2023 Japan

$1 = ¥132/¥100 = $0.75

Tuesday February 14/Wednesday February 15 EWR > NRT

“Welcome aboard,” two words we love to hear. We are an hour into our 14h37m flight and are both very excited. Back in 2014 when El and I went to Thailand we had to schedule a layover as there were no direct flights to Bangkok from New York. I figured that as long as we had to make a stop, we should probably pick a spot that we could extend the layover and take a few days in another city/country. Our choices were limited and we picked Tokyo. It was certainly a comfort zone/ boundary pushing couple of days and as we left, we felt we had conquered some fears and overcome hurdles that when you tackle together, prepare you for future adventures. And as we left, I remember remarking that I thought we were going to need to plan a future visit to Japan, to not only return to Tokyo, but other cities, primarily Osaka, as well. We will be checking out several cities on this trip so our prep has been a little more involved than most other vacations we take. We think the weather will be a little chillier than we would have hoped for, but above freezing and packing accordingly shall prove just how adaptable we are. With 10 hours left to fly, our in flight entertainment breaks and I use the time to review some of my research. When we travel, with the exception of restaurant reservations or a concert plan or some other time-specific item, we don’t generally travel with a set plan. Usually, my pre-trip research consists of Googling terms such as “weird”, “unusual”, “off the beaten path” (insert city name). This brings me to all sorts of sources from travel websites, to travel blogs, Youtube vloggers, and any other place where anyone with an opinion wants to give it. Turns out that I am far from the only traveler looking for things that might not be in our guidebooks. I put everything into a Google doc that I set up for each trip. Eventually what I end up with is a conglomeration of info- everything from the address of where we will sleep on a given night to where someone told me I could get the best cup of coffee in a specific neighborhood. This doc usually winds up in the 20-40 page range and I print it out right before we leave. The packet gets quite worn during our time and proves an invaluable component to our travels. Anyway, short story long, I am taking advantage of our time sans entertainment to familiarize myself with my Tokyo recommendations. The list includes less visited neighborhoods and parks, restaurant and museum recommendations from friends, of course, the list of where Anthony Bourdain ate and drank in this city, as well as a list of six unique sushi spots that we may find ourselves near. We will only be in Tokyo for a day and a half at the beginning of our visit- circling back for another couple of days at the end before we leave. Today we will arrive around 3:30 in the afternoon. Upon arrival, after the obvious immigration routine, we will have to find a JR Rail office to pick up our train pass that we ordered. I will also need to grab some cash at the ATM- even though Visa and Mastercard are accepted in some places, Japan is still very much cash based and we need to plan accordingly. Then, we need to figure out the Narita Express train to take the hour ride into downtown and then grab the subway to the hotel. Add the fact that we will both be exhausted upon arrival, the current plan is to hang in the Shinjuku neighborhood tonight (where the hotel is), try to find the ramen shop we discovered nine years ago and find a place for a drink where we will outline our plan for tomorrow- our only full day in Tokyo this week. El mentioned that she found a knitting shop she wants to visit, so we will map that out and I will consult the research to fill out the morning or afternoon. I am able to get about two hours sleep and we have about two more hours until landing. While nerves keep us excited, it is certainly the worst leg of the flight in that our bodies feel it is 11:30pm so we are exhausted from flying all day without any solid sleep. At this point we could use a shower and a change of clothes, and some non-airline food. Such is vacation life. We land a little late, but near enough to be considered on time. Once off the plane I am impressed with how many greeters there are and how their whole job is to direct you where to go. With precision this collection of greeters are able to wrangle an entire plane's worth of people into the proper lines. Like hungry dolphins herding a school of fish they help the weary passengers. Since we are at our final destination we are looking for the customs and immigration line/passport control. We have to provide our customs declaration and vax cards so before waving us on, our dolphin makes sure that we can get onto the airport wifi and can access the website with our info already scanned. This way, when we get waved on we are ready for the agents and not having to fumble around with how to provide the info they need. The speed is good for the amount of people they are trying to get through the lines and we are through with minor bumps. Once we get into the terminal is when the fun begins. After the long flight we both need to use the bathroom and see the sign that gives us a smile…”the Toto Experience” written next to the stick figures for the men/women’s room. El goes first as I change my shoes and watch baggage. She emerges from the bathroom like a giddy schoolgirl. “I took pictures”, she says. From what I remember about Toto toilets is that they are complicated...and fun. Stay with me- full explanation to come. 

We have ordered our JR Pass (this is a Japan Rail Pass, like getting an Amtrak ticket. You can buy individual trip tickets or you can get an unlimited travel ticket for a set number of days- we have chosen 14 day unlimited) online and need to pick it up at the airport’s office. They still take Covid precautions, so they are only allowing one person per group in the office. El takes my passport and goes in to represent us. Meanwhile I stay outside trying to figure out how to get to the hotel from here. I hit the ATM for cash and we buy the Suica card at the kiosk (like a prepaid metrocard that you recharge as needed). We also buy the Skyline train ticket to head downtown. We check in quickly and at 7:00pm we are heading out to try to find a ramen shop we fell in love with nine years ago. After about 45 minutes, not finding it, we are fading fast, hungry, cold, and ready to give up looking for the night. We spot one place that looks good, but walking in and seeing a full room, our “do you have room for two?” gesture is met with a headshake. We press on, eventually finding a ramen shop that is empty except for the one guy leaving as we arrive. We confirm with the single restaurateur behind the counter that he is open, serves ramen, and ready to serve two weary travelers. The place smells a little funky, but not in a spoiled meat kind of way, just in a “they are cooking broth with ingredients we don’t recognize” kind of way. He helps us order two bowls of ramen and a couple of drinks. While not the ramen of nine years ago, it absolutely hits the spot and reminds us why we love this dish. A light drizzle of spicy hot sesame oil kicks the bowl up a notch and we savor the flavor. We agree to be done after this. Back to the room and asleep in a matter of several minutes. We set an early alarm, but don't expect to wake to it since we are in bed before 9:00, fast asleep immediately and out solid until we both wake, refreshed close to 4:00am. Instead of getting up and out, we lay in bed discussing our early morning options to start our day.

Our “Toto experience.” Apologies to Charmin, but they have no idea what it means to "enjoy the go". Toilets. Let's mention the usually unmentionable. I remember hearing about Japanese toilets (in a good way) before coming here in 2014 and they made enough of an impression on me to look forward to them, coming back. So, how many features on toilets do you know, in general? Maybe big flush and little flush? What else? Probably nothing. During our time here we have used toilets in different places: hotels, restaurants, train stations, etc. and it seems that the more the toilet costs, the more options it has. Each throne has either a command center on a side arm, or mounted on the wall above the paper roll. Let's start with sitting down. You immediately notice the seat is heated, not too much, just enough to make you wonder if someone else just left. A nice feature if you have to take a seat in the middle of the night...amiright, ladies? Next is a privacy setting where you can push a button that will start the sound of a continuous flush, loud enough, you know, to mask any "natural sounds". Once you are done going and using the paper (there’s no auto wiping feature that we have found yet!), you move onto the fun part. There is an option for 'back wash' or 'front wash/bidet'. When you choose 'back wash' at first nothing happens, wait five seconds and you start to hear mechanical sounds from below. Five more seconds and a jet of water, as if focused by a laser, squirts you, right in the least sunshiniest of all places. You can use the control panel to increase pressure or water temperature, but basically you just sit there enjoying the experience. It keeps squirting until you push stop, retracting the mechanism. Next up is air drying, which is like a light hair dryer working on your nether regions. On some models you can choose direct air flow, pulsating, or oscillating, but it gets the job done any way. When you stand up, there is an automatic preflush, self-cleaning feature where jets from under the rim rinses, deodorizes, and sanitizes as the bowl self flushes. Some models do have manual flush handles, but others don't. After a week here, we are still finding models that have new options we hadn’t seen yet and some have all writing in Japanese without pictograms, so you just have to start pushing buttons to see if it is the option you are looking for. 

This concludes today's installment of more than you wanted to know about what I did on my winter vacation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a toilet.

some of the many options you can play with to help you "enjoy the go"


Thursday February 16 Tokyo

Knowing we will probably crash later today, we make an effort to get out early and not dawdle about. As we walk towards the metro stop, it is a little before 7:00 and most everything is still closed. We see workers readying for the day, but very few places are actually open yet. With one notable exception, the ‘Sev’. While doing research for this trip it was pointed out that this country is littered with the omnipresent 7-11 (here it is called 7 & i Holdings, but the color scheme is the same). Now, my experience with 7-11 is much like every other American’s, but we have been assured that 7-11 in Japan is an experience to behold. An actually respected institution that sells a lot more than big gulps and lottery tickets. It is said that their prepared foods are unparalleled around here and we are anxious to see what it’s all about. As expected it is about three minutes before we spot our first 7-11. While the recommendation to me was for an “egg and mayonnaise sandwich”, I could not find one and settled for a sesame chicken salad wrap. The wrap is quite decent and some of the prepared foods certainly looked great, though without a spot to sit and enjoy, I was reluctant to venture that far…yet. Satisfied (with food) for the time being we walk, looking for a coffee shop. Yes, we could have gotten some coffee at the ‘Sev’, but opted for something more like a sitdown pastry and coffee shop, though even Starbucks is still not open. We wander a bit, eventually finding Golden Gai which is a section of Shinjuku with a concentration of the absolutely seediest, diviest, riff raff bars this side of skid row. As expected, almost all of the places are locked down from last night. El says she read about a 24 hour ramen shop among the businesses here, though even they look closed. We find exactly one place open at this hour. A tiny bar (literally a bartender behind a bar with six seats- that’s it) and we aren’t sure if he just opened or is still open from last night. Either way, we are hunting for coffee and not whiskey right now. I read about Bar Albatross that I think is around here, and try to locate it before coming back when many people are obstructing my view. Turns out, Bar Albatross is a few blocks away. We find the general location, but most of the surrounding businesses too have drawn their corrugated steel gates with no discernable addresses written on them. So we know where it is near, but until we come back during regular hours, we are not gonna figure this one out. We pass a soba shop with eight seats at a bar that are all full, with a line waiting with dibs on the next open seat. We know immediately that we need to remember this place for tomorrow! We jump on the metro at Shinjuku Station and our first main stop today is Sengakuji Temple/cemetery where the 47 Ronin are buried. Beyond the term “47 Ronin” I have never heard the story of them. The guidebook gives a quick overview of the story and it is at least enough to make me want to see the movie sometime. Since El and I like visiting cemeteries, this place made our list of stops, though if it wasn’t for the Ronin connection, it certainly wouldn’t be as interesting. Walking through the grounds trying to figure out the path, I see a staff member at a table asking us for the mandatory donation of ¥300 each for incense. We pay the toll and he lights a pre-bundled pack of 100 sticks and sets the pack in a tray before cutting the binding off allowing them to spread out within the metal plate. He points us to the graves, but gives us no further information. The 47 graves are situated on the same terrace and we approach with eyes open to see what those who came before us did. It’s still not obvious, though we see a little stone cube in front of each grave. I spy a worker who is sweeping the area of any debris, natural or otherwise, from the walkway. I motion to her, charading (my way of asking) if I should set a stick of incense on the cube? And I should do this at each one? She nods and smiles in agreement, holding up two fingers. After a moment more of charades I find myself laying two sticks of incense at each grave. Leave two sticks at the grave of each of the 47. This accounts for 94 of the 100 sticks and I leave the remainder at the grave of their feudal lord. 

nine of the 47 ronin graves

Not much more to see here, we start walking around the neighborhood, which is decidedly void of points of interest. Lots of residential and construction projects. Not much service business and the one coffee shop we spot makes it clear it is to-go only at this hour. Wanting a sit down coffee, we decide to head to El’s pick of a knitting shop. It is a ways away from here, so we head off closer to Shibuya. Tokyo is huge...in every sense of the word, so a 45 minute metro ride with three line changes is not uncommon. On the way, we grab a coffee at Excelsior Caffe and talk about our post knitting shop stop. The shop is near the train and El is only inside for 20 minutes while I am able to map out our lunch stop- a standing sushi bar called Sushi Cyoh near Tsukiji Market. Another 30 minute metro ride brings us to the only spot on the street with 40 people milling about around in front of it. The counter has 20 spots on one side, four sushi chefs on the other, and no seats. A sign-in sheet outside the door serves as the line. It takes us about 30 minutes to get called in to stand in front of a chef. You can order by set or a la carte and picture/English menus are available. They want to get you in, fed, and out fast. I opt for a platter while El is getting great at ordering the items she knows she likes or is ready to attempt. Both of us have a great sushi bar lunch experience. 


Next up, El finds a bar near the hotel where we can go grab a beer and journal while we discuss our plans for tonight. On the way we pass through Shinjuku Station which is where I think the train to Kyoto leaves from tomorrow. I want to take a few minutes to find where we need to go and navigating a train station with our day packs will be a lot easier than with our full luggage in the morning. We find the JR (train line) office and explain where we are going and it turns out we can start here, but this is NOT the main Tokyo train station that I thought it was! Good thing we checked. Now we know what we have to do in the morning. The bar is called 82 Third and I get Kirin Lager. A chainsmoker sits next to us. It’s funny, you are not allowed to smoke on the streets here, so you don’t see anyone doing it...yet you can still smoke in bars and restaurants and with some of them being so small and no thought of a smoking section, it can be a little much sometimes. We are fading fast, so we head back to the room to nap for a couple of hours and plan to hit Golden Gai in its prime tonight. After the nap our first stop is the Bourdain recommended Bar Albatross and it takes us a lot longer to find it than it should have. I walk into the eight seat bar fully expecting to be declined when I give the “room for two?” sign but, the bartender points us upstairs so we head up one flight and find ourselves in a room with seven seats and five people. We grab the empty seats, check the menu and settle in for an hour. I order a “pepper gin with tonic” (a house specialty) and it tastes, unsurprisingly, like a gin and tonic where someone ground a whole lot of black pepper into the glass- and I mean a whole lot! It is not bad, and if we find ourselves back here I will try the pepper vodka and tomato juice cocktail- that could be good. As we sit and chat, the conversations of the other five in the room are loud enough for us to realize they are English speakers traveling through Japan. We spend the better part of an hour chatting with them (two from New Zealand and three from England) we have a nice time and want to stay when invited, but think it is best to move on to grab some food and hit a heavy metal bar (and maybe another). We bid them farewell and walk across the alley to the soba counter we saw this morning. All seats are full, but it doesn’t take long to eat a bowl of soup. We hover above the people we think will finish next and take the wait time to figure out our order. I know I do not like cold soba and there is only one option that includes hot soba, so that is the choice for both of us. There are two guys behind the counter. One is the soup maker and the other is the prep man who cuts the scallions, boils and removes the shells from the eggs, and also makes several trays of tempura at a time- just circling between the three stations while the soup maker just keeps cranking out bowls of soup, periodically putting a tray of soba noodles to cook, which he pulls out and runs under cold water when it is just about done. It takes less than eight minutes to eat the soup and at $3.50, is a real bargain. 

the eight seat soba shop full at 7:00am

mmm  mmm good

Once full, we move on to Godz metal bar which we went to last time. The “metal” music is a little hit or miss. Sometimes Metallica or Iron Maiden, but sometimes it’s the Scandinavian melodic power metal that I am unfamiliar with and don’t particularly like. One beer each and we are on our way. We head to the depth of Golden Gai that surely has more shops open now than when we were here at 7:00 this morning. Again, very small, smoky rooms that seem to attract the loud, foreigner crowd. We duck into a place called Bay Window which looks to be our speed, but the threat of a ¥1000 cover does not appeal. We look next door to a sign announcing “no cover for foreigners,” we head upstairs, planning to retreat if they have attracted (or created) the element we are looking to avoid (nothing worse than being grouped in with a bunch of drunk tourists). The place is bigger than most and friendly to welcome us. We order some whiskey and a Ka Ga U Me Syu which is a Japanese apricot liqueur. We decide to finish our night here at Bar Araku and walk back to the room. It’s past midnight and we will get up at 6:00 to go to the train station for Kyoto. 

