A Japanese Adventure
An online journal
We decided to take this lazy day as an opportunity to revisit parts of Ueno that we missed on our first trip there. We knew we wanted to go exploring the park more, and visit some of the many museums located there. With Joe being such a lover of dinosaurs, our first stop was obviously the National Museum of Nature and Science.
Lunchtime was calling, and that obviously meant more ramen. We found a lovely place at the bottom of the steps at Ueno station, which we later discovered to be a chain of ramen restaurants in Japan (at this point desperately wishing the UK had chains this good!). Stuffing our faces with ramen, gyoza and rice meant was my favourite past time in Japan, and how could it not be when the food was this good?! Joe had black sesame pork ramen, while I had the white miso ramen. Even looking at this photo makes my mouth start watering!
After our last Ueno visit, I was desperate to go on the swan boats at Ueno park, and this time I managed to drag Joe on them. It was such a lovely experience, with the lake being full of couples on rowing boats and beautiful pastel paddleboats. A great way to settle your stomach after the amount of ramen we had just inhaled (until I decided to perform sweet donuts in our swan boat)!
After a walk around Ueno, popping into shops and having a general mosey, we took the train back to the hotel for an early night of Japanese tv, Kirin IPA and ume fizz, and the many sweets we had bought in Odaiba the previous day.
We started our rainy day by taking the train across the famous Rainbow Bridge, as we were heading for a full day in Odaiba! Odaiba is a wonderful man made island, full of entertainment, shops and arcades - and only a short trip from central Tokyo.
Our first stop was Decks. A ship themed shopping centre, filled with tonnes of shops, a Sega theme park and our favourite - a full floor of old arcade games and an amazing little otaku store! I tried raining it in when we found this little shop, but I just couldn't help myself. I came home with the equivalent of my body weight in Japanese sweets and copious amounts of anime and manga tat. There were so many goodies in this little shop, and I regret not buying certain items, as I just assumed i'd find them in other shops throughout Japan. I could have easily spent all of my money here!
After buying enough sugary goodness to put myself in a diabetic coma, we shuffled over to the most awesome collection of old arcade games we had ever seen. This area was tonnes of fun, and we got to relive some of the old days, playing games we both used to play as kids. I wish I had taken more photos of this place, as I really cant explain how bright and colourful everything was! They even had a huge Pez Christmas tree. It was October. It was wonderful. I even managed to win an adorable Psyduck plushie from the grabber machines, and Joe won a couple of Gudatama plush keyrings (which shows his little egg butt and makes me laugh everytime).
After the wonder that was Decks, we crossed over to Aqua City, another shopping centre, but this was packed with fancy shops and restaurants. We headed for lunch and found a ramen restaurant, where we both had a ridiculously cheap meal deal with beers. I'm still astounded at how much food you can get for the price at certain places in Japan. The gyoza was fantastic, and I shovelled so much pork rice into my face that day, it was great! We spent a good hour just wondering around and looking at all the different Japanese fashions, drooling over the many different restaurants, and spending way too much time buying stationary. We managed to find yet another arcade (we spent most of our spending money at these places!), where we played the Jurassic Park simulator, a 180 degree joint shooter games (amazing and so much fun), and I smashed Joe at Mario Kart - again.
We then knew we had to go on the hunt for the new giant Gundam Unicorn. Which definitely didn't disappoint! What an amazingly huge and jaw dropping moment when we stumbled across this beauty! Standing in the rain, we stayed for about half an hour just to watch it "transform". I cannot explain the true size of this thing, but from the second photo, you can just see Joe's tiny head next to it. This thing was amazing!
To finish off our day, we had booked tickets to visit the Odeo Onsen Monogatari. A large communal bath, including an outdoor foot soak area, and a mock Japanese village inside! We spent about 30 minutes walking around trying to find the place, now in the pouring rain and complete darkness, and I definitely had the monk on (Yorkshire term for being VERY grouchy). When we finally arrived, we put our shoes and bags in lockers, and queued up for our Yukata (a light cotton Japanese robe). After a traumatising experience of having to strip in an extremely large and open changing room
The place was quite busy, as we had come fairly late in the evening, but the hustle and bustle of everyone really made the whole experience. The indoor "fake" Japanese streets were so cute, and packed with bars, eateries, crepe vendors and little games for the kids. We sat at one of the bars and ordered a couple of rounds of plum wine and Hoppy, which got us a tad merry. I ate pork katsu from the restaurant (delicious of course), but Joe wasn't feeling too good so took the sensible option and stuck to booze (hahahaha).
