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David's Trip Report--Japan- November 2013

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Dec 27th, 2013, 10:31 AM
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David's Trip Report--Japan- November 2013

After more than a month back from Japan, I’m happy to finally have a bit of a breather that allows me to start a trip report. As others have noted in their own reports, I have learned much by asking for the knowledge of Fodorites that have gone before me—first last year in Turkey and now this year in Japan. So it’s important to share some of your own learnings to hopefully help others who will come after me.

November 5/6-Minneapolis to Tokyo:

I boarded the daily direct Delta flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo and settled in my bulkhead seat for the 13 hour flight. This is the second time I’ve purchased the bulkhead seats and for roughly $80 each way, find them to be good value—particularly if you can get the first row of bulkhead seats. The flight was non-eventful. We never saw nightfall during the entire trip over and we arrived the next day at approximately 5:00 p.m. Tokyo time on the 6th. I couldn’t imagine having a longer journey at this point but the couple from the Twin Cities sitting next to me had a two hour layover at Narita before another 5+ hour flight to visit their son and his family in Bangkok. Yikes!

My luggage was all carry on and so after a very quick deboard, I made my way to the Friendly Airport Limousine bus counter and purchased my ticket into Tokyo. The FAL stops at my hotel-the Mitsui Garden Ginza, and so it was an easy choice to pay the $30 one way fare, rather than navigating the Tokyo subway that first night and then coming up above ground and having little clue which way I would have needed to go. By the time I arrived at the hotel, it was about 8:00 p.m. and I chose to unpack and unwind in my room for the evening, rather than going out to explore the neighborhood. I would be staying at the Mitsui Garden three different times during my trip, and chose it for the décor, price and the fact that it was straight-shot 10 minute walk to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Slept reasonably well that first night in anticipation of my first full day of sightseeing in Tokyo.

November 7--Tokyo:

That first morning of the 7th, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks to get breakfast and my necessary jolt of java. (The hotel does offer breakfast in an onsite restaurant but it was approximately $20 and all I really need is coffee and some sort of pastry). After finishing breakfast, it was time to brave the Tokyo subway for the first time as I made my way to Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum. The Tokyo subway (as well as the Kyoto subway and all of the JR intercity trains) were MUCH easier to navigate than I anticipated. Plenty of good maps that contained English station names underneath the Japanese characters. The English station names were also called out over the trains’ PR system after first being called in Japanese. I’ve navigated subway systems in some of the world’s largest cities including London and Paris, and I found the Tokyo system every bit as user-friendly.

That first morning was raining as I made my way through Ueno Park. At this point, there was very little koyo in the park but nevertheless, the park held a certain level of charm in the rain. Visited a few small temples, including the small scale replica of Kiyomizu dera, before purchasing my ticket at the National Museum. I spent probably about 90 minutes touring the Japanese collection in the main hall. Many interesting paintings, drawings, swords, armor, ceramics etc. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m generally not a big museum kind of guy, but did find the TNM to be a worthwhile stop, particularly considering the weather. It is rather dark inside, however and could stand a bit of freshening and modernization.

My next stop was Asakusa to visit the Sensoji Temple complex. In spite of the weather, the crowds were having at the complex as by now, it was about 1:00 p.m. The temple gate, with the giant lanterns, along with the adjacent 5-Story Pagoda, made for a very nice photo op. This also turned out to be my first experience with the plethora of Japanese school children in their yellow helmets who seemed to turn out en masse at every tourist attraction throughout Japan. I later came to wonder whether Japanese schoolchildren ever spent any time in class vs. field trips. But nonetheless, they were always very polite, albeit numerous. The Sensoji complex was worth about a 30 minute stroll as I knew there would be even greater temple complexes to later explore in Kyoto.

After Sensoji, I made my way to my last stop of the day, the Edo Tokyo Museum. This is a more interactive museum that tells the history of Edo and later, Tokyo. You’ll find scale models of old Edo neighborhoods, learn a bit about Kabuki theater and everyday life in 17th century Edo and from there, progress to more modern events in the city’s history, including the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, WWII and the 1964 Summer Olympics. I probably spent about 90 minutes here and would recommend this as the one museum in Tokyo to see if you only wanted to visit one. (Although the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima would turn out to be my favorite museum of the trip, by far.)