A sound I haven’t heard in awhile. When we arrived in Japan, El got a SIM card for her phone. It did not take very long for us to hear a throwback sound: the shutter click when you take photos. I always thought it was a setting where you could turn the sound effects off. El Googled it, and sure enough, the shutter sound is activated by the phone, based on the SIM that is inserted. This is an effort to prevent creeps from snapping pics of unsuspecting victims. While looking into this, I was (but shouldn’t be) surprised at how many people complain about this feature- so far I am not sure I see a downside to the feature.

Friday February 17 Tokyo > Kyoto

With our body clocks still a little out of whack, I am able to sleep all night, but El wakes earlier than expected. Before going to bed, we decided to try to find a 24 hour ramen shop that we heard about in Golden Gai, so the plan is to wake, shower, check out, ramen for breakfast, metro to Tokyo station. El informs me that while awake, she did some research on the ramen shop and has learned that their specialty is a broth made with sardines. We have had pork broth, vegetable broth, seen miso broth, but we decide to pass on the sardine broth and instead opt to head back to the same spot from last night that we know is next to a metro stop. Instead of being full of late night drunks, they are now serving the breakfast of champions to businessmen (mostly), on their way to work. The bowl of soup costs ¥480, is served about 60 seconds after ordering, and takes only a few minutes to consume. 

the breakfast , lunch, dinner, or late night snack of champions

We are in and out quickly, and metro to Tokyo Station to meet our next train...the Shinkansen (bullet train). We make it to the station with plenty of time to stop for a coffee. As expected, the train is on time to the minute and before we know it we are speeding along the Japanese countryside at 200mph towards Kyoto. The trip is 2.5 hours and we spend the ride planning our day upon arrival. My pre-trip research for Kyoto only consists of four pages, so If the weather cooperates, we should be in decent shape to cross most of the items off.

We make our way to the hotel, which is close to the train station, but it is only about noon, so we have no chance of checking in. We drop our bags and head off for the day, choosing a spot called the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji which is a Buddhist temple in the mountains that has over 1200 individual Buddhas carved from rocks, on the grounds. We take the advice of the people who recommended this place and grab the bus from the train station up to the top of the mountain- a possible, but impractical walk. We pay our ¥300 entrance fee and are free to roam the small temple grounds. Even though there are over 1200, they are, for the most part, weathered and moss covered, making the features hard to distinguish from one another.

my favorite statue i found among the 1200 or so

We take some pictures and head back to the street to grab the next bus back down. We had no idea that the Arashiyama bamboo forest was right near this train station! It was on our agenda for tomorrow, but if we can knock it off today, all the better. We take the bus back down the mountain and instead of getting off at the train station, we exit at the forest. On the ride down I quickly refresh myself with the particulars regarding its significance. Basically, because of the climate in this area the bamboo grows like crazy and to walk along the cut path through a field of 100 foot bamboo culms (yeah, I had to look that term up) can be a sight to behold. The crime however, is doing it with hundreds of other people. What we learned going into it was that even a gentle breeze can create incredible sounds as it blows through the forest. Rustling leaves, creaking and whistling through the woods and that once the tourists arrive for the day, you basically have no shot at experiencing the phenomenon. As we walk, silently, I might add, we take our photos and think that even though it would be cool to hear, it is too far out from the city to warrant a return trip in the morning. We have other plans for tomorrow (and truth be told, we have actually been to a bamboo forest before). We get through the forest and map our route back.

trying to get a moment away from the crowds among the bamboo

looking through the bamboo grove

Turns out this little town actually has two different train stations and we happen to have passes that will work in both, allowing us to take a different route back than we took to get here. While we sit on the platform waiting for the train, I Yelp a restaurant near the stop where we have to switch trains (and train lines- requiring us to exit one line to enter another, so we can easily leave the station) I find a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. It’s a chain, but the reviews are generally very positive and we have wanted to see what this is all about anyway. Most of the reviews do mention that since this part of town is truly off-the-path of most visitors, English speaking staff is non-existent and that if you are good with Google Translate (GT), you'll pick it up in no time. We walk in prepared with our GT, our screen reading “can someone show us how this works?” The cashier walks to the self-serve hostess station and prints us out a table ticket and takes us to our table...and promptly walks away. We acquaint ourselves with the table and try not to make any move until we spy an adjacent table doing it. There is an iPad on the table and in the busy home screen I spy “English”, all of a sudden we are in business! You swipe through the pictures to find what you want, adding it to your cart, and in 1-6 minutes (depending on order) the iPad announces that your order is coming and the conveyor belt parks your plate with precision next to the table for you to grab. You order a la carte until you're satisfied, click checkout, take your table ticket to the self-serve checkout, and exit completely satisfied in knowing you just conquered another challenge in this country. Conveyor belt sushi...done! We are starting to get a little tired, since we did not nap today. We metro back to the room to drop stuff from our bags, finish our check in, and get ready to go out for a beer in the neighborhood. We have an early plan tomorrow, so it won't be a late night. This is our first ryokan which is more of a traditional Japanese inn than a hotel (with full meal service, sleep accommodations, and soaking pool), though there are some similarities. Key features are the tatami mat floor and sliding rice paper shades. When we were shown to our room, it was made clear that you must take your shoes off when in the room and slippers are provided. We see the room is prepared with a table in the center and no bed. We did not order the prepared food option where they deliver dinner to your room, but that is what the room is set up for. We rearrange our bags and head out for the night. On the way out we stop at the desk to charade, “we are going out now for one hour and will sleep when we return” he understands and we hit the street. Limiting our search radius to the five blocks between the hotel and the train station we are not venturing far. We see one place with beer in the window, but they look closed. Next, we walk in with our GT, “do you have room for two without a reservation?” I do not need to translate her answer, the look on her face says “no, sorry.” We wander down an alley and hit a dead end at a soup shop that doesn't look like a beer place, more of an eat and get out place. But, before turning around, it looks like there is a small passageway leading to a business tucked back in a nook. We walk down the dark alley and come upon a small place with 12 seats and one customer. Not sure if they are serving beer, my GT again asks “can we drink beer here, no food?” To which the man behind the counter happily smiles and nods, motioning for us to come in and sit. We each get a beer and through GT actually find ourselves having a fun conversation with these two guys for the next hour. We learn that this is a curried rice shop which we have not had. I would not mind coming back tomorrow to try it. At 8pm, fading fast and with a plan to be up and out early tomorrow, we bid Hide (the owner) a goodnight. As we return to the room, someone has rearranged it to push the table aside and make our futon beds. They are inviting.

Line formation. We have been doing a tremendous amount of public transport traveling this trip and one of the first things I notice is that the Japanese line up orderly for everything. I am not only speaking about ticket windows or vending kiosks, but when a train pulls into a station and lets hundreds of people off everyone heads for the exit. Some will take the stairs, but most take the escalator. As you walk towards the exit, you will see a spontaneous line formed, hugging the wall, waiting for the escalator. Once on the escalator, everybody stands on the left side, and no one walks up as the escalator is going up. Just one continuous line stretching from the wall at the bottom to the top of the escalator.

Saturday February 18 Kyoto

The thin bed mattress is OK, though mostly because of how exhausted we were. When I think about it, it wasn’t the most comfortable bed (think thin futon laying frameless on the floor). There is one single comforter with a duvet on it, that only allows for on or off. So, you can find yourself too hot with it on or too cold with it off. We are out around 7:00 with our first stop 35 minutes from downtown called the Fushimi Inari Shrine that is visually recognizable by its bright orange torii gates. We were trying to beat the crowds here this morning, but the 50 or so other visitors tell us we may have missed that window. I will admit to falling in with the crowd on this one, but when you first approach the torii gates, your first reaction is to get the photo. However, everyone wants the same shot and jostling for position to be the next to get a photo with no other people can be a challenge. What no one realizes is that during your time here, you will see thousands of gates and have plenty of opportunities to take unobstructed pictures. It certainly is a sight to see 10,000 torii gates lined up one after another creating a tunnel up and back down the mountain. As you hike forward you look ahead at the striking orange colored gates that are visually beautiful. However, when you find yourself looking back, you will see the black writing on the back side of the orange gates making it even more of a striking visual. In this particular case, we are at an advantage not being able to read Japanese. We take our photos, generally oblivious to the true nature of the subjects we stand in front of. As we hike up the mountain, we take some rest breaks and pull out the guidebooks to read about the shrine and its grounds. There was an assumption (and I can’t be the only one) that the writing on the gates are religious scripture or otherwise inspirational passages. Then, we read something that gives us a hearty laugh and once we press on we test what we just learned. I approach a gate and pull out the GT to read the passage and to our humor, it reads, essentially, “this gate sponsored by the Kyoto Paper Company” the next reading “this gate provided by the law offices of Suzuki & Suzuki.” And now we know, they are just strategically placed advertisements. It certainly looks a lot more beautiful when you don’t know what it says! We make it to the top of the mountain, though truthfully some of the scenic overlooks on the way up are better views than the ones at the actual top. As we make our way to the bottom towards the exit, we now see hundreds (thousands?) of visitors on their way in. Turns out the 50 we saw on the way in didn't look so bad now, which underscores our decision to come early to beat the crowds.

one perspective of the torii gates

the other direction of the torii gates. a nicer visual as long as you can't read the writing

We take the train back into the city to go to Honke Owariya, known as one of the oldest and best soba restaurants in the country. We get there just before opening time and there is already a line to get in. Luckily, there is enough room inside for us to be seated in the first wave. The food is very decent, though I am not a fan of miso based broth. The texture of the noodles is incredible…silklike. As we leave we see the line has grown and seeing them all standing in the rain assures us we made the right call coming when we did. 

the soba of emporors...and us

After lunch we head to a knitting shop for El while I map out where to meet our walking tour. We meet at 2:00pm and the tour mostly takes us through the Gion district, which is the Geisha district. We learn all about the Geisha profession and see the Geishas and their apprentices walking on the street. Because of previous incidents with out of towners accosting the Geishas for selfies, today it is forbidden to take photos throughout this neighborhood. The tour is fine, but it is a little more walking than touring, but we do get some decent recommendations from our guide. After the tour, we head to a Starbucks as it is located in a traditional building and blends in with the surroundings, architecture-wise. We walk, drinking our lattes on the way. Next stop is the Nishiki Food Market. On the way I spot a place called Good Morning Record Bar and I see through the window that he is actually filing vinyl. We make a pit stop for a beer, though upon entry we realize it is not the kind of music we care to spend much time listening to (Japanese dreampop band, Bonobos, is the record playing). We only stay for one drink before heading out. We are going to dinner at the curry place from last night. On the way, we walk through the food market, both fresh, but mostly prepared. The raw is mostly seafood and the cooked is mostly skewered, grilled meats. With a dinner plan, and since many of the stalls are closing at 6:00pm we are OK to just stroll through looking at the offerings. We go back to the room and adjust our bags for going back out. We see that housekeeping has been in the room, but the components of our sleeping mats lie in a (neat) pile on the floor. On our way out I ask if we are to make up our bed or do they have someone who can do it for us. He motions that he has the people to do it and it will be done before our return. We head out to our new friend Hide’s restaurant. This is the place where we drank a beer last night and there was one other customer. We know he serves curry with rice and we want to try it. We walk in and the same customer is sitting in the same seat at the bar and both remember us. Hide hands us a menu with one photo on it (of the curry) and several lines of side dishes (all in Japanese). We order our Sapporo beer and GT the menu. We each order a bowl of rice with curry and a side of curry fried potato. This is served first. Basically, it’s french fries served with curry salt that you sprinkle yourself to desired saltiness. It’s no patatas bravas, but with a side of mayo, makes for a fine appetizer. Next is the main event, a bowl of white rice topped with a few ladles of curried beef stew. On the platter, to the side of the bowl are a selection of six different kinds of pickled vegetables. Always liking to know what I am eating, if possible, I am able to use GT to understand the varieties...turnip, daikon radish, cabbage, peppers, onions, and some sort of greens. They are tasty and I am not sure if we were supposed to somehow incorporate them into the curry and rice, but we just ate them separately. Tasty and very crunchy. We continue to get the sense that the single customer is less of a customer and more of Hide’s friend who eats here. Since it is just the four of us, El and I start using GT to have a conversation. Telling them what we did today, what we plan for tomorrow, and tonight after this dinner. As Hide prepares our food, his friend can read our translations out loud to him, while Hide will grab his phone and GT his responses. As the meal progresses and we can tell him our opinions of the new tastes and textures we learn several things...restaurateur is a side job for Hide as he owns a pickle company. The customer/friend sitting next to me is his employee. And, the curry is Hide’s mother's recipe and she supplies her curry to many local restaurants. Oh, the things we learn when we can communicate. We spend about two hours here eating and conversing with our new friends before moving on to what will be our last stop of the night. 

japanese beef curry with a selection of pickled vegetables

A bar called Ing Rocking Bar. It was a little hard to find, as with many businesses here (in Japan) it is located in a multi-story building and you have to use the elevator to access the floor. This could be any type of business from a clothing shop to specialty store, to dive bar, to a dentist office. We walk in, greeted by a Ramones poster and Rolling Stones on the stereo. The bartender is very friendly and points for us to have a seat. As we sit, everything starts to hit me all at once. We order drinks, but digesting the dinner coupled with the mountain of steps we climbed this morning and the walking tour this afternoon, I am feeling exhausted and my plan to journal while drinking is quickly perished. I can barely keep my eyes open and need to call it a night. El is fine with that too. We pay up and walk back to our made up room and fall asleep hard for the night. The forecast is rain tomorrow and when we wake, El will have found a couple of rainy day options that will fill our day. We also have a kaiseki lunch reservation for 1:30pm. That will be interesting.

