Asia Japan

Kyoto: Temple (And Tourist) Overload

Before coming to Kyoto, I knew approximately two things about it.  The first was that it had about a million temples, and the second was that it’s on almost every list ever for “most beautiful cities in the world.”

Real talk.  Kyoto itself is not beautiful.  The buildings are boxy.  The surrounding areas of Kyoto are beautiful, but do not expect it to look like the pictures on Google images right when you get off the train.  That is not what most of Kyoto looks like.  Most of Kyoto looks like the two pictures above this paragraph.  I loved my time in Kyoto and saw some wonderful things, but my expectations were way off when I got there.  Mostly because everyone keeps telling me how beautiful it is.

My first day was sort of a walking tour of temples I wanted to go to that were all reasonably close together according to Google maps.  Granted, their walking time doesn’t add the temperature or humidity to their calculations, which is something I should think about next time I’m putting together my own walking tour…. I started at Sanjusangen-do.  The distinguishing feature is one thousand life-sized statues, which is amazing.  They don’t let you take pictures inside, but I enjoyed my time there thoroughly and would highly recommend it.  It wasn’t too crowded when I went.

From there, I walked to Kiyomizu-dera.  On the way, I actually ran into a friend from college and his girlfriend, which I consider to be the least likely thing that’s ever happened to me.  Seriously, what are the chances?   The walk was up this massive hill, and I had to stop for water at one of the many vending machines.  Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous temples, although personally I thought it was a bit overrated.  Granted, the veranda was under construction, so that did put a damper on it.  But there were also tons of tourists, as you can see from the picture, and I’m not sure it was significantly cooler than any other temple I saw.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the center of Kyoto, including the Nishiki Market, which is cool.  It was nice to see that part of the city, since the rest of my time was mostly spent going to specific temples in what would be the suburbs of any other city.

The next morning I did a half day tour that took me to a couple different temples, including one that’s a lot harder to get to on public transit.  Of course, I was actually late to meet the tour group because I got lost trying to find the meeting place.  I ended up showing the address to a random Japanese girl, who grabbed my hand and led me to the place I was supposed to go.  Since I had missed the bus, the tour company put me on a taxi and had their colleagues meet me out front.  We started with Nijo Castle, which was a dark horse favorite in Kyoto.  It was where the ruler of Kyoto used to live, and it has what they call “nightingale floors” that were designed to make noise to warn people about intruders.  When people are walking on it, it legitimately sounds like a bird singing, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.  They also had stunning gates as part of the defense walls.  Unfortunately, I could not take pictures inside.

We went to Kinkaku-ji next, which is the Golden Temple.  It is covered with gold leaf, so it is fairly stunning.  This one was another place with a million tourists.  Worth seeing, but mostly get in, take a picture, and get out.  Our third stop was the Imperial Palace, which is where the emperor used to stay when he came to Kyoto.  Now, according to our tour guide, he just stays in a hotel.  But it looked cool and official, and the gardens surrounding it were beautiful.  The tour dropped me off back at Kyoto station, and this was the afternoon where I went to Nara.

The next morning was all about gardens!  I went to the bamboo forest first, which I would highly recommend.  Especially in the morning when no one else is there, because tourists are the worst.  Yes, I see the irony.  I stopped in Tenryu-ji, which is known for having a great zen garden.  While I was there, the hydrangeas were blooming.

After that, I went to the moss garden, Saiho-ji.  I got interested in this one when I read that they have an application process to protect the moss.  To get there, I was going to take a bus.  I tried to figure out the bus routes, but got very confused.  In fact, I looked so confused that a taxi drove past me, stopped, reversed, and opened the door for me.  So I took the taxi.  They’re very nice in Japan.  In fact, while I did take a bus successfully later during this trip, I’d recommend those over walking or taking buses to certain temples.  Anyway.  The moss garden was amazing.  My parents were skeptical when I told them I was going to a moss garden, but it felt like walking through a fairy tale.  Before seeing the moss, they required everyone to participate in a religious ritual.  For that, I sat in a room while everyone around me chanted in Japanese.  Quite the experience, let me tell you.

