Only one serious post this week due to a busy schedule. I’m working on material to cover my posts at Japan Pulse for the next three weeks – next Wednesday I leave for Europe for three weeks! YES! My schedule is:
April 21 – Depart Tokyo, Arrive London, Train to Newcastle
April 26 – Depart Newcastle, Arrive Paris
April 29 – Depart Paris, Arrive Bergen, Norway
May 2 – Depart Bergen, Arrive Munich
May 4 – Depart Munich, Arrive Bamberg
May 7 – Depart Bamberg, Arrive London
May 11 – Depart London
May 12 – Arrive Tokyo
I’ll be staying with friends and should be pretty busy throughout, but do let me know if you read How to Japonese and are along my route. I’d love to get a beer with locals. If you have any suggestions for things to do, see, eat or drink, leave them in the comments.
I’ll be posting just once a week while I’m on the road, but hopefully it will be useful information.
Japan is an expensive country, and Tokyo is an especially expensive city. It costs a lot of money to do just about anything here with very few exceptions. One of these exceptions is the Tokyo International Forum. My college roommate Dave came to visit Tokyo three years ago, and he brought a hipster guidebook with him that had glossy photos of architectural highlights, choice restaurants, and famous sites. When I met up with him he told me, “Basically I want to take pictures of awesome buildings.” One of the buildings that had piqued his interest was the Tokyo International Forum, which I hadn’t heard of but was able to locate relatively quickly on a map.
It’s right outside of Yurakucho Station and only a 10 minute walk from Tokyo Station. I walked over with Dave not really expecting all that much, but when we entered the building I was stunned – here’s this tiny building barely wider than the set of train tracks it borders, and its glass, steel, and bone-white frame tower above you as you ride down the escalator. Although people are constantly flowing in and out of the rooms and auditoriums for conferences, concerts and exhibitions, access to the top floor is unrestricted, and it offers a frightening view into the depths of the building and mediocre views of the neighboring blocks.
In addition to the exhibitions inside the building, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of one of the many benches, there are often markets in the courtyard outside the Glass Building. The courtyard also offers free seating, shade in the summer, and some cool sculpture.
For those with a little cash on hand, there are a number of cafes in the immediate vicinity, or you can buy a can coffee at the convenience store and enjoy it on a bench while people watching.
One of my favorite nights out in Tokyo is dinner with the sarariiman hordes in Shimbashi, a walk through Ginza to see who’s out and about, and then a quick cut through the shopping area around Yurakucho Station to the Forum. At night the area is illuminated beautifully, and the restaurants around the courtyard are nice perches for cake, coffee, or beers.
When I checked in at Narita on my way to New York, I realized that I’d been assigned a middle seat. Great. I guess that’s what you get when you book a ticket yourself rather than through a travel agent, I thought. I pressed the button to try and change it, but all the seats were full. Twenty minutes before my flight, I decided to try and ask one of the ladies at the gate – 空いている通路席(つうろせき)はありませんか。Are there any aisle seats available? Miraculously one was free. She tore up my old boarding pass and handed me a new one. Don’t ask me how it happened, I’m just glad I had the leg space and easy access to the bathroom. Maybe she was so surprised someone wasn’t asking for an upgrade to business class that she was happy to oblige me.
If you’re looking for a window seat, the word you want is 窓席(まどせき). I’m not sure why you would request a middle seat, but I believe the word is 中央席(ちゅうおうせき).
My flight home to Tokyo yesterday was cancelled because the shitters on the plane were broken. Two of ‘em. They had to fix at least one of them for us to go (pun intended), and apparently it couldn’t be done. I let my roommates know I’d be getting home a day late, and one of them responded with:
Love the onomatopoeia at the beginning. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard どえ〜 used, but it seems to me something like an even more exasperated version of the typical sound of surprise – げ.
Now I’m off to try and score a meal voucher or some other kind of restitution. This cancellation shit was exciting at first, but now it just sucks.
00:02 Allen Toussaint’s “Tipitina and Me,” a striking minor-chord variation of the legendary New Orleans song. Apparently Elvis Costello wrote lyrics for this version of the song, and I’m sure they’re great, but I can’t imagine anything other than the instrumental version.
00:04 The neighborhood where I grew up has these tiles in all of the streets. I took my senior yearbook photo next to one of them.
I took all this video when I was back in New Orleans in April/May 2009. A few days before I flew home from Tokyo, I jammed the door of my camcorder and it stopped working. I was totally bummed out during the start of my trip and had given up hope of taking any footage, but eventually I snapped out of the funk and borrowed my buddy Vasu’s camera.
