Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tokyo, Japan

After meandering our way down the scenic river gorge from Takayama, we transferred in Shin-Osaka onto a bullet train. This would be our final train, and it sped us across Japan's blurred landscape, returning us to Tokyo where our trip began. We arrived in the evening at Tokyo's central Tsukiji district and snaked our way through the very active night scene to a small business hotel. Although far from luxurious, it was a cheap place to catch some shut eye and more importantly was right across the street from the Tsukiji Fish Market! 

The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest seafood market in the world. Boasting everything from cheap seaweed to the world's most expensive caviar to controversial whale meat, over 700,000 tons of seafood pass through this location every year! Although primarily a working wholesale market, it has also evolved into a tourist attraction for those interested in a first-hand look at where their sushi comes from.

In order to guarantee our spot on one of the two 30 person tours offered per day, we had to be there by 4am! Because we knew our hotel was very close to the market, we didn't have the forethought to look up directions beforehand. Finding the market turned out to be much more difficult than we imagined. Although there was lots of movement in the shops surrounding the market, we didn't see any indication of the main entrance. Fortunately, we bumped into three Asian girls with what appeared to be a map and sense that they knew where they were going. By this point in the trip, we had been trained to shorten sentences to their most important parts to efficiently communicate. We therefore simply asked, "You go market?" One of the girls looked at us quizzically and replied, "Yes, it's right over there." It turns out that they were from Singapore, an English-speaking country. Our thorough embarrassment was increased when we had to stand with them for the next 2-3 hours while we waited for the tour to begin! 

We arrive in Tokyo!

Some time between 4-6:00 in the morning waiting to get into the fish market. Each tour was given a jersey of shame to wear, signifying that we were tourists.

Being escorted through the market. The tour was heavily regulated with guards to accompany us at all times. We were discouraged from taking photos while walking to the fish auction area and had to stay with the group. Once we saw the bustle of distributors and flurry of speeding carts, it was clear to see the need for high safety measures.

Once in the fish market, we were directed to the tuna auctions. Inside, it was a large warehouse filled with various sizes of frozen tuna laid out on wooden pallets. Agents for restaurants and distributors paced around and inspected each fish with picks and flashlights.  

It's hard to believe the quality of tuna could vary so much between each fish...

Video from the auction

After standing against the wall with our tour group watching all the agents inspect the fish for about 10 minutes, I was starting to wonder how long we would be confined to this one spot. Suddenly, a small man walked into the center of the frozen tuna and propped himself up on a footstool and started ringing a hand bell for a solid minute. The bell signaled that the bidding was about to begin and the agents made their way over for the chance to win their most prized fish. The auction was very similar to an American stock sale with farm animals. In both cases, the auctioneer sings out a fast auction chant of starting price and the asking price to outbid. The obvious difference is that in Tsukiji the auction chant is in Japanese. It also had more of a melody to it than an American auction. The way the auctioneer would hold out his notes waiting for someone to make a counter-bid reminded me of an opera performance. After the bids closed for each fish, the auctioneer would remove his hat and take a deep bow, further supporting my opera fantasy.

Tuna sales being carted off for distribution

After the auction, the tour was over and we were led out of the inner market area. Being this close to the source, we immediately went to a seafood bar and had a sushi breakfast! The quality of fish was the highest I've ever experienced. Coming late to the sushi game, I'm not one to branch out and try new things very often. However, in Japan we didn't really have a choice. A platter is selected and the the patrons get everything that's on it. Because everything was so fresh, it didn't have a fishy taste or rubbery texture that can often gross me out about many sushi options. Aside from the eel, which I'm still not ready for, everything on our plate, er...leaf as it was served here, was delicious and tender!
After breakfast, we walked around the outer market area, which sells more wholesale products and kitchen utensils. It was extremely crowded, but a fun place to spend a few hours after the auction. Craig even got some some sort of bivalve from a street vendor for a snack.

