Day 4: Tokyo
We arrived in Tokyo rather late in the evening on our 4th day there after a 3.5 hr train ride from Osaka. If you are traveling to Japan, I would highly recommend you get the JR pass. It gets you to most of the big destinations in Japan and includes the use of the bullet train which will save you a lot of time especially if you are traveling on a budget and with limited time. The cost of a roundtrip ticket from tokyo to kyoto is roughly the same price as the pass so if you are planning to go to an additional city or two it is definitely worth it. There are also JR lines that run throughout Tokyo so it is a convenient way to travel without having to pay for an additional subway fare.
Our first night in Tokyo we stayed in Ueno at Hotel Graphy Nezu. While the staff there was very nice, as was their cafe, it was definitely a cross between a hostel and a hotel with shared bathrooms and a shared common room. The rooms themselves reminded me of college dorm rooms, though cleaner of course. I booked this hotel somewhat last minute and in the midst of cherry blossom seasons so my options were limited. Though not as private as the hotels we had been staying at, it was clean, quiet, and served its purpose.
After checking in, we walked down to Ueno Station and had dinner at Sushi Zanmai. This was our first sushi outing in Japan so you can imagine how excited we were! In the US, a lot of the sushi we have eaten comes in the form of rolls: California rolls, caterpillar rolls, dragon rolls, rainbow rolls, and countless others. In Japan, however, we were hard pressed to find any rolls at all. Most of the sushi came in the form of Nigiri, raw fish over vinegared rice and often with a dab of wasabi in between. Although Sushi Zanmai is a chain restaurant and does have the large chain restaurant feel, the fish was very fresh and delicious.
Day 5: Tokyo and Nagano
The next morning, we headed down to Ueno Park for the cherry blossom viewing festival . Though they were still not full bloom yet, many of the trees had started to bloom so we were still able to see rows of white and pink, just not a luscious as we had been hoping for.
After a nice stroll in the park we were off to the train station, my family heading for the airport to fly back home and Nhan and I to Nagano in a quest to see some snow monkeys. It is approximately a 1.5 hr bullet train ride from Tokyo to Nagano and another 45 min subway ride from Nagano to Yamanouchi, a small town in the mountains at the base of the snow monkey park. When we arrived in Yamanouchi, a shuttle from the hotel arrived to pick us up. This hotel was a traditional Japanese Ryokan, much similar to the one we stayed at in Kyoto. They even provided us with Yukata to wear as we walked around the town and explored its bath houses.
Yamanouchi is the cutest little old town. It reminds me of a very very old school spa resort, but instead of spas they have traditional Japanese onsen and bath houses. The town itself is very small. We were given a map and key to all the onsen, though it was somewhat of a culture shock and in the name of modesty, I couldn't quiet get myself to enjoy their public bath houses.
We did, however, explore the few restaurants there. We started off at a sushi restaurant, which for a remote location in the mountains, served deliciously fresh fish.
Next we moved on to an udon restaurant. We were the only customers there. Both of these restaurants were mom and pop style shops with only a few tables and floor seats, a TV going on in the background playing Japanese game shows and the owner and his family eating in a corner of the restaurant. It had a very close knit traditional feel, as if we were invited to enter somebody's house and have a home cooked dinner with them rather than being at a restaurant.
Our last stop for the night was a traditional Japanese karaoke bar. It was a tiny, smoke filled bar a the end of the street, and we were its only customers for a while until we were joined by a group of 60 year olds with quite the musical talent. After all, why not experience karaoke where it all began. I do love myself some good karaoke and I was quite surprised by their song selections. They had a variety from Japanese songs to Chinese, all the way to Adele and Maroon 5.
Day 6: Yamanouchi/Nagano and Tokyo
We woke up nice and early to explore the town some more and catch the first shuttle to the snow monkey park. From the park entrance it is about a 15 minute hike (1.5km) to the Jigokudani Monkey Park hot springs. Note, plan on bringing good walking/hiking shoes especially if you go during the winter/raining season because it can get pretty muddy. Definitely no sandals here.
Once we were inside the park there were monkeys everywhere! They run around freely and are not afraid of tourists. I even had one run over my foot. We were careful though because they have been known to steal phones and cameras if you aren't holding on to them tightly.
I absolutely loved this experience and it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Monkeys do sometimes freak me out a little given their humanistic features, but to be surrounded by so many of them and close enough to touch them, is truly an amazing opportunity. I would recommend this to anybody going to Japan. It was definitely worth the travel time from Tokyo. If you are planning on visiting the monkey park, I would recommend staying in Yamanouchi the night before to make it less rushed and to break up the travel time.