00:09 This is the neighborhood where I grew up. The street used to be in disrepair, and there was a big dip right in front of this blue house on the corner. It was a lot of fun to ride down it on a bike, and it filled up during floods.
00:15 612 Webster St. My memories of this house include: feeding our first cat (a black cat named Mr. Cat) in our little backyard, my parents sweating to the oldies, riding little plastic cars and motorcycles around, my mom bringing my little brother home from the hospital.
I’m not sure if the tree in front was there or not. If it was, it has grown quite a bit.
00:23 600 Webster St. Two doors down from the first house. Memories: playing basketball in the backyard, shooting off fireworks on the corner, carving pumpkins, watching the Gulf War on CNN, leaving apple empanadas out for Santa at Christmas, eating vegetarian food like “spinach balls,” waiting out a hurricane in one of the bedrooms upstairs, old computers (Commodores, Amigas, and all the awesome games that my Dad bought or pirated from friends), running my forehead into our shed and splitting it (my forehead) open, snow in New Orleans, eating all the snacks my Mom’s friends brought when she hosted “Quilt Group.”
00:30 Eleonore is only a few blocks over from Webster, but the street tiles cut out at some point.
00:34 This is Eleonore. We lived on this street briefly after living in Texas for sixth months. The filmed some commercial for a bank on the street one time and you could see my brother way in the background.
00:41 A curious house. The kitchen was on the second floor (“flood-proof” you might call it), and there were two distinct second floors with separate stairways that met. I had my own room for the first time. Memories: listening to the Top 10 songs on the radio every night (Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” comes to mind, as does that terrible “Big Bad Wolf” song), listening to Weird Al Yankovic tapes, watching constellations move at night for a science project, eating pizza and root beer with friends, rooting for Charles Barkley and the Suns in the ’94 NBA finals, Easter Egg hunting, drinking powdered tea (and probably becoming addicted to caffeine).
00:49 The front of Audobon Park from the streetcar tracks. We have always lived close to the park, and I used to bike around it quite often. My mom used to walk around the park at five in the morning, and I would ride ahead a bit and then wait for her to catch up.
00:56 A close up of the fountain. That’s all I got.
01:02 This used to be a pond with two bridges on the ends. There was a track that went around the pond, and it was fun to ride around real fast and then zoom up and down the bridges. That was a long time ago. During middle school and high school we used to play ultimate frisbee here. It was the perfect size for us back then. Probably a little small now. In the distance you can see a little hut that sits on the edge of the golf course.
01:09 This is a shot of the pond closest to our old houses. We used to feed bread to the ducks here, and one time my babysitter took us to this area and we were unknowingly included in a photo that was included in a volume of park photos. We were tiny in the photo, but it’s still pretty cool. You can see the cypress trees with cypress knees.
01:23 The elephant exhibit has been there forever. It’s exactly how I remember it from when I was little.
01:30 The fountain and oaks in the area between the reptile exhibit and the sea lions (?). Nice, quiet area perfect for picnicking.
01:38 This shot might be my favorite serendipitous shot. Run, you crazy looking chicken, there’s a lady with a camera after you!
01:50 Camp St. This is where we live now.
01:54 Here’s Camp looking from State toward Webster. It’s only three blocks from the other houses where I’ve lived. It’s a pleasant little neighborhood.
02:01 A relatively new New Orleans house. I think the newest of any we’ve lived in.
02:08 The back house. It used to be a garage, but we converted into a little house – my Mom’s pet project to tempt us home more often. It works – she stocks the freezer with frozen pizza and the fridge with beer.
02:17 The yard. Nice little garden, which is where all of our late-cats rest in peace.
02:23 This is Butthead. No joke. That’s his real name. He had a brother named Beavis, but he ran away. Butthead is still really skittish and hasn’t warmed up to me yet, so I try to spoil him. I gave him kitty treats two to three times a day when I was back home, but he still wouldn’t let me approach him. He looks far sweeter than he actually is.
02:27 Bill is the big, fat, orange cat. He might be our nicest cat yet. He loves attention, especially early in the morning. For some strange reason, whenever Butthead is on the couch, he’ll let you pet him if you’re sneaky about it.
02:36 My firm belief. I have lived a rambling, cat-less life for the past nine years. I think my resolution for 2010 may be to acquire a cat.
