22 June 2012

Japan Day 8: Akasaka & last minute shopping!

Our last day in Japan was a whirlwind of sightseeing and shopping.  We definitely didn't get to do everything we wanted to do, but we did squeeze a lot into our short trip!

On our last day, our flight took off in the late afternoon, so we had the entire morning to fill.  We had already made arrangements with the hotel to check out an hour late; at 12noon.  We'd had to ask two different people, and they didn't really want to let us, but allowed it anyway.  We also made arrangements to take the Airport Limousine Bus (the same one we took getting to Dizunee Randuruu) back to the airport ($75 for the two of us).  The bus made pickups just about every hour, so we chose the 13:45 pickup.

We were both up super early again.  Perhaps because we knew we didn't have a full day, but wanted to do a full day's worth of visiting, perhaps because we weren't ever really on Japan time.  Either way, we were ready to head out the door by 7am.  All the bags were packed and we had even stowed our travel clothes in our carry-on bags.  We even had a quick breakfast of goodies we'd picked up at OMO Kinokuniya inside the Omote-sando eki last night: onigiri for G and inarizushi for T.

A restaurant on the way to the shrine.  Our online research told us that restaurants here cater the expense account crowd and are therefore very luxurious and expensive.  This morning, we did see some evidence of late night drunkeness, but figured we didn't need a photo and neither did you want to see.
Looks almost like something from the States right?  I wonder if we could use the Citibank branches to get money if we had Citibank accounts in the States?
We decided that we ought to see the local Akasaka shrine which is apparently the only sight to be seen in Akasaka.  Just a few blocks from our hotel, the Hie Jinja shrine had just had its festival.  It actually ended on the 16th, our 7th day in Japan, and we knew about it before coming to Japan, but we wanted to see other things more than the Sanno Matsuri.  Of course we didn't want Ōyamakui-no-kami, the great mountain god of business and all other things, to be upset with us for shirking his festival.  So we decided to pay him a visit early in the morning on Sunday to prove that we cared about him at least enough to get up early to see him.  (Shh... he doesn't have to know that we were up mostly because of being in the wrong time zone.)
Monks (? maybe they were just city workers?) sweeping the sidewalks with Harry Potter style stick brooms.

We started to see lots of people in traditional Japanese dress.

The many torii leading up to the shrine.
Because we were there so early, we got to see the monks cleaning the shrine area as well as preparations for the morning's service.  Trying not to look too much like tourists, we paid our respects by clanging the noise making device and throwing money into the box.  We said our "dozo youroshkus" (nice to meet you/please be kind to me) and proceeded to surreptitiously take photos (and I took a video too).  So maybe we didn't succeed in not looking like tourists, but at least maybe Ōyamakui-no-kami will be pleased that we were fascinated by his shrine.  It was really very beautiful and parts of it (you can see in the video) were full of offerings made to him.

Here's the video.  Remember, I was trying to be kind of stealthy...

After seeing the shrine, we had decided to do some last minute shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku.  Being on 2 different train lines and also needing to be able to check out of our hoteru at noon, we had a very tight schedule.  Fortunately, the trains in Japan are extremely precise in timing.  When the internet says you will arrive at 9:37am, you will absolutely arrive at 9:37am.  Unless you arrive at 9:36am, and then by the time you step onto the platform, it will be 9:37am.  Astonishing.  Public transport that is reliable, clean, functional and also quiet!

At 9:30am, we were inside the Akasaka-mitsuke eki, waiting for our train to Shibuya.  By the time we walked to our destination in Shibuya, Loft, it was 9:45am.  We had seen a one floor version of Loft in Asakusa, (where we bought our first batch of stationery stuff) and were intrigued by the multi-level one in Shibuya.  They didn't open until 10:00am, so we walked across the street to get some more breakfast at a little convenience store.  More onigiri for both of us:

I really liked this panda salt shaker...
Once Loft opened, we dashed in and ran past all the employees standing at the ends of each row bowing and wishing us a good morning.  We headed straight for the stationery section which was actually the first two entire floors.  I agonized over getting this Washi tape labeller (again; we'd seen it in every stationery section of every store...) and in the end, just settled on a photo and future internet research to see if any of the materials are available in the States.
We also checked out the kitchen goods/bento accessories.  We ended up buying the egg steamer here along with a tamago maker for T's brother (so it wouldn't feel like we were just blowing money on stuff for ourselves because we were leaving...).  I spent valuable minutes pondering whether or not I needed a super kawaii bear lunch box set:

Again, I passed.  But I did find a sale section (shelf.  half shelf.) of bento supplies and bought a panda onigiri box and two sectioned, leak proof bento box.

