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Trip Report Just Back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 2: Japan

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For background, please take a look at Part 1: Borneo, recently posted in the Asia forum. This section reports on our brief stay in Japan - - Tokyo and Hakone.

At first, the Japan portion of the trip was going to be just two days as a stopover on our way home from Malaysia. I’m so glad we expanded it and we were inspired to plan another trip to Japan. I felt overwhelmed when deciding where to stay in Tokyo but my instincts told me that the financial district might be the right choice for us. I figured that we would arrive at Tokyo station from Narita and I knew there would be many subway and train lines nearby. Since DH and I are both economists, we wanted to see what the vibe was like in the area. Although the hotels are quite expensive, we were able to use one of the AMEX promotions and stayed 4 nights, paid for 3, breakfast included and a $100 food/beverage credit for the Shangri-la Hotel. Also important to me was the escort service the hotel provides to and from Tokyo Station because I was particularly paranoid about getting lost when first arriving. We’re really glad we stayed in this area and we loved the hotel. I also bought a data roaming package from AT&T to use with Google maps on my iPhone so that we wouldn’t get lost in our wanderings. It turned out to be a waste of money and we found it very difficult to use Google maps. Mainly because of the weather (rain) we didn’t spend as much time walking around various neighborhoods or even taking taxis at night to restaurants as we would have liked, but now that we feel comfortable in the city, we will do that next time. I apologize in advance that my reporting is not nearly as lyrical as the recent threads of MinnBeef and Russ (such outstanding posts!) and the wonderful threads of Fodorites who visited Japan this past fall.

June 4:
Although the flight itself from K/L to Singapore was fine, there was almost an hour delay deboarding in Singapore. First we had to pick up our bag at the Left Luggage counter in Terminal 2, then go through immigration and pick up our checked bags. It left us had only 6 hours in the Crowne Plaza Chiangi airport hotel, which included eating dinner and sleeping before we had to get up at 3:30am to catch our 5:50am flight to Tokyo. This was probably our most expensive hotel stay ever computed on a per hour basis. The hotel was great, lovely rooms and public spaces but we didn’t have the time to enjoy it (we couldn’t stay at the transit hotel this time because Malaysia Airlines wouldn’t forward our bags to Tokyo on ANA, which meant we had to go through customs and immigration to pick up our luggage and then recheck).

June 5. Because it was so early in the morning, the Skytrain in Chiangi was not operating, so we had to take a (very crowed) minibus from the hotel area to the terminal. We flew on a Dreamliner (B-787), which was very comfortable for the 7 hour flight. When we arrived and went through immigration and customs, we got tickets on the Narita Express to Tokyo station and bought Suica cards (much easier to do than I expected, probably because we weren’t jetlagged). As soon as we knew our car and seat numbers for N’Ex, I called our hotel to give them those details and someone met us on the platform exactly where we disembarked after the train ride. The Shangri-La hotel is around the corner from Tokyo Station, but even so we did need an escort or we would never have found it (the hotel starts on the 28th floor of the Marunouchi Trust building).

It was rainy when we arrived and we told that today began the official start of the monsoon season, that rain was expected for the next 4 days. Great, I had no idea. I hadn’t done any research on the weather in Japan when we planned the trip because the primary focus at the time was Borneo. Still, we could see parts of the city through the clouds from our lovely room on the 31st floor of the hotel. We unpacked and relaxed for a while as we were pretty tired from getting up so early that morning. For dinner, we randomly picked a restaurant on the 12th floor of the department store next to the hotel and had a delicious tempura dinner at an early hour.

June 6: Tokyo, first full day

We were not disappointed by the fabulous breakfast at the Shangri-la hotel. In additional to the high quality of the food, the coffee was good and strong, probably as important to me as anything else. Besides an outstanding buffet with all the usual items you expect from a 5 star hotel in Asia, you order an item from the menu with things like lobster eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs on an avocado biscuit with smoked swordfish and basil oil (I got that), blueberry pancakes (for DH), all kinds of omelets, etc. There were amazingly beautiful and delicious jellies on a tray next to the bread selection that were clear but tinted pink and orange. In them were floating bits of tiny orange blossoms and peach blossoms. There were some herbs in each one also, giving them a distinctive taste and aroma.

One of the few things I organized in advance for our Tokyo stay was a 3 hour tour with Yukari Sakamoto. She is a Japanese American who was raised in Minnesota, attended the French Culinary Institute and the American Sommelier Association. She was a sommelier at the bar made famous in the movie Lost in Translation at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and has written a highly regarded book about food in Tokyo. Our plan was to go to the Tsujiki fish market for a couple of hours, followed by a tour of one of the depachikas, which are the basement level floors in Tokyo department stores that sell all kinds of food. Yukari met us in the hotel lobby just before 8am.

