August 20, 2013

Summer Break Pt.1: Tokyo

Day2Japan208So, my five-day Summer vacation to anywhere was seriously in danger of not happening after I lost my Passport somewhere on Jeju Island. Fortunately, I discovered the embarrassing travel faux pas (or potentially infuriating administrative nightmare) early enough to sort it out with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul before break time. Strangely, it seems that replacing this important piece of overseas identification is relatively smooth and painless compared to the ridiculous bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through to get my Korean work visa. Once I received it, I began using my 3 favorite online travel tools; Kayak, Agoda, and TripAdvisor, to book my next adventure with a bit of a different strategy. While I did book a hotel for the first night make some loose arrangements after doing my research, I decided to leave a lot of the trip open-ended, allowing for  improvisation, spontaneity, and an ultimately more relaxing, free-flowing adventure.

I had been watching airfare prices for six weeks prior to my trip and decided the best use of my time and money would be on the islands of Japan. Not only were flights to Tokyo really cheap compared to Thailand and the Philippines, there are also a variety of other ways to return back to Korea, including the possibility of going home via ferry boat to Busan. Once I reconnected with old friends Gary and Kim Stollar (both currently living and working in Tokyo) my decision was made. Setting up roaming on your phone is very easy for a trip like this, too, as most major Korean carriers have a kiosk inside Incheon airport for international travelers to sort this out before departure. There are also plenty of currency exchange centers, which was a good idea for this trip, as Japan is still primarily cash-based.

The flight to Tokyo from Seoul was really inexpensive and took just a little over two hours on Air Asia. This made the first day of my trip seem like it would be just a quick hop over the East Sea (NO ONE in Korea will call it the “Sea of Japan”) and then on to fresh sushi and adventure. However, including my cheap and convenient airport limo (read: coach bus) ride to Incheon airport (ICN), and ticketing; plus customs and security checks on both ends, the day still turned out to be primarily an exhausting day of travel and standing in queue.

Rock Traveler Tip: Be sure to always fly internationally with a pen handy so you can complete the silly immigration forms in-flight. I had also temporarily photographed my Passport and ID for emergencies and to make this necessary paperwork a little easier.

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Once I got settled at Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT) and decided how to best get downtown. Rather than take the cheaper option, a similar airport shuttle bus, I chose instead to purchase tickets on the Narita Express (N’EX train) with departures straight to Tokyo Station. At a little over ¥2940 ($30 U.S.), the N’EX was smooth,fast, clean, and super cool. I spent the entire 90 minute (50 km) rain-soaked ride jamming to Radiohead with a goofy “I am really in Japan!” smile on my face made from a mix of both excitement, disbelief, and a sense of accomplishment. This smile quickly morphed into an astonished glaze of confusion (and amazement) at the size and activity level in and around Tokyo Station. This dizzying hub of multiple floors with dozens of rail lines all converging in one massive hive of activity took a while to fully process.

Once I got my bearings, it was fortunately only one stop to my hotel in Nihonbashi.  I have wanted to stay at a “Capsule Hotel” ever since Kramer joked about them on a hilarious Seinfeld episode (“The Checks” – Season 8). Kramer had his three Japanese visitors sleeping overnight in the “Farbman” chest of drawers with little complaint until the following morning. The hotel I booked in advance, Capsule Value Kanda Tokyo, was the perfect place for me to stay on my first night in Tokyo to simulate the experience. It was clean, inexpensive, and, as I mentioned, very close to Tokyo Station. The small, retro-futuristic capsule room was surprisingly comfortable and in no way claustrophobic. It was equipped with a built-in small (SONY) TV and a radio/alarm clock as well. You were also given a locker for your shoes in the entrance and a bigger locker for your gear. Thankfully, I opted to bring along just one, under-stuffed backpack, but larger suitcases could be stored in the computer lounge if necessary. Many travelers used this option overnight and used simple locks to secure their gear, which I made a mental note of as a fresh tip for next time. Traveling simple and light on this trip turned out to be a refreshing change, as well as a wise travel choice overall. Thanks Rick Steves!

