just want a hotel.  Someone else to keep the place neat and make breakfast, so it feels like a real vacation.  I've found two places so far ... and let's see by the time we leave Japan how many more I end up with on this list. 

Hotel New Hakuaki

  • Ibaraki Prefecture, near Hitachi Seaside Park
  • Japanese rooms can fit 5 or 6 on futons
  • Rooms have full bath, and access to the onsen
  • When I called the hotel, they were happy to adjust our charge to only have breakfast, fully understanding that my American kids don't eat fancy Japanese dinner. 
  • Some of the staff could speak some English, but I communicated exclusively in Japanese
  • Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture
  • Combo Western/Japanese room can sleep 5 (two single beds, three futon)
  • Full bath in room, and access to the onsen
  • Communication in English no problem!  They can also help set up ski rentals, lessons, etc.
  • Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture
  • Western style hotel room with bunk beds to accommodate 5 or 6.  Has a small kitchenette and a sofa to sit everyone, too.
  • One stop from the main Nagoya train station
  • Easy English booking on with the messaging ap for any questions.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Travelogue: Yamagata

(editorial note - I am so out of practice posting here, I have forgotten how to wrap text around the photos.  So, to be edited eventually!) 

A 5-day rail pass to Tohoku for only 20,000 yen per person prompted Tohoku travel research.  Falling upon The Hidden Japan’s website, my son and I decided to go around Yamagata Prefecture.  Derek Yamashita, a former JET, now living in Yamagata and running The Hidden Japan (as well as a photography/video business), helped put together a really wonderful itinerary.  I highly recommend reaching out to Derek if any of this interests you! 

Day 1: Shinkansen Tokyo (9:24) → Yamagata (11:50).  Drop bags off at the Metropolitan Hotel at the station, quick tonkatsu lunch at Hiraboku at the station, to catch the 12:56 train to Yamadera.  The train only leaves once an hour, so you have to be quick! 

We spent the afternoon hiking up the 1,000 steps to Yamadera with a beautiful view over the valley.  On the way down, we enjoyed the shopping street where, if you’re lucky, farmers will also have tables out with fresh fruit!  

4:02 train back to Yamagata.  If you’re tired, check-in to the hotel, rest a bit like we did. More energetic folk might prefer to walk first to Kajo Park to see a restored castle.  For dinner, there are plenty of restaurants around the station.  We enjoyed a yakiniku place called Taiga run by a friendly grandma and grandpa.

Day 2: We packed this day with activities organized by Derek.  In the morning, a lovely woman named Horikawa-san opened her traditional home to teach us how to make tofu and imomi beef stew with Yamagata beef.  This was William’s favorite part of the trip (even though he doesn’t eat tofu!) because Horikawa-san was so friendly - and the stew was really tasty.  

In the afternoon, we took the train south to Kaminoyama Onsen for a three-hour guided cycling tour.  We visited a fruit farm (cut and eat!), a daimyo rest house turned museum (Naragesyuku Wakihonjin Takizawaya), and Tanno konyaku store.  The grapes were amazingly sweet, as were the pears.  The small museum has a number of treasures to see from the Edo times.  William tried the “meat flavored” konyaku and really thought it was yakitori!  I enjoyed the konyaku fruit flavored popsicle.  

Had we done the bike tour in the morning, I probably would have stopped at the Kaminoyama Castle before heading back to Yamagata.  But, in the fall that far north, it was already getting dark before 5pm!  Tired after our bike ride, we once again got Yamagata beef for dinner - an upscale  yakiniku place called Kaki Kiwami.  

Day 3: We headed to Zao Onsen for some hiking on mountains usually used for skiing.  Bus departed Yamagata Station at 9:20 (Y1000), arriving about 45 minutes later.  We dropped our bags off at Hotel Lucent Takamiya and then headed to the cable car to take us up.  After a snack at the Forest Inn Sangoro, we then went on a 1.5 hour hike on well-marked trails around Zao.  We stopped in the Sangoro lodge again for a tasty lunch - definitely try the pudding made with local milk and honey for dessert! - and then went on another hike (about an hour, return) to a waterfall.  

Cable car back down the mountain, and we were at our hotel between 3 and 4pm - enough time to enjoy the onsen (or catch a show on Netflix, if onsens aren’t your thing) before dinner.  Dinner and breakfast at the onsen were traditional Japanese.   

Day 4: We checked out early to catch the 8:40 bus back to Yamagata, arriving 9:25.  We had about 30 minutes to get a coffee and snack, and then took a 10:08 shinkansen three stops north to Murayama.  

Again arranged by Derek, we had a class in Iaido, a type of marshal art developed in Yamagata.  We learned about its history and tradition, some basic moves, and then at the end tested our skills with using a real blade to chop through a tatami mat.  The instructor was very knowledgeable and friendly and patient while Derek or I searched for the right Japanese word to help William understand (as William doesn’t speak Japanese).  

The original plan was then to try some of Murayama’s famous soba for lunch before heading back to Tokyo.  Either at a restaurant or maybe a place or two that lets you experience making it.  But, after such a filled schedule, William was ready for a quick snack and the shinkansen home.  (and a Shake Shack burger at Tokyo Station on arrival :) )

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Out and About: Shinagawa Aquarium and Park

 It is broiling hot.  "Feels like 101" hot.  It will be hot like this until September, I expect.  It is also a four day weekend with the Olympics starting and VVIPs in town and not really a time for the parents to take a trip out of town, no matter how much the boys might want to return to Shimoda.  So.  What to do aside from the pool? 

I thought about taking the kiddos to check out Sporu, a big sports complex, but the surfing lessons were booked through the end of August (Japanese people love to plan!) and a walk to work and back left me drenched.  Idea postponed until fall. 