Dinner that evening was at a pleasant, albeit non descript tempura restaurant in a nearby office complex/mall. Decided to call it an early evening as I needed to be in line very early the next morning—not for the tuna auction at Tsukiji but for what turned out to be the best sushi I have ever had—the world famous hole in the wall, Sushidai.

Tomorrow: Sushidai, Tsukiji, Hama Rikyu Gardens, Riverboat to Asakusa, Kappabashi
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Dec 27th, 2013, 11:04 AM
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Thanks - Looking forward to more. Nice to hear about what I missed on our trip.
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Dec 27th, 2013, 11:05 AM
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Great start - please continue....
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Dec 27th, 2013, 07:19 PM
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November 8: Tokyo

The next day was beautiful-clear as a bell. (Well at least it was after I’d been up and at it for a couple of hours!). I awoke about 5:15 a.m. and was out the door about 20 minutes later and on my way to join the line at Sushidai. Sushidai is truly a little hole in the wall at the Tsukiji Fish Market, an easy 10 minute walk from the Mitsui Garden Ginza. If you check out Trip Advisor, you will see the glowing reviews and I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. After arriving at Tsukiji and stopping to ask someone for directions to the restaurant, I arrived at 5:55 a.m. at what was obviously the place. Sushidai, as I later observed, holds a grand total of 13 customers. I was approximately 35th or so in line, so I knew I had a good 3 hour wait ahead of me. So what I figured, I can sleep when I get home. While in line, I chatted up both the German guys in front of me who had finished up their business in Tokyo and were enjoying several days of holiday, as well as the sweet Japanese couple behind me who I could tell wanted to practice their English. The time passed reasonably quickly and we all made it into Sushidai by just after 9:00 a.m. Earlier in line, the hostess asks each customer whether they want the 7 or 10 piece meal, as well as whether there’s any type of fish we don’t eat. I opted for the 10 piece meal, which for 3900 yen provides 10 pieces of chef’s choice, 4 small maki rolls and one more piece of nigri of my choice. I also noted that I don’t like sea urchin. (Funny enough, both the German guys and the Japanese couple also passed on the sea urchin, making me wonder who likes this stuff??). The most succinct thing I can say to describe Sushidai is that it should be called “Sushi2dai4”. The absolute FRESHEST, most flavorful sushi I have ever had. And the rice was delicious and still warm. My favorites were the fatty tuna and the salmon roe, which happened to be in season and so was served fresh rather than frozen. Our sushi chef spoke good English and was great fun to talk with while we had our sushi breakfast. I can’t recommend Sushidai highly enough. After finishing breakfast at about 10:00 a.m., I spent a bit of time walking around the shops of Tsukiji, checking out a couple of the knife shops. I didn’t buy a knife there as I was anticipating doing more serious shopping later that day at Kappabashi.

After Sushidai, I walked the roughly 8-10 blocks to the lovely Hama Rikyu gardens. This is a very decent size park sandwiched between the skyscrapers of Tokyo and the port of Tokyo. Here again, very little koyo in Hama Rikyu which I attributed possibly to the urban heat island effect in Tokyo. After a pleasant hour or so stroll, I caught the riverboat ride from Hama Rikyu to Asakusa. This was the perfect day for a boat ride along the Sumida-gawa as the sun was shining and the temperature was close to 70 degrees F. Upon arriving at the port in Asakusa, I made my way back to Sensoji Temple to get some updated photos of the Gate and Pagoda in the sunshine and from there, walked the approximately 1 ½ miles to my favorite time in Tokyo, the Kappabashi kitchen supplies district.