We return to the business hotel. Note the tiny door!

After the market, we cleaned up went to see a play at the Kabuki-za theater. Kabuki is a classical drama-dance style of Japanese theater probably most well-known for the elaborate make-up and costumes worn by the performers. It was definitely unique to any theater I've ever experienced with interesting dances and movements unique to each of the characters.

Scene from a Kabuki play (Source:

After getting our fill of the Tsukiji district, we packed up and headed for the Shinjuku area to check into the Park Hyatt, rated as one of the best hotels in the world. The experience at this hotel was different from the moment we entered the reception. Instead of roped off lines of impatient people, we entered a large, swanky room with thoughtful details and well-placed lighting and were greeted by a host in a sharp-looking suit. He directed us to a sit-down desk where we would begin the check-in process. I say "begin" because once they confirmed who we were, the hotel staff took us up to our room, gave us a tour, and officially checked us in inside the hotel room. When taking us to our room, the small female receptionist insisted on taking Craig's bag. I don't think she realized what she was getting herself into until she picked up the large backpack, which must have weighed at least 70% of her body weight. Despite her grunting and struggles, she wouldn't let Craig take it back and managed to get the bag up to the room. This dedication to hospitality, however absurd it may seem at times, will always earn Japan the top spot in the service industry.
Although we were excited to be in Tokyo, by this point in the trip, we were looking forward to having down time. Finding ourselves in a luxury hotel was the perfect excuse to lock ourselves away and pretend that the hotel, with it's city views and powerful rainhead shower, was our urban apartment. It also helped that the hotel was so difficult to get out of. We had to take 2 separate elevators do a lot of navigating just to find the exit!

 Park Hyatt from the outside

 Reception area
Hotel library 
Checking out the fancy pants Park Hyatt.

Free champagne and flowers!

Not your average hotel gym
Tokyo with Mt. Fuji in the distance as seen from our hotel.

One event that got us out of the hotel was the Robot Restaurant located in Tokyo's technology district. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I've had and perfectly summed up modern Japanese culture. One of the most mind-blowing aspects of this restaurant was the insane amount of sensory input. When we first arrived, we were directed to a lounge area, which was covered ceiling to floor in mirrors, neon lights, and shiny tiles in an an array of psychedelic colors. While waiting for the main event, we kicked back in gold seashells and sipped on mixed drinks served from a can...all the while watching live bluegrass performed by robots.

At the Robot Restaurant, we ordered a whiskey with ginger ale and a Moscow mule. This is what they gave us!

Here we are trying not to have a seizure in the lounge waiting to be taken into the show room.

Bluegrassing robots

Another view of the waiting room.

When it was time for the main event to start, we were taken down several flights of stairs, which were also adorned with trippy colors and shiny things. The main show is a robot cabaret meaning there were scantly-clad Japanese women riding fighting robots to protect the harmony of the natural world.  It was all tastefully done and created a very fun environment for the audience (once attendees realized what was going on). Craig and I had an absolute blast and I would recommend it as a must-do for anyone visiting Tokyo. Below are a few photos to give a general idea for what it's all about:

The show begins! Fighting robots!

With lasers coming out of a triceratops!

And scantly-clad Japanese dancers!

More robots and dancing!

Me feeling pretty stoked by the performance and finding our way back into the lounge!

Craig trying to find his way out of the restaurant.

Following the show, we spent a few hours walking the streets of the technology district. Again, there was so much input!

Technology district


View from our room on the 54th floor of the Park Hyatt. The dark spot in the center is the Meiji Jingu shrine and Yoyogi Park.

Morning haze of Tokyo

Room service waffles.

Our last day in Tokyo was a rainy one, but we spent it at the Meiji Jingu shrine and Yoyogi Park. This location was high on our to-do list because Craig found photos of his grandmother visiting the same location when she lived in Japan while in the Civilian Air Patrol in 1949-1952. It was fun to look for clues in the photos to figure out where she was within the shrine.  