After I finished at the garden, I went to one of the most famous places in Kyoto.  Fushimi Inari Taisha.  It’s like a hallway of red gates that goes up a small mountain in the southeast part of Kyoto.  When I got there, there were about a bazillion tourists.  I ended up hiking about halfway up the mountain just to get to an area where I felt more alone.  Once I got out of the tourist throng, though, I loved it.  One of the coolest parts of Kyoto for sure.  I thought about climbing the whole mountain, but the humidity was brutal.  Definitely a great way to close out my time in Kyoto!

Asia Japan

Himeji-jo, Nara, and Osaka

So the theme of this post is day trips from Kyoto.  It won’t quite be in order, but I want to keep the Kyoto pictures together and there are so many of those.

First is Himeji-jo, which is on the map because it has an awesome castle.  After the bombing of WW2, Japan only has 12 original castles left, and this is one of them.  I went on the way between Hiroshima and Kyoto, pausing to store my luggage in a locker in the train station and walking through the town to get to the castle.  According to the online travel guides, this castle gets insanely busy during cherry blossom season, so I guess there are a few advantages to going in the off season.

First of all, I would like to note that Himeji-jo has very steep and narrow stairs.  You can climb all the way to the top, which gives lovely views of the surrounding area.  The inside has all been restored, and my favorite part is the samurai sword holders.  I love going in castles and imagining what life was like back then for the rich people.  Obviously it sucked for everyone else, but the royalty was usually doing pretty well.  Himeji-jo is a UNESCO site.  I also had a delicious ice cream waffle sandwich in the town of Himeji, so I have fond memories of it.

On my second day in Kyoto, I spent the afternoon in Nara.  Nara is mostly known for having a giant Buddha statue and a lot of deer wandering around the city center, and it’s about 40 minutes outside of Kyoto.  When I was there, the giant Buddha statue temple was closed.  But there were a lot of deer.  So I mostly just sat in the main park and watched deer chase around children who had the audacity to try to feed them.

On my last day in Japan, I went to Osaka.  It’s the second largest city, and often people fly to that airport when they’re just planning on going to Kyoto.  I think the most visited part is Universal Studios, but I’ve promised my mom that we’ll go together in Orlando, so I skipped that.  Instead, I started at Osaka castle.  Then I headed through an area in the south, called Shinsekai, which was very loud and busy.  A big departure from everywhere else I saw in Osaka.

The actual reason I went to that area was to go to Spa World.  A thing that everyone tells you to do in Japan is go to an onsen, which is a hot spring bath.  The only time I got out in the country was to go to islands, and I had other priorities for the most part, but I figured it could be fun to check that out in Osaka.  Why go to a real onsen when you can go to a kitschy fake version?  Anyway.  One of the things that I thought was interesting about the public baths is that you are absolutely not allowed in if you have any tattoos, because that’s a yakuza thing (they’re the Japanese Mafia) and so the internet is filled with stories of foreigners being kicked out of public baths for that reason.  Spa World was fun, and surprisingly relaxing once I got over the awkwardness of being naked around lots of strangers and figuring out what I was supposed to do.  The baths were European-themed, with sections for Greece and Italy and Finland and Spain.  There were saunas, cold baths, hot baths, a waterfall, and even a milk bath.  I’m 100% sure I was the only foreigner there that day.  How’s that for culture?

Osaka is also known for its aquarium.  When I was done at Spa World, I headed over there.  The crown jewel is that they have two whale sharks, which I didn’t realize was super impressive until I told a friend and she freaked out about it.  If you’ve ever wondered how large whale sharks are, the answer would be really freaking big.  When I was done at the aquarium, it started to rain again, so that was all I did in Osaka.

Bonus round: the above photo is from the train ride from Kyoto back to the Tokyo airport.  I was reading, and I looked up and Mount Fuji was there, rising above the clouds.  I took a bunch of quick pictures on my phone, and I think this one is the best.  I was very excited I got a good look at it, since it’s iconic.

