Japan conjures up images of cherry blossoms, and consider spring followed by fall the best two times to visit this country to witness nature’s spectacular display. Yet my very 1st trip to Japan did not coincide with either of these seasons. We went the 1st week of October and trees were barely starting to show autumn colors on its foliage.
Speaking of mother nature, a powerful typhoon was on course to hit Tokyo on Monday, October 5, 2014, after hitting southwestern part of Japan with heavy rain and wind that caused flights cancellation and knocked out power. Fortunately, the typhoon changed its path and Tokyo dealt only with moderate rain in the morning and by afternoon, a warm and sunny weather emerged.
Day 1: Oct. 4, 2014
Our flight from San Jose , Ca to Narita (NRT) on ANA Dreamliner jet was very pleasant. We flew on business class (our very 1st) using United miles. Spacious cabin with seat that convert to a flat bed, big TV monitor, gourmet dining (see my blog on Asia Trip; Champagne Taste on Beer Budget), gourmet dining, wine & champagne, tasty snacks…what’s not to like? The 11-hour flight was soon over, and went rather quickly.
A light drizzle greeted us when we landed in Narita at 4:10pm. Took us about 20 min to get thru immigration, purchased airport limo to Tokyo, exchanged $400 US to yen and waited for the next bus departure at 5:10pm. The limo bus ($30 US pp) cost more than taking the train to Tokyo, but was more convenient as we got dropped right at our hotel. The ride took about two hours.
Hyatt Tokyo Regency in Shinjuku is conveniently located, with easy access to transportation. There’s a subway nearby and only a 15 minute walk to Shinjuku station. a major hub for trains to explore Tokyo or you can take the free hotel shuttle. It is walking distance to many restaurants, and there is a convenience 7-Eleven store at the basement with ATM.
Upon entering our room on 23rd floor, my eyes were drawn to the big picture window with a spectacular view of the city and Shinjuku Goen garden. It was so nice and captivating, we kept the window opened all night long.
As a Hyatt Gold Passport (HGP) member with Diamond status, we were given complimentary access to the Club Lounge, where we ate breakfast and enjoyed cocktails & appetizers every night from 6:00- 8:00pm. They served enough appetizers and desserts, no need to have dinner afterwards.
After checking our room we headed to the Club Lounge, just in time before they stopped serving appetizers and cocktails at 8:30pm, then desserts and coffee/tea served until 10:00pm. We frequented the Club Lounge for breakfast every day and appetizers, cocktails and desserts at night.
The threat of typhoon Phantone pounding Tokyo today and the recent outbreaks of Dengue fever at Meiji shrine, resulted in last minute changes to our sightseeing agenda.
We met Sachi, our guide for the day, thru Tokyo Free Guide; an organization that provides and matched local volunteer with tourists . Their services are free, and we were expected only to pay for their transportation and meals during our tour. She was not like your typical tour guide that gives a lot of information and history, but more like a friend showing you around. We enjoyed her company and grateful for her invaluable help in finding our way around and navigating train stations. Tokyo’s train system is very efficient, but could be confusing, and intimidating to 1st timers, like us.
Sachi is the nicest person we’ve met during our travels. Totally unexpected, she brought us all kinds of souvenirs (handmade origami), a sumitomo printed fabric and special cookies. I brought her See’s candies , and was happy to hear they are her favorites. , She was very accommodating and we hit it off as though we’ve known each other for a long time. Thank you so much Sachi, we would not have enjoyed exploring Tokyo without you.
Highlights of our day with Sachi
Depachika: If you’re a foodie then a visit to one of Japan’s food basements, or depachikas as they are called, is a must. I was amazed with all kinds and variety of foods they sell. From gourmet salads, yakitori, bento boxes, sushi, desserts, mochis, and so many unfamiliar foods that look appetizing. With so many choices, we were overwhelmed and did not know what to buy. In the end, we settled for familiar food like chicken yakitori & other dishes to eat as part of our picnic lunch at the Sumo stadium.
Kokugikan Sumo stadium: Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today. I observed going to this event is a family outing, where the whole family…old, middle and young ones enjoy a picnic lunch while cheering during a match. We were fortunate to have attended this event which was “By Invitation” only, thanks to Sachi’s friend Mo who gave his tickets to us for he was unable to attend….so grateful for the opportunity!
Asakusa: a district where Tokyo of the past decades still can be seen. It’s main attraction is Sensoji , a popular Buddhist temple built in the 7th century.
We reached the temple by passing thru Nakamise, a shopping street lined with traditional arts & crafts, souvenirs and local snacks. We tried some freshly cooked seaweed crackers dipped in wasabi, and later neutralized the lingering wasabi flavor in our mouth with a cone of green tea ice cream. A refreshing treat on this very hot afternoon.