Kappabashi is a street of restaurant supplies stores that runs roughly ½ mile. Along the way, you’ll see stores carrying industrial-sized pots and pans, sushi serving trays, beautiful knives, rice bowls, ceramics, and the ubiquitous red paper lanterns that hang in front of many Japanese restaurants. Now this may not sound like much of a tourist attraction but apparently it is, and as my buddies and I are all big foodies and wine guys, I was pretty much in heaven. I found a beautiful sushi serving block just like you would see in any fine sushi restaurant for just $40. I also picked up some rice bowls, a pair of decorative chopsticks and a red paper lantern inscribed with “ramen” in Japanese. I also spent a total of probably 2 hours poring over knives in 3 different shops. I found a couple that piqued my interest but decided to think about that purchase overnight. Overall, I spent most of that afternoon in Kappabashi. If you enjoy cooking and dining out, you definitely want to spend some time here.

After taking a wrong turn off the subway back in Ginza, I finally made it back to my hotel as nightfall began. I rested up in the room for a couple of hours and then decided to grab a quick bite to eat and walk through the bright lights of Ginza. I grabbed dinner at a stand up noodle bar in my neighborhood. I chose the pork soba noodles topped with shrimp tempura. I didn’t exactly know what part of the pig I was eating, but chose to follow the advice of my buddy Siggy, who honeymooned in Japan with his wife 20 years ago. Siggy told me before I left, “If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it. If it tastes good, don’t ask what it is.” Truer advice has never been offered. By the time I finished dinner and took some nighttime shots of Ginza, it was about 10:00 p.m. I made it back to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying a couple glasses of wine and planning out my next day.

Tomorrow: Obtaining my JR pass; Meiji Shrine; Mitsukoshi Department Store and back to Kappabashi.
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Dec 27th, 2013, 08:47 PM
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Thanks so much for your report. I'm really enjoying it and am especially interested in your visit to Kappabashi which no one much seems to write about. I hunt out kitchenware everywhere I go and this is on my Japan to see list

The large number of Fororites visiting Japan this year is proving to be a fantastic resource between the different question threads and the great reports. It gives such a good overview to the rest of us making plans.

I'm looking forward to the rest of your great report. Thanks for sharing.
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Dec 28th, 2013, 12:45 AM
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Wonderful, really enjoying it.
I need to get started on mine, I did keep a diary, throughout the trip, but haven't begun writing it up for a report.

I enjoyed kappabashi too, on our first trip last year. I didn't buy much - some chopsticks and spoons. We looked at knives too but didn't know enough about them to work out which were best for us and good value.

I also bought wonderfully touristy tea mug at a large ceramics stall at Tsukiji outer market, with various sushi fish on the outside - we'd been served tea in them in one of the sushi restaurants within the market and when I saw it on sale, I had to get it. And some chopstick rests too.

And also bought fresh gingko nuts to take home from tht outer market area too.
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Dec 28th, 2013, 09:01 AM
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Glad everyone is enjoying the report so far. I did not keep a diary and am doing this TOTALLY off of memory. Actually, in addition to passing along my experiences to others, I'm finding that writing this trip report is a great way for me to remember this trip years down the road.

MaryW and Kavey, I agree on the value of visiting Kappabashi. I had purchased a set of Shun knives this past summer at Williams Sonoma and absolutely love them. Nonetheless, I wanted to buy one knife in Japan as a primary souvenir of my trip. I did quite a bit of research ahead of time to identify the top knife shops and determine what additional knife would be useful to me. Will report on that in my next installment.
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Dec 28th, 2013, 02:53 PM
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reading with interest
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Dec 28th, 2013, 04:24 PM
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Family of 4. It will be our first time to Japan in July/2014. Would you mind to tell me what airline you booked from Minneapolis to Tokyo?
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Dec 28th, 2013, 06:27 PM
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I'm impressed if you were able to distinguish among the knife shops. I recall well the street somewhere in Kappabashi that has one knife shop after the other, each with an incredible array of hardware. Definitely worth a visit for anyone visiting Tokyo who enjoys top-rate kitchen stuff.
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Dec 28th, 2013, 08:19 PM
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Mia1963, it was Delta.