00:30 The music is Beck’s “Hollow Log” from the album One Foot In The Grave. Beck was the first band (musician?) I listened to intensely. Back in middle school I got the album Odelay in a soccer team Christmas present exchange. I have his entire catalog including a lot of bootlegs and B-sides and Japanese versions. (Up until his most recent album Modern Guilt, he always had bonus tracks on the Japanese versions. All I got this time was a link to a stupid 携帯待受画面 image. I was seriously disappointed.) His early stuff is rough and creative and all over the place genre-wise. There are some real gems like “Hollow Log.”
00:33 My buddy Kai calls these magazines “onsen spank mags.” Ha. Always thought that was hilarious.
00:40 This is exactly how I found this onsen. I was just flipping through the travel brochure (which mainly lists the cost to stay overnight) and saw one that looked great – 法師温泉長寿館. I did some research and found that they allow higaeri bathers. Fortunately it wasn’t far from Minakami Onsen, so I was somewhat familiar with the area.
00:44 Hyperdia is great, and they recently did a site renovation. Now the form auto-predicts the station as you type, and you can select your departure/destination from a list of stations that pops up. Makes it really easy to use.
The one problem I’ve discovered with using Hyperdia over long distances is that they always ride lines to the end. When you’re going across the county on a Seishun 18 Kippu, sometimes it’s more strategic to get off a station or two early to catch the start of a new line (or new section along a line), which gives you a better chance of getting a seat.
00:51 This is my room from a different angle. You can see my bookshelf and my door.
Not showering before an onsen trip makes that first bath so sweet.
01:06 Love this shot of the girl waving to someone on the train.
01:12 Another of my favorite shots – three guys chilling out and two guys sleeping on the ends.
01:16 My roommate Teppei thought me napping on the train was hilarious. I should have used my messenger bag as a pillow. Would have been much more natural.
01:23 When I went out to Minakami, I bought some food at a konibini somewhere along the way and then seriously regretted it after finding this bakery in Takasaki. This time I was prepared and hadn’t had anything for breakfast, so I gorged myself on tasty パン.
01:27 I love how the trains get older the farther you go into the inaka. One of my favorite lines is the one along the Japan Sea that runs from Naoetsu in Niigata Prefecture to Toyama. The train looks like it’s been carved in one piece out of the mountains that it runs through.
01:34 I was a little stressed on this trip up until this point. I was preoccupied with making every train and getting all the footage I needed, but once I filmed this bus, I was finally able to relax. Most of the hard work was done, and I knew I’d probably catch the second bus. There was only one set of buses in the morning and one in the afternoon, so if I’d missed either of them, I would have been facing a steep taxi bill.
01:41 This is the second bus, an even smaller local bus that runs out to the onsen – as mentioned before, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I like the driver’s little wave.
01:50 Here’s the building. It’s an amazing place out in the mountains. I was hoping there might be some magical extra bus back, but the driver of the neon green bus told me that there weren’t any and that taxi would cost quite a bit. It was only 7km back, and I figured I could handle that much.
01:52 Foreigners, including myself, like to collect these. All the Japanese people I’ve ever mentioned that to think it’s really strange, and one even said she uses them to pick up dog poop (?!).
01:55 Really wish I could’ve filmed inside the bath. I think I even went as far as emailing the place to ask for permission, but they never replied. The bath is one of the few mixed onsen I’ve ever been to. It feels straight out of the Meiji Period or maybe even earlier – just one big pool that has a pattern of wooden bars running across. People lean their heads on these or rest their feet on them. There aren’t even any shower heads, so you have to sit by the side of the water and shovel it on yourself with a bath bucket.
01:57 The walk wasn’t bad at all. The sun came out, so it wasn’t too cold, and I had an hour of the BS Report to listen to.
02:02 I guess I would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t seen monkeys in a place called 猿ケ京 (a literal translation of this could be “Monkey Capital”). I was a little uneasy when I first saw them down the road because I was in the middle of nowhere, not exactly a home court advantage for humans when it comes to monkey fighting, but they walked off to the side, so I readied my camera to catch them on film. As soon as I got to where they were and peaked over the side rail, they scampered off.
02:08 I got to this place right on time. About ten minutes after I finished filming, some other people showed up. The indoor shot is a little steamy, but the rotemburo part is great. Just be glad I didn’t include any “bonus footage” as part of this post.
02:15 There was a liquor store right across from the bus stop, and they had a couple of local beer selections including Echigo Stout. Nice.
A great little trip, and I highly recommend it. There are plenty of onsen that aren’t quite as far away as Houshi. Atami is only an hour and a half or so from Tokyo. Plenty of others closer than that. Maybe this year I’ll focus on slightly less epic trips.