Asia Japan

Island Hopping, Or That Time I Ended Up Caught in a Typhoon

Another aspect of Japan is its islands.  There are ones that contain only animals, ones that have stellar modern art, ones that don’t allow women for some mysterious religious reason, ones with volcanoes…. it seems as though there are endless options, and if I go back I’m definitely making that art one a priority.
But this time, I focused on one of the animal ones.  Rabbit Island, to be specific.  Okunoshima.  That was my morning plan.  I had done all my research, figured out the trains and ferries, and mapped it all out.
But of course, the universe wasn’t having it.  Remember that tropical storm I mentioned in the last post?  Yeah.  Keep that in mind as I continue with this story.
Everything’s going great, I’ve taken the bullet train and the local train to the place where I can catch the ferry.  I had plenty of time to spare, I bought rabbit food, and I even talked to a Belgian family who was also there and speaking French.  We all got on the ferry.  When I got to the island, there were tons of bunnies everywhere.  They definitely get fed well as a tourist attraction.  I sat on a bench and fed some, and then started walking around the island.  I even found some of the ruins of the chemical weapons factory that had once been the main feature of the island.
And then it started raining.  And by raining, I mean torrential fucking downpour.  It was like the rain in Jurassic Park, when Nedry gets eaten by the dinosaur that spits acid.  Link for your reference.
I hoped it would stop, but it was relentless.  Rather than wander the island in that by myself, I turned around and headed back to the area with the ferry.  I sat under one of the awnings, and fed the rabbits.  Which ended up working well.  They were all basically trapped under there with me and they were more than eager to come over and eat treats out of my hand.  And that was how I passed the time until the next ferry came.  It wasn’t exactly the way I had envisioned it, although I did still have fun.
But of course, getting off the island was only the first step.  And when I returned to the train station, it turned out that the local train wasn’t running because of the typhoon rain.  Here, once again, my weird brand of luck rears its head.  The Belgian family had come back on the ferry with me.  Their son spoke Japanese.  He figured out that there was a bus that would take us back to where we could catch the bullet train, and they explained to me how the bus tickets worked and how many stops we had left and such.  They were so nice, and I can’t even express how much I appreciated their help.
After a bullet train ride back to Hiroshima, a shower, and a few minutes to change into clothes that were not covered in mud, I headed for my afternoon venture, which was another island.  Miyajima.  If you have ever seen pictures of Japan, you have likely seen a picture of Miyajima.  It’s famous for its floating tori, which is a red gate that appears to float on the water in high tide.  Prior to setting it as my afternoon visit, I verified tide and sunset times and made sure they somewhat coincided.  Yes, this is more evidence of my notorious overplanning.  Sorry not sorry.

For that, it’s a pretty simple train ride from Hiroshima and a ferry ride.  Miyajima was great, I would absolutely recommend it.  Even the ferry ride in was gorgeous, and the island itself was great as well.  Cute little shops, deer randomly wandering down the streets, the gate with the sunset behind it… everything I could ever want in a tourist destination.  I toured the shrine, which probably would have been cooler had I waited for the proper high tide.  I also watched some deer try to climb up on a statue to go after a girl who they thought had food.  While I have no desire to interact with wild deer, it’s entertaining to watch other people go through it.  And of course, the best part?  It wasn’t raining.
Seriously, though, the whole day was definitely an adventure.  While it might have been nice if Japan wasn’t being hit with a hurricane while I was there, it all worked out for the best, so no complaints.  And with that, I headed east for Kyoto.
Asia Japan