Don, I had done a lot of research prior to leaving. For me, researching a trip is at least 1/2 the fun of the trip itself. So I had map names, approximate locations, a few YouTube video advertisemtns, and even some Trip Advisor reviews for each of the shops I planned to visit.
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Dec 28th, 2013, 08:22 PM
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November 9: Tokyo

The weather had turned back to gray and coolish on Saturday, influenced I suspected by the Philippine typhoon. After coffee and breakfast at my Ginza neighborhood Starbucks, I walked the few blocks to the JR Shimbashi Station to exchange my JR rail pass for tickets on my subsequent trips through Honshu. The station attendant I was working with only spoke a bit of English, so I asked to speak with his manager. She explained that I needed to go to Tokyo Station to exchange my pass. So onto the subway I went and arrived shortly thereafter at Tokyo Station. As many of you know, Tokyo Station is enormous and it took me probably 15 minutes, and several times asking for internal directions before I finally found the JR office. Once there, exchanging my JR pass for tickets was very easy. The gal behind the counter spoke excellent English and was very patient with me while I inquired about different trains and departure time options. In the end, I purchased a ticket from Tokyo to Matsumoto, and then activated my pass starting 3 days later with future tickets from Matsumoto to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally Hiroshima back to Tokyo.

With that task taken care of, it was time to head off the Meiji Shrine. The Meiji Shrine honors Emperor Meiji who was instrumental in ending Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world. The shrine and the gardens are quite large. As you enter, you approach a collection of wine and sake barrels, which as I recall symbolize the Emperor’s love for these fine beverages. A short walk past this display are several massive torii gates made from very old cypress trees. The path through to the shrine itself contained some beautiful chrysanthemums and many other trees and shrubs. While at the shrine, I saw a procession with a young Japanese couple who were being married. The shrine complex was nice enough but after an hour or so, I was ready to move on. I grabbed some lunch (soba noodles and tempura) at an on-site cafeteria, and then made my way out of the shrine. I spent the next ½ or so walking around the nearby Harajuku area trying to find the Oriental Bazaar, and I understood it to be a good place to fine nice quality, well priced souvenirs. However, I wasn’t able to find it and finally gave up, deciding instead to head back across town to the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihombashi.

The Nihombashi branch of Mitsukoshi is the flagship store. The subway stop leads you directly into the basement food court level. As it was Saturday afternoon, the crowds were heavy and the food selections extensive. Pastries, quiches, salmon, chicken, vegetables and several other dishes that I had no idea what they even were. As I was still full from the noodles at Meiji, I passed on trying anything here and spent the next hour or so perusing the store. While it was a very nice store, in the end, it was just another department store similar to those found in any major city. With that, I decided to head back to Kappabashi as I had decided to purchase one of the knives I had looked at the previous day.

Back in Kappabashi, I made my way to Kamata knives. Kamata is one of the top knive stores in Kappabashi. It’s located on the left side of the main street, about 3 blocks up as you enter the district past the giant chef’s head statue. You’ll recognize it by the giant picture of a knife on the sign above the store. That previous day, I had looked at two knives at Kamata, a knife for removing skin from fish fillets and a 5” santoku. In the Shun knife set I purchased this past summer, I already had a 7” santoku knife which I found myself using quite regularly, so I thought that the 5” santoku would make a nice companion knife, particularly since a paring knife for some reason doesn’t feel as natural in my hands as other knives. The 5” santoku had a beautiful walnut-looking handle with a full tang. It felt wonderful in my hand. And the other nice feature from Kamata is that they will engrave your name on the knife in Japanese characters for free while you wait. The knife was 7000 yen. At the $1 to 100 yen exchange rate in effect throughout my trip, that translated to $70. I made my purchase and then the shop owner took my knife and engraved my name, “David” in Japanese characters while I waited. How cool is that!? Since I’ve been home, I have used the knife many times and it has quickly become one of my go to knives for slicing smaller objects like mushrooms, smaller potatoes and herbs. I love it!

I spent another hour or so in Kappabashi just checking out all the wonderful food instruments and supplies but as I had bought quite a bit the previous day, just window shopped. By this point, it was now about 5:00 p.m. and time to head back to the hotel to rest up before dinner.