With it still raining outside, the indoor baths were too busy, so we decided to grab one of the umbrellas provided, and spend the evening outside in the foot baths. It was such a surreal experience moving from the traditional Japanese interior to a Blade Runner-esque exterior. We mainly had the place to ourselves, which was a luxury in a packed bath house! The flooring was covered in huge pebbles, which hurt like hell if you took a wrong step. So after the agonising trip to the covered area, we spent over an hour just soaking in the spa, wearing our Yukata and people watching (most turned around after seeing the rain).
After another round at the bar, we got dressed and hopped on the train back to our hotel. It was so wonderful to see all of the very drunk salarymen also heading home after a well deserved evening of drinking with their colleagues. An amusing way to end a lovely day!
We started the morning with breakfast at the hotel, (crazy cheap at only 350 Yen each - around £1.50!) as it was an early rise for us, because we were finally heading for our Tokyo Disney Sea day trip!
Armed with my trusty pin badge covered Kanken, snacks, raincoats and one very poorly boyfriend in tow, we took the train to Maihama at around 9am. Once there, we bought tickets to ride the Disneyland Monorail, which did one giant loop around both parks. I was ridiculously excited all the way around, and to top it off, the Halloween theme was in full swing everywhere we looked, even on the handles on the train! Halloween is one of my favourite times of year, so as soon as we knew we would be visiting Japan in October, I knew we had to experience the DisneySea Halloween event!
We decided to do a full lap of the park first, to really take in all of the sights and see what it had to offer. As we didn't buy any fast passes in advance and it was quite busy with the Halloween crowd, we knew we would struggle getting on any rides anyway, so a lazy wander was on the cards. Now, I took SO many photos that day, that its just easier to split the sections of the park up into slideshows :) The photos may feel out of sync too, because we literally did 5 laps that day!
Starting at the Mediterranean Harbour, we walked around the beautifully Venice-esque buildings, complete with gondola rides on the canal and tonnes of confectioners shops and restaurants.
From there, we wandered through to the 1920's style American Waterfront, which had a GIGANTIC steam liner at the port (it was beautiful in the dark too). There were deli bars, incredibly details buildings, the Tower of Terror ride and Toy Story Trolley Park.
Port Discovery was next, and we actually managed to get on a ride! It wasnt the best, but it was definitely fun. It was called Aquatopia, and there were two birth little pods that you sit in, and they were on tracks in the water. They spun you around and you never knew where you were going, but it was just really a good laugh. We then hopped on a little steam boat to take us to the next part of the park.
The Lost River Delta was one of the coolest parts of the park, and it was such a shame we didnt get on any of those rides, as the rollercoaster looked awesome! This part of the park was based on Indiana Jones, and they had a Crystal Skull ride and several items from the films around the area.
The Arabian Coast was next, and was themed around the city of Agrabah from Aladdin. This was such an awesome place, I couldn't get over the little details of everything! We stopped here for a little snack, and ate what seemed like the longest Pumpkin flavour churro. It was ridiculously tasty!
Easily my FAVOURITE part of the park was Mermaid Lagoon. I cannot express how much we both loved this underground wonder. It really felt like you were under the water in the world of The Little Mermaid! You started by heading down towards the huge open plan "underwater section", where there were rides for the smaller kids, and a whale gift shop. You actually entered its mouth to get inside the shop - it was so cool, im not gonna lie.
The final part of Disney Sea was the Mysterious Island, which was such an awesome maze of hidden cool stuff! We ate lunch here, because it was the most visually stunning and detailed place throughout the entire place - which was saying something. We are a huge fan of anything sci-fi, so the Island appealed to us no end!
We had another sleep in as I "accidentally" turned the alarm off, but it was a free day, so I didnt feel so bad! We decided to spend the day heading back to Asakusa to venture up Tokyo Skytree (the worlds tallest tower), to take in the sights. We had breakfast at a really cute little cafe we found and had the nicest muffin ever. It was an runny egg muffin with a sort of BBQ mince beef on top, weird combo but so good. I had to take the cheese off mine due to my dairy allergy, which Joe was more than happy to take off my hands! Paired with an iced coffee, it was the best way to start a late morning exploration.