The shuttle from the hotel then picked up us up and dropped us back off at the train station to head back to Tokyo. This time around we stayed in Ginza, equivalent to Sak's Fifth Ave in NYC, with its high rise buildings and high end shopping. After checking into our hotel we headed to Shibuya to see the famed Shibuya Crossing. When the street lights turn red (all at once), everybody crosses the streets, and when I say everybody I mean hundreds at a time. If you looked down at it from one of the towering malls nearby, it would look like a swarm of ants in chaos. Yet somehow it works out and everybody eventually makes it across to whatever direction they were headed in one piece.
We attempted to go to have dinner in Shibuya's not so well known Drunken Alley (Nonbei Yokocho). However, it's probably not well known to tourists for a reason. The street was lined with bars, each tiny and seating only 4-6 people. Anytime we tried to enter one, the owner would tell us the seats were reserved. While that may have been true, we felt pretty unwelcome there so aborted our mission.
We had dinner at a traditional ramen shop (Hakata Furyu Kyakkendan, known for its tonkatsu ramen) using the trusty PicCrumb as our guide. This time though, it led us somewhat astray since the restaurant had moved to a new location last year after their post was written. After 30 minutes of asking around we eventually made our way there. This was our first time eating ramen in Tokyo and boy were we confused. Similar to most of the ramen shops in the area, this one had a vending machine out front where you pick what ramen you want and which toppings, pay for it, and then hand the tickets to the waiter inside before getting a seat at the bar. The ramen was incredibly cheap, about $6-7 for a bowl and with up to two free noodle refills! Talk about getting the bang for your buck.
After dinner we hopped on the train to Akihabara, Tokyo's anime district, known for its bright lights and anime stores. The first thing that caught our attention was the 5 story SEGA arcade filled with any and every SEGA game you can imagine. There were plenty of other arcades there as well. We got lost wandering around the 5 story Japanese convenience store before finding our way back home. Not to mention stopping for crepes before leaving.
Day 7: Tokyo
Our last full day in Tokyo we decided to hop on the JR Yamanote line and let it take us around the prefectures of Tokyo. Before we headed out, we stopped by a mochi shop near our hotel in Ginza--Ginza Akebono Mochi Shop.
Our first stop was Harajuku, home of Japan's pop culture fashion aimed towards teeny boppers.
Next to this was a beautiful park that led us to Meiji Shrine.
We stopped by Murugi Curry House in Shibuya known for their Mt. Everest shaped rice mountain.
We shared a plate of chicken curry before heading out for our second dinner at Mentsudan Udon in Shinjuku. The best part was they made the noodles FRESH. They boil the freshly made udon noodles for you at the front and add the flavoring/meat of your choice. You then take your bowl over to the tempura bar for added toppings at additional cost. The base cost was only $3-5 dollars per bowl! So incredibly cheap for amazingly chewy udon noodles. They have two massive tanks of cold and hot broths at the end that you can fill your bowl with before enjoying.
Our night ended at Kabukicho, Shinjuku's somewhat red light district. We went there out of curiosity given that's where Tokyo's famous Robot restaurant was. Ignoring the questionable hotels and characters around, the area itself was relatively safe to explore and the lights there are enough to dazzle you. We were on our way back home when we were pulled in by the most delicious scents of caramelized toasted goodness so had to stop for dessert.
Our last day in Tokyo:
While our flight was scheduled for later that afternoon, we took advantage of the morning and explored Tsukiji Market. We initially booked our hotel in Ginza, just a 12 minute walk away from Tsukiji Market so that we could get up at 4am and get in line for the live tuna auction that goes on every morning. If you have ever watched "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", this is apparently the place to be to see it all go down--giant tuna being auctioned off to restauranteurs and chefs around the city. However, when it came down to it, we were tired lazy travelers who couldn't get up early enough for the auction. We did however explore the inner fish market around 10AM and had lunch in the outer market. It would have been easy to wander the outer market for hours as there were so many little shops and tons of food places to try.
While the sushi in Japan had been delicious, the sushi at this market took the cake. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the place, but I'm sure any place you stop at in this market would probably be equally delicious. While more expensive, $3-4 per piece of nigiri, it was definitely worth it. I've never been much of a raw fish connoisseur, but this fish was so incredibly fresh that even I was able to tell there was a difference. Each piece just melted in my mouth. Soy sauce and ginger were not even necessary. I could seriously have kept on eating piece after piece if my wallet would let me.
Although we were sad to be leaving this food paradise, we were glad to finally be going home after a month of work abroad in Guam and wonderful travels. Sayonara Tokyo, until next time!
Check our our visit to Kyoto and Osaka here!