Sushi sounded great again that evening, so at around 7:00 p.m. I obtained 3 recommendations from the Mitsui Garden concierge for sushi restaurants within a mile walk or so of the hotel. I first went to the restaurant that she said was her favorite but as she predicted, the wait was long. ( I know, so what? I waited 3+ hours for Sushidai!) But at this point, I was pretty hungry and not in the mood to wait, so I walked back towards the hotel and stopped at her second choice, a place called Hakadote (like the name of the city on Hokkaido.) This turned out to be a very good choice. The place was pleasantly full (always a good sign) but I was still able to get an immediate seat at the bar. The sushi was delicious. While there, I was chatted up by a lovely Japanese couple, probably in their 30s. Both of them were so sweet. The gentleman travelled on occasion to the United States for business and both spoke wonderful English. They insisted on buying me a piece of sushi…I think it was grilled fatty tuna and it was delicious. How kind! This was just one example of why I think the Japanese people might be the kindest that I’ve yet met on my travels.

By about 9:00 p.m. I made my way back to the hotel. I needed to be ready to check out in the morning and make my way to the nearby Conrad Hilton for my two day tour of Hakone National Park and my first meeting with that incredible Japanese icon…Fuji-san.

Next two days: A missed earthquake. Storms in Hakone. A detour to the Fuji 5-Lakes area and trying out all of the unique transportation options through Hakone.
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Dec 29th, 2013, 12:10 AM
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My memory is so poor, I'd lose so much of the detail if I didn't keep a diary. It's why I've been slow to write up my report, though. Must do that soon.

Good to hear about your knife purchase -- in two trips we've intended to buy one both times but failed. Next time's the charm, I hope!

Looking forward to reading more!
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Dec 29th, 2013, 06:08 AM
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I'm enjoying your TR and looking forward to the next installment. We did find the Oriental Bazaar, with a lot of difficulty. They did have reasonably priced and nicely made souvenirs and yakutas, but not the dolls I was looking for.
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Dec 29th, 2013, 06:22 AM
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Following along and enjoying your interesting report. Curious about the costs of travel in japan.
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Dec 29th, 2013, 10:09 AM
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Great read so far. Keep it coming...
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Dec 29th, 2013, 01:21 PM
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Wonderful report, even more impressive with no notes. Thanks so much for the details on the knife store where I will pop in during my June trip.
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Dec 29th, 2013, 01:33 PM
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june---double or triple Thailand..
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Dec 29th, 2013, 05:50 PM
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Kavey--I hope the 3rd time is the charm. For me, it was really no different than buying any other purchase that would require a bit of research/comparison shopping. Most of my research simply was geared towards the knife shops that existed in Kappabashi and what other travellers' experiences were. I found the folks at both Kamata and at Tsubaya Hochoten (just up the street and on the opposite side) to be very patient and friendly and more than happy to answer my questions.

dgunbug-I expected daily costs in Japan to be considerably higher than they actually were. Hotels were my biggest expsnese but that was primarily because by this point in my life, I've learned that quality hotels really DO make a difference as to one's enjoyment of the trip. It's not just the room itself but also, the quality of the servie, the availability of a concierge, etc. etc. Otherwise, meal costs were as reasonable or as expensive as you wanted them to be and the price of attractions, museums, etc. were more than reasonable. Not sure if you are from the U.S. or not but I've noticed that the US$ to Yen exchange rate has improved nearly 5% in the past month since I've been home.
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Dec 29th, 2013, 06:42 PM
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One of the features of Japan is that you've got a wide range of prices, especially for food and accommodation. In cities, you can stay at top-flight hotels for $300-600/night, but you can also stay at business-class hotels for around $120-150/night. And, unlike lower-priced hotels in some other Asian countries, you can be certain that your hotel in Japan will be clean and safe.

Restaurants are expensive in Japan. But it's also possible to eat in delicious places like noodle shops or okonomiyaki for very little. And you can get great take-away from department store food halls, again for very reasonable prices.

Transportation is relatively expensive, especially train travel. In cities, especially Tokyo, public transportation is incredibly efficient and remarkably simple to use.

Overall, I'd say that Tokyo is less expensive than comparable major cities (Paris, Hong Kong, New York).
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