Wait your turn. I don’t know if this is a law or just etiquette, but when you are walking around a city and come upon an intersection with a crosswalk, no one crosses against the light. Picture this, you are standing at a don’t walk light. You look both ways and there are no cars coming. Most would cross against the light continuing to look each way. Not here. People will actually form a line to wait for the light to change. In the time we were here, the amount of people I saw cross against any light was negligible- tourists probably.

Sunday February 19 Kyoto

With an alarm set for 6:30, we actually wind up waking much earlier than anticipated. We leisurely get ourselves ready for the day. As we get to the street we are greeted with the first rainy day since we have been in Japan. The forecast says it will vary from light to heavy throughout the day. We are rain gear prepared. Our first stop today is the Ryōan-ji rock garden. The trip will be our first real experience with taking the city buses. On the way, we stop at the ‘Sev’ for breakfast. Today I got curried rice with pork and a chicken salad on a roll. We are both, admittedly, having issues with our Google Maps app. Not sure if it is settings in the app or poor translation, or what, but we are finding it particularly hard to follow these directions, the least of which is that some of the bus numbers (on the app) are in our number system, while other names are in Japanese making it virtually impossible for us to figure out which bus we are waiting on. We walk up to find the 201 bus stop. We know which direction we need the bus towards, but the other people at the stop cannot tell us if it is this stop we need or the one across the street. We just wait for the next 201 bus and I show the driver the word Ryōan-ji on my phone. He says “no” and holds his arms in an ‘X’. We back off the bus questioning where we went wrong to think this might be the right one. We head across the street and ask people waiting for their bus if this is the right direction. One woman says she is sure the other side of the street is the correct direction. We head back over to wait for another bus. This time we don't even ask, we just get on the bus and follow the stops along on the phone. We get off the bus and now need to transfer, but aren't sure where the transfer stop is. I can see no less than four different bus stops from this spot and we start walking to try to figure out where the map is telling us to get the next bus. We walk around, backtracking several times until El begins using something called the “live view” where instead of looking at your map, the screen changes actually to a live look as if you are looking through the camera, so El can see me in front of her on the screen, but at the same time it overlays symbols when the system recognizes where you are, to tell you which direction to go. After all of the trial and error to find the stop for the bus 59, we see that we are looking for the exact stop that we just got off! I ask the next 59 bus if he goes to Ryōan-ji and he says “no”, but explains if we take this bus for six stops, we can transfer to the 64 bus that does take that route. He makes sure we know when to exit and will not let us pay for this ride. We appreciate his help. The next 64 comes and he too holds his arms in an ‘X’ and shakes his head no. “What??” I say as I again find myself backing off the bus. I step to the side and look at the front of the bus that actually has the words Ryōan-ji on the front!! Are these guys just being assholes? Is the Japanese written word for Ryōan-ji wrong? Where am I going wrong? Of course they can tell you all day long what we need to do, but our Japanese being non-existent is limiting us. We are standing on the sidewalk in the rain as the bus pulls away. Completely frustrated and soaking, we abandon the bus route and decide to just walk the rest of the way. It should be 25 minutes, but it spares us more rejection. We find ourselves walking through a tiny neighborhood that is miles away from the downtown we came from. Up ahead we see some activity. As we approach it looks like the road is actually closed ahead. Flashing lights and official looking people are all over. We won’t know what is going on until we get closer. Road is closed, but not to foot traffic, just cars. OK, we are able to continue on. The walk is a little more than a mile and it does not take us long to realize that today is the running of the Kyoto Marathon and we are about to see thousands of runners passing us by- luckily, we are on the correct side of the street as crossing the road with all the runners would have been difficult, if not impossible. Eventually, we come upon the Ryōan-ji gardens and head inside. Since all of the roads are closed to motor traffic in this area today, we are practically the only two people in the entire complex! Score!! We wander through and walk around the central duck pond. Even though it is raining lightly, it really only adds to the beauty of the garden. The main attraction here is the zen rock garden, which is a 25x10 meter rectangle consisting of pebble sized white gravel pristinely raked, featuring 15 rocks of different size that are placed in such a way that the creator's harmonious spirit is represented...or something like that. It certainly was pretty and serene and quiet without other visitors, but I can’t help but think that the effort to get here may not have been worth it. Granted most days have no marathon, so if we were able to get here in regular time, it might have been better, albeit not entirely to ourselves.

this was an art display in the tea room at the ryōan-ji gardens

difficult to get a shot of the entire rock garden , but this is pretty close

We have lunch reservations for 1:30 in Kyoto center and though we hoped to have another stop before going, the time is starting to get away from us. We walk, instead of the way we came, by continuing to the other side of this town facing the runners as they run towards their finish line. People are out to cheer the runners and some groups have stations set up to rally the athletes. Like school band drum corps and cheerleading squads making noises of encouragement for the passersby. The surprisingly moving display was the monks from a roadside temple coming out to offer their prayers and cheers. About 30 minutes later we actually see the end of the runners as the streets get opened behind them as they pass. A volunteer is able to direct us to the station that he says is “far” and turns out to be less than 200 meters down the street. We figure out our directions and know we are on the fastest route back to Kyoto Station. At this point, we will be at the restaurant by noon (for a 1:30 reservation). We pivot and head to the Kyotomangekyo Kaleidoscope Museum. It is actually pretty cool as they have a room set up with 38 different kaleidoscopes, varying in complexity and how they are operated. Of course I saw kaleidoscopes when I was a kid but they just never did much for me. Look inside, point to light, turn knob, ooh and aah at the dynamic design. Well, these weren’t all that much different, in that you only really need about 30 seconds to see the extent of the scope's capabilities, though some of them had liquid crystal, some look more mechanical, some have different effects depending on the type of light source (strong and bright or lower) and direction of disk (or discs) rotation. 

My favorite was one that if you moved your fingers in front of the light source while twisting the knob, it created a 3D effect like you were traveling at warp speed in the Millennium Falcon. We spend longer than I thought we would here, including a light show that was pretty funny in that when the narration was in Japanese, El and I continued to chat about what we were seeing. But when the narration changed to English, the whole room started chatting amongst themselves while we tried to listen. Luckily the presentation was only three minutes. We finish up here and when you learn that these kaleidoscopes are more works of art than toys for kids, the $500-$1000 price tags in the gift shop do all they can to quickly usher us along. At 12:30 I start getting antsy about getting back to the restaurant as they are adamant that you not be late. We are walking back at a fast pace to make it, until it dawns on me that we have to be back for 1:30, not 1:00! Whatever, we can see if they have a bar that we can wait at unless they can seat us now. We arrive about 12:50. They do open the door to welcome us, but make it clear that they have no bar and no room for us and to please return at 1:30. We are near the Good Morning Record Bar, so we head there for a beer while we wait until 1:28 to then run back across the street. 

We arrive at the restaurant Roan Kikunoi on time and prepare for our first kaiseki- which is basically a multi course meal with small, bite sized items. My friend says he has never had a kaiseki where he liked everything- tempering my expectations. Think of this as sitting at a sushi bar, but instead of sushi they just keep bringing sushi sized portions of things that aren't sushi. They even had a menu printed in English for us, which we appreciated. When possible, I do like to know what I am eating, not to reject it, but to help me understand the experience. Everything was decent and there were only a couple of clunky components- the sardine sushi was vomitous, the stewed yellowtail was entirely too fishy, and the boiled fu (marshmallow sized cube of pure wheat gluten) was not a good texture for me. Everything else was edible and some were downright great. Honestly, the dessert was the best course. People in the food community say you should try a kaiseki and it should be in Kyoto, home to some of the finest restaurants in Japan. Check and check. The lunch lasts only about an hour and a half. One funny moment comes during the second course with a menu description that reads, in part, “marinated Fuki (coltsfoot) bud in Miso”. Now, I don’t know what most of that means, but it is part of the course of nine bites. I work my way around the plate, eating each component fully and separately before moving on to the next. I get to this item and it looks remarkably like a twig. There are some buds on the piece and after examination, I carefully put it into my mouth. As I begin to chew (very slowly) I feel as if chewing faster would, no doubt, cut up the inside of my mouth! There is not much of a taste, but the texture is unreal- and not in a good way. Do I bite down on it? Do I chew and swallow? What will it do to me if I do swallow it? I make the decision to discreetly spit it out into my napkin. When the chef comes back to check on us I point to El’s plate and ask him how are we supposed to enjoy this bite? To which he replies, “you don’t eat it, it is for decoration.” Why it was listed on the menu, I may never know. Another first for us is the inclusion of fugu in one of the courses. Fugu (puffer fish) is famous for its ability to kill you as the fish has toxins that need to be removed skillfully and properly before consumption. The thing is that the meat is very bland. It was served to us on top of steamed rice and was seriously not very flavorful. I guess you are eating it more for the chance to say you cheated death at lunch than taking the risk for an incredible ingredient. When asked if it was “worth the risk?” Let’s just say I would have been really unhappy if I keeled over dead from eating this particular dish.

our introduction to kaiseki. you have no idea what will be served until it is given to you. would you try everything?

this is steamed scallop & yam with salted sea cucumber guts and japanese parsley. tasted better than the description lets on

After lunch we head to the Gekkeikan sake museum, an exhibit space outlining the history of sake making and tasting room that leads you into the gift shop for Gekkeikan sake. When you pay the entrance fee they give you a souvenir sake cup and three tokens that you can use in their tasting room at the end where there is a representative on hand to explain the characteristics of the 10 choices available. This is a learning experience for me as my knowledge of sake is limited. You then use the tokens to get three samples of the offerings. I choose the driest, crispest, fruitiest options and am pleasantly surprised by how much I like them. We are through quickly and heading back towards Gion. Toshi (a Tokyo resident who has mutual friends with me) recommended a friend’s restaurant called N(enne). We find it with ease and ask for the owner, but she is at home today. The restaurant has just seven seats. We ask if there is room for two to drink sake and she waves us in. They serve several kinds of pickles to accompany the sake. We wind up in conversation with all five of the other patrons and the chef. The GT is flying and everyone is laughing. The chef calls the owner on the phone and I have a quick conversation with her, though she is not coming in today. I will send her regards to Toshi when we meet up in Tokyo next week. We are being served pickles and salads that we did not order. The squid and potato salad is great and the pickled burdock with fresh wasabi is really good too. Next though she hands me a bowl with several different looks, textures, and flavors. We learn about konjac (root vegetable), Alaskan pollock, fish cakes, different kinds of fish and a broth so fishy that it infuses the hard boiled egg. I make it clear that I am trying my best to keep the fishy stuff down but that it is really not my favorite. Before I know it she takes my plate of fish and replaces it with a new stewed daikon radish which was much more to our liking. 

with the chef at N(enne)

Again, now, being so full is the issue more than anything else. We stay for about two hours and since we are taking the train to Hiroshima tomorrow and have to be up early, instead of hitting another bar, we decide to grab a couple of beers at the ‘Sev’ and have them in the room while we prepare our bags.

Take it with you! Have you ever found yourself walking around a city and have something to throw away? An empty coffee cup, maybe? A gum wrapper. An empty soda bottle. Since we bought a lot of snacks at the ‘Sev’, we frequently found ourselves looking for a place to toss the garbage. Train platforms have garbage cans. The ‘Sev’ has one. And next to vending machines you will sometimes see a recycle bin only. Other than that, we noticed almost zero garbage cans on the street. They just don’t seem to have them, as you are expected to take your refuse home to dispose of properly. How this hasn’t resulted in a tremendous amount of litter, I have not figured out. At the end of many days when I would clear my pockets in the room, I would reach in and pull out something that felt like a folded paper bill, only to find I had been carrying my sandwich wrapper from lunch around with me all day. I guess this method works!

Monday February 20 Kyoto > Hiroshima

I want to log onto my bank account, but authentication is not possible. I call, but they are closed for Presidents Day. And tell me that my problem is not important enough to be able to get assistance on the holiday. Well, that seems like great customer service! After leaving ourselves plenty of time to get to the train this morning, the bank issue whittled that down, so we are able to make it to Kyoto station with just a half hour to spare. Once we get to the platform we order a coffee at the vending machine. El gets a latte and I get a banana hot chocolate. Watching the vending machine work is neat and we video one getting made. My first sip of my drink is cloyingly sweet banana flavored syrup. Blech. Subsequent sips are not as bad since it seems that I sipped all of the banana syrup off the top in the first sip. Without a way to really stir it, I just have to live and learn. Our train to Hiroshima is on time and the two hour ride flies by at 200 miles per hour. We arrive at the main train station and find an information desk as we are trying to figure out the best method to get from the station to the hotel. As usual, we are here so early, that there is no way we will be able to check in, but to drop bags is the goal, firstly. We are thrilled to learn from the info desk that Hiroshima has something called the Loop bus that drives a continuous route around the city and if you have the JR Pass (that we do) the rides are free! We are able to use it to get to the hotel to drop the bags. Our first stop is Memorial Park. It is right around the corner from the hotel and we start at the A Bomb Dome. I thought that was a little strange of a name for it, though apt, but everything official actually used that name. The A Bomb Dome is the standing remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and one of the few spots in the vicinity that had any remains after the detonation and is considered to be ground zero for the bomb. I understand that the design and construction are what is thought to be responsible for what is left, to be left. For many years some wanted to tear the remains down, while others wanted to preserve it as a reminder of the destruction and why we need peace. The memorial park spans several city blocks. There are certain places that you can go to that really seem to hit you in a different way than anyplace else. Today was one of those days.

the a bomb dome

top of the children's monument in the memorial park

a continuously solemn place, the memorial cenotaph with the a bomb dome and eternal flame on the other side

The obvious draw for us to Hiroshima is anything associated with the Atomic Bomb dropped on August 6, 1945. In fact, I have a list of 20 things to do in Hiroshima and at least 12 of them are associated with the Memorial Park. We continue through the park that includes an atomic clock that commemorates the bombing every morning at 8:15, a peace bell that visitors can ring, a monument to children and even a mound that encases the cremated remains of thousands of victims. An eternal flame and other memorial sculptures are also places to stand and reflect on the significance of the park. Finally, there is the memorial museum which tells the story in vivid detail of the death, destruction, remains, resilience, and rebuilding of a city virtually wiped out in a matter of seconds all those years ago. Two of the most striking images for me were the “Human Shadow Etched in Stone” (a stone entryway that is said to be permanently stained by the vaporized remains of a human where they sat at that moment (though this is scientifically disputed)) and the remains of a partially incinerated tricycle. Underscoring the unimaginable power of such a weapon. 