The time we spent with Yukari was up there with our best travel experiences. We took a taxi from the hotel to the outer market area of Tsujiki. First we browsed some shops and looked at knives, utensils for prepping fish and seafood and other fish related paraphernalia. There were some amazing fruit and vegetable stalls and we got to see some new things and some of our old favorites. I snapped a photo of mangos that sell for $20 per piece. I didn't buy even though I was very curious about whether they tasted ten times better than the mangos we get at Whole Foods. We next went to the inner market. The public is not allowed to enter until 9am so that tourists don't interfere with the regular market operations. Most of this area closes at 10am so we were seeing the end of the work day. It was just fascinating. Yukari pointed out all the varieties of fish and seafood and we got a glimpse of all aspects of the market operation. We saw one fishmonger kill a fish in a special way of inserting a thin metal stick into the fish that kills it instantly. This causes the fish to stay fresher because there is little blood and hormones secreted that would spoil the fresh taste. There were so many highlights during this hour and we learned so much about the market operations that it wouldn’t be possible to write about them here but I got lots of photos and some videos which will help me remember them. Around 10:15, we took a taxi to the oldest department store in Tokyo, the Ginza branch of Mitsukoshi where we spent over an hour in the food hall. There were prepared foods, fresh foods of all kinds, sake, sweets, different cuisines and everything was displayed so beautifully you felt like you were in a museum. Yukari's explanations were incredibly helpful, we would not have really understood what we were seeing without her. Close to noon, she was ready to go home and we we're hungry so she escorted us to a small (8 seat) sushi bar in the corner of the food hall, run by a famous restaurant in Kyoto. We had a delicious sushi lunch with some fatty tuna among the other fresh fish. We were able to manage the subway back to Tokyo Station and found our way to the hotel without too many wrong turns.

It was a very rainy afternoon so we selected a close by museum that you would expect two economists would want to see: the Currency Museum, which was only 3 or 4 blocks from our hotel. What a little treasure. The museum is run by the Central Bank of Japan, and the exhibits trace the history of currency in Japan back to the 8th century. I really loved the explanation of the historical periods, especially the time when the government debased the currency in order to cover fiscal deficits, resulting in very high inflation. When this happened in the mid 1800s, the government was overthrown. At the end of the exhibit, there was a great display of various world currencies and how the notes vary from the yen. One display showed currency in countries that have denominations that are different than those of the yen: denominations of 3 or 25 currency units for example. Another display showed currency that is horizontal on one side and vertical on the other. Very neat place, we really loved it.

We went back to the hotel to get ready for the evening activity: the Yomiuri Giants baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. Unlike in the US, tickets to the games are released on a staggered basis. For the June 6 game, the tickets were released for sale at 11am on April 18. I went online the moment they were available and got 2 seats behind first base. Good thing I got them right away because 10 minutes after I bought them, I went back online just to check things out and most sections were already sold out. We had a great time at the game. It was at least as much fun observing and listening to the cheering as it was watching the game itself. The stadium is domed (good thing because it was raining steadily) and seemed much more intimate than most baseball stadiums I have been to. The Giants were playing the Lions and it seemed like the small section of Lions fans were as loud as the rest of the entire stadium. They cheered CONSTANTLY when the Lions were up, with songs and flags and jumping. Mid game, I went to the food stalls and bought a chicken curry dinner and a crab sushi dinner. Both were very tasty. We saw that most people brought in their own food. I thought vendors would be coming around and selling food as they do in US games (for some reason I thought they would be selling bento boxes) but they only sold beer, soft drinks and Suntory highballs in the stands. This was a great cultural experience for us.

June 6 was one of the best, single travel days we have ever had.

June 7-8
Saturday and Sunday were our two last full days in Tokyo. We knew that it would be difficult to beat the great day we had on Friday and the weather continued to be very rainy. Tokyo has many "free guide" services and I have read great reviews about them in Fodors trip reports. Before we left home, I made arrangements for someone to show us around the Asakusa and Ueno areas. Luck of the draw, we did not get a very good guide. The guide was a nice person but just wasn't giving us explanations of what we were seeing and I had to keep asking to get any conversation going. We were fortunate, however, to see the beginning of a wedding at the shrine in Asakusa. After visiting Asakusa, we wanted to do something indoors because of the heavy rain so I asked to go to the Edo museum. But it wasn't working our very well, basically we just walked around the museum without any commentary (this was one of the main disappointments of the trip, the museum looked fabulous and I heard so many wonderful reports about it…we will go back next trip to Tokyo). So we asked to go back to our hotel, and had lunch on Ramen Street in Tokyo Station (first time using the vending machine to order lunch), then said our goodbyes to the guide about 3 hours earlier than expected. After a brief rest and with heavy rain we decided to explore Tokyo Station some more, including Character Street and the depachika in Damairu, the department store in the station. Character Street is in the lowest level of the station shopping area and has one small store after another, each one mainly devoted to paraphernalia of a special animated character. We recognized Hello Kitty and a few others. We bought some incredibly delicious pastries for a late afternoon snack, it being Saturday afternoon, Daimaru was mobbed and it was hard to choose because everything looked so scrumptious. We decided to stay in the hotel for dinner at Nadaman, their Japanese restaurant and had a wonderful sushi dinner.

On Sunday, it was raining only lightly and we had a great morning at the Meiji shrine. For a $5 admission fee, we walked through the special garden area, not realizing that the irises were in bloom and they were gorgeous. I've never seen so many different species and I got some great photos. We then walked to the Harajuku area and Takeshita Dori. This is a famous street where teenagers come on Sundays, dressed in outlandish costumes (called cosplay). We saw a few girls dressed up but saw more shops selling the costumes and it was fun to window shop. From there we walked to the Omotesando shopping area and had lunch at Maisen, which specializes in tonkatsu. We only had to wait 15 minutes, this is a pretty well known restaurant, so that wasn't too bad. We selected two of the set lunches from the photo menu, which included tonkatsu plus some sashimi and other little dishes. The meal came with green tea and we also each had a small glass of beer. We then walked Shibuya Crossing and enjoyed people watching, then took the Yamanote line back to Tokyo Station. We had a great dinner Sunday night at the beautiful Kushiro restaurant (in the Kitte Tower nearby) that specializes in grilled foods sourced from the Hokkaido area. DH was craving meat and we had wonderful, rich beef and pork. We found it on the website "bento.com". Like many cities, it isn't as easy to find restaurants open on Sunday but this was terrific.

Up next: Hakone

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