You have to be a particularly cold-hearted person not to fall in love with the Japanese rail system. The way it all runs on time (barring natural disaster or extreme personal injury). The way local train routes overlap in order to make long distance travel cheap. The comfort and service of the limited express trains. The sheer speed of the shinkansen.
One of my personal favorite parts of the JR system is the array of services you can find within the station gates. Shopping, food, personal hygiene. It amazes me that there is enough demand for these services inside stations. It’s hard enough to run a restaurant outside of a station. Although I guess the foot traffic alone makes a station the ideal place for a business.
I recently spent 12 hours over two days in search of beer within the station gates on the Yamanote Line. The rules? Konbini beer does not count. Preference for draft beer. Must not leave station gates.
Shimbashi – Goody De Cafe is on the lower level of the Karasumori Exit (might be called the Shiodome Exit?) just before heading down to the Yokosuka line. They have Guiness in a can and that silly machine that shakes the pint to foam it up a bit. Assorted snacks and some other beer on tap, too. Open from breakfast onward on weekdays and Saturday (closes early afternoon on Saturday).
Tamachi – Becker’s is by the South Gate, and they have Kirin Ichiban Shibori on tap in addition to the standard menu of burgers and sandwiches. I was surprised a station as small as Tamachi had a restaurant with beer, although it later became obvious that real estate must be pricy at some of the bigger stations, so perhaps it actually makes more sense that a station like Tamachi has one.
Shinagawa – Shinagawa Station has several beer options including sushi and some actual sit down restaurants (all near the Central Exit). There is an eCute shopping center as well, which is where the cafe Paul is located. They have most excellent pastries (cheese bread in the video), Heineken on tap, and patio seating. Definitely one of the classiest places to get a beer in Yamanote Line stations.
(Yes, giant jump here from Shinagawa to Ikebukuro. I checked pretty much all of the stations and was surprised to find no beer-serving restaurants, although I feel like Ebisu and Shinjuku probably have them somewhere. If you can confirm any beer-serving restaurants, I’ll add them to the 号外 list below. Send a pic and I’ll put that up, too.)
Ikebukuro – London Pub is by the Chuoguchi 1. (That’s what I wrote down, but I was drinking and it was a month ago, so it might be Central 1.) Loved this place because it had Bass on tap in addition to a couple of other beers and a variety of little snacks. I had the tortilla chips. Reminded me of a HUB Pub miniaturized to fit within the station, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was connected to that chain.
Tabata – Sanuki Udon are common within stations, but not all of them serve beer. The one in Tabata Station by the North Gate has it on tap along with their standard menu of noodle dishes. Unsure if the beer was Asahi Superdry or a happoshu offering like Honnama. Not much else to say about this one.
Uguisudani – Another small station with a sad little Ajisai Soba/Udon restaurant. They had cans of Asahi Superdry, so I gave it a go. It’s actually kind of pleasant to sit up on the quiet second floor and look out over the train tracks and buildings. Walking through the walkways of the station you can also get a good view of the nearby cemetery.
Ueno – Ueno Station might have the most options in terms of beer. There are several large sit-down restaurants, including Chabuzen which is by the Iriya Exit. Mostly grilled/fried meats and seafood, but as is clear from the video they also have some decent set meals, including sara-udon, one of my favorites since visiting Nagasaki a couple years ago.
Okachimachi – Ramen Suika is by the North Exit and has super frosty glasses of Sapporo in addition to their ramen and gyoza menu. Just across the way from Ramen Suika is a small Italian restaurant that also has beer. Excellent representation for such a small station.
Akihabara – Akihabara Station also has good representation near the Central Exit including a nice curry restaurant and a couple of soba/udon places. I went with Nama Soba near the Showa-dori Exit because it was the only restaurant I saw that is actually inside and outside the station at the same time. There’s a divider in the middle of the eating area that separates the two (that’s what the beer is resting on in the video), but the kitchen is just one big area. Very cool. Judging from the posters, they serve Superdry.
Kanda – Elysee Cafe and Dining Bar was the uncelebrated gem of the restaurants I went to. It’s in the basement of the South Exit and is actually surprisingly expansive once you descend the stairs. They have a very respectable selection of whiskey, shochu and nihonshu in addition to wine and lots of beer – Suntory Premium Malts and one other Japanese beer on tap, and Guiness and Corona in bottles. Draft beer and a lot of the liquors are half off on Wednesdays and Fridays, which means you can get a decent sized glass of Premium Malts for 325 yen! They also have a reasonably priced food menu with lots of choices.