Hiroshima: An Ironic Way To Celebrate July 4th

I left Tokyo Station on a bullet train to Hiroshima, which took the better part of my morning.  Now, of course, would be the perfect time to talk about train travel in Japan.
It’s amazing.
First of all, foreigners traveling to Japan can get a JR pass, which is 7, 14, or 21 days of unlimited travel on JR lines.  This includes almost all bullet trains throughout the country, as well as city metro lines in Tokyo and Osaka.  Just in going to and from Hiroshima meant that it paid for itself, on my trip.
Second, trains are beautiful.  They’re clean, they’re on time, they have the leg space of a first class domestic airline ticket… they’re exactly what a train should be.  Going back to my regular commute was so sad after taking the trains there.
On the subject of things that are infinitely better in Japan, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention 7/11s.  I think I’ve only been to ones in the U.S. a few times, and most of that was as a drunk college kid, buying slushies so we could mix in alcohol.  They’re not exactly high class institutions.  But in Japan, the food is good, and they’re clean, convenient, and ubiquitous.  For foreigners, they’re the best place to use an ATM because foreign cards actually work there, and for me, I went there often to get food.
As a picky eater traveling solo, I don’t often go to restaurants, so it was great to be able to pick up whatever I needed at any given train station or street corner.  There were snacks, and breakfast items, and drinks, and sushi, for those of you who eat it.  They also sold bags of edamame, various forms of Japanese ice cream, wine and liquor, various toiletries, and other microwavable foods.  My favorite things there were 1) drinkable yogurt, 2) squeezable ice cream, and 3) pancake sandwiches, so called by Romy, which were basically two pancakes with butter and syrup in the middle that is possibly my new favorite breakfast food.
Anyway.  Those observations aside, after my morning of traveling to Hiroshima, it was raining pretty hard.  Turns out that my choice to go in rainy season was indeed a questionable one, since there are in fact tropical storms during rainy season.  Like the one that was currently hitting western Japan.  I was in luck, though, because my hotel was connected to the station, and so I could check in and eat lunch there without having to venture into the rain.  By the time I was ready to start exploring the city, it had lessened to a mere annoyance.
Anyone can tell you what the main sight of Hiroshima is, and that’s where I headed first.  The dome that still remains from the atomic bomb blast.  In a way, I was glad it was raining.  You may remember that one of the strangest aspects of my visit to Auschwitz was that the sun was shining, which felt wrong.  Hiroshima had a similarly somber past, and the rain put me in the right emotional place for that.
The atomic dome is located in Peace Park, which, like Berlin’s Tiergarten, is filled with memorials and museums to remember what took place there.  I’m not sure what they all represent, but I did go in the Hall of Remembrance and the museum.  The Hall of Remembrance had a section that had images of the city after the bombing, constructed out of 140,000 tiles.  One for every person who died in the city in 1945.  Continuing on, they had stories and video reconstruction from some of the survivors, which was hard to listen to.  Coming from the United States was difficult, because there’s the inescapable truth that the country I was born into caused this.  And while in history class, it might be easy to say that was the best choice at the time, it’s hard to separate that from the immense guilt that comes with hearing how my country’s actions affected these people.  Happy 4th of July to me.
I went to the museum next, which had images from before and after the bombing.  I had never actually seen pictures of Hiroshima before the bombing (see the second picture above), so it was interesting to see what the city had looked like originally.  There was a whole section on the horrors of atomic bombs generally, and then the most moving section had artifacts that had been partially destroyed in the blast.  There were stopped clocks, clothing, images of the victims, and a lone tricycle that had survived the blast when its owner did not.  It was definitely an emotionally difficult visit.
By the time I left the museum, the sun was shining again.  I headed toward Hiroshima Castle, in another park.  There were also several shrines and other buildings in the park that I explored before I got to the castle.  The castle, obviously, is a reconstruction, and I opted not to go inside since I already had plans to visit Himeji.  But the outside was quite lovely.  The selfie is from a doorway that I walked through, where the top of it was maybe an inch above my head.  I’m 5’6″ so if you’re tall in Japan, be prepared to duck all the time.
I took a long walk back to my hotel, where I got to see more of the city.  Personally, I think a lot of the architecture was a bit boxy.  It’s not the most beautiful city I’ve walked through.  But my favorite thing I saw when I passed a school.  On their bulletin board was a big poster, where the kids had written their recommendations for tourists in English.  They wrote where people should go, and why, which was adorable.  Especially because some of the suggestions were “Pokemon Training Center.”
It was a heavy trip, and a little ironic that I scheduled it for July 4th.  Purely coincidental, I assure you.  But I’m glad I got to go see it.
Asia Japan