After breakfast, we decided to head straight to the Skytree tower. It was lovely and quiet, and hardly any queues to take the lifts. All of them were themed after the seasons, on the way up we had Autumn and the way down we had Spring (the cherry blossom carvings on the ceiling were so beautiful). Such a nice touch to something that literally took 50 seconds to reach the first observatory at 350m!
The views were absolutely breathtaking, and it was wonderful to see all of Tokyo laid out in front of you. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see Mount Fuji :( At this point, neither of us had seen it in real life (I never got to see it on my first trip either!). We even stood on the glass flooring, at which point I was nearly sick - but I still had both feet on the glass haha!
We bought loads of random anime surprise grab bags at the gift shop, and found a lovely spot to open them, at the base of the tower, just through a park. After getting super giddy at our Attack on Titan and Monster Hunter grab bag finds, we headed to the Asahi Beerhall for a crazily expensive half pint of Asahi Black. One of my favourite imports that i've only ever managed to find in one Japanese restaurant in Leeds!
By this point, we were hungry again, so found a teenie tiny ramen shop, and ordered a beer a ramen bowl each. We couldn't believe how cheap this place was, and paid around £12 for both of us. The portions were always so generous, that a bowl like this could keep us well fed and we would only need a snack for dinner - plus this was loads friendlier for our budget!
We walked around Asakusa for a couple of hours, doing bits of shopping and sightseeing, then as it was getting dark, we decided to head back to Hoppy Street for a couple of drinks and light snacks (we were still full from the huge ramen lunch!).
The first place we visited became our favourite and regular spot throughout the holiday, and was run by two lovely and attentive women. They served us salted grilled mackerel with radish - which was easily one of the best things I ate on the entire trip. I had my usual tipple of umeshu (plum wine), and Joe had shōchū ) and Hoppy (a malt flavoured mixer). The next bar was really lovely too. We struggled a little with the menu, as it was mainly written in Kanji, and I could only read Hiragana and Katakana! But the table next to us, a young woman and her friend, leaned over and offered to translate for us. It was such a lovely gesture, as we must have looked really confused haha. She sat through nearly every item on the menu, just so we knew what we were ordering (we found that people throughout the whole trip really made every effort to not only help you, but just to talk English and have a chat!). We also got talking to a table of computer developers from the Netherlands, who were all really lovely, and were asking for local tips as they had just arrived that day.
After several umeshu and hoppy drinks later - oh and even more grilled mackerel, we boarded the trains home, ready for the next day and our trip to Tokyo Disney Sea!
Once again, we started our day a little later than expected, as we were struggling with jet lag pretty badly at this point. The earliest I was asleep by was around 1am, which was not like me at all!
We took the train from Uguisudani to Ueno around 11am, and spotted a colourful building opposite the station, which turned out to be an incredible 7 floor toy store, which included a basement devoted entirely to Studio Ghibli plushies and collectables! I also won Joe a cute little Kirby plushie keyring for 100 yen on my first ago - I was already becoming a pro!
We walked down the famous Ameya-Yokochō open air market street, to have a gander at all the shops it had to offer. We managed to hunt down some fruit (we hadn't found any since our arrival!), but it was unbelievably expensive, and stupidly I paid £4 for 5 single strawberries, partly out of fruit desperation! Towards the end of the street, we found ourselves in Taito Game Station yet again, a now firm favourite, and decided to have our photos taken in the hilariously named Purikura booth. Yes we are that immature and found the name of this particular one WAY too funny (see below). They were so much fun, but I know Joe didnt enjoy them as much as I did...
After spending a couple of 100 yen on the arcades, we decided to have a wander around Ueno Park. We bought mango smoothies and had a walk in the 27 degree sunshine. The shrines were so beautiful, and the little food vendor vans lined the park and smelled amazing. Close to the entrance of the park was Ueno Zoo. It only cost 600 yen each (about £4), and we ended up spending most the afternoon there with it being such a big place. We both came away feeling a little sad afterwards though, as some of the animals cages seemed a little small, especially the larger cats :( We did see a lot of animals though, and they did all seem happy! We saw hippos, zebras, rhinos, flamingoes, tigers, gorillas, lions, polar bears, Japanese black bears, pandas, tonnes of owls and a Hokkaido brown bear!
After the zoo, we headed back to the hotel for naps and showers, as we were meeting all of my Japanese family for dinner and drinks at 6pm!
We met Yukari-chan at Ueno Station and walked to the Kurand Sake Market. We had bought tickets through Klook before our arrival, for an "all you can drink" sake evening for £23 each. When we arrived at the bar, I finally got to see my Japanese mum and dad for the first time in five years! I remember there were tears on my part!
We spent a good few hours in the sake market, drinking all kinds of different sakes, beers and umeshu (plum wine - my favourite). You could also bring in your own food, so Yukari had brought lots of Japanese snacks including dried squid and these weird peanut pork snacks, which I ended up bringing home a bulk bag because they were so good.
After the bar, my Japanese dad called his pal who owned a sushi restaurant, and booked us a table for dinner. It was the loveliest place, ran by a previous Sushi Champion and his wife. We had two large plates of sashimi to share while the sushi master prepared the main dishes. There were two sea snails each (not pictured), kanpachi, squid, arkshell, flounder, prawns, tuna (my fave), squid, sea eel, urchin and salmon roe.
The sushi master even brought over a handmade Hydrangea sushi flower for one of us to eat. Joe wolfed it down in the end, and said it was superb! It looked too good to eat!
The sushi master and his wife gifted us with three traditional Japanese headbands (they look like very long teatowels!), which are apparently very rare to each house or region, so we were so honoured to have been given some made for the master and his wife!
This night was easily one of the best I have ever experienced, with amazing food, drink and company. A true Japanese experience that we wouldn't have had if it wasn't for my amazing homestay family. We department for Ueno station, happy, very tipsy and a belly full of sushi.
Again, we couldn't sleep.
We woke up quite late this morning, around 11am, as jet lag had officially started to catch up with us (3am bedtime!). This day was a free day, so we decided to check out the local area and hunt down a bank that would accept our cards. We walked around 10 mins to Nippori station, and boarded a train to a place called Machiya, as google told us that their local bank accepted foreign cards. Spoilers - Stress No 2. They didnt.
After flapping that we had a massive chunk of our spending money taken by the hotel, we decided to have a stroll around Machiya, soak up some of the neighbourhood, and grab some lunch in a local ramen shop. We had both learned the basic Japanese phrases, and I had learned how to read Hiragana and Katakana to make our trip a little easier (this was invaluable!), so talking to the locals was a brilliant experience! I was so proud that I could read the menu and actually order the right food!
We both ordered the miso ramen, which came with a huge portion of pork fried rice and gyoza dumplings. This came to only 850 yen each, which was only around £5 at the time! We usually ate larger lunches, so we didnt spend as much on the evening time (more money for arcades and plushie grabbers!).
After lunch we walked the 2km back to Uguisudani, to check out the local amenities there. We came across a really lovely bookstore, where Joe bought Berserk volume 1 and I bought Jojo's part 1 volume 1, and the newest Bessetsu Shonen magazine with the latest issue of Attack on Titan (it is an awesome feeling to read your favourite manga in the original magazine!).
We decided to stop off at a cafe close by to our hotel for a coffee. It was the smallest and strangest place, and almost everyone was smoking (neither of us smoke). The table next to us consisted of a Japanese/American guy talking about his acting career with a bunch of friends, and the table opposite was a chain smoking angry salaryman. We looked so out of place!
The rest of the day consisted of dinner from the local Family Mart, pjs and Japanese tv! All in all, a lovely and relaxing day!
We woke at around 8am and after having showers and vending machine coffee (best thing ever), we headed to the train station to top up our travel Suica cards, before heading to Shibuya for the day.
It was around 25 degrees and the sun was shining so brightly! Definitely a wonderful welcome for our first full day. We decided to start the day with a cold coffee at Starbucks and to go and people watch at the famous Shibuya Scramble (definitely the best place to watch the mass amounts of people bustling over the crossing!).
We then headed to the nearest 7/11 to purchase an onigiri snack and some of our favourite Pocari Sweat drink. Joe spotted an arcade over the road, where we had our first go of the UFO grabbers (I became addicted to these over the next few weeks). We played Mario Kart (I won), the Gundam pod games, and discovered the most awesome drum game, Taiko no Tatsujin. Seriously this game was SO much fun!
We stumbled across an amazing store called Mandarake, a place for secondhand manga, anime and collectables. We were in our element! We bought the Attack on Titan volume 1 manga and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (part 3) vol 1 and (part 4) vol 1 - all for 700 yen. Which at the time was around £5. If we bought these in the UK, we would have paid around £9 for each volume!!
After wondering around Shibuya, we headed off to Harajuku and Yoyogi Park. Luckily for us, there was a huge food festival on just as we go to the park. It was ridiculously busy, but we decided to queue for fried chicken, grilled prawns, and something we still dont know what it was - but it was so good!
Our morning started at 4am - wide eyed and crazily giddy for the day ahead. We did our final preparations, said a very sad goodbye to the cats (our god send of a cat sitter looked after them!), and packed the car to head to Manchester Airport.
I'm going to caveat this whole blog series by saying how much I LOVE to organise and plan stuff. I had a full year to plan this holiday and I was super proud of how I managed to pull it off. I am a very anxious person, so everything has to be planned meticulously or I get stressed. As you can imagine, there were however plenty of times I got stressed on this journey! Anyway I digress...
So we arrived at Manchester Airport with plenty of time before our flight, and ordered the most expensive English Breakfast we have ever had, and a can of Asahi each. Yeah its 8am, but we were on holiday! Our first flight departed at 10am, and was headed straight for Helsinki. The view that we had while preparing for landing was so beautiful! The sun was shining bright, and we were getting crazy excited for longer leg of our trip.
After killing a few hours in Helsinki airport, mainly drinking coffees and eating at Burger King, we finally boarded the HUGE plane for Narita, Tokyo. The flight ahead of us was going to be a long one, and we came prepared with books, DS's, music and travel pillows. Luckily for us, the in flight films were awesome, so that passed loads of time for us. We did try and sleep, but both completely failed at that. So by the time we arrived in Tokyo, we were absolutely exhausted! It never matters when you're on holiday though, you are always so excited that it barely matters anymore!
After spending what felt forever collecting bags, sorting customs/visas out, getting our eyeballs scanned, collecting tickets and passes, we were finally ready to board the Narita Skyliner train to take us to Nippori Station. The ride took about 45 minutes or so, and we got our first taste of the beautiful Japanese scenery. Jumping off at Nippori Station, we decided to walk to 10 minutes to our hotel in Uguisudani. Train stations are so close together in Tokyo that we could have easily hopped on a train to our closest station - but where is the fun in that?!
Once we had found and checked into our hotel, (Stress No 1. - debit cards declined and Japan HATES UK cards!) we were in desperate need of food, showers and power naps. At this point, I must point out that we had clocked around 29 hours without sleep, and in my infinite wisdom, I had made plans with my Japanese friend and her husband, to meet that evening in Asakusa for dinner and drinks. Not actually considering that we might be sleep deprived and ready to pass out at any given time, but again, nothing a two hour nap wouldn't fix!
Before going into more detail, I feel like I need to briefly talk about my previous trip to Japan. When I first visited back in 2010, I stayed with an incredible family for the three weeks that I was teaching there. They became a close family to me, and over the past 9 years, we have not only kept in touch, but my Japanese "sister" actually studied at my university in York, and I had the pleasure of watching her graduate with her family in attendance. So when we actually paid for our trip and everything was confirmed, I knew I could finally see my family after all those years. This first day in Tokyo being one of those days!
So we navigated the trains for the short journey to one of my favourite places in Japan - Asakusa. We met my wonderful Japanese sister Yukari and her husband at the station, and saying that I missed her dearly is an understatement! Joe had never met her before, and after speaking so highly about her for so long, he was desperate to meet her. Since I had last seen her, she had also got married to an absolutely lovely man, and it meant so much to finally meet him too! After all the emotional introductions and excitement, we headed off to the Sensō-ji temple to take in the sights.
We spent the rest of the evening eating and trying all the food (we tried chicken sashimi - google image it and you will understand why I was so dubious to try!), at a lovely little yakitori izakaya, which was apparently very popular with the locals - we could definitely see why! After dinner, we headed to one of our favourite spots on the entire trip - Hoppy Street. An entire magical street filled with small bars, crammed with people, where you could plonk yourself down on one of the stools and order beer and an umeshu (our usual order), and have even more food (you had to order a plate of food with every round). So after drinking copious amounts of sake and belly laughing at stories and our thick Yorkshire accents, we headed on back to the hotel for a well needed long sleep.