Shibuya: a shopping and eating district frequented by young Tokyoites, but we came here to witness the enormous crowd, huge number of pedestrians crossing the street from all directions, and referred to as Shibuya crossing. My husband and I waited for the next light to join the crowd, and what a thrill to experience this maddening sight, you see ONLY in Shibuya.
Near Shibuya station is the statue of Hachiko, the very popular, faithful dog who waited at the same Shibuya station for his master for three years. His undying devotion to his master touched many hearts, not only among locals but worldwide that later, Hollywood made a movie starring Richard Gere based on this story.
Night tour of Shinjuku
Back to our hotel by 5:30pm, which gave us enough time to rest, grabbed a few bites at the Club lounge before our night tour of Shinjuku with Sachiko. I found Sachiko through Meet Trip, an outfit that provides local guides or tours for very affordable price. We paid $15 US per person to explore Shinjuku area for 2 ½ hours .
There are two ways to get an incredible city view of Tokyo and its prefecture atop a building or tower: 1) Skytower, near Asakusa for a fee, 2) Tokyo Metropolitan Building (TMG), it’s free. Due to proximity of the latter to our hotel, we made it our 1st stop as we ventured out into the night. Skies were so clear this evening which usually happened after it rained. The view atop the 57th floor of TMG was pretty amazing and the 360 degrees view all around reminded me of Empire State Building of New York City.
Omoide Yokocho was on my MUST do/see list in Shinjuku, and the main reason I hired a night tour guide for fear we may not find the place by ourselves. It was on my most wanted place to visit & eat, having seen it featured on a popular Food TV show in the US.
Also known as the “Memory Lane” or “Piss Alley”, it is made up of small alleys lined with yakitori bars that served grilled yakitori (meat skewers) and a selection of Japanese cuisine.
It is quite common to see scores of Japanese business men enjoying a meal and some beers here together after work.
All the bars were full all the way to the end of the alley, so we ended up seating upstairs. I would have preferred to seat at a bar to watch the yakitori being grilled in front of us, and point which ones we liked to try. Sachiko ordered a variety of yakitori (chicken, organ meats), and a vegetable dish, and of course beer. Freshly grilled, and still hot, yakitori with a cold beer was a perfect food pairing and a good way to end this very, very long day.
Day 3; Oct 6, 2014
We cancelled previous plans to visit East Garden of the Imperial Palace and Shinjuku Goen garden due to recent outbreak of Dengue fever. My niece recently came back from Japan and warned us about mosquitoes, being found every where not only in parks or gardens but in central city, as well. They got bitten a lot by mosquitoes. Her friend’s bites became swollen and infected, and ended up going to hospital for treatment. I usually have similar reaction to mosquito bites, so cancelling our visits to garden was an easy decision. Fortunately, mosquitoes stayed away from us completely the duration of our tour of Asia.
No scheduled agenda today, nice! Woke up late, took it easy and leisurely enjoyed the day. To avoid taking the train, we decided to explore more of surrounding areas around Shinjuku station, only a 15-minute walk from our hotel.
Odakyu Department store is another “depachika” we enjoyed visiting. Like the one we saw the day before, it’s a place a food lover would not get tired visiting again and again. Our eyes feasted on dizzying, dazzling array and varieties of food beautifully packaged, arranged and displayed; fresh, cooked, preserved, savory & sweets. It’s a complete food market with fresh fruits, produce and meat. We bought mochi, different pastries, chips, crackers and dried fish for snacks.
The growling sound of our stomach signaled it’s lunchtime, and knew exactly we would have ramen at the place in Omoide highly recommended by our guide the night before.
The slurping sounds, people waiting behind each stool to be vacated,…were pretty convincing and good signs this is the place to have ramen. I watched how methodical the guy prepared each bowl of soup, and impressed how fast and quick he was. He took less than 5 minutes to make a big bowl of noodle soup. I think a bowl cost between 350 to 450Yen, with choice of udon or ramen and topped with a big vegetable tempura. The warm broth hit the mark, and wish we had selected ramen instead of udon which quickly soaked up all the broth.
One of the things we failed to do, ordering food from a vending machine such as shown below.
Back to our hotel to organize our luggage for delivery to Kyoto, and to pack our backpacks for our one night stay in Hakone. We traveled light so we can start sightseeing as soon as we arrived at the Hakone Yomocho station, and start the Hakone loop without the bother of our luggage.
We could have taken our luggage, stored them at lockers at Hakone Yomoto station, but this option is cumbersome, lockers might be full and we have to go back to pick them up. It’s definitely way better to have them delivered to Kyoto; convenient and cost was very reasonable. I think it costs less than $20 US total for both luggage, payable only in cash in Yen. Cost depends on size and weight, and ours weighed about 16 lbs each and total dimension 45″.
Goodnight, sleep well for we have a long day heading to Hakone the next day.
Stay tuned for Hakone, my next blog.