Tokyo DisneySea

I really agonized over whether I should go to Disney or do something more cultural, like a day trip from Tokyo where I would actually see buildings that contributed to the history of Japan.  But I figured I would see enough shrines and history during the rest of my trip, so I went with the theme park.  And it was a good call, I had a blast at DisneySea.
Tokyo has two Disney parks, Disneyland and DisneySea.  Disneyland is fairly similar to all the other Disneylands in the world (California, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris, Magic Kingdom at Disney World), with the castle, a number of the same rides, etc.  You know the drill.  For the record, I have only been to the one in California, and am getting this information off of various Disney blogs.
DisneySea, on the other hand, is closer to what I understand Epcot to be.  There are different regions, all of which are port or water themed, and most of these represent different parts of the world.  I’ll get into what those are a little later.  It’s commonly argued that DisneySea is the best Disney park in the world, according to one of my coworkers.  She sent me several blog posts on the subject, as well as ones that talked about what to do and see while there.  I relied on those heavily to plan my day, which were super helpful.  The ride that is allegedly the best, Journey to the Center of the Earth, was closed while I was there.  Sad, but it freed up time to do other things.
The first thing to understand about Tokyo Disney is the sheer number of people.  It’s not uncommon for the wait times for popular rides to exceed two hours, and in fact, that’s something I saw for a couple rides when I was there on a Monday.  Thus, between that and the fact that I’m a super picky eater, I opted to do all my research and plan everything out.  For the record, here is the blog post I used, it was excellent.  This post has all of the rides, ranked by that blog.
The first recommendation by the blog is to skip Toy Story Mania.  They use the phrase, and here I quote, “It’s like the running of the bulls, if the bulls were all super polite.”  This is not an exaggeration. There are people holding signs that say “do not run” when you enter the park.  Everyone rushes straight for that area of the park, and fastpasses go very quickly.  I opted instead to get a fastpass to the Tower of Terror.  Then I headed to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where I was the only one in my submarine and the ride shouted at me in Japanese.  That was only slightly alarming.  I also went to try to ride Indiana Jones, but it was down.  By the time I got back to the American section, I had done a quick tour of the park and gotten my bearings, and it was time to use my fastpass.
Tower of Terror was super cool, even if I missed some of the story due to the language barrier, and even though I hate drop rides.  I even got my second fastpass for it, since I made the assumption Indiana Jones was down for the day.  I also entered the lottery for Big Band Beat, a show that is surprisingly in English, and won, so I had that shortly after my second fastpass and the morning free.
I went to the Mediterranean Harbor first, which is a section designed to look like Venice.  I rode a gondola, was serenaded by our rower, and ate pizza, so…. it’s basically the same as going to Italy, right?  Seriously, though, it’s a beautiful area of the park.
I headed over to the Arabian Coast next, which is probably my second favorite area.  They have a double decker carousel, and a ride that’s on a boat with puppets.  I hesitate to compare it to “It’s a Small World” because, you know, it’s awesome and not irritating, but it’s the same type of ride.  The decor was amazing, and it was definitely worth the time spent wandering around to see all of the nooks and crannies of that area.
By then, it was time to head back to use my second fastpass and watch the show.  Because I am, on occasion, quite lucky, my seat for the show was in the sixth row in the center.  It was fun, with 1920s music, singing and dancing, and characters who joined in with the actors.  The finale was set to Sing Sing Sing.  Plus, since it was all in English, I actually understood what was happening!  Since it was in the heat of the afternoon, I appreciated the time to sit in an air conditioned room and rest my feet.
From there, I took the train to Port Discovery, which is probably the least interesting part of the park, and did Aquatopia, which is another great ride for the afternoon.  It gets you totally soaked, which was very welcome at that point.  I wandered back through Cape Cod and headed to the Mediterranean Fortress, where I explored until I got tired and then stopped in Magellan’s for a glass of wine.  Magellan’s was listed as a recommendation on the blog, and it was truly excellent.  An absolutely beautiful restaurant, and one where I didn’t feel like I was still in a theme park when I sat down.
From there, I just had a few more things to check out before I would have seen it all.  I headed through the Mermaid Lagoon, which has rides geared toward younger kids but is definitely worth 20 minutes or so to walk through.  I rode Jasmine’s Flying Carpets, which is basically Dumbo, and then I walked back toward the Lost River Delta, which was the South American section.
This is when I learned that Indiana Jones was not out all day, and in fact, was currently operating, with 120 minutes listed for the wait.  At this point, I was meeting Romy in about 90 minutes.  So, I almost certainly should not have gotten in line, but I did anyway and hoped for the best.  The line felt like it was crawling.  Less than that- we spent a lot of time standing still.  But after we had gone part of the way, there was a sign that pointed one way for single riders and the other way for everyone else.  The blog had said to do the single rider line, and it definitely seemed to be moving faster, so I went through the gate and got to the back of that line.  It absolutely did move faster, and I appreciated that as I walked toward the ride instead of inching along.  But then we got to the front of that line.  Where there was a sign that said fastpass, and a person collecting fastpasses.  Concerning, seeing as I didn’t have one.  When I got there, I said that I thought that this was single rider, and the guy nodded, and told me to go down a staircase instead of continuing in line.  An empty staircase.  Confused, I did so, and found myself in a separate queue next to the normal line.  Less than a minute later, I was on the ride.  Long story short: use single rider in Japan.  Also, it’s very weird to hear Indiana Jones speaking Japanese.
I managed to catch a steamboat back through the park, and got on my train to meet Romy only a few minutes late.  She wanted to take me to a conveyer belt sushi place.  Since she speaks Japanese and I am a picky vegetarian, this was my one chance.  We walked from Tokyo Station to the Tsukiji Fish Market area, where we found a place that was truly an authentic hole-in-the-wall type place.  Romy chatted with the chef, and I tried a cucumber sushi, a tofu sushi, and even an egg sushi, in perhaps my most adventurous food experience yet.  But, eating sushi is the quintessential Japanese experience, and it was a perfect way to close out my time in Tokyo. I said goodbye to Romy, and headed back to my hotel for a last night before starting the remainder of my trip.
Asia Japan