So, we opted for the Shinagawa Aquarium.  Last year we weren't doing things indoors ... but as this COVID thing has dragged on and 3/5 of us are vaccinated ... now things like the aquarium are still new. 

It's very manageable (2 hours is fine) and affordable (adult ticket about $13).  A perfect half day activity.  And, amazingly, all three children (who now span elementary, middle and high school) enjoyed it (though of course they whined about leaving the house and then made a beeline for the exit once they saw it. *sigh.)

The website showed a cafe and a restaurant, so I figured we'd get lunch there.  I was a little confused when we were walking up at 11:45 and all the couples, families and friend groups were at big picnic tables with their bento box lunches.  We kept walking down to the entrance -- only to find the cafe only sold coffee, ice cream, soda, and Japanese sandwiches (anko bean paste and butter, anyone?), and the restaurant had a line of 20 people.  SO, back to a "taco rice" food truck and the picnic tables it was.  Note to self: next time to bring our own lunch.  

The web tickets worked fine (yay), and they also sold day of tickets at the door (unusual in these COVID times, but maybe since it was such a manageable size, the turnover is high enough -- it certainly wasn't overcrowded).  Various websites mentioned the possibility of a fish foot spa, but the online ticket sales had a ticket to get your own pearl out of an oyster so I selected that option.  

The small one was too tired by the time we walked through to actually then wait our turn for the oyster pearl thing, so since that ticket is valid through the end of the year - and the oldest said it was fun enough to go back - I'll try and remember where in my wallet I put those tickets for safe keeping.  

On the way home, we walked by Shinagawa Children's Park.  A blog I like has apparently highly recommended it - not sure how I missed that!  But, remember at the top I said it was a "feels like 101" day, so needless to say after one ride each on the rope swing and stopping a few minutes to watch a middle school baseball game (the boys really miss sports teams ... the Japanese teams are all going, but the expat English ones and school ones were more COVID conservative), we went on our merry way.  Another thing to check out in the spring or fall - or next summer if the water park area opens up if a post-COVID world ever comes.  

And, in small signs that perhaps normal life is coming back, this neighborhood street near the train station looked decked out for a summer festival.  The matsuri my neighborhood used to have were pretty fun - I bet some neighborhoods now are really looking forward to having some again. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Travelogue: Shimoda

 We're hardly taking any trips right now (thank you, COVID).  Others are more adventurous, but the thought of a kiddo getting a normal cold while we're somewhere else, in this hyper sensitive environment, causes me some second thoughts, especially about flying with the necessary airplane temperature checks.  Luckily, we found another family with two boys similar ages to ours, so we went skiing with them in February and to Shimoda in July.  

Shimoda is a well-known beach area on the Izu Peninsula - first gaining popularity in the 1970s for a domestic honeymoon spot (search in Japanese for "Shimoda romantic hotel" seems it may still be!).  Little coves all along the way make for different beach experiences.  

We rented an AirBnB near Kisami beach, well known for beginner surfing waves.  No, we didn't try.  But we did buy two body boards and had loads of fun jumping waves.  Every now and then was a pretty big one -- the boys and I each at various points didn't time a jump properly and got a little pummeled, but the undertoe wasn't too bad and we popped right back up.  The little kids, though, stuck to the waters edge and an area where a stream emptied into the ocean.  Our AirBnB host commented Sotoura beach was probably better for younger kids as it only has very gentle waves.

Since our children are creatures of habit, the lunch/dinners I didn't cook at home we ate at the White Beach Cafe, steps off of the beach, with pizzas, pastas and few other items.  Quite tasty - and even better they would let a family open a tab, so the kids could go over and order by themselves, with us settling up at the end of the day.  I'm sure other delicious eats exist, but why leave the 500 meter beeline from the house to the beach when there's something great along the way?  

What we didn't do in Shimoda was visit the museum where Commodore Perry negotiated the first US-Japan treaty.  (He landed in Yokohama in 1853, but then had a second visit in 1854 to ink the deal.  Wikipedia crash course here.)  A monk at the temple where the negotiation took place gave my language class a fantastic presentation - but the boys were having so much fun on the beach, messing around with the other kids, I didn't want to be "that mom" who spoiled the fun.  Especially since it was about a 4 hour drive and easy to return to.  So, I guess that means we have to go back!

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Out and About: Hanegi Park

It's been COVID-times (korona-ka in Japanese) for over a year.  As a family, we are simultaneously itching to go out and do things while mindful of constantly fluctuating case numbers and a low vaccination rate.  Also, changing habits (sticking close to home) is really hard.  I used a mandatory dentist appointment yesterday as an excuse to explore a park recommended to us last summer - it was only four train stops from the dentist, and the boys could get Burger King takeout for picnic lunch to sweeten the deal.  

You can read someone else's blog about the park here: All the same, I thought it would be fun to document places we've been under this "out and about" heading, so that (when we leave in a few years), I have a list of things to pass onto new families.  

Best attribute of Hanegi for our kids -- lots of climbing and no rules as long as you are safe.  They were on top of sheds and a small house in the park.  I almost had a heart attack when they were exploring new ways to climb up to a roof that involved balancing on a swinging door (!!).  Other fun stuff - a giant slide, and huge rope swing, a place to build a fire, and just general running around with no rules (such a rarity in Tokyo's parks).  

The only thing we couldn't figure out was how to spin a Japanese top.  (like this).  No matter how carefully we wound the string, we just couldn't get the wrist flick.  They didn't seem interested to try and learn at home it was so hard!  But, definitely would be a good non-iPad activity if they had the patience to learn.