(Please click on an image below to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

The bathroom/toilet area on my floor was clean and comfortably-sized and the showers and bath area downstairs were Japanese-style with a stand-up western shower available, too. I learned later on my trip exactly how to use this type of bathing set-up and had a much better experience as a result. Essentially a short rinse to clean off and short soak to warm up first are followed with a longer seated scrub down, shave, shampoo, etc. Then, an even longer and more warming soak in the tub finish off the refreshing cleanse. I highly recommend this type of hotel and bath configuration for the unique experience and overall value for your money. My capsule for the night was at about ¥3400 ($34.00) and was well worth it. The only downfall was the moderate noise levels of guests leaving early in the morning. There is no real way to block out sound, as the capsule only comes with a dark (70′s-style) rolling blind that pulls down once you are “encapsulated.” If you want absolute quiet and privacy or room to spread out, this is not the place for you. I recommend bringing a night mask and earplugs as a general travel rule, just in case, as this would have been the perfect place to use them.

After the tiring travel-filled day, I had very little energy despite my strong desire to see and explore more of Japan. Once I had a quick shower (minus the soak) and got over the nerd-like wow-factor of my hotel choice, I was refreshed and ventured out into the surrounding neighborhood to search for a simple yet filling dinner. I started with a small piece of barbecued eel on rice with a light broth on the side. This traditional Japanese dish (I learned later) is a summertime staple and was just the ticket at ¥500. Day1Japan037Still hungry and curious to try something else new, I found a nice, inexpensive soba noodle restaurant  on the other side of the street to tuck into as the rains returned.

This was my first experience with the common Japanese method of ordering; which is though a large vending-machine style ordering system at the entrance before bellying up to the bar. The terrific, light, and filling noodles were topped with various fresh vegetables and served with a side of cold broth for dipping and happy (loud) slurping. Watching the noodles be cooked in the open-style kitchen was the perfect way to end the day and complete my indoctrination to Asian travel that, after two years in Korea, is vaguely familiar yet altogether distinctively different.

I purchased a cheap umbrella at a 7/11 (Japan amazingly has Lawson’s, too!?) to make it back to the hotel safely and added another mental note about stowing a travel-sized umbrella in my gear for future trips. I guess in my excitement and romantic imaginings of traveling in Japan, planning for rain unfortunately never once entered into the picture. Back safely inside my capsule, I tucked into some Japanese anime and a terrific book I picked up randomly from Alice at Coffee Nori; Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy. Goodnight, Tokyo!

The next day I woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the few touristy items that were on my list. In addition to using online sources, I had purchased a used guidebook on Tokyo and a used Japaense phrasebook in Seoul. Both turned out to be fairly accurate, informative, and highly useful. First up was finding the Hachikō statue for my cousin, Chelli (conveniently located at the Hachikō Exit) at Shibuya Station, the famous bustling crossing that was also on my list. Hachikō is a dog famous for his loyalty and his story has been made into several movies. This led to a nice tour of the area including the huge Yoyogi Park and to visit to Meiji Shrine. Also on my list was to find a gallery in the the Spiral Building which was featuring a photo installation by one of my favorite musicians, David Sylvian. Sylvian was coincidentally the front-man and co-founder of the band Japan before embarking on a varied and impressive solo career, which now also includes photography.

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Having these little missions of destinations to find made for an exciting day of hiking and allowed me to see a lot of street life and neighborhoods I might have missed otherwise. All of this was possible without the dreaded stigma of being a “tourist”, despite my lunch at McDonald’s. Having worked at one in High School, I could not fight my curiousity, I guess. Now, I know once and for all that McDonald’s is the same, for better or worse, just about everywhere. I did meet some wonderful Korean ladies living in Japan there, so it was not a total loss.