Tokyo: Karaoke, Owls, and Busy Crossings

My most recent trip was to Japan, where I spent ten amazing days.  I managed to check off everything on my list, and during my trip I walked 194,189 steps, coming out to about 88.3 miles.

Since I went alone, I did a lot of planning, which, of course, went awry before I even left the U.S.  Right off the bat, my flight was delayed.  Apparently San Francisco’s fog problem was grounding planes, and that was supposed to be my connection.  The gate agent switched my flight, but left me with a short connection- I would be landing as my flight to Tokyo would start boarding.  So I went to the gate for my flight to Denver and begged them to let me on the earlier flight.  They told me I could try standby, which I figured was a lost cause.  But miraculously, one man didn’t show, and his seat was economy plus.  I made my Tokyo connection with time to spare and extra legroom.
Once I got to Tokyo, everything went pretty smoothly.  That said, I did arrive at Tokyo Station during rush hour, which was quite overwhelming.  The station was packed, and everyone was wearing a white shirt and black bottoms – I felt like a definite outsider.  My hotel was in Ginza, about 15 minutes from the station, and I quickly fell in love with Ginza.  It’s clean, of course, but it’s also quite serene.  That sounds like a weird adjective for a city, but I’ve never been in an area that’s so quiet.  No sirens, no one talking loudly, no honking.  Plus, it’s absolutely stunning.
A few notes on my first hotel.  1) the door was magnetic, so the do not disturb sign literally stuck to it.  Not sure how useful this was, but it was cool.  2) the mirror was heated so it didn’t fog up when I took a shower.  3) not only did the toilet have a bidet, but it also made noise when I sat on it and automatically flushed.  Both of which were disconcerting at first.  4) I was provided pajamas, slippers, a toothbrush, and every other conceivable toiletry, which was surprising and much nicer than just getting a single bar of soap.
That night, I met up with Romy, who had been working with me in the spring as an intern and was taking a short break before she started full time.  She was in Tokyo for a Japanese language program, which was a lovely coincidence.  We headed to Shibuya, which is known for having the busiest crossing in the world.  I genuinely thought that it was just a crowd of people gathered the first time I saw it.  But no, this madness happens every few minutes.