one of the more striking exhibits in the peace memorial museum

After the museum, we catch the Loop bus to the Shukkei-en garden and take a leisurely stroll through the grounds. You can buy a bag of fish food at the entrance with the understanding that you can ONLY feed the fish as birds are looking for food too and the gardens do NOT want you to feed the birds! We stop along the path at some water edges to throw a few pellets of food into the water. It usually does not take long for the first fish to arrive and several come behind it looking for a handout and quickly, what starts as a couple of fish getting a private feeding, turns into a frenzy as the bigger fish box the smaller ones out of position. At one point we come to, what amounts to, a small bamboo grove. It’s not forest big, but a large patch of full grown bamboo like we saw in Arashiyama. (you may remember we couldn’t hear the rustling sounds with all of the tourists?). But, today there is almost no one in the gardens and those that are here are not speaking. This allows El and I to wait for a gentle wind to see what we can hear. It doesn’t take long and it starts with the leaves rustling like a dry tree on a summer day, but it is the creaking and tinkling that we hear that makes us understand why this is one of Japan’s governmentally recognized soundscapes. We spend about 45 minutes in the garden, discussing the next stop along the way. We decide to hit Hiroshima Castle next, which is a complete rebuild of a castle that ruled over this land for many years. There are no photos allowed inside unless there is a specific sign that photos are OK. We make our way throughout the exhibit, but most of it is either in Japanese only, or just does not interest me. In fact, we joke that all of the armor here is labeled as a “replica”, but when we were in Florence last year and went to the Stibbert Museum, we saw the real thing. They don't have the real stuff here, because it's all there!

now you see what i have to contend with when trying to get my photos

We don’t spend all that long here and afterwards decide to head to a place for okonomiyaki at Mitchan Sohonten Hatchobori. They are closed now and open at 5:30, With at least 30 minutes to wait, we try to spot a beer bar while we wait. Across the street I see a poster for Sapporo beer and go to see if they are open. They are not. I slowly walk through the adjacent alleyway and see a restaurant that is also closed. As I am about to turn around and leave, I see on the door of the last business, a sign that reads ”Standing Bar Inity”. I expect they are closed too, though I check the door and see people inside, sliding it and holding up two fingers and say “beer?” The bartender waves us in. As we stand, surveying what the people here are doing. It looks like people stop in for a drink and a bite on their way home from work. Everyone knows the bartender who is doing his best to keep them happy. It only takes a few minutes for one older man to catch my eye and ask “where are you from?” I answer and this opens up our stay for the next two hours! We are watching the bartender work with his two burner stove making all kinds of small plates for the guys standing at the bar. As we see plates going out, we see one with stir fried pork and veggies and order one for ourselves. As El and I split the plate, he starts making, what looks like, grilled tofu for one of the guys at the bar. As he plates the tofu brick by slicing it into identical cubes, and pouring a bowl of ponzu for dipping, he puts half on one plate, half on another. He serves the guy who ordered it, but then serves us the other half. We didn’t order this? Pointing to the guy down the bar, “he bought it for you”! We haven’t been here 20 minutes and people are already buying stuff for us? I can get used to this. I will admit, right now, that I have never eaten a chunk of tofu like this, so I hope by putting the first bite in my mouth that I don't have a texture issue that causes some sort of involuntary reaction. I dip the cube in the ponzu and pop it in my mouth. No issue! I am able to smile and thank our benefactor. Smiling and waving back - he knows we appreciate this. El is taking pictures and trying to GT the chalkboard menu with today's offerings. Meanwhile, the guy who shared his tofu with us offers me a shot of whiskey on his way out. Not one to turn down free alcohol, we enjoy a single shot, poured into two glasses. He settles his bill, while I try to come up with something to say other than “thank you very much” over and over. No matter, he gets my struggle. As he leaves the tiny bar, a man enters and the bartender motions for him to stand near us and says to me- “he speaks English ok”. Well, that was an understatement. For a guy who lived in Colorado and San Francisco for 18 years, his English is a bit better than “OK” and he becomes our new friend facilitating most communication gaps between the other regulars and us. We order a chicken fried rice and it tastes just like we get at home and I like it. To be friendly, I ask his name to which he smiles and shakes his head. This is a little weird, as I don’t think I have ever had anyone refuse to give me their name. Jokingly, I tell him for the duration of our stay, we will call him “Steve” and he says he is OK with that. Up next, a gentleman named Tsuga coordinated with the bartender to offer us a shot of whiskey as he makes his way out. Before we know it, El, Steve, Tsuga, and I are being served a glass of whiskey. Lots of “kanpai”s and “arigato”s as we enjoy our drink. El then orders a plate of beef curry. For a small place, this guy is turning out some respectable food! It’s very good and Steve explains that the bartender does this as a side job as he owns an orchard and produces some quality hard cider. El, needing another drink gets a glass of cider and it really is very good. This place just keeps getting better! Eventually, I ordered another plate of fried rice and it was as good as the first. We also ask the bartender for his name. He explains his name is Tetsuya, but everyone calls him TA-Chan. 

this is tonight's menu at standing bar inity. as he runs out of ingredients he crosses off the items with his thumb

By 7:00 we are getting a little tired and head out to the okonomiyaki that we originally came to try. By now, though, the line is around the building which is promising. But it is cold, so I make an order to go and we take the bean sprout pancake with sweet sauce back to the room to try. El is not feeling well, though I ate the same food as her, so maybe she drank too much, not sure? Either way, I don’t want to keep her out if she’s not comfortable. Admittedly full from all of the food from earlier, I really only need to try the pancake/omelet, and not necessarily eat it all. I take my sample and it is OK. The consistency is good and the textures are good, but the sauce on the top is way too sweet for a dish that is not a dessert- reminds me of very sweet soy sauce. I only take a few bites, check it off my list, and call it a night.

The art of not speaking. Japanese subways are silent. There are announcements in English reminding you to turn off your cell phones when on a train as your noise may bother other passengers. You don't even hear people talking amongst themselves. It is eeriely quiet. This video is shot at rush hour on a Tokyo metro. It is very crowded.


Tuesday February 21 Hiroshima > Fukuoka

Our train to Fukuoka leaves at 7:56 this morning. We never really unpacked from travel yesterday morning, so we don’t have much to get ready this morning. We get up at 5:30 so that we can take our time getting to the train station. There is a limited subway system here in Hiroshima, but the street cars are much closer stops for us and when you are dragging luggage, you obviously want to walk as little as possible. All streetcar lines end at Hiroshima Station and we are able to identify the correct direction for the line very quickly. At this hour there really aren't many people on the tram. We get on and there is an elderly man slumped down in the seat, dozing. At some point the mask that he is clutching slips from his hand and onto the floor landing on his shoe. As I notice it has fallen, he wakes and I motion to him that he has dropped his mask. He acknowledges and leans forward to pick it up, but he is having trouble reaching it. He tries a couple of times and instead of continuing to watch the struggle, I lean forward to pick it up for him. Just as I do, he makes his best effort yet and before I can grab the mask, he falls out of his seat and right onto the floor! I don’t know what to do. Luckily another passenger and eventually the conductor comes over to see if he needs medical help, but I assume since the passenger tries to help him up, that we are not leaving him there until the ambulance arrives. The passenger cannot get the old man up by himself, so now I find myself lifting him back into his seat. At this point, I can’t tell if he is drunk, sick, or just frail, but before I know it the conductor is helping him off the tram. He is incredibly unsteady on his feet and I am shocked he remains standing on the platform just long enough for the tram to move out of the stopping area- lest he falls into the moving tram, which thankfully he didn’t. We make it to the station with plenty of time to spare. We got to the track and El set off to find coffee and breakfast snacks. The train is uneventful and only about an hour into Hakata Station. As usual, we are in town so early that we cannot check into the hotel yet, but want to find the hotel to drop our bags and start exploring. We have a walking tour tomorrow and a dinner reservation for tomorrow and leave early on Thursday, so we are free today. There is a concert I wouldn’t mind going to check out, but if that doesn't happen it is not the end of the world. Our first stop is the Tochiji Temple which has a path between heaven and hell. We walk into the shrine and are asked for a ¥50 donation for a single candle and three sticks of incense. You light the candle from the flame next to the table, set the candle in the holding rack, light the incense with the candle flame and set them into the pot of ash also next to the table. This is our offering. We enter the shrine to see a very large wooden Buddha. Once you have paid your respects to the Buddha you move to the left side and head down a hallway where there are seven paintings each depicting visions of hell in spectacularly graphic detail. Each is more gruesome than the next with figures being cut in half to dismembered body parts being fed into a boiling cauldron. Think...the cover of Slayer’s Hell Awaits record. After the seven visions of hell you enter a black space. This represents the path between heaven and hell. There is zero light in this walkway that lasts for about 100 meters. Our eyes do not adjust and you move forward in total darkness feeling the walls to keep your bearings. There is a metal ring located somewhere in the tunnel and if you find it you are said to be heaven bound. Consider me saved as I did locate the ring about half way through. As you exit the darkness, you find yourself on the other side of the Buddha. There is nothing more to do in the shrine, so we leave quietly. No photos are allowed inside, so there is not much else to say about it. Although a funny moment as we left we pass a poster with a photo of the Buddha from inside the shrine. Upon closer look you can see a light, pencil thin mustache on the Buddha. I am not sure I have ever seen the Buddha with a mustache. I wonder if it is possible that someone actually graffiti’d a mustache on the poster? It is that awkward.

i swear i thought it was graffiti until i saw the poster on the other side was identical. now you see what el has to contend with when trying to get her photos 

Next, we walk towards an udon shop for lunch. It is early enough that we will get there just as they open, hopefully to beat the crowds. On the way, El spots Kushida Shrine that we stop into. This one specializes in the floats they use in an annual parade/celebration in July. We understand that after the parade the floats are all destroyed, except one, which they keep on display all year long at this shrine. We get some photos of the float and there is not much else here to see, so we continue on to the udon place. We find it, arriving just after 11:30 to see a handwritten note on the door that ends with the phrase (in English) “Temporary Close Lunch”. El translates the rest of the sign that explains that due to the owners health, they are not open for lunch these days, but will keep their normal dinner business hours. Now onto the next plan. We want to head to the Daimyo district to find some ramen. Fukuoka is known as the city that invented ramen and many say the best is here. As we make our way to the area, we see a ramen shop with a couple of seats and we walk in to order two bowls. This turns into another case of, “we don’t know how to do this, can someone help us?” You see, instead of ordering from the staff, you go to the vending machine in the corner, by the door. You put your money in, choose your options- which give you tickets, then, when you are seated, you give the server your tickets and they expedite the order to deliver. The issue is that we need to translate everything with the phone, which is not a problem, but does take some time, especially when you are building two separate orders. We do the best we can with the help of a worker who can really only point for us to show us how things work, so we are basically on our own to order what we think we want. We both wind up with several tickets (one for every item you order, so each topping is a separate ticket). Our orders arrive quick enough and this is the first time we have ever had the broth served in a separate bowl. The main bowl has your noodles, vegetables, grilled pork etc and you are supposed to dip the dry ingredients into the hot broth and slurp it up. We each take a small taste of the broth and it is awful! Thankfully I didn't just dump it into the dry bowl. I eat the dry ingredients without broth and leave the broth for the trash. I come to the home of ramen and have the worst ramen ever! I am taking full responsibility for the total miss, but the irony is still incredible. Next stop is the Voodoo Lounge to see what we can find out about tonight's show. Is it sold out? Is it happening? How much are tickets? etc. We find the club, but there is no box office or anyone to ask, so we move on. We walk up to the nearest bus stop to try our hand at that again. We are heading to another temple called Sumiyoshi. We touch a statue for power, and we touch another for good health...and evidently, good fishing luck- not that we need it, but, hey when it is offered, I guess you take it. When we are done here we head to a “green building” called the Acros building. It is a regular office building, with one key feature, a greenspace up the entire side! And that’s not all. The design of the building is tiered on one side, so it looks like a pyramid. However, as the pyramid goes up, each of the flat surfaces is covered by trees and bushes. Further, there is a staircase that allows visitors to walk up the 14 floors to an observation deck on the roof. A complete greenspace in the middle of a downtown business district. We walk up to get some pictures, though the surroundings are not very photogenic. 

a piece of greenspace in the heart of the city

We head now to the hotel to check in and get ready to go out tonight. The concert is supposed to start at 6:00 (at least the opening bands do) and we will probably grab some food afterwards. We make it to the club around 7:00pm and sure enough the show is on and tickets are available. It is a band I have actually never heard of out of England called the Cockney Rejects. It appears they have been around for many years, but they don’t tend to play in the states, so the only reason they are on my radar now is because they are playing a Japanese tour this week. The club, apart from being located on the 4th floor of a building, looks not unlike many of the dive bars (with a good sound system) that I have ever been in. Tickets are steep, at about $40, but checking out a new band in a foreign city, we are willing to take the risk and hopefully continue exploring this neighborhood afterwards. There are several opening bands and Cockney Rejects goes on around 9:00, for 60 min. We should be out by 10:00. In true Japanese fashion, the show is basically on time and the band only plays an hour. The room is very smoky. In between bands as El and I sit at the bar waiting for Cockney Rejects, I hear a man next to me speaking English to his friend. The farther south we have traveled the less English we have encountered. I was surprised that none of our hotel staff spoke any English, but are great at GT, making the check in process painless. Nonetheless, I lean over and ask this guy what he is doing here and he explains that he is living here teaching English and a huge punk fan, and since Fukuoka gets so few shows, he made the two hour trek on a worknight just to be here. 

cockney rejects on stage

He gives me some recommendations for a like minded individual such as myself. I ask for a yatai recommendation but, surprisingly, he says he has never eaten at one, so we are on our own. After the show I thank him for his conversation and El and I head out to see what yatai is all about. We had read a couple of things about yatai in the notes and it started to come together on our way to the show tonight. Basically, it is a popup street food shop. What they do is set up a tent about 15x15 on the sidewalk (a very wide sidewalk). Some have printed menus, others have chalkboards with today's offerings. Most have a hawker trying to get passersby to fill the seats inside. There are about 12 seats around a central counter where the chefs stand behind cooking as ordered. I was perwarned that many will not serve non-Japanese speakers, so if you ask and they say no for any reason, just move on without argument. The first one we see on our walk back to the hotel looks pretty full. I pull out my GT and walk to the door asking “are you making something with pork or chicken? And do you have room for two?” He reads my phone and says, bluntly, “closed”. Although the 12 people sitting inside says differently, I do not argue. We move to the next tent and hold up my phone to the hawker, he says one word: “full”. We press on. The next couple have a line waiting to replace those currently inside. The last tent has a hawker and we see a couple of empty seats inside. My GT does its job and he looks to see where he can fit us. He pulls up the side flaps and tells a couple of diners to slide down and make room for us. He shows me a menu that does have basic English translations on it and points out his pork based recommendations. We start off with two beers and a bowl of stir fried pork with onions and cabbage in a soy sauce. El and I share the bowl, taking in the scene. The hawker keeps popping his head through the tent flaps to see if we are OK. Luckily, we are very good. I ask if he has anything with rice (thinking fried rice) and he says yes, taking my GT for a more in depth response, “fried rice with your sauce”, my screen reads. Not exactly sure what that means, as we work to finish our pork bowl. One of the chefs motions for me to give him the bowl as I sit mid bite. I have a couple more pieces left and give him the “not yet sign”. He does not protest and ducks his head out from the tent to yell to the hawker. Moments later the hawker leans in next to me and physically takes my bowl from me and gives me the “don’t worry, it’s ok” charade. I watch helplessly as the remains of our first bowl are passed to the chef. What I had not realized during all this time, was that he was cooking my fried rice order and takes the dregs of my pork and veggies in the sauce and adds the contents to the rice in his wok- yes he adds my used food into his wok to incorporate it into my next bowl. One of the many, many healthcode violations we see in our time here. The fried rice is great! And El and I sit quietly, taking photos, making mental notes, and taking in the experience. Eventually I order a bowl of roast pork ramen, which while not the single best ramen I have ever had, is miles better than the bowl we had earlier today. Later, I order a bowl of ramen noodles. Basically, a bowl of ramen served without broth and a sweet, hoisin like sauce which is a little sweet for my taste, but I am not complaining. In the US, I am familiar with PayPal and Venmo, but here they have many additional services and the sign out front says they take them all. El asks if I think this is going to be a problem as we see customers ready to leave, receive their bill verbally, pull out their phone and settle up contactless with one of these systems, and exit. I tell her that if they don't accept cash, we will just have to ask one of the other 10 patrons to send our tab for us in exchange for our cash. No matter, they gladly take our cash as we thank all involved in this experience as we duck out the tent flap allowing two more people to enter. It is well down into the 30’s (degrees wise) and as we head back to the hotel for the night, we ask how there can be a line for these tents at 12:15am on a Tuesday night? But there is. In fact the streets are actually bustling at this hour as we walk through the downtown area for the next 20 minutes. Cold, tired, and full we call it a night. 