We ran through the rest of the store, trying to soak up all of the Japanese awesomeness, including this bank of bubble machines in the "party goods" area where we bought our MojiMoji Bear game (see yesterday's set on Flickr for photos).
By 11:00am, we wee cutting it close with getting back to the hoteru.  Our main reason for wanting to go back was to shower because today it was super hot!  It was in the high 80s and mostly sunny for the first time!  By Japanese metro magic, we were in our room, T showering and me packing away our last omiyage at 11:20am.  We got down to the front desk with 20 minutes to spare and gave them our luggage for safekeeping while we made one more dash to Harajuku.

Our main goal in Harajuku was Fancy Pocket.  The store where I'd been interviewed a couple days ago was said to be packed with teenage girls on the weekends.  Packed it was.
T quickly got in line while I perused the shelves for tiny goodies and stickers.  Pink poop goodies in hand, we headed down the street into a 390yen shop.  It had all kinds of fun stuff, but we didn't have much time, so we picked a few things and went back out onto Takeshita street which was quite busy in general.

We passed this interesting person, not sure what his deal was, but many people were photographing him:
We stopped in a little Korean shop, where the owner spoke to us in English (with an accent), but we had gotten so used to telling people (in Japanese) that we didn't speak Japanese, that we said it anyway.  He was confused at first and then we all got it at the same time and laughed about it.  He had us try some lotions and I bought a bell pepper shaped one, not having been able to find my cute fruits lotions I thought would be everywhere.  Our last stop was a strange Tamagotchi store.  They had some themed omiyage stuff, but very few of the actual Tamagotchi devices.  The second floor had a handful of bubble dispensing machines, but that was it.  We also happened upon a swimming pool on the 4th floor of the same building.  Swimming pool?  In a Tamagotchi store?  On the 4th floor?  We didn't know what was going on, but we were out of time anyway.

We arrived back at the hoteru with plenty of time to check in for the Airport Limousine bus.  The trip to the airport was like a drive-by recap of our trip because we were driving back out past Dizunee Randuruu and got to see the hoterus there and the castle also.  At Narita Airport, I recognized the GIANT Star Alliance check in area from my last trip, when we were escaping a typhoon.
We were flying home business class, so we headed for the Air Canada area only to find that there was only Executive First.  When we showed our confirmation information to one of the many employees, she showed us right through to the Executive First desk and got us checked in!  We were afraid our larger suitcase would be overweight, but she assured us we were safe at 22kg (48.5lbs!).  ICN:  Not for Japan specifically, but in our recent international travel, we have noticed that only the American airlines charge for baggage and other such nonsense.  Air Canada even serves beer and wine freely on board!

Bags checked, we headed for security and were glad to see that the Japanese do not require you to remove your shoes (neither of us was wearing socks; they were in our carry on bags, but not donned yet).  If you are randomly selected for a quite thorough pat down (including inside waist/bra bands!), they provide you leather slippers to wear during the experience.  Too bad we weren't picked.

When we checked in, the lady told us we could use the ANA First Class Lounge, so that's where we were headed.  Not having had lunch, we were hoping for some lunch-type options.  We were overjoyed to find not only a selection of sushi (which we hadn't had any of on the whole trip!), tea sandwiches, snacks and drinks but also a NOODLE BAR!  You could just walk up and order one of six types of noodle soup and presto! less than five minutes later, you were presented with a steaming bowl of deliciousness.  We tried everything.  They even had little bento style sauce containers of shoyu (soy sauce) for the sushi.  Some may have come home with us.  Also a couple special soup spoons may have stowed away.  We can't be responsible for runaway food items.
Food area in ANA Lounge, Narita Airport, gate 42.
Udon!  Oishii!!!!
Sushi selection, tea sandwiches and some dehydrated fruits dipped in chocolate!
When we finally had eaten enough, we found it was already about time to board.  We made a quick pass of the gate area duty free shops looking for a colouring book for me (I hadn't really brought much interesting to do on the plane and T insisted that the best thing to prevent jet lag would be to stay up the whole flight back...).  No luck with the colouring book, but I did find a cute Japanese guide book for Japanese traveling to the US.  I figure I can use it backwards.  It's way more colourful than anything Americans would produce.

Onto the plane... yay Executive First Class!
Each of us got a little pod with magic chair that could flatten out into a bed:
Individual pods
What?! It's actually comfortable to lie down?!
For future reference, rather than getting seats in line with each other, it would have been better to get seats in the same row.  Between the two seats in the middle of the plane were screens that could be raised or lowered depending on whether or not you wanted to chat with your neighbour.  Instead, every time I wanted to talk to T, I had to hit him with the menu.  He's probably glad I slept most of the time.

Our meals in First Class were decidedly worse than the ones we'd had in Coach.  We did have the option of eating whenever we liked and a variety at that.  But for dinner, we both had the Japanese meal which was full of the weirdest things we'd seen the entire trip.  Every item seemed to be made of a different, very fishy kind fish...

Rice, green beans, carrots, a mushroom and unknown other items made of fish?
Cheese plate before ice cream for dessert (neither of us had room for ice cream).
Anyway, it was a good thing we'd gorged ourselves in the lounge.  We were offered drinks every time a stewardess saw we were conscious (T was awake the whole time, so he also got a sandwich).  This required frequent trips to the bathroom, but fortunately, I'd brought along the hoteru slippers which made this all even more cushy.  Breakfast was no better than dinner; some kind of southwestern inspired rice and lentils concoction:
By then, we were 45 minutes from Toronto, so we were preparing to land anyway.  They didn't even make us put our seats alllll the way up.  It was ok to lounge a little.  :)

In Canada, we encountered our first returning taste of America/Americans at customs.  The officer was a typical "come on, come on, I do this every day, why don't you know what is going on?" type.  Ah, we were missing Japan already.

Until next time, Nihon, kiyo tsukete!

21 June 2012

Japan Day 7: Shibuya

I was up 4:30 again, but T was able to snooze a little longer; he’s finally getting onto Japan time, just as our trip is wrapping up!  Spent some time this morning chatting with Mom and Dad via Skype.  Here in Akasaka, we have complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi in our room, which is quite nice and kind of makes up for the fact that we have smaller accommodations in general.  It’s comparable to NYC size hotel rooms (maybe a little smaller) but far cleaner.
Snacking on some rice crackers in the room, we weren’t too hungry for breakfast.  So we headed straight for the Metro to Shibuya.  Described as the spot for young people and the origin of many fashion trends, we were excited to see what Shibuya had in store for us.  The forecast had called for rain, and we were hoping for the drizzle variety we had experienced in Disney Land.  It was just starting to drizzle as we entered the station, but was drizzle/raining by the time we got to Shibuya.  

ICN: Here in Tokyo, people seem to be very used to this drizzle rain.  It is a warmer rain than we are used to in DC.  The rain gear here is not only more stylish, but also more functional than what we are used to seeing also.  The majority of people have big, clear umbrellas, which make looking up at buildings far easier – important in a city full of skyscrapers!  We spied a fair number of Hunter rain boots, but also a variety of rubber/plastic flats which could pass for non-rain shoes.  Few people wear raincoats or jackets, in favour of stylishly printed ponchos or simply using a giant umbrella.  The shops sell all kinds of umbrellas; tiny portable ones with cute handles through golf sized ones.  While we saw many people with the portable variety hanging off their bags, in practice, we saw more big, full size umbrellas open.

Our main target in Shibuya was Tokyu Hands.  Billed as a “creative life store” on tourist websites, this 7-level store had a very clever, split-level style layout.  Each “floor” consisted of 3 separate split-levels.  After shopping the first 2 mini-levels, we were feeling hungry.  As seems to be the norm for these giant department stores in Tokyo, we found a café on the top floor.  Here the specialty is sandwiches and café drinks.  T chose the sandwich of the day set, which consisted of a sandwich, fries and drink.  I just got a sandwich and ordered it on sesame bread.  The sandwiches were sealed on the edges, sort of uncrustable style, but with the crust still on.  T ordered an iced coffee with his set and we tried out the omnipresent gum syrup and found it sweetened the coffee perfectly!  A far better sweetener than the granulated stuff we have at home; this doesn’t need to dissolve and sweetens cold drinks much better!  Oishii rating for everything we ordered: !!!! (especially the sesame bread – which was full of toasted, black sesame flavor!).

Well re-fueled, we decided to explore the store top down.  The rest of the 7th floor was called “Science Base” and offered a variety of actual science lab type items.  They had gardening supplies, beakers, litmus paper, scientifically accurate models of all sorts of things and also these super tiny paper scene creation sets.  ICN:  These department stores all have a sort of museum-like feel to them.  Each area has a very well curated feeling and though we can’t read them (yet!) many of the display items seem to have some sort of description available to educate shoppers as they peruse.

We passed through a pet care floor (we’ve seen maybe a handful of people walking small dogs the whole time we’ve been here, but fish and hermit crabs seem to be the pets of choice given the amount of stuff available for them).  Making our way through several floors of hobby and crafting materials, we (I) was amazed to see that the raw materials can be pretty pricey.  I thought this interesting given that so many Japanese mothers make things for their families and craft as a hobby.  Still, all the materials put together are cheaper than buying the finished product and unique-ness seems to be very important in this city of 36 million people.

We made our way through the home goods and stationery floors and back out onto the street.  Having spent 3 hours in Tokyu Hands, we headed back in the general direction of the subway eki mostly because we didn’t have any other planned places to visit.  We stopped in shops here and there, absorbing all the Tokyo fashion.  

We found a store called ArtOn where you pick from a huge catalogue of designs, pick a shirt (or bag or hoodie or dress or lunch bag) and they print it for you right there.  Lured in by a ninja squirrel design, we decided it was too cool to pass up and chose a ninja squirrel design for T.  A little pricey at ¥2500, it was worth it to see how quickly and precisely the shirts are made.

Starting to get a little hungry for lunch and also wanting to get in out of the rain (the rain itself was not as bad as dodging the zillion umbrellas), we stopped at a noodle restaurant.  Here, you order by making a selection at these machines outside the shop.  They have big overhead signs which depict and describe each meal so that you can more accurately make your selection.  The machine takes your money and returns a tiny slip of paper, which you bring inside.  Inside, a waitress/hostess behind the continuous bar points out empty seats, takes your tickets and brings you water.  Less than 10 minutes later, your giant bowl of piping hot noodle soup appears along with whatever side dishes you ordered.  T ordered udon with sides of gyoza and rice, while I had cellophane noodles.  I didn’t order a side of rice, but got one anyway after the waitress saw me eating some of T’s.  On a rainy day anyway, this noodle place was packed.  The soup was delicious like something Mom or Naboo (grandma in Shanghai-nese) would make for you.  It was full of veggies, had some super thinly sliced meat and had a healthy amount of oil on top (the good kind that lets you know that a bowl of soup is really homemade and good).  Oishii rating: !!!!(and an extra ! for the comfort food factor).
Having nommed on the noodles for nearly an hour (the bowls were that big!), we visited a giant clothing store called Shibuya 109.  There are actually two separate Shibuya 109 buildings; one for men and one for women.  We only made it through the women’s one before we starting to get tired and being sensorially overloaded.  Each little 20 square foot boutique-like area was blasting its own American/British pop tune and emitting its own (luckily pleasant smelling) scent.  After 9 floors, we were ready to head back to the hoteru for a rest.

On our way to the subway eki (station) we spotted a fabric store and had to go in; this was the first one we’d seen!  Even this little place (clearly family owned) was 5 (small) floors; jam-packed with fabrics and notions.  We were too engrossed to remember to take photos, but we did buy some fabric and now I will have to think of something really perfect to make with each piece.  The display system is interesting enough to note.  Because of the limited space, they have ~1.5m cuts of fabric folded up into maybe 5cm wide little rolls.  These rolls are draped over rods which hide the bolts stacked behind them, not only cleverly displaying far more fabric than lining up the bolts would allow, but also protecting the bolts from the elements (the store is open on the first floor).
On the subway back to the hotel, we stopped at a Kinokuniya mini grocery (more like convenience) store inside the Omote-sando eki (station) for some night-time provisions/dinner.
Back at the hoteru, we relaxed for a while and then started to feel like we were getting a second wind.  [Sightseeing in the rain was definitely more tiring than on a nice day.]  We decided to go back to Harajuku to see how it looks at night and pick up some more omiyage (souvenirs for people at home).

We arrived in Harajuku around 7:00pm, to find many of the shops already closed.  The big-box type stores were still open, including the giant Forever 21 and American Eagle Outfitters.  We headed for Daiso, which I’d remembered was open until 21:00.  After Daiso, we went to Tokyu Plaza, the giant mall just across from Harajuku eki.  Though the signs said it was also open until 21:00, individual shops were closing by 8:30.  We made a few quick selections and headed out.  Almost out of the store, T realized we’d left our umbrella on the top floor.  Being just a few minutes to 9, the escalators were already roped off.   We cleverly took the elevator up and found a security guard locking up the various little boutiques.  Using our poor Japanese and translate app, we were able to explain about the umbrella and the guard went to ask the clerks who were closing up the registers.  Amazingly, they had already picked up the umbrella (it had been maaaybe 5 minutes?) and put it in the back.

Having successfully regained our cool, clear umbrella, we headed back to the hoteru to pack and strategize for our last half day!