Sunday, February 12, 2012

Things To Do in Tokyo - Our Way

Last night, the 5 of us except Kris (we missed you Kris!) who will be traveling to Tokyo together in May were discussing the most important question...what shall we do when we get there? We already have a shinkansen (bullet train) ride and hotel booked for an overnight Kyoto trip, but when it comes to Tokyo, it's sometimes difficult to even know where to begin. There's just so much to do. Also, I've spent my life growing up in Tokyo so my ideas may not be at all what someone wants to experience for their first trip.

As a start to a unique Japan experience, our friend Lisa found an apartment through that sleeps at least 4 guests. This is an excellent way to experience how the Japanese live, such as sleeping on futons, using the Japanese bath tubs and showers, learning how to separate out all the trash (burnables vs. non-recyclable plastics vs. recyclable plastics vs. aluminum, etc.), and so forth. The apartment is only one major train station away from my dad's house where Mike and I will be, so it's a perfect location for meeting up when heading out to downtown Tokyo.

Rachel - the planner-aheader - and the rest of the girls came up with a Japan wish list. I felt, as host, that I should find out more information and 'report back' on whether or not these ideas were feasible.

I thought I would share this list because it looks fun and slightly off the beaten path of the typical tourist list. There are things on here that Mike and I haven't even experienced yet, so that will be great. I think that anyone planning a trip to Tokyo could enjoy any of these attractions and experiences. Warning: it's a foodie's paradise.

Here's their Tokyo wish list...and some other stuff I thought of!
1. Tokyo DisneySea: It looks pretty easy to get to Tokyo Disney. Either by train (2 transfers) or a bus (direct from shinjuku station) and takes 40-50 minutes. 1-day passport is ¥6200 or ~$80.

2. Odaiba entertainment by Tokyo Bay: There's this entertainment district by the bay on the way to Disney that is full of stuff to do. A few highlights below.

3. At Odaiba: a place that serves famous ramen from all over Japan. Can try different kinds. It would be equivalent to BBQ in this country. Regional differences but a national dish.

4. At Odaiba: Fuji TV headquarters. Looks like we could tour FujiTV station but don't know if we could get tickets for actual crazy Japanese game shows. As far as actually being an audience member, I remembered that people send in postcards to the tv stations hoping go get selected via lottery system. So, may not be an option. Studio tour would be fun anyway.

5. At Odaiba: hot springs 'theme park': if we don't make it to a real hot springs in the countryside, this theme park has a bunch of hot springs put together for people to make a day out of relaxing and taking baths. Japanese people LOVE to take baths, especially hot springs bath. The problem for us is, at most hot springs, we gotta get naked. Yup. No bathing suits in hot springs. Some are even co-ed. The other problem for anyone with a tattoo, is they don't allow people with's still taboo in Japan - associated with yakuza.

6. Another Hot Springs theme park in Hakone (near Mt Fuji): I came across this hot springs place - Yunessun - that looks more like a water park. It looks like bathing suit is the attire at this one. There's also a "naked zone" called Mori-No-Yu. This is more traditional Japanese hot springs. Check out the pics.

7. Sake Breweries: There may be a few about 1-2 hours out of Tokyo. Some do tours in English. Here's a listing but info from 2005. All of them require advanced reservations by calling so I can do that when we get to Japan. There was a tasting room for the Fukumitsuya Brewery in Ginza district of Tokyo, but the Internet says it closed recently. Too bad.

8. Sumo: I went back and looked at the sumo calendar for Tokyo. They have sumo matches when Mike and I are in town so we may be able to catch a glimpse but it'll be over on the day you ladies get into town. :(. Next time.

9. Karaoke: Places to do karaoke is everywhere. Shidax is a major chain and has places all over Tokyo. Take a look at some of the different types of karaoke rooms for rent! Especially the one for kids...and dog. :) Crazy. Here's the menu at these places. It's usually a lot of drinking and eating that goes along with karaoke. Can't tell the exact cost, but it looks like on average, they charge ~$6-8/per person/30 minutes. There's usually a food and drink minimum. Mike says, "oh, we'll have no problem meeting the minimum.". Another article talks about a place where you do karaoke in front of a mixed, public crowd. My dad LOVES karaoke and he had a birthday party at the Club Inn hotel karaoke room, so that's also an option.

10. Lone Star country bar: Mike and I love this place, as recommended by my banjo playing cousin, Mark. Even Ginny liked it and she's not a country fan. There's some pictures you can laugh at. Maybe you'll pick out the pic of the Japanese Willie Nelson. Last Fridays of the month is Lonestar Opry night - like Grand ol' Opry, get it?

11. Tsukiji Fish Market: we've never gotten up early enough to attend the tuna auction, but apparently it's open to the public if we get in line before 5:00 am, and are lucky enough to be the first 120 visitors. We get a 30-minute tour into the auction area to observe the tuna sales. Usually, we stroll around the entire market around 9:00 am, try not to get run over by all the forklifts and carts, look at all the seafood you've never imagined existed, look at the various produce and kitchen goods (its a market after all), and finish off with a sushi breakfast.

12. Gonpachi - the restaurant in the Kill Bill movie in Roppongi: Izakaya (Japanese pub) with a nice interior! Let's go for sure.

13. Harajuku: where the Harajuku fashion scene is, such as Gothic Lolita, Decora (Decoration), Kawaii (Cute), Cosplay (Costume Play) - they like to shorten English words and make up their own. (Remember Federal Express? Japanese company bought them out...became FedEx). Sundays is when they usually close the streets to become a pedestrian mall and all these people dressed up hang out; but at anytime, it's great for people watching.

14. Shibuya Crossing: walking distance from Harajuku is another cool place, Shibuya. The Shibuya pedestrian crossing is amazing. Such organized chaos. Only in Japan. Check it out the video on YouTube.

15. Tokyo Yomiuri Giants Baseball Team: Japan is crazy about baseball. We may be in luck. There's several home games at Tokyo Dome while we are there. Giants' home games against either the Hawks (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks), Fighters (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters), or Golden Eagles (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles). Personally, we should go to the Nippon Ham Fighters game, just for the name! Amy - looks like there's a team store. Yay!

16. Cocktails in the bar at New York Grill, Park Hyatt Tokyo: great views, homage to movie "Lost in Translation", wonderful ambience, impeccable service. I mean, amazingly impeccable service. Did I mention they have out-of-this-world view and service?

17. Ogikubo Ramen: Ogikubo, the area of Tokyo where my dad lives, is considered the birthplace of Tokyo style ramen, so it's quite famous. There's 2 competing locations. Both are super small so if we all go together, we might have to take turns eating. Haruki-ya is one of them, and even written about in CNN. Here's Haruki-ya's website. This is the ramen place that we took Ginny to and she loved it. Ramen is an art form in Japan. Again, like BBQ, has lots of regional variations and takes tremendous technique to get it just right, and people will travel great distances for the perfect bowl of ramen. A good movie about a ramen store is called "The Ramen Girl" with Brittany Murphy in it. David Chang, chef of Momofuku in NYC, wrote extensively about the history and legend of ramen in his first Lucky Peach magazine (if you want to read it, I have a copy). Here's a YouTube video of the path from the Ogikubo train station to Haruki-ya. It's an excellent video of the entire Ogikubo train station surroundings in general as well.

18. Taiyo Tomato Ramen: One of my favorite places to eat in Tokyo is Taiyo Tomato Ramen. It's not even real ramen per se. More like a cross between Japanese ramen and Italian angel hair pasta with tomato sauce and cheese. Sooooo good. It was my late mother's favorite place as well. It reminds me of my mom every time I eat there.

19. Tokyo Sky Tree: this is a brand new tower that will open in May! Suppose to be the highest point in Tokyo with observation deck, restaurants, shops.

20. Department store basement food mecca: Every department store and train station has extensive gourmet food courts, but perhaps the one to visit is Ginza Mitsukoshi department store's "depachika" or department basement for the most exotic, beautiful, and outrageously priced food.

21. Sumida River Dinner Cruise: My mom's friend, Kaori-san, recommended a river dinner cruise on a "yakatabune", which is a low-slung traditional Japanese boat lit with paper lanterns, dating back to the Edo period. This particular cruise she recommends serves "Monja-yaki", kind of like a savory japanese pancake with various fillings grilled on a cooktop in front of you.

22. Toto Showroom: Toto is Japan's equivalent to Kohler. They make the world's best, fanciest, and most high-tech toilets. Think warmed toilet seats, a built in bidet that washes and dries the front and back side with water temperature and pressure as well. Their showroom is located in one of the highest floors in a Shinjuku high-rise building overlooking all of Tokyo.

23. Izakayas in Ebisu (and elsewhere): Izakaya is a Japanese pub, for lack of a better comparison. Small plates of food cooked over the grill or stewed or roasted. Similar to Spanish tapas - to be enjoyed with lots of beer and/or sake or shouchu (japanese clear liquor, like vodka.)

24. Golden-Gai: über small, old-school, preserved area of West Shinjuku, full of worn down bars that is in stark contrast to the neon-lit, rest of modern Shinjuku. Mike and I went a couple of years ago, but it may have been too early in the evening as most places were still closed. There's really no activity until at least 10 pm. Also, not all the bars in Golden-Gai district cater to strangers or foreigners. We may have a hard time getting in anywhere because we're not from there or don't know anyone there...but, it's worth a shot.

25. My Aunt Noriko's favorite steak place: my aunt has at least one meal here every time she visits Tokyo - Satou Steak House in Kichijoji, which is only 2