 Craig with his grandma's photos from Japan.

Barrels of sake used as an offering to Emperor Meiji, who ruled during Japan's enlightenment period when the country began to open its doors for international trading.

Craig under one of the many impressive torii gates within the park.

We selected Japan as our international destination because we sought a place with culture and food that was vastly different than that of the U.S.. And wow, did it deliver!  Although I can't say that I every really "got" Japan while we were there, I found it to be a fascinating place with values emphasizing social responsibility that the rest of the world could take a lesson from. Although I don't think I would change anything about our first-time-in-Japan itinerary, with the chance to go back, I would love to see the more natural side of the country on the north island of Hokkaido. Next time!  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Takayama, Japan

The train ride from Onomichi to Takayama was gorgeous--probably one of the most scenic drives I've ever taken. The views were especially good once we transferred to a train in Nagoya that would transport us from the coastal lowlands upward to the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Along the way, we passed through many small mountain villages and were treated with dramatic views of the Kiso River's deep canyon. This river is often referred to as Japan's Rhine because of its similar setting to the Rhine River flowing through Germany.

Takayama is a small, rural city that has retained much of its traditional charm. With an industry originally based on timber sales and carpentry, the city has managed to preserve elements of these trades with many centuries-old merchant shops still featuring local, hand-carved wood pieces.

Originally, we had hoped to use this stop as a home base to explore the mountains of the Japanese Alps. However, we arrived too late in the season and many of the buses that take visitors to the mountains had stopped running for the year due to ice and snow at high elevations. At first I was sad that we wouldn't get to be up close and personal with the Alps, but we still had a really fun time in and around the city. 

One of Takayama's many canals.

Koi living in one of the canal pools.

Craig get a dumpling from one of the many street vendors.

Takayama's supreme water quality and cold temperatures have historically made it an ideal location for brewing sake. Once boasting over 50 sake breweries, only seven remain today. A brown sugidama (ball made of cedar branches) outside a shop is a sure-sign that the sake is pouring!

At one of the sake tasting rooms we entered, we paid 125yen (~$1 USD), received a take-home sake glass, and were pointed to a sake fridge to pour our own sake shots from 12 bottles!

Craig walks through one of the streets in Takayama's downtown area. Many of the buildings and homes in this city were built and owned by wealthy merchants from 1600-1868.


Japan is well-known for having some of the most efficient products in the world. However, there were a few instances that just didn't make any sense to me. For example, here we are drinking sake out of thick-walled boxes.  

Sorry to the vegetarians! In addition to sake, Takayama is well-known for its Hida Beef dishes. Hida Beef is a term given for the black-haired cattle that have been raised in the Gifu Prefecture (where Takayama lies) for 14 months, and have been certified based on texture and firmness. As the price suggests, it is a very high quality beef that is often served seared or thinly sliced and raw. Not a beef-lover, I was very skeptical of eating it at all (let alone raw), but I couldn't believe how good it was! Above is a photo of some lunchtime Hida Beef sushi we had.

Following Hida Beef sushi, we entered a cafe and indulged in a green tea latte. Sooo good!

Another view of the canals running through the city center.

Takayama is a great walking city with several lovely temple walks that parade visitors through the most scenic local areas. Although we may have been a week early for the peak of the autumn leaves at Takayama, the colors were still pretty amazing. We spent many of the mornings and afternoons just walking through the city and eating dumplings, soy rice balls, and other goodies from the many street vendors along the way.

Ginkos--one of my favorite trees!

I think Craig rang every temple bell we saw in Japan.

While in Takayama, we went to Hida Villiage, an open-air museum (and World Heritage Site) just outside of the downtown area. It featured traditional homes, logging huts, and farm houses of the mountain villages as they looked in the 1600 through 1800s.

Japanese maple

Many of the homes we saw were massive with steep thatched roofs that are meant to resemble two hands in prayer.