Once I found the Spiral in the Minato area of Tokyo after lunch, I was glad I did. Not only was I treated to the terrific Sylvian photo exhibition entitled “Abandon/Hope” at no charge, but I was able to shop and explore the terrific cafe there as well as the amazing gift shop on the second floor before meeting Kim and Gary. Since it is not only common courtesy to arrive at a friend’s house with a gift, it is the height of proper Japanese custom. The gift shop at the Spiral proved to be the perfect place to pick up some wonderful tea just in the nick of time.

After meeting Gary and Kim near Tokyo Station we had a chance to catch up on the 20 years since seeing each other last. I attended their wedding in 1993 back at  the Faculty Club on the Ohio State campus, and there was a lot that had happened since then to talk about! They also turned me on to a terrific bookstore in the neighborhood called Maruzen before taking me out to the BEST sushi dinner I have ever had. I am not sure if it was just the excitement of finally having fresh sushi IN JAPAN, the terrific company and conversation, or the fact that it was just really good tuna, but it was a wonderful dinner and will perhaps ruin me for good sushi from now on.

Day three began with high hopes and lots more rain. It was here that I was thankful for the freedom to adjust my schedule a bit, and for the advice and guidance of Gary having already visited my next destination to the southwest, Kyoto. After booking my return flight to Korea from Osaka to Busan online and setting up lodging in a tradional Japanese inn, called a Ryokan, I was up for anything. I also learned at this time that sometimes it is best to book airfare directly from the airline’s website, or better yet, over the phone. This helped me avoid the confusion a third-party site like Kayak can have processing a Korean credit card (in Japan) with an American passport. Keeping things simple, we realized (with the help of lots of coffee) that we missed the early morning frenzy at the Tsukiji Fish Market, and decided on another plan. Keeping things simple, Gary suggested we buy my high-speed train tickets to Kyoto in person and a nice ramen noodle lunch in the same building would follow nicely. Day3Japan244

In the basement of Tokyo Station, the famous noodle street of Sapporo has been recreated with lots of variations of  this dish that actually has its origins in China. The Japanese noodle experience is generally one of three types of noodles; udon, soba, and ramen. Having had the first, soba noodles, already and saving udon for Kyoto, I was curious to see how ramen noodles in Japan differed from my college dietary mainstay. The result (like my sushi dinner) was a culinary epiphany, as what most westerners know (and love) as ramen noodles bear little resemblance to the fresh and hearty dish Gary and I enjoyed. Covered with bean sprouts and soaked in a hearty, spicy, almost gravy-like broth, my memories of fove “Maruchan Ramen” packs for a dollar were quickly put to shame.

Fully stuffed and rather cheaply I might add, we decided to check out the electronics districtcalled Akihabara, which for some reason translates to “Field of Autumn Leaves”. Along with a short tour of some other temples and pagodas in the area, we finished this more casual travel day with a stop at a new restaurant near Gary and Kim’s apartment. Kim’s employer, Boeing, put them up in a sprawling penthouse suite in at Atago Green Hills Forest Tower. This amazingly quiet neighborhood is within walking distance of Onarimon Station on the Toei Mita Line, Kamiyacho Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, and Toranomon Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. For dinner we had a terrific combination of Yakitori, or grilled chicken, which was done to perfection at their favorite new spot, a slightly upscale joint right around the corner from their building.

Fully exhausted, sore, and well-prepared for my upcoming stay in Kyoto, I retired early after dinner feeling I had sampled quite a good bit of Tokyo culturally and food-wise and confident that some things would just have to wait for a return trip. Gary had mapped-out a great game plan for my arrival in Kyoto and outlined his “must-sees” there, which proved to be just the right blend of history, sightseeing, and relaxing comfort I needed. The size, cost, and density of Tokyo could be overwhelming for any experienced traveler let alone a first-timer like me, so I was happy to have a good night’s rest ahead of me and thrilled to be booked for an early trip to Kyoto in the morning on the Shinkansen Super Express to let it all sink in.

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Please click here to read more about my stay in Kyoto in Pt.2.