Tokyo – As you’d expect, Tokyo Station has a lot of choices for beer and sit down restaurants (some of my favorites are in Tokyo GranSta in the basement), but the best beer on tap is by far Gargery Stout at Tokyo Grand Cafe which is right between the Yaesu South and Yaesu Central Exits. Nice roasty stout. Highly recommended. I got there too late to try any of the food, but it looks pan-Asian, which also happens to be the theme of their import beers – they have nearly a full selection of tasteless Southeast Asian beers from Singha to Tsingtao and everything in between.
Osaki – According to my roommate, the Becker’s in Osaki Station now serves beer, although I explicitly asked for it and was given only a strange look when I went last month.
I went to Kyoto last weekend and thought I’d write down a few thoughts:
- Use the bus. The bus network is extensive, well-air-conditioned and cheap if you use a daily bus pass. The Japanese you are looking for is 一日乗車券 (いちにちじょうしゃけん), and the passes can be purchased at convenience stores or directly from a bus driver. The locals use these, too – I saw several kids using them over the weekend.
- A couple of itineraries that work with the buses:
1. Kinkaku-ji → Ryoan-ji → Ninna-ji → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover
2. Sanjusangendo → Kiyomizu-dera → Ginkaku-ji → Gion → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover
- Set aside plenty of time for Nijo Castle. Ideally it’s the first thing you see in the morning.
- When you get to your tourist destination (e.g. temple, museum), the first thing you should do is check the departing bus times. Figure out where you’re heading next and check the bus sign to see when your options are. The buses don’t run as frequently as subways and trains in Tokyo, and knowing the departure times can help you maximize the sights you can see in a day.
- That said, knowing when to use the subway is helpful. I’ve only ever used the subway once so I can’t say anything for certain, but that one line that runs east to west can be pretty handy if you’re looking for a quick way to get across town.
- Sanjusangendo is the most underrated temple in Kyoto, which means it ranks high on the short list of underrated temples in all of Japan. Not that it gets ignored – many people love the place, and there are always lots of visitors. But when people think of iconic temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji are always the first two listed. Personally I think Kinkaku-ji is disappointing. Other than the Golden Pavillion itself, there is hardly anything else exciting about the place. If Ryoan-ji weren’t so close, I think it would be extremely overrated. Kiyomizu-dera is nice, but the crowds can be a drag. So can the hill. Sanjusangendo is an excellent combination of scale (1000+ statues), beauty (the statues are just incredible, especially considering how old they are…if you stare at them long enough, they look like they are about to jump over the railing and attack something), and size (the Kannon in the middle is pretty sizable). Highly recommended. The National Museum across the street, however, can be skipped.
After a week in New Orleans and a short but extremely satisfying 24-hour stop in Washington DC for moules frites and connecting with close friends, I’m getting ready to board the plane back to Tokyo.
Trips home every now and then are really important to learn a second language fluently. I have spoken almost zero Japanese during my stay with the exception of a quick Japanese lesson last night. (「ズボンには、魚があります。」 “There is a fish in my pants.”) Whenever I get back to Japan after a trip like this, I always feel slightly more aware of the Japanese I use. Lengthy immersion does have its benefits, but it does not afford the chance to step back think about your Japanese critically. If used correctly, the re-immersion process provides a chance to firm up basic grammar points. I’m sure my vocab has probably taken a hit, but hopefully I can use the next few days to solidify my fundamentals.
Japan is clearly viewed as a nation of hardworking people. The “play hard” view of Japan is less well known, and the “relax hard” view is even more hidden. This side of Japan can be found in the onsen, saunas and sentō where Japanese spend hours during off-days; the rest rooms floored with tatami where they drink jars of coffee-flavored milk and smoke cigarettes afterwards; and the restaurants they then retreat to for beer and eats.
This isn’t true of all Japanese, of course. I’d say this applies mostly to older people who live slightly outside of the major metropoli. But even younger people and those who live in cities take their hygiene and relaxation seriously.
While most people stick to their local onsen and sentō, higher quality springs and scenery draw people on 日帰り(ひがえり)温泉 trips. Break it down and it’s a ghost of a trip – you’re traveling long distances to do very little other than have a bath. However once you’ve done a couple and become accustomed to the whole group bathing phenomenon, they’re hard to live without.
Travel agencies offer package sets that generally include round-trip train fare, lunch, and entrance price for one of the baths. These can run anywhere from 5000 – 9000 yen. Not a bad deal, but using a Seishun 18 Kippu will cover your train fare for five separate trips for 11,500 yen. Read more about the ticket here.
Here’s one example of a trip out to 長寿館 in 法師温泉 – one of the least accessible onsen ever made: