I have wanted to go to Japan for several years now and am happy to finally say I was provided an opportunity to do it. I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to combine a work trip to China with a side trip to Japan to make my trip more affordable. The biggest hurdle with international travel is just how expensive flights are. If you are flexible with your travel times you may be able to find cheap airfare. I also found a very reasonably priced airbnb in Ikebukuro to stay in for a total of $550 a week including a portable wi-fi. This was my first international trip that I haven't done as a coordinated group of some kind. I was really nervous about doing it and fortunately my mom met me in Japan and was with me the whole week so I wasn't alone. Now that I have been there once, I would not hesitate to go back again by myself.
Day 1 - Airport to the AirBnb
O boy, I was not prepared for this one. I had map printed out and all kind of directions but I still managed to get on the wrong train. Fortunately everyone can pretty much speak enough English to help you out or gesture in a way that I was able to understand the meaning. Once I figured out my train issue, I was also lugging around two rolling suitcases on packed Japanese trains at 10 pm on a Saturday night. Not my best idea. The trains were just packed with people going out for the night and here are me and my mom, obviously foreigners, with 4 rolling suitcases. It was really awkward and I felt really bad for taking up so much space but no one really seemed to care and a few people even started conversation with us. We finally arrived at the Ikebukuro station and then attempted to follow the airbnb directions to get from the station to the actual apartment. Needless to say they weren't very clear and I ended up being lost. Fortunately someone stopped to help us. He walked us about 2 blocks to make sure we found where we needed to go. This was a common concurrence in Japan. People would go out of their way to make sure you figured out where you needed to go. The airbnb itself was nothing special but after a 2 hour trek from the airport all I wanted to do was sleep. It was from what I am told a normal size Japanese apartment. It had a small sink, one electric burner and maybe 2 cabinets for a "kitchen", the shower was a step up into the room shower with a really small but tall tub that was hard for me to get in and out of and I am young. My mom had a lot of issues getting in and out because she has joint issues but we made due. The room part was big enough for a full size bend and a futon with a tiny desk in the corner. It was fine for a week but with 2 people and 4 suitcases there was literally no room. I have no idea how people live for long periods of time in something that small. My college dorm room was bigger I at least had a closet there and a community bathroom with a bigger vanity. I am sure that is just my american privilege talking because I am just not used to it but I don't think I could ever be able to live in an apartment that small. I really enjoy cooking and I have no idea how to cook with only one burner. I really understand why everyone goes out to socialize.
Day 2 - Wander around Ikebukuro
After the night before, I wanted a day off from the trains. I had made up a small map of the surrounding area of the apartment with points of interest on it. The first place I had to go was the Pokemon Center in Sunshine city. I spent probably a good hour wandering around the store clutching all the things I could carry to buy. It was a Sunday so it was very, very busy and many items were selling out. I managed to get a bunch of cute stuff and even a few gacha from the ditto series. After I finished geeking out, we had lunch at a tempura restaurant in the mall that had a delicious vegetable and shrimp tempura with rice and sauce with a side of udon noodles. Afterwards I checked out the sunshine city aquarium. I was really surprised with how large it is considering it is part of a mall. Part of the exhibits are on the roof as well which I found odd but it was nice to see some external enclosures for the animals. For dinner, I had some ramen from a small restaurant that I call the "anti-social ramen restaurant". It was one where each seat is in it's own cubicle and they have a small window to the kitchen that they use to serve your food. Once your food is brought they close the curtain and you eat in a cubicle. I liked it because it was nice to feel like you had a bit of privacy in such a busy city but it is not a good place to eat if you want to socialize. But, the ramen was AMAZING. I could go back and just eat ramen for a week.
Day 3 - Tsukiji Fish Market
So I managed to get my GPS working and used google maps to get around the remainder of the week with the portable wi-fi. The train was actually very easy to follow once you figured out the platforms. All the signs are in English and they announce each stop in both English and Japanese. I did purchase a Pasmo reloadable transit card so that helped a ton with tickets. You just tap it on the machine and it automatically tells you how much you have left. For the whole week I think I spent $30 on train fare. Most rides were between $2-$3. The fish market was a really cool experience. Of course it is full of locals and tourists alike but it is a very unique place to see and buy all kinds of odd foods and gifts. I ended up having freeze dried fruit, ice cream, and sushi. I didn't go early to see the tuna auction but some of the sushi restaurants displayed the heads of the tunas they bought outside their store to show how good their sushi is. I personally prefer salmon to tuna but in Japan it is so fresh I couldn't even tell I was eating fish. Once you leave the main market area, there are still more shops that have similar items at a bit cheaper prices. I was able to find all kinds of ceramic bowls, chopsticks, tea sets, tea, snacks, and random other gifts for people at home.
The sushi was just incredible. I like american sushi and I was fully prepared to eat sushi in japan and then never be able to eat it at home again. If you can separate the two in your mind and just accept that they are different, it is ok. I was able to come home and still enjoy rolls but I am not sure I will be able to order nigiri anymore in the states. I had fatty tuna, salmon, egg, and a salmon roll. It was just so heavenly. Japanese sushi really focuses on the texture of the fish. The flavors in the rolls are delicate and not over the top like American sushi is. American sushi is good in it's own right but it focuses more on flavors and hiding the fish instead of making it the focus. Again, I had accepted that they are just different so I've managed to keep my Friday night sushi tradition alive but I would kill for some Japanese salmon again.
After sushi, I tried to go to the imperial gardens but they are apparently closed on Mondays. So we headed back to Ikebukuro and found a park full of stray cats. Someone was caring for them but they didn't seem to belong to anyone. I forgot what I had for dinner and I have no picture of it. It may have been ramen round 2 or something from the mall.
Day 4 - Mt Fuji and Hakone
So today is the day that I got horribly sick. I am sure I caught some kind of virus from traveling and it usually always shows up a few days after I get home because I am usually only gone a week but since I was already in China the week prior I just had to get sick on my vacation. I wasn't stomach sick but I had horrible congestion and a slight temperature. I am kind of glad that this was they I had planned a day trip to Mt. Fuji so I didn't have to do anything other than get to the bus station. What was horrible about it is that I get motion sickness and being in a hot bus for over 2 hours, going up a curving mountain road just made me miserable. I felt nauseous and really sick. Once I got to station 5 on Mt Fuji I felt much better. I was able to breathe the fresh mountain air and take in the sights. We only got 30 minutes though which for me was way too rushed. I was barely able to use the bathroom, take a couple photos, and buy my sister a shot glass. Then it was back on the bus for lunch. We ate at an amusement park at the bottom of Mt Fuji and had Hoto a traditional noodle soup dish. It was comforting to have Japanese chicken soup essentially when I wasn't feeling well. After lunch I didn't feel nauseous anymore but still had a headache. I managed the bus ride to Hakone where we took a ferry and then a lift ride up to the top of Hakone. There was a temple that I was barely able to run to to take a picture and run back down before our bus left. I did snag another ice cream though. We took a bullet train from Hakone back to Tokyo which was pretty cool. I had been on them before in China so it wasn't a new experience for me. By the time we got back I was so tired we just ate at the convenience store and went to bed. It was actually really good. I had a breaded pork loin with pasta in an oil and herb sauce. I was able to sleep pretty well considering I was so tired.
Day 5 - Papering in Ginza :D
So today was probably one of my favorite days because I got my hair done at Salon Nalu. Some people think I'm weird for wanting to go to a salon outside my home country but I had seen so many Japanese foreign youtubers go here that I wanted to go. The prices are equivalent to what I would have paid in the US and I didn't have to tip on top of the cost so it was actually probably cheaper. Originally I wanted to color, straighten, and get extensions but my hair dresser said my hair would have gotten ruined from the bleach and the straightening treatment together so I opted for no color. It took about 3 and half hours to do the straightening treatment and put in the extensions but it was so worth it. I am writing this about 2 weeks after and I still love my hair. It looks so good and really has minimal maintenance to keep it styled. I keep my hair straight and only wash it once a week with paraben free shampoo. I don't really do anything different to it other than how I have to wash and dry it after the shower. I use more heat protectant products on the extensions to keep them nice. I honestly have no idea what brand of hair it is but I'll do a full review of those later. After the hair appointment I had lunch at an amazing gyoza restaurant. It wasn't busy because it was almost 3 at this point which was nice. After lunch, I wandered through the Meiji Shrine. It was so quiet and different than the bustling city surrounding it. I forgot I was in a city. I wanted to see the iris garden but it was closed by the time I got there. I came back the next day though so I still got to go. After the shrine I think I had repeat "anti-social" ramen.
Day 6 - Akihabara, Harajuku, Shibuya
Today was the day I finally got my delicious ramen from Mutekiya! They open at 10:30 and I arrived at about 10:45. I only had to wait 20 minutes to get inside but it was so delicious. Normally every other day I tried to go the line was down the street (well over an hour wait) so I jumped at the chance to go first thing in the morning. I am not sure it is worth waiting that long for but it is some damn good ramen. Today was supposed to be the owl cafe but I managed to go to the wrong one. I thought I was supposed to go to the one in Harajuku but the one I actually needed to go to was in Akihabara which is 30 minutes away. Needless to say by the time I got there it was 30 minutes after my start time and we couldn't get in once the owls were brought out. They were also booked up for the next 5 days so I didn't get to go. :( This was pretty much the only set back on my trip so I am a bit upset about it but I got over it. After not being able to get in, we went back to Harajuku/Shibuya area and saw the irises that I missed the day before. They weren't quite in full bloom yet but some were starting to bloom. I also went to the Shibuya crossing. It is a pretty famous pedestrian crossing that is in several movies. I thought it was going to be bigger than it was but it wasn't anything super spectacular. I was able to spot a farfetc'd on my pokemon tracker but I didn't get there in time to catch it. Dinner was curry! It was pretty good even if it looks like poop.
Day 7 - More fish market and Robot Restaurant!!
So today was kind of just a freebie all over day. I didn't have anything specific planned until evening so we went back to the fish market for more sushi and to buy some more gifts. I also ended up back at the pokemon center to get the Eevee gachapon. I spent about $50 and bought 20 capsules but I got one full set of the Eevees!! Robot Restaurant was the big show to go see in Tokyo so I figured a Friday night would be best. Prior to the show, you sit in a lounge area with a band and a full bar. I am not sure how expensive drinks are because the ticket I purchased came with one drink and that was all I needed. They had a full selection of beer, wine, and mixed drinks. The show itself was pretty crazy. I had seen videos of it before but nothing is quite like seeing it in person. I have attached a video link to the youtube video I put together from the show!
Day 8 - Today was my last full day in Japan. It was bittersweet and unfortunately it makes me kind of crabby. We were finally able to go to the imperial gardens which were pretty nice. They had a nice koi pond and their irises were in full bloom when we went. For lunch I had Kobe beef steak from Gyu-an. It was $100 a person but it was so good. I would say it is worth the price to experience at least once. I wouldn't be spending that regularly on a meal but for a once in a lifetime experience I would. The beef was so tender and juicy. After lunch I had to repack my whole suitcase to make sure all my stuff would fit. It didn't end up taking as long as I anticipated but it was nice to just relax for a few. Dinner was pretty underwhelming. We tried a cook your own food type of restaurant but the staff didn't really speak English which was pretty surprising considering almost everyone else did. I don't fault them for the language barrier though what I fault them for is that they didn't seem to really care if we were enjoying our meal. The didn't offer any suggestions on what to order or be available to order more. I know you are supposed to wave them down but it was hard to get their attention. The food was good but there wasn't enough and it was over priced. We paid almost $60 and still went to McDonald's after to get actual food. Needless to say I wouldn't recommend the restaurant to foreigners unless someone knows what they are ordering. I had a better experience in the same type of restaurant in Chicago. The good part of dinner is that a Farfet'd finally spawned near me and I was able to catch it.
- Basic B