some late night ramen at a yatai

Wednesday February 22 Fukuoka

Today is our anniversary, as usual it falls during our vacations and our set plans today are a morning walking tour and a dinner reservation this evening. We don't have much more that we need to do, but we are discussing our options and hoping to be able to get some ideas from our tour guide. We will breakfast at the ‘Sev’ again. I take the advice of some of the bloggers I read and get an egg salad sandwich at the ‘Sev’. We also get a coffee and head to meet our walking tour. We meet at 9:00am. Our tour guide, Kumie, is a volunteer with the Fukuoka Welcome Center. Turns out she is a professional tour guide who volunteers with the welcome center to give tours...though it turns out that El and I are the first ever people to take part in this new tour program. In fact, a rep from the welcome center actually follows us around as we tour taking photos for the website. The tour costs ¥3000, and they do not accept tips. The tour was advertised as 1.5 hours, but runs closer to 2.5 (which is pretty standard). This tour focuses more on the temples in the area and even though we saw a couple of them yesterday, we were OK going again as we were able to get information about the shrines that we did not get when we were here the first time. We saw five temples today and Kumie, a proud Fukuokian, was able to answer our questions and tell us why she loves her home city. At some point she mentions that she lived in the US for a year and a half, of course I ask her where. She replies, “Schenectady, NY”!! Her husband worked for GE and they moved for him to do some training. What an incredible coincidence. She can’t believe that I drive through Schenectady every day on my way to work. Anyway, the tour was nice, though very shrine/temple focused and having been in Japan for a week now, I have to admit, I am getting a little ‘shrined out’. Many of them try to set themselves apart as the shrine with the biggest Buddha made of wood, or the largest reclining Buddha made of bronze, or the oldest shrine on this street etc. They want to set themselves apart, but to us they all just look the same.

During the tour, we ask Kumie if she has a favorite ramen shop and she agrees to show us at the end of the tour. True to her word, at the end of the tour we walk down a street and she points us to a specific shop that she says is good ramen. Now we are champs at the vending machine system of ordering and with much more precision and efficiency, are able to insert our money, make our selections, get our tickets, present to staff and actually eat and enjoy what we meant to have ordered. I don’t know that it is the best ramen, but it is certainly enjoyable and the accomplishment of conquering the ordering system is a good feeling. After lunch we have about five hours until dinner and decide to go to a park called Ohori, which is a large park/lake in the middle of the city. It is a little chilly, but the sky is bright and we take a nice and leisurely walk around the lake. With the time to spare, we stop at the post office and get some postcard stamps and hit an ATM, both very easy transactions. 

kind of like fukuoka's central park

In preparation for going out tonight, we head back to the room and catch a nap before heading out for dinner. Our reservation is at 5:00pm and we arrive a little early. They take us in and we are the first customers of the night, so all staff attention is on us. The restaurant is a French/Indian fusion using local ingredients. We start with an order of four slices of yellowtail sashimi served with a bead of fresh wasabi and lemon salt on a bed of fennel puree, which is great. Next is an order of “fried fuc*ing chicken” I kid you not, that is what the menu says! It arrives as two pieces and we each take one. The flavor is good, skin crispy. The meat is moist, but a little tougher than I expected. A nice app, but for my money I will take Hattie’s (in Saratoga) all day long. For the main course, we split an order of Hokkaido crab curry. The curry is coconut based and there are green peppers in the sauce. The crab is good, but for the money I would like to have seen a little more lump meat. The taste is great. We get a half order of rice to split and a full order of poi bread (which is like a poori) served with a dish of mustard oil, which we are warned to go lightly on since the oil will burn your nose (like wasabi). The recommendation is to dip the bread in the oil and scoop up some of the curry sauce to get the combo. It works, and the flavor is really nice. For dessert we get a chocolate tart and a bowl of fresh strawberries which are coming into season here and very good. For the quality, this was one of our favorite meals in Japan so far. Really enjoyable.

i told you it really was called fried fuc*ing chicken

yellowtail sashimi with a bead of fresh wasabi and lemon salt on a bed of fennel puree

could have used more crab, but the curry was wonderful

After dinner we head off to find Barr Nowhere, a rock and roll bar recommended by several people. We find the bar, but they are not open. Not sure if they are closed today or will open later, we decide to go to a place nearby for a beer while we wait. It is 7:30, we hope they open at 8:00. Turns out, we chose a whiskey bar, though we stick with beer. She keeps trying to serve us snacks even though we keep telling her we already ate and don’t need more food. She is very good to us and GT is a godsend as she speaks zero English. We are able to have meaningful conversation all the same. We keep checking on the Barr Nowhere, to no avail. At 9:00pm I make my last check, settle the bill, and head back to the room. We don’t have to be up super early, but we do need to spend a little time tonight or tomorrow rearranging our bags/repacking. We are in bed by 10:00 and planning our stops in the morning on the way to the train.

Thursday February 23 Fukuoka > Osaka

We leave at 9:43 or Osaka. I got a text overnight that the preview tells me that my ATM card has been locked. Because of the fees, I cannot open any texts here, I can only see the first two lines in the preview panel. I have done everything I needed to do to alert my bank of my travel plans and the card has worked without issues so far. I assume this is some scam/spam message (your card is locked, call us and give us personal information and we will sort it out for you etc.) Just to be safe, I will try to use the card this morning even though I don’t need it. This way if there really is a problem I can resolve it before I really need the service. For some reason the TV in the room wasn’t getting any reception on any channel, so El was able to cast Youtube to the TV and we were able to watch some Osaka related vlogs while we were in the room. One of the spots we saw was Bourdain talking about Lawson’s. Let me explain. This country has three competing convenience stores, 7-11 (‘Sev’), Lawson’s, and Family Mart. There are surely more, but these are the big three and they are literally on every corner. You can frequently see one store from another and it is not uncommon to see a 7-11 from a 7-11. They are just everywhere. In my pre-trip research I found a blogger from Australia extolling her love of 7-11’s “egg and mayonnaise” sandwiches. I knew we had to try one, though every time I looked, I couldn’t actually find what I assume she was talking about - like a cold fried egg with mayo on bread. I looked, couldn’t find it. Then it dawns on me that maybe this was the Australian way to describe an egg salad sandwich that I did see. I bought one and while she said it was “to die for”, I started to think maybe she makes bad egg salad, because my homemade egg salad is better than this. This is good, but not great, and certainly nowhere in the realm of “death invoking”. So, yesterday, while watching Bourdain tool around Tokyo, he starts in with how he has dreamt all month about this exact moment as he enters a Lawson’s on a quest to procure a “pillowy piece of goodness” that is “better than heroin”, specifically, an egg salad sandwich! Well, I am game to try a Lawson’s version to compare to my 7-11 let down. On the way to the train we pop into a Lawson’s for ATM (which works fine BTW) and breakfast for the train. I grab an egg salad and a chicken teriyaki sandwich. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is precisely timed and there are literally two minutes once it pulls into the station to get everybody off and get everybody on- to the seats, luggage stowed, and seated as the train departs exactly on time- every time. Once we are heading for Osaka, we eat breakfast. My love for Bourdain is no secret, but something tells me his fawning over this sandwich was more for comedic television and less about reality- although he did admit his biggest guilty pleasure was KFC mashed potatoes...so, there’s that. I just can’t understand the over the top love for a sandwich that is clearly outshined by many other options in the same refrigerated case in the store- truth be told, I assume Lawson’s and 7-11 get their sandwiches from the same place. Anyway, the train ride is 2.5 hours and our only plan today is a walking tour at 5:30 tonight. We will work to drop our bags at the hostel before going off to explore the neighborhood and finding our meeting place for the tour. The directions we got to the hostel were very good and we have no issues checking in even early. We get the tour and keys to our private room. I ask if the hostel has any city maps for us to have, but they do not, making finding the tourist information office at Osaka Station our priority. The staff is great and gives us all kinds of maps and directions. We had read about a rooftop garden/farm at the train station. That’s right, Osaka Station is located under a 14 story building and if you take the elevator/stairs combo up to the top, not only do you get a nice view of the city, but you can sit and have a rest in the actual working farm. Most flowers aren’t in bloom, so much of it we can only imagine it being a very pretty respite from the bustle of the station and city below. We head to the area where we will meet our walking tour at 5:30. We know it is at a metro stop, but how long it will take us to get there is a mystery. We get there in about 30 minutes and head to a standing bar for a beer before the tour goes. Walking in with my phone displaying the “can we order two beers please?” There is room at the end of the bar and he motions for us to stand there. At 5:28 we run across the street to meet the group. The walking tour is a food focused tour where you make several stops at restaurants, izakaya’s, food stalls, etc to sample local specialties. Our guide is a young guy from Chicago who has been living in Japan since 2010. Over the course of the night, we stop in no less than five different eateries to sample the vittles. One issue is that today is actually a holiday in Japan (emperor's birthday) which means that there are a lot more people on the streets here than would ordinarily be on a Thursday night. This leads our guide to admit, because of the crowds, he was forced to pivot three of our planned stops to other stops because of lack of space. This is disappointing to me, though if he didn't say anything, I surely wouldn’t have known any different. The foods are OK. I don't think anything could have been considered the best preparation of its kind. It was OK and being that we actively seek out foods to eat, we have already had some of these items elsewhere, and maybe other people had different experiences. We chat with some travelers from NZ and Australia comparing travel notes, the tour lasts just over three hours and we head back to the hostel afterwards. There are several bar/restaurants on the hostel street, so we duck in for a beer nightcap before officially calling it a night. We are tired and sleep pretty solid for a bed that isn't as comfortable as we have become used to on this trip. 

Large vs. small coffee. It is no surprise that American cup sizes are out of control. I mean, a double big gulp from the 7-11 is 64oz! That’s a half gallon of soda! We did not order soda at McDonald’s here, but everywhere else we only saw two sizes…small and large which are the size of our kids and small respectively. Probably the way it should be.

Friday February 24 Osaka

We wake before the alarm and take our time getting up and out. The hostel is quiet and those that are making noise, are doing it quietly. Today is our first day of full on rain and when we wake up, we are Googling: ”things to do in Osaka when it is raining.” We came up with a couple of options, but I remembered hearing about a good rainy day project that is not on the list. It is a train called the Blue Symphony. It is basically a three car luxury train service that runs between two stations, one in Osaka center and a town an hour and a half outside of the city. You have to buy a special reserved ticket for the train and even those are only available at specific stations. We head out for the morning to stop at a cafe for a coffee and use our time there to map out our getting to the origin station for the train and what we are trying to accomplish. We take the subway to the Abenobashi Station and we have about 45 minutes before the train leaves at 10:10. I find a kiosk to buy the special tickets and knowing the station names and timetable makes it easy to navigate the system. The train costs ¥1500 per person each way. We only buy a one way ticket in hopes we can catch a commuter rail back that will be significantly cheaper (since we already took the train out we probably don't need to experience it twice). At 10:10 the train is due to depart and a few minutes earlier they open the doors to let us in. This really is a luxury, deluxe, vintage train car complete with incredibly plush, comfy, heated seats. There is a cafe car serving high end pastries and drinks (though at 10:30am I don't need sake or whiskey). We sit comfortably, taking in the scenery of the Japanese countryside. I will admit that I hoped for a little more village scenery and a little less trackside forest, but it was fine. We arrive in the town of Yoshino with no idea what we will find once we get there. While riding we pull out some maps and spy something called a “ropeway” that we can look into once we get there. As we exit the train station we are met with a couple of souvenir stands and there are not many people around except for the 20 or so that just got off of the train with us. The ropeway is only 100 yards from the train station and it turns out to be a cable car that takes you up to a landing that accesses a couple of temples/shrines. Once at the top, oddly, almost every business appears to be closed. We are in the market for some food and beer, but can't seem to find a place to go. I am more interested in trying to find some light lunch than seeing more shrines, but El wants to check one out, we walk about one km up the hill to see the shrine and there is a restaurant near the entrance. Once El finished at the shrine, we go down to the one lunch place that looks open. When they see us fidgeting with our phone to translate the menu, she brings us an English menu, to make things easy, we order two of the specials which is a bowl of udon in thick sauce, three pieces of sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, a bowl of winter vegetables, and a dessert selection. It is served with hot green tea. The sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves is a specialty of this area. We unwrap the pieces to see one salmon and two, probably mackerel or sardine which are very fishy. The salmon is much better, but not as good as we had gotten elsewhere. The winter vegetables are some greens with mushrooms, served refrigerated. The udon is a bowl of noodles and vegetables, but the soup is thickened with kudzu (Japanese arrowroot) and it is so thick and slimy, the look and mouth feel are a bit unappetizing, but the flavor was really good, so I power through the texture to enjoy the flavor. The dessert is another texture weirdness, called konjac. We have had it before on this trip, but not as a dessert. It is the consistency of Jell-o and really hasn't much of a taste. It is piled on top by a powder that tastes like peanut butter and sugar. I cut off pieces of the konjac and roll it in the powder and if you can get over the mouthfeel, it’s not too bad. The price was a little steep for the two of us, but we are in the middle of nowhere-adjacent with limited options. 

riding in comfort and style, if only for an hour and a half

with so few options, you make do with what you can get

After lunch we hustle back to the cable car to get back to the train station. We don't need to take the Blue Symphony train back, so we just grab the next regular train out of the station. It takes us about two hours to get back to civilization, giving us time to plan our next stop. Several options we agree to check out don't open until after 5:00pm, so we head for the Namba Temple for a shrine with a giant dragon head before heading to Dotonbori Street which is one of the the commercial (pedestrian only) thoroughfares in the city. Once we get to Dotonbori I expect we will see if we can find a bar to plan at least the first part of our evening at a whiskey bar or rock and roll club. The rain seems to have passed for now and I am glad I wore an extra sweatshirt today as it is a bit chilly. Our first stop is the Dotonbori Hotel that has four iconic statues in front of it. We have some issues finding the hotel- though mostly because of the amount of street construction in the area closing sidewalks and such. There are a lot of people out for Friday night and we are just caught in the fray. We eventually find the hotel and take our photos. 