We wandered through Shibuya for a while, and Romy pointed out some shops that would be good to go back to for souvenirs.  Then we decided to go to karaoke, because it’s a very Japanese thing, and when in Tokyo…. Romy helped me order sake, which was amazing, and then we rocked out to Britney Spears and the soundtrack to Wicked.  Unlike in America, karaoke in Japan involves getting a private room, which makes it infinitely better.  Seriously, if it was like that in the U.S., I would actually go.
I almost fell asleep on the train back to my hotel, but still managed to get up with time to spare the next morning.  Before meeting with Romy, I walked over to the Imperial Palace.  It’s not far from Tokyo Station, in a park.  The morning I went was foggy, which made it look prettier.  I wandered over to where all the tourists were standing around taking pictures.  The best view of the palace is a little lackluster, since you can’t see much behind the moat and the trees, but I thought the area was nice overall.
From there, I took the train to meet Romy in Harajuku.  We walked through a packed street, stopping to take pictures at a photo booth place.  Japan had the original snapchat, so you can take pictures and then add filters and makeup and words to them after.  We had a great time trying a few different ones.  The shops were all interesting.  There were crazy t-shirt designs, platform boots that had the Playboy logo on them, and stores that played at least 7 different songs at the same time.  There also were tons of crepe places, where you could get something that was more like an ice cream cone but instead of a cone there was a crepe.  That was delicious.
For the afternoon, Romy’s friend met up with us, and the three of us went to Menji Shrine, followed by a park.  They taught me how to distinguish Shinto and Buddhist shrines, Romy danced with some Japanese people for a music video, and we talked about various aspects of Japanese culture.  We ended up back in the same area of Harajuku.  Romy’s friend left, and Romy and I went to an owl café.
Animal cafés are very Japanese.  The most common is cat cafés, but they also have them for dogs, rabbits, snakes, and goats.  I told Romy it was a hard no on those last two.  Basically, you pay for a drink and time with the animals.  We had almost an hour with the owls.  I had never seen one outside of maybe a zoo, so it was a very cool experience.  They let us hold them, taught us how to touch them respectfully, and told us about their personalities.  They’re beautiful animals.
The next day, Romy had to do homework, so I was on my own.  I started by heading to Akibahara, but nothing was open when I arrived so I skipped to the next item on the list, which was the Senso-ji Shrine.  It was quite beautiful, and I liked the neighborhood around it as well.  While there, a man approached me and asked if I would be willing to speak English with him so he could practice, so we got coffee and chatted about Japan and America and culture.  It’s always interesting to hear what other people have to say about your country, and to hear about theirs.  Unsurprisingly, he said the U.S. was dirty, but he is sold on Hawaii.  Sounds about right.
After that, I headed to Tokyo Skytree.  According to Wikipedia, this is the world’s tallest self-supporting tower, at 2,080 feet tall.  Not that it has anything on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the actual tallest building, but classified as a “mixed use” building instead), which is 2,717 feet. But I digress.  At the Skytree, you can take an elevator to the 350th floor.  And the 450th, if you want to spend more money, although I did not.  On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji.  It’s a spectacular view of the city.
From there I went back to Akibahara.  This initially was an electronics market, but has since moved more into anime and video games, and has a number of figurines and other related items.  It was fun to browse around, although, not being a fan of any of those things, I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of it as someone who regularly watches anime.  I also stopped in a maid café for a snack, which is another uniquely Japanese thing.  And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like, where waitresses are dressed up as maids.  Personally I found it a bit strange, but there’s tons of cafés like that in Akibahara.  When I finished up there, I went back to Shibuya to do some souvenir shopping, and then went back to the hotel to rest and regroup.
I was initially going to go to Odaiba (another neighborhood that was recommended to me), but when I left the hotel, it turned out all of the streets of Ginza had been blocked off and pedestrianized.  I don’t know if this is just something that happens on Sunday afternoons, or once a month, or whatever, but it was amazing.  There were tables set up in the middle of the street, and people were strolling down the middle of the lane.  I decided to join them, and I spent some time exploring the beautiful shops of Ginza.  There are so many designer shops and department stores, and I loved walking through and seeing what they had.  Ginza also has the best architecture I saw in Tokyo, with buildings that are beautiful and unique.  I absolutely loved the neighborhood, and would say it’s one of my favorites, right up there with Paris’s Latin Quarter.

Still to come in Tokyo: DisneySea!  Which gets its own post, because Disney is emphatically not the real world.