While touring the heritage site, we found a trail in the backside of the park that pointed to a castle. No one was on the trail and it was very overgrown so, of course, we went exploring! The trail was pretty much all uphill, snaking through overhead brush. When it finally climaxed at a clearing where the castle used to stand, we were delighted to find that we were surrounded by white peaks of the nearby Japanese Alps.

We lounged at the castle site for a while, imaging what it must have been like to have lived in a castle with these vistas!

The city of Takayama down below with the Japanese Alps in the background.

Reluctant to return through the thicket we just walked through to get to the castle site, we decided to follow with high hopes that they would lead us back to Takayama.

Along the way, we pass a long row of flags. Although we had no idea what they signified, it made for an interesting sight along the path.

A pretty scene along our unexpected day hike on the way back to Takayama.

After hiking for several hours, the trail finally brings us down to an area just outside of the city. Above is a shot of Craig in a field of soft autumn colors that greeted us once we got out of the woods.

By this point, it was late afternoon and we were starving. With still a couple more miles to go until we got back to town, we were eager to eat at the first restaurant we saw. Maybe it was the delirium of not having any lunch or maybe it was another huge lost in translation moment, but when  saw this building with a sign saying, 'PUB' with a crossed fork and spoon beneath it, we logically assumed this was a pubilc house-style bar/restaurant. We marched up to the door and walked inside only to find that it was someone's house! The owner, who was out back working on a bench that transforms into a picnic table, saw us walk into his home and came over insisting in broken English that we go inside. Still unsure if he was trying to seat us at his 'pub' or just wanted company, we obliged. Unfortunately for our stomachs, it was the latter and he wanted to show off his log home that he had built by hand. He showed us photos of the building process and then pointed out mountain peaks through his telescopes stationed on the front porch. Surprisingly, he is also an avid paraglider and runs a paragliding business from his home. Remember that pretty soft autumn scene shown in the previous photo? That's the landing strip for his paragliding trips! Despite the awkward circumstances, it ended up being a very pleasant interaction and he obviously enjoyed the company.

Speaking of food, one of my favorite meals in Japan was this Hida Beef ramen.

As I said in a post about Kyoto, many of our accommodations in Japan were tiny. Takayama's lodging was no different. Our queen-sized bed took up the majority of the room, causing us to take turns standing at the foot of the bed to get ready in the morning. Ha!

The last night in Takayama, we moved from our cheap hostel accommodations and splurged for a traditional ryokan experience. Rated as a must-do in Japan, a ryokan is basically a Japanese-style bed and breakfast from the 1600-1800s that historically would have serviced travelers along ancient Japanese highways. 

Upon arrival, they handed us kimonos, traditional Japanese garments to be be worn at dinner with sandals. Having no idea how to put on the kimono, I had to call the front desk for assistance. Watching all the steps needed to complete the outfit, I'm amazed that it was assumed one would just know how to properly put the garment together.

Craig and me all ready for dinner.

 Passing the time before dinner. There weren't chairs, a bed, or anywhere to sit in the room aside from on the floor at a low table.

Dinner was a six-course meal, all presented very artfully.

I love this photo of Craig after he realizes that he's just taken a bite of pumpkin and pickled radishes.

Sauteing one of the courses--veggies and Hida Beef.

We returned from dinner to find that our traditional Japanese futon beds had been rolled out for us.

After dinner, we spent an hour in the spa area. When we entered the room, there was a stereo with smooth jazz options such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. To further set the mood, there was also a box of kids bath toys to throw in the water.

Although the ryokan was an interesting experience, I don't know that I would have classified it as a must-do when visiting Japan. It was very expensive and seemed a little cheesy to me at times. That said, I did have a great time, but mostly because I spent the whole night laughing about the awkwardness of the whole situation!

After spending three days and four nights in Takayama, we boarded the train and were off to our last destination of Japan -- Tokyo!