some fun statues in the dotonbori area

We map out some whiskey bars, but the ones on my list are a minimum of 20 minutes away from our current location. Not really overly hungry, we decide to walk down Dotonbori Street and admire the gigantic food sculptures advertising a place’s offerings. Most of the shops seem to be takoyaki (batter dipped octopus balls) so they have giant octopi hanging off the front of their building. We are actively looking for a place to grab a beer, but even if the place here weren’t overrun at this hour, they don’t look like the places that we want to drink at. We duck down a side street and spot a small sign that reads Ipso Facto and it looks like our kind of bar. We go in to see six seats, two of them filled by a couple speaking English. The bartender is motioning more frantically than he should for the sense of urgency we feel. This entire barroom is about eight feet wide and 20 feet long. The fact that he has barstools is odd to me. El is seated on the end, next to a space heater at floor level. We see it in a nick of time to avoid smothering it with our bag and coats. This place looks as if its only continuous occupant is a bit of a hoarder making the small space feel even smaller. His drink selection is good and he hands out free bags of chips. We just get two beers. We wind up chatting with the British couple and comparing notes as they have been in Osaka longer than us and are heading to places we have already been. The bartender wants to be part of the conversation very badly, but his English does more to bring our chat to a halt (as I read that back it sounds awful to say, but thinking back on the night, he wanted to be part of a five way conversation, so he keeps trying to turn the subject to his favorite bands. We are trying to get travel info and he wants us to watch Leon Russell videos. It was just more awkward than annoying). El takes one for the team and talks with him, while I try to get more recommendations from the Brits. Among the things we discuss is Kobe beef and we wonder if they have any places to suggest to get it. In fact they do and say they have not been, but a foodie friend gave them a tip on a place near to here and that his recommendations can be trusted. After our beers we head off to find Kobe Steak House Ken only a few minutes away. According to the GPS we are right next to it, but fail to see it. We look at every sign in the directory to this building we are in front of. The building is five floors and as usual, you will see the directory on the front. This is a little different than we are used to, as there can be many (10-15) units on each floor with bars and restaurants hidden on upper floors. I suppose this makes for a challenge to entice foot traffic. But, if they are confident that customers will seek them out, upper floors afford a quiet space away from the street bustle. We cannot find the place. Almost every sign has an English translation to the side of the Japanese. We are about to give up when I suggest using the GT lens function to read each sign on the directory. Well, about 15 signs in, we spot Kobe Steak House Ken on the second floor. As we step off the elevator, in front of us is the same sign we saw below. We have found it! There is an odd mannequin in the hallway dressed like a samurai and a group of non-Asians getting their photos taken with the mannequin and someone who looks like a chef by another staff member. Lots of thumbs ups and smiles as we are addressed asking for room for two for dinner. We are waved into an empty room and seated at a grill. The woman shows us the menu and says, full dinner (multi course), each need to order a dinner (no splitting one dinner), and you can only choose 10, 15, or 20 oz. Kobe beef. The menu had other stuff on it, but I am going to guess that he only does one thing a night and you have to choose from those options only. For example, if he is out of Kobe beef, you can order from the wagyu menu, but if he has Kobe in stock, he is only cooking that for the night. We each order the smallest (10 oz) Kobe meal. It starts off with a plate of three smoked salmon sashimi. It was fine, though I prefer mine not smoked. Next is a small bowl of salad. Again fine. While we eat our salads, the assistant chef grills vegetables in front of us. With precision, she grills zucchini, yellow pepper, mushroom, and broccoli. Grilled to perfection and served after we are done with salad. Then comes the main event. The assistant packs up and the chef arrives with a 20oz sirloin of Kobe beef. He presents the steak to us, gives us a certificate of provenance for this steer and encourages us to take photos of and with the certificate. A little weird, but we didn't say no. With his grill searingly hot, he flash fries some sliced garlic and sets it aside. Then, the steak comes on. He filets the 20oz sirloin into two 10oz portions. Searing it on each side and slicing into bite sized strips when the time is right. He used the spatula to nip off excess hunks of fat- which aren’t that big (pencil eraser sized) sliding them to the side of the griddle in a pile. We are each presented with our 10oz of beef strips and flash fried garlic slices to begin savoring. Have I ever had Kobe beef? I am doubting it considering I don't think I have ever had this taste/mouthfeel before. That’s obviously not to say I haven't had good steak, but I may very well be new to the qualities that make Kobe beef, Kobe beef. It really did melt in our mouths. I don’t know that I would seek out Kobe (if I could even buy it at home) as I would probably ruin it in the cooking phase. But, if someone else is paying...sign me up! Once we are done with the main event, the chef frys up some minced garlic and sets aside. Adds a large lump of rice and begins frying it and squishing it with his spatula. Once the rice begins to brown, he adds all of the little bits of fat he had cut off of our steaks while they were cooking, some salt & pepper, and the minced garlic, which essentially turns it into beef fried rice. It was wonderful. Dessert was a bowl of berry gelato and we were done. As we wind down by paying ($100 for each 10oz steak dinner) and getting our coats on, the chef insists on taking more pictures, this time with us with the samurai mannequin with El wielding a katana. Still weird, but we were having fun with it. 

grilling and nipping pieces of fat from the steak

and that is what a $100 piece of kobe steak looks like...with grilled garlic

careful with that katana, eleonora

After dinner we head off to find a metal bar called Bar Midian. The wall hangings and memorabilia say Motorhead, but the music inside says Nightwish, and I HATE Nightwish. Bartender did ask what I wanted to hear and I was able to get some Metallica played, but most of the selections were not my thing. I find myself fading rapidly and call it a night after my one drink.

Karaoke. I have never understood this concept, and as many are aware, it has been taken to a new level in Japan. There are karaoke bars everywhere. And it’s not limited to bars, they have really large karaoke clubs too. One of the biggest is a chain called Big Echo we saw in several cities (multiple in some cities). I guess they serve food and have private rooms but it’s all about the singing. In fact, there are buskers who set up a portable sound system and perform karaoke. No instruments at all. Please, never ask me to do this. In fact just listening to someone else do it I have figured out my limit is four songs, FYI.

Saturday February 25 Osaka

Up relatively early around 7:00 and El has been looking more into the “Amazing Pass” (AP) which is a tourist pass that costs ¥2800 and allows you entry into as many of the 43 tourist spots in town on the same day you activate the card (you can buy a multiday pass, but we weren’t). We know that getting the card and to the first stop as early in the day as possible is the key to making these passes pay for themselves. We head to Osaka Station to buy the pass and make Osaka Castle our first stop. We arrive before 9am, and even though there is a line, it moves fast. Since we have the pass we can skip the line and just head in. The castle is seven floors and is similar to Hiroshima Castle just with the names of different rulers attached. We spend longer than I want to, but on the way out we see the line has grown quite a bit. Earlier in the week El was talking to someone in Kyoto who had already been to Osaka and recommended the plum blossoms at the Osaka Castle, which is why it topped our list today, so we head down to the orchards at the foot of the castle. This area is pretty crowded and as soon as you walk near the trees, you can smell the fruit essence. It would be quite pleasing if it weren’t for so many people. In fact we learned this morning that tomorrow is the running of the Osaka Marathon and there are thousands in town for the event making things a little bit busier than ordinary. El takes some time to walk through the orchard and I journal, waiting. Next we head to the Cosmo Tower which is a skyscraper down at the port. The building has a 55th floor observation deck that overlooks, mostly the port area, but all of Osaka really. The weather is clear and since it was free with the pass, I am glad we did it.

a birdseye view of the port of osaka from the cosmo tower

I am getting pretty hungry, but since the only non-industrial businesses around here are high end hotels (think Hyatt Regency overlooking Osaka Bay), the food options are generally limited to nicer restaurants in the hotels. However, we spy a Lawson’s on the ground floor and choose to grab a quick bite there. A ham, egg, and cheese sandwich and a bag of chips does fine for me. We also use the time to plan our next stop- which is a boat tour of the port. It is a boat called the Santa Maria and built to look like Columbus’ ship. We have to take the metro one stop to get there, but the metro is covered by the “AP”, which in the long run will save us additional transport costs today. Once we find the boat launch, we learn that with the “AP” we can just skip the line and head right to the boat. It is a little chilly and breezy, so we opt for an inside seat to spare us from the water chill. The boat ride lasts 45 minutes and, weirdly, it takes you around the port, so we get a front row seat to the petroleum tanks, container parks, and port cranes- stuff that could easily be seen while driving the NJ Turnpike through Elizabeth. Nonetheless, the price was right/you get what you pay for. After the boat ride we jump back on the subway to make it to the Umeda Sky Building. It is an architectural marvel as it is two skyscrapers connected by a skywalk/bridge between the 39th floor of each building allowing you to walk through the bridge peering from the fully windowed walkway. El looked up the time of today's sunset and it's 5:47, even though the skywalk is open until 10:00pm, entrance is free with “AP” only until 6:00. We are able to get there around 5:15 and again are ushered to the front of the line for the elevator. In the elevator we strike up a conversation with a couple and keep running into them and eventually share a table in the cafe area in front of the window waiting for the sunset over the city. They are from Hong Kong, and we are able to compare notes for what they have done to what we want to do before we leave Osaka. As the sun sets we get our pictures and get ready to head out. El had read about the sky escalator up here and we can see it from the skywalk, but it is not clear how to get there. We find the elevator down to the ground level, and we find a down escalator with a sign reading “the escalator is very busy now, closed.” Since everything up here is surrounded by glass, we can see the escalators, down and up, and respectfully disagree with the characterization that it is too busy as no one is on it. El asks a staff member if we can take the escalator and all she can reply is “elevator down.” We can’t tell if she means take the elevator down to leave or take it down to the escalator. Our confusion becomes her confusion and she eventually allows El to stand at the top of the down escalator to take some photos, but does not want us to get on. Repeating “elevator” and motioning down- as if that was the part we didn't understand. We walk around the floor again seeing if we missed something about the escalator and we see a woman who acts like a supervisor. Now we pull out the GT. “Can we take the escalator?” She too says “elevator down”, but now we add to the GT. “We want to take the down escalator down and then take the up escalator back up” her face lights up as she now understands what we want. She walks us to the down escalator and speaks to the original staff member as if, “they only want to go down and then up, we can let them do that”, pulling the velvet rope gate aside to let us pass. Another couple steps forward, but the ropes are back up behind us before they get through. El and I take the ride in the futuristic looking tube by ourselves and take as many photos on the way down to ensure we get at least one good one. Once down, we get right back on the up side and make our way up to the elevator level to go down and exit the building. 

next stop, thirty nine stories up

the escalator is very busy now, closed- i beg to differ

In an effort to get as much out of the “AP” as we can, we head to the HEP Five. HEP stands for Hankyu Entertainment Plaza and we are directed to the seventh floor for the Ferris wheel entrance. It is well after dark now and we take the Ferris wheel on the 15 minute revolution. On the ride we get some shots of the lit up city below. Every shop in this plaza is alike. An arcade, an anime store, clothing, or some other kind of shop that caters to people who are much younger than us- which is painfully obvious being that we are about three times the age of the average person here on a Saturday night. After the ride we go to the last “AP” item for us for the day which is a river cruise in the Dotonbori. Our ticket, while free, is set for a specific time slot and ours is 8:15. The boat is open top and it is getting quite chilly. You can get some good pictures as the advertisements light up. The ride on the boat only lasts about 15 minutes, but we really wouldn't have needed longer, even if the weather was warmer. After the boat, we are done for the night and head back to the hostel area to find some food and beer. The ramen shop on the corner is closed even at 9:30, we move on to the next shop which is a small izakaya. They welcome us in for beer and we start looking at the menu, both printed and chalkboard. We end up ordering a plate of stir fry wagyu with onions, teriyaki Chicken wings, an order of gyoza, and a plate of beef curry. Eventually we add an order of french fries to the night. We are back at the hostel and in bed around 11:00. We agree that it was a really enjoyable meal.

Hey Europe, take notice! One of the things that I very much appreciate about Japan both as a visitor and also being a man of my age is the availability of clean, working, accessible, public bathrooms. All I know is that when the need struck, it was never more than a few minutes to spot a bathroom. Never once having to pay for toilet paper. All of them clean and suitable for taking care of business. However, that being said there are some oddities I noticed. 1. Design: many public restrooms have open doors as well as urinals right next to the door- so when someone walks past the open door they just see you peeing. I guess it’s only awkward if you let it be. 2. Soap: many public rooms have no soap, so you just rinse your hands (and use your sanitizer once you leave). 3. Water: no hot water, which isn’t that unusual, but once you’ve rinsed your non-soaped hands and there is no method for drying them (hand dryers were turned off as a Covid precaution and never turned back on) you find yourself exiting, shaking your wet hands until you can get to your sanitizer and asking yourself why they don’t have any soap.

Sunday February 26 Osaka

We will go to Nara today, though we take advantage of our leisurely day to check in for our flights- not for boarding purposes, but to upload our vax docs and passport info. Also, on the flight over the internet/in flight entertainment broke and United sent us an email that they are going to “make up for our troubles”. We wanted to do this before we leave for home in a few days, just in case they give us an in flight voucher that we can use on the way home, as I don’t expect to fly United in the next year. We are out of the hostel around 10:00, which is very late for us, but we are not rushing. Before we start we run out to the 'Sev' for some breakfast to bring back and eat in the common room while we work on our plane stuff. I get a sandwich called ‘pork and chicken ham.” I like pork. I like chicken. I don’t mind ham. I don’t know what I am in for. The Google Maps says we need to take the JR line to the subway to get to Nara, however, when we get to the station to take the JR Line (commuter rail) we see that one of the incoming trains goes to Nara. Japan has two systems of tickets (even though more than one kind of train uses each method). We have a 14 day unlimited JR Pass which we use for the Shinkansen between cities and commuter rails, which do run through cities, so you can sometimes get to where you want to go with the JR Pass or transfer to a subway to finish the trip. The Suica card is like a metrocard, where you put money on it, the trip fee comes off your balance and then you recharge it as needed. The Suica card is used on subways, streetcars/trams/buses and if you try to use the wrong ticket on your trip the turnstile flashes/beeps and generally makes everyone look towards you too say- “look at that guy using the wrong card!”. It’s only happened a couple of times. Anyway, the point is that to go to Nara we could use the subway and pay for the trip a la carte, but we find out we can use the JR Pass, which is unlimited and saves us our Suica money. Score. The ride to Nara is about 35 minutes and when we get off of the train, there is an English speaking tourist info kiosk set up in the train station. He gives us maps of the town, and even circles the big three items that most people come here for. The walk to the station is only about 2km and the street is relatively quiet. Nara has been recommended by virtually everyone who has visited here. For a time, Nara was actually the capital of the country and as such has some shrines that date back to the 700’s. It is also famous for its free roaming deer. About 1200 deer walk throughout the park and are so used to people, they just walk up to you with no fear. There are some signs outlining the etiquette of how to treat the deer. You can buy rice crackers to feed them if you want (and most people want to). Of course no one reads all of the dos and don’ts for how to treat them which gets people (mostly kids) into trouble. Remember, these deer see people with food every day, so you are supposed to walk slowly, handing the food to them without teasing them, don’t hold the food above your head, and hold up your empty hands to show when you don’t have any more food. So, we see kids running towards the cute deer- animal feels threatened and either runs away or runs at the kid. People (adults included) hold crackers above their head. This is mostly because when the deer knows you have food, they want it all, so when you feed one cracker, they want the whole pack in your other hand, so people start to feed with one hand down and the full pack above their head which the deer will run from behind to try to grab. We saw one kid get butted down a set of stairs (luckily she kept her footing and didn't fall) but kids all over were being startled or knocked by deer and the sound of crying kids was the soundtrack to our afternoon. We stroll through the park, not buying any crackers, but just watching others who did. Our first stop is a shinto shrine where people come to wish for relationship luck by writing prayers on placards and leaving them for the gods to grant. The grounds are nice and we do take longer to walk through than I expected we would. We get a laugh as we are walking in to be passed in the oncoming direction by an English speaking couple exiting the shrine and the man says to the woman “I am getting a little templed out” and we know exactly what he means. I think more me than El, but in most places, I find myself asking “didn’t we see this at the last 15 shrines we went to?” It is starting to get a bit cold, calling for hat and gloves. The main attraction in this town (besides the deer) is the Tōdai-ji, the complex with the world's largest Buddha in one of the world's largest wooden buildings. We pay our ¥600 to enter and on the way we see a table that reads “free English tour guide.” We approach the table to start the 15 minute tour that takes us into the temple where we get the exact dimensions of this giant copper Buddha. We also learn about the flanking bodhisattvas and the statues of gods said to be protecting the temple. She also has some other fun facts. Certainly giving us more information than we would have gotten otherwise. At the end I try to tip her for her time, but she declines saying she was just happy to have helped us out and she hands El two handmade (by her) origami deer. The gesture was sweet. We decide we have had our fill of Nara and decide to head back to the train station. It is about 2km and we stop at a 7-11 for a coffee and sandwich on the walk.

i was fascinated by this family at nara. the parents taking endless pictures of the kids and the deer. you can see the rice cracker in the little boy's hand and he is running and when the deer spot the food they will try, violently in some instances, to get at it. poor kid got butted a couple of times and surely has no idea why since the parents probably didn't relay the deer feeding etiquette to him. he was just being a kid, but i thought he was going to get mauled at one point

one of the largest timber structures  in the world

when you've seen one largest bronze buddhas, you've seen them all

We consider our options as it is close to 4pm and agree that we do not need to go out on the town tonight. A low key evening at our place from last night will do us fine. Drinking beer and ordering food as the feeling hits. We get back to our street and again, the ramen shop is still closed, so we head to the place from last night, which is also closed. It is now about 5pm and a sign on the door does say 18:00, so we need to find something for the next hour. Across the street is a place called Takoya- which is an octopus izakaya. Their specialty is takoyaki (the balls of batter dipped octopus, fried golden brown and then topped with sauce and sometimes scallions). We start with beer, a plate of takoyaki and french fries. We journal, and talk about our day, waiting for the place across the street to open. Well, 18:00 comes and goes and our shop is not opened, so maybe he is closed on Sundays? We decide to stay here and order octopus all night. The texture is a little toothsome, but the flavor is not offensive and they can prepare it so many ways. We order ‘octopus 3 ways’ which comes out as four pieces of Osaka octopus, four pieces of Hokkaido octopus, and four pieces of Moroccan octopus. While they have very different looks, the taste is the same for all of them. The plate is served with a bowl of soy sauce, sesame oil, and a ginger miso mayonnaise. All are very good. Next up is octopus tempura with a vegetable leaf we don’t know. El Googles it and it is an herb called shiso. The tempura leaf is edible, but also used for garnish. Turns out, a raw leaf was used as the garnish for the ‘octopus 3 ways’ plate and we sample it to taste raw. The amount of flavors is almost overwhelming in the raw version, though the cooked version lost most of its flavor. It’s still a new flavor for us. Next up is a stir fried octopus with cabbage, bean sprouts and soba noodles finished with a sauce. It is very decent and we share it. 

octopus three ways

At this point I don't think I need more food for the night, so we just quietly sit and enjoy the company and know that we are still loving our time away from home. Around 9:00 we head back to the hostel for the night. Just getting ready for bed and winding down the day. It has been a good day. We have been discussing our plans for tomorrow and hope to get an early start on a day that should be heavily food related.

Women only train cars. When you go to a subway platform there are markings on the ground that let you know where the doors will be. Additionally, the markings will show riders where to line up that will allow for easy exit of the passengers. Some of the markings are written awash in pink paint. When the train pulls into the station, one car is pink, with the words “women only” written on it. I don’t think I have ever noticed that before in any country (though I understand they do exist elsewhere with mixed success). Sad that it needs to exist, but grateful it does for those who utilize it.

Monday February 27 Osaka

Our last day in Osaka and while we won’t take it easy, we will not be on the go as much as previous days. Today is going to be decidedly food related. Our first stop is the ‘Sev’ for a latte and food to go. I have tried a lot of the sandwiches, so today I am trying a hot dish. They are located in the same refrigerated section as the sandwiches. They have bowls of ramen, pork with noodles, and many other selections. I choose chicken with scallions, noodles, and spicy chili. When you pay they ask if you want it heated up and today I do. She microwaves it for a few moments and all of a sudden the bowl is hotter than I can handle! I hold it just right to be able to transport back to the hostel to eat. I will admit, for a dish that I just bought at a convenience store, this breakfast is really decent. The coffee is very good too. After breakfast, our first stop is the Gate Tower Building which is a six minute walk from the hostel. This is an office building that has a highway built right through the 5th, 6th, and 7th floors. We find it easily, take our photos and move in. It would probably be more interesting if we could view it from the top, but getting into one of the surrounding buildings would surely be more trouble than it is worth.

yep, the expressway goes right through the building

Our destination is the Nissin Cup Noodles Museum. We arrive at 10:55 and are told we can go to the Cup Noodles “factory”. We ask about the make your own option and she tells me they are fully booked and you need a reservation. Trying to determine if I can make a reservation for later in the day or if they have to be made a long time in advance, she tells me three months! (I would later learn that they open the reservations three months in advance and even though some are full, others are not). The greeter tells us to wait here and runs away, returning moments later she tells us they do have two more openings for the 11:00 course if we want. We want! I pay and we are escorted to where the others are lined up. I had heard about the “factory” feature, but it turns out I had no idea making ramen from scratch was an option. We are now locked in for the next 90 minutes to actually make our own ramen! Granted, we are in a kitchen/classroom with a bunch of kids, but there are enough adults to not make it too weird. We get our aprons on and headscarf, wash up and get ready to make our own chicken ramen. We are talking about starting with flour and kneading dough with our hands, rolling the dough, cutting the dough, mixing in chicken broth, deep frying and freeze drying our product. We also get to design our own, personalized packaging that we get to take home! Next, we go downstairs to the Cup Noodles museum that tells the history of Cup Noodles and how they were invented and the developments that have been made since then. Lastly, you get to go to the Cup Noodles “factory” where you buy a styrofoam cup, use the markers to draw a design on your own cup. Then you go to the soup bar where you can choose your broth and up to four freeze dried ingredients, making your unique creation. The assembly line even lets you participate from behind the plexiglass by cranking the wheel that puts the noodles into the cup. And you watch through the heat tunnel window when they put your shrink wrapped cup into the heat and watch the wrap tighten around the cup, before grabbing your own creation. 

wearing the required uniform to make our own packaged ramen

the freeze dried options for make your own cup noodles at the factory. mine was tomato chili broth, double pork, double scallions. i am guessing no one has ever taken that exact combination

a remarkably altruistic sentiment, not uncommon in these parts

As we walk back to the train station, we spot a ramen shop that we decide to try. They do have the iPad ordering that does have English options which we take a few minutes to get the hang of. Our soups arrive in minutes and it is very good. The place does have the feel of a chain, but it is as good as any we have had here yet. After lunch we train back to Umeda Station to get a subway to the Kuromon Ichiba Food Market. On the way we walk through a couple of streets with lots of food shops. They are mostly standing bars, which looks good to me, but hardly what I expected to see at this food market. As we cross the street, the market takes on a new feel and we see not only a lot of non-food shops (florists, soap retailers etc.) but we also see sellers of fresh meat, like where locals come to buy raw meat to cook at home. Still rather full from lunch, we opt to duck into a restaurant and order just some beer. Discussing our next stop. I find a tuna shop on the map and head to see if they are selling sushi by the piece. When we get there, he is sold out for the day and there is nothing for sale here. Many of the stands in this market have a hibachi in front and you can buy food from them and have them cook it for you. I see a guy who is shucking oysters and scallops, then passing them to his helper (wife?) who grills them in their shell while you wait. The sign says they are open until 4:00 and it is now 4:18, but the guy is still shucking away and taking orders from the people in line. When I get to the front of the line, she decides they are closed and puts the scallops in back in the ice chest. Disappointed, we press on. We finish walking though the market and head to a whiskey bar in the area. It is called the 40 Sky Bar and is on the 40th floor of the Conrad Building. It is a restaurant/bar/lounge known for a great view and steep prices. I want to try a whiskey, but I admittedly don’t know enough about whiskey to appreciate what I am drinking at these prices, so I stick with what I know. A rosemary infused gin and tonic. As expected it is great, just not worth the price tag. The sunset view, however, is worth a million yen.

our view from the cocktail table 40 stories above the city

After one drink we walk back to the hostel area and go to the izakaya we were at Saturday night. On our walk we pop into a McDonalds just to check out the menu. As with every country, there are menu items that are specific to the country that you won’t find anywhere else. Today we see “Teriyaki McBurger”, for example. There were some other new options, and one classic item that brought out the giddy schoolboy in me- we don’t buy anything…yet. We made it to the izakaya and order beer and then a couple of small plates to get started. Then, whenever you feel like having a nibble, you flag the counter staff and let them know what you want. Tonight we start with a grilled scallop and an order of gyoza. I have to keep reminding myself that I prefer Chinese meat dumplings to vegetable filled gyoza. They aren't bad, but just not my favorite. Over the course of the night we get grilled shrimp, grilled scallops, french fries, stir fried beef with onion, and several more beers. I journal while El tries to kick my ass at Scrabble and fails. This is it for me...sitting in a quiet place, enjoying the food and the company. We are off to Tokyo tomorrow for our last days in the country and we are realizing that we have been on the constant go since we got here. In fact people ask us what we have done and honestly, a lot of it is running together. I am so glad to be keeping my notes since that is how I recall where we have been and what we saw. When we have seen 30 shrines in Japan, I can’t instantly remember if I saw a specific one in Kyoto or in Hiroshima- which underscores the importance of keeping my notes, for me. It is after 9:00pm now and I am starting to fade. Thankful that the hostel is directly across the street. I will finish my beer and call it a night, unless El pulls the plug earlier. In fact, as I order the check, El actually says she could go for another beer, but I am just too tired. As we step outside, I tell her that I would like to head back to McDonald's for a fried apple pie. Although the USA stopped selling fried pies (in 1992), many other countries still sell the original, molton hot, deep fried version. I haven’t had a fried pie since Ukraine in 2013. We each get a pie and a McLatte to bring back to the hostel and enjoy. They are served so piping hot, that giving it time to cool off is not the worst idea. It’s still hot, in fact, the coffee is less hot than the pie! The taste is as I remember and a great way to cap off our food day in Osaka. We are in bed just after 11:00. 

"molten and glorious"

Is that a smoking area? I mentioned in my journal that there seems to be an irony where there are posted signs making sure everyone is aware that smoking is forbidden on the streets here, yet (most) bars and restaurants still allow smoking indoors. Another thing we noticed, designated smoking areas on sidewalks. They look like large bus stops constructed with glass walls where smokers could pop in for a quick one as needed. They always seemed to be full.

Tuesday February 28 Osaka > Tokyo

We are off for the last leg of our trip this morning. We have a 10:18 Shinkansen to Tokyo and we will need to take a couple of trains to get to Shin-Osaka station, which is the main station when you arrive in Osaka as it is the only Shinkansen stop in the city. We head to 7-11 for breakfast to bring back to the hostel. We packed earlier, so we pretty much just need to eat, grab bags, drop the key in the checkout box and get going. Today's breakfast selection was pork ramen with vegetables. I asked for it to be heated up and have to carry it carefully back to the common room in the hostel. The design of the package is so clever. Basically, there is a basket on top with the noodles and vegetables in it, leaving the broth to sit at the bottom of the bowl. This allows for the noodles to stay firm. Then you can add the basket of dry ingredients to the broth, making the soup. The taste is good, but does not compare to good fresh ramen. If I had to choose again, I would have gone with the same chicken and noodles I had yesterday. No matter, after breakfast, we head to the Shinkansen station. We make the train with plenty of time and wave goodbye to the food city. We are back in Tokyo for two more nights, arriving just after 1:00pm. We are staying in a different area than when we arrived as El was able to use her rewards points for our stay for the two nights. We are staying near the Kando train station and we are totally unfamiliar with this area. It is too early to check in so we drop our bags and head off to Shibuya. At first we think of walking, but the two hour estimate to walk there is not worth it to me. Granted this is the nicest day we have had so far, but walking through neighborhoods and on streets we are unfamiliar with is not what I want to do right now. I would rather train to Shibuya and spend the afternoon walking around there. Even by train it takes about 25 minutes to get there and the first thing we do is the Shibuya Scramble. We remember from the last time we were here, that this is said to be the single busiest crosswalk intersection in the world with hundreds of people lining up for the walk sign to start the ‘scramble’. Unlike America that usually has vehicle and walking direction the same- letting walkers cross while cars move forward in the same direction, here we have only seen car direction #1, then car direction #2, and then walking in every direction at once (including diagonal). So, at this intersection for the length of both car directions people are lining up culminating in a free-for-all once the walk signs all go. Everyone crosses for 30 seconds and as fast as it starts, it stops. Until the next crossing. Last time, I remember sitting in Starbucks on the second floor above the intersection at rush hour and it was a little more impressive than today, though still fun. This area is like Times Square. We map a craft brewpub that is eight minutes out from the center and start walking. On the way we spot a place that could be the brewery, but as we approach to investigate, we see it is called Zarigani Cafe, and we decide to make this our spot for a quick bite. We start with beer, but when we see the kitchen is still open for food, we order a chicken sandwich with pickled carrots and rice with curry to split. El looks up reviews while we sit here and see that others are fawning over the apple pie dessert. After our mains, we order a pie to split. It arrives warm as an apple filling in puff pastry with caramel sauce and a large scoop of ice cream. We head out to find the original destination, the tap room called Tap & Crowler. They have 18 craft drafts, though no food, so I am glad we stopped before coming here. I start with a lager that is decent. They don’t seem to do pints here, so ½ or ¾ pint are the only options. We relax. El knits, I journal, we play Scrabble, occasionally chatting about our vacation. Just sitting low key before heading out to Shibuya once the sun goes down. I get the check only to find out they charged us ¥2900 for two beers (that’s $21.75 for two 12oz beers)! I guess craft beer is expensive to import here. Next we walk to ‘drunkards alley’ which is a section of Shibuya that has many really small places, similar to Golden Gai in Shinjuku. Eight stools max and a counter with enough room for one proprietor to stand behind. Some have a glass unit sitting on the counter with premade foods inside that you can order while you drink- but most are just selling drinks. Thinking this is where we were nine years ago when we came out for a night here, we walk around the area looking for the yakitori place where we first had the dish. We cannot identify the shop we ate at and decide to duck into one that will serve us a beer before heading out. Some of the places look full and some look smokey. I look through the window at one of the places in the alley and there is only one young lady sitting inside. We slide the door aside and ask if they will serve us beer. As we start our beer, we begin our next couple of hours GT with Anna (the customer) and Michiko (the owner).

it was a great evening GT'ing with these two, completely derailed by an impromptu karaoke sesh

Between beer and eventually a couple of orders of potato salad, we find ourselves answering questions about our trip and our hometowns, and asking ones about their lives. Eventually, another customer who speaks a few words of English comes in and joins the conversation. A lot of GT allows us to stay for about two hours before walking back to the train station and getting back to the hotel at 11:00. We probably would have stayed longer, but eventually, Anna reaches for a box on the counter. She asks me if I know any Japanese singers. I don’t, though I do invoke the name of the 1980’s Japanese metal band called Loudness, but I guess she wasn’t a fan as she never heard of them. That’s OK, I tell her, most Americans never heard of them either. Next thing I know the TV screen above the bar starts playing and Anna starts singing karaoke. I don't think I have ever actually seen somebody sing karaoke and it was every bit as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. I am confronted by the etiquette of karaoke. When someone starts singing, are you supposed to be quiet as if they are performing a solo song, or do you continue with your conversation letting the singer do their own thing with those interested watching? When the song is over do you clap? As the song ends, the mic is passed to Michiko and just when I thought we were one and done, another song starts and she starts her performance from behind the counter. I spend the next three minutes trying to understand why this form of entertainment is fun for anyone. Again hoping the performance is over when the microphone is passed to El and I to give it a go. We both respectfully decline, but instead of putting this episode to rest, it starts again with Anna and then Michiko each taking another turn. Not sure how long this will go on and feeling like their interest in our conversation has dwindled, we decide to head out and call it a night. 

Wednesday March 1 Tokyo

Wanting to avoid needing to take more money out of the ATM, we eat at the hotel for the included breakfast. After breakfast we head out to the Imperial Palace to see if we can get a guided tour. From what we have read, the in person registration starts at 9:00am for the 10:00am tour. We arrive at the gates around 9:10 and are handed an application and told to come back at 9:30 to line up. We do as asked and between arriving and lining up, the reservations have sold out. We are good, but we got here just at the right time. At 9:45 they take us into a reception hall, to go through a security check and get some printed brochures. They do a welcome spiel in four languages and tell us to wait until we are called. A few minutes later the English guide calls about 25 of us to start our walk through the grounds. Unfortunately, we get off on a bad foot. The guide wears a small speaker on her belt as she speaks into a headset microphone. Problem is that she says a lot while leading the group, meaning that her words are being broadcast in front of her as the leader, and literally, nobody can understand one word she is saying. Then she will stop, turn around, and ask if everyone can hear her, they say yes (because they heard the question), so she turns around and starts walking and talking again. Eventually we make some stops that allow us to hear what she is saying- I just don’t find it all that interesting. A lot of the tour points out features of the complex that you can't even see from the path we are on. So you just have to take her word that such and such building is just beyond that hill or row of trees. The tour only lasts about one hour and we were pointed to one of the most picturesque spots in the city, which, I suppose made it worth it to me- as I knew we wouldn't have seen this otherwise.

considered the most photographed bridge in japan, called the "eyeglasses bridge" due to the reflection. there is another bridge behind it as well as the imperial palace on top

After the tour and photo stop, we are looking for an afternoon thing to do. We decide to hit the Gotokuji Shrine which features more than 1000 of those cats that you usually see in Chinese restaurants- you know, the ones with the one arm/paw waving front to back repeatedly. With a dinner plan, we try to find some lunch in the area of the temple, which is somewhat of a ride. It takes us about 45 minutes to get there and along the way we Yelp some ramen places in the area to eat before the temple, so as not to eat later too close to dinner. We are mapping the place called Old Ramen, but the opening hours say it is now closed with hours 3am-9am. It dawns on me that her phone must think she is in NY and the opening hours displayed are what they would be in NY time? We walk from the train station 11 minutes through a sleepy little neighborhood with not much activity of any capacity. No cars, no bikes, no people in the streets. It is 11:30 and eventually we hit some activity and find the Old Ramen shop...and wouldn't you know it, they are closed with their posted hours 3:00am-9:00am! That is some niche service! We just grab some takoyaki served from a corner window to patrons on the street. A single woman works behind the window and is happy to fill our order. Eight takoyaki with curry sauce and mayonnaise. The soft batter with pieces of octopus inside are pretty difficult to pick up with chopsticks, leaving me with two options: try to rip them apart with the sticks or put the whole golfball sized thing in your mouth at once. I go for the all at once method and promptly scald the inside of my mouth, while El goes with the cut apart method and continues to struggle with the chopsticks, but can still feel her face. After lunch, we continue on to Gotokuji Temple. It is located on a sidestreet in this town that I am pretty sure would have eluded us without the GPS help. At the entrance you learn the history of the waving cat and why it is seen as good luck. Once inside you can see at least 1000 of the feline statues. They range in size from small to tiny to very tiny. Basically people will by a ceramic cat, write a love/relationship prayer and leave it behind hoping for some divine intervention. We don't stay here too long and talk about taking the nearby tram to Shibuya for Sky. Sky is a relatively newly opened observation tower. It towers above the Shibuya scramble and opened since the last time we were here. We went to the Sky Tree last time which is an observation deck where you can see all of Tokyo from above, so we were more looking to try to find a cafe or bar in the Sky as a way to pass our afternoon. Howerever, not surprising, you need to book a timeslot to go up. El gets online to see of today’s availability and also as expected every slot is sold out until 8:40 tonight. While that might make for a pretty scene, it’s out of our time schedule tonight. We can just put it on the list for next time. 

you can imagine the moment we were confronted with this. ummm, what do we do? as people line up behind you it can get nerve wracking. however, by our second day we actually ate and liked what we ordered

The lower floors of the building house some sort of high end food court. Some of which are Belgian chocolatiers and fancy pastry shops and the like. We spot in the directory that Alain Ducasse has a place called Le Chocolat. So we head there and order a couple of lattes and a slice of black forest cake to split. The cake is wonderful, though 7-11 clearly makes the superior latte. We don't stay all that long and head back to the room to rest up before dinner. On the train we map out where we are meeting Toshi for dinner as we aren't sure of the street names. Turns out it is right next to the train station and it will only take us five minutes to walk there from the room. We nap until 5:45, freshen up and arrive at 6:00pm. Toshi arrives minutes later and our evening has begun. Toshi and I have a mutual friend and I reached out to get some local recommendations during our time in Japan. I had asked him to choose a local place where he could help us navigate a yakitori menu. Start with a set menu of five skewers and two wings and a beer- much of the chicken is undercooked to what we (in America) expect. It is not improperly prepared, as in they meant to serve it this way, it’s just a little strange eating chicken that is basically raw in the middle. The wings are like we are used to- fall off the bone tender. The skewers are as follows: chicken tenderloin with scallions, chicken breast with wasabi, chicken thigh with mushroom and shishito peppers, chicken gizzard, and a skewer with two hearts and three livers. The gizzard was fine, but I didn't need to order more. Heart is fine, sort of like the thigh. But the liver was very metallic tasting. Very “livery”...as it were. I don’t enjoy it enough to barrel through to get it down. The rest, however, is very good. Now I know which ones I like, and I can order additional skewers as I want. I offer to share them upon delivery until we are all full and satisfied. During the meal, Toshi orders a bottle of sake for us to share. It is dry and decent. We spend the next few hours chatting and ordering more skewers and beers, thankful that our schedules allowed for this evening to fit. As we leave the restaurant Toshi gifts us with a bottle of sake. Knowing we have no check in bags, we have no choice but to drink it tonight. We stop at the 7-11 for a bag of chips. Back at the room we split the sake, working on postcards/journal and packing preparations. After my night at the restaurant I have taken in a little more than I probably should have and take precautions to avoid flying with a hangover. 

aah, yakitori. some fantastic. some not so much. many undercooked/raw by american standards. all part of a wonderful evening

a very fun evening hanging with this guy. toshi and i have some mutual friends and he was kind enough to give us some recommendations on our trip and meet up with us on our last night in town. until our paths cross again...kanpai

Thursday March 2 Tokyo/NRT > EWR

There is really no, as far as I have ever been able to determine, perfect time to fly. If your flight leaves early, you have to get up super early and deal with late night public transport schedules. If you leave late morning, you have to deal with your baggage and rush hour crowds on buses and metros. Leave too late and you could have time to get some last minute sightseeing in, but between checking out and leaving baggage only to have to get back to pick them up all just serves to create additional hurdles. We grabbed a breakfast ticket for this morning and we decide to eat, come back to the room to shower, finish packing, check out, head to Shinjuku Station for the only way we can think of to cap off this phenomenal vacation, back where it started. We have a 5:30pm flight and a reservation on the 12:02 train from Tokyo Station to the airport on the Narita Express. Our JR Pass is still valid (today is the last day) and we can get to Shinjuku from Kanda using the card. With our bags, we go to Shinjuku Station to find our eight seat soba shop that we ate at twice in our first two days, two weeks ago! It is around 10:30am now so the rush hour traffic has slowed enough to make getting around with luggage at least manageable. 

We find our shop with little issue and there are two empty seats when we arrive. We already know our order and hold up one finger to indicate the menu item we want. After we order, he is making our order before we have even dropped our bags. The first bowl is served to El and she tries to get a video of the process, though the place is so small that any meaningful video documentation will surely intrude with the prep. Cold, fully cooked noodles are plunged into boiling bath, while he submerges the bowl into the same water, turning it to get the entire rim warmed up, by now the noodles are hot, pulled from the bath and put into the bowl, a ladle of hot soup broth is added, a soft boiled egg, a baseball sized block of vegetable tempura, and a sprinkle of raw scallion rounds out the preparation. The only condiment is a shaker of cayenne you can add to the bowl if you wish. He collects ¥480 and moves on to the next customer. It only takes a few minutes to eat your bowl and you step back from your seat when finished to allow anyone waiting for a seat to order. After our comfort food, we are on our way into Shinjuku Station which is where the Narita Express originates. The airport is about an hour outside of downtown and we get in around 12:30. We are five hours early for our plane! We are the only two people at the security check and are through in about 30 seconds! We are at the gate with hours to spare, but this gives us an opportunity to spend some of our remaining yen and relax while other passengers dribble in. We are going home. 

In Conclusion

As we are winding down our vacation to the Land Of The Rising Sun, we have been talking about our thoughts regarding our time here. In 2014, it was four days in Tokyo, while the two weeks this time saw much more of the country. One of the things that we talk about is when you think of Japan, what are the landmarks you would want to see? If you ask the same of Paris, people would rattle off Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame etc. Rome: Colosseum, Pantheon, Sistine Chapel. Japan? Mount Fuji. Maybe some quintessential shrine or castle? I am hard pressed to come up with other things. That is not to say they don’t have wonderful sites, it is just much harder to plan a trip around those kinds of sites since it takes much deeper research to plan those visits. I also spoke of being “shrined out” where you just get to a point where you are saying “another shrine? It looks the same as the others we have already seen”. So, with that said, I am trying to articulate what makes me so interested in being here? Why, when I say I might like to come back here someday, does El not push back? It is a culture different enough to be interesting, but not so different that it is unrecognizable. At first glance, their cities look like ours. They use subways and have a great public transport system. Some people we meet call Japanese cuisine universally amazing. I wholeheartedly disagree as I have found plenty of tastes that I don’t care for, making for more of a culinary minefield- but it’s still fun because every once in a while, you will find something that you just need to find more of. We have found some people with a fluent command of English, but they are few and far between and usually in some official capacity, whether it is a tourist info office or hotel concierge, but usually we get single words or phrases from staff in restaurants or shops. Google Translate, while far from perfect, has been our communication bridge. If you have a conversation with someone who does not speak your language, that is a great feeling on a few levels. You were able to come to their country, express your needs to get something (product or directions, for example) or answer questions of the curious. Some are less interested in a prolonged conversation (as many Americans would be should a non-English speaker show up), but when you find someone who is curious about you in a way you are about them, it can lead to great travel experiences and that...is what it is all about. Will we make it back here again? I don’t know, but I hope so. It’s not like we have more sites to tick off the list, but there are millions of potential conversations in this country, stories I am curious about and those I am willing to tell my story to. And who knows, maybe I’ll get another round of whiskey out of it.

Lastly, it strikes me how different I thought this culture was coming here last week vs. now. When we came nine years ago I felt our comfort zones had been pushed, which is a goal of our travels and left feeling good that we met our challenges after our quick visit. Customs and etiquette, many new foods, finding your way around a land where it can be difficult to communicate your needs and all of these push your limits and build your confidence as you overcome situations. As we leave today, I can’t say I have the same fears of this country. Sure we had some stumbles along the way, but most were solved in a way that allowed us to move with less effort the next time we encountered it. The example I am reminded of was the vending machine ordering at the ramen shops. The first time we were lost, our helper did what he could, but essentially we were left to figure much of it out on our own. We didn’t like everything that was served to us. But, the next time we had to do it, we were able to use the machine confidently and we were served exactly what we thought we ordered. Was it because we spent 16 days vs. the 4 days then? Are we building on our experiences from previous travels? Are we better travelers because of things we have done in the interim? I can’t say it was any one factor, but what I am certain of is that I do not feel Japan as the scary, strange, and confusing place that I once did…which makes me feel like we are doing something right.


below are some bonus videos


ordering and waiting for a banana hot chocolate from a vending machine

marathon trimmedPXL_20230219_012725217_Trim.mp4

monks from a local temple cheering the marathoners on


conveyor belt sushi. we didn't take anything from the lower belt as we weren't 100% sure if it was for promotional use and we preferred fresh anyway