During the Chinese October National Holiday we decided to venture over to Japan and
catch some Pokemon fulfill Davis’s lifelong dream of buying a really sharp Japanese kitchen knife. After collecting lots of feedback from friends and colleagues we decided on the following itinerary: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, Hakone, and back to Tokyo. Planning this trip was difficult because there are so many good locations to visit we had a hard time narrowing down our top choices. It was also challenging because, if you have not noticed a theme by now, every time there is a Chinese National Holiday, many of the Chinese people take advantage of this time and travel home or to nearby countries. Japan (like Hong Kong) is a particularly popular place for Chinese people to visit for buying expensive electronics and other higher end items. As such, we were not surprised when two or three days into our vacation we were able to start understanding some of what people around us were saying…because they were speaking Chinese! Unfortunately this spike in Chinese tourists also meant hotel prices would go up and availability would go down much quicker than other times of year. I booked hotels for each city at least 3 months in advance and then changed a few last minute because I was still paranoid from our Chinese new year hotel fiasco in Thailand where we booked so late (a month early) that we had very limited options.
Our first night we just tried to absorb as much of the city (and the sushi) as we could and we came across a new restaurant concept called stand up sushi. You wait for a spot to be available at the bar, then you are given a menu and can continue choosing different types of sushi until you are done. They will make a tally for each piece you get and that is how your price will be added up at the end. Fortunately for us they had a picture menu and English instructions for how to proceed with our dining experience. I was surprised by how much better the sushi tasted than most we have had before. I expected to not be able to tell much difference. The price was not terribly high compared to what we have paid for sushi elsewhere in the world either, so that was a bonus. This would turn out to be an exception as some restaurants in Japan were quite expensive, especially in comparison to our experience in China and the rest of southeast Asia.
When one is in Shibuya it is highly recommended to observe the pedestrian free-for-all right outside Shibuya station. There is a great little starbucks located on the second floor of one of the corner buildings which provides a great vantage point from which to observe the masses crossing the street. To be perfectly honest though, after dealing with Shanghai rush-hour subway traffic, this experience was not quite as uncomfortable as we had anticipated. The Japanese people seem to care a little more about personal space, so we did not find it to be as cramped or congested as some places we have visited in China (like the grocery store).
Fast forward to the next morning and we found ourselves going for a Pokemon run through Yoyogi park about a block away from our hotel. Since China has blocked the Pokemon go phone app (because it uses google maps), we have been saving up our enthusiasm for this pastime since our last Pokemon run in the USA two months prior. What we learned on our run: there were many an electrabuzz to be caught in that park in Tokyo.
This park is also located right next to the Tokyo Olympic swimming and diving facilities from the 60s which we thought were pretty cool buildings, so we adjusted our running route accordingly to swing by and have a look. There will be new facilities soon though as Tokyo is scheduled to host the 2020 Olympics…we have already discussed the idea of coming back to watch those too!
On our way back from our drizzly run we encountered a large country-wide food festival of some sort. It took us a little time to figure out what was going on and why some places had considerably longer lines than others. As it turns out, some booths were doing a discount for the first 50 people to buy something, and we happened arrive just in time to snag the third to last ramen deal (~75% off). We missed the ice cream/cantaloupe deal by one person, and it was not until it was my turn to pay that I understood what the Japanese woman standing next to me had tried to explain. This women standing next to our line kept telling people things in Japanese and then most would leave and not get in line. She tried to tell me too, but alas, Chinese =/= Japanese and I had not a clue what she was trying to communicate. I was determined I was getting this fruit/ice cream treat after my run, so unless she was trying to tell me they would run out of food within 20 minutes of the event starting I planned to wait in line.
For the afternoon we decided to take a trip to Asakusa to see Senso-ji which, according to the flyer they handed out to us, is Tokyo’s oldest temple. Japan has two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism; Senso-ji happens to to be a Buddhist temple. The temple was formed when two brothers received a sign from the heavens to cast their fishing nets and brought up a golden statue of Bodhisattva Kannon. After that many different priests visited the site and starting around 645 the construction of the temple began. A majority of the buildings standing today were built in the 1960s after WWII because the original ones sustained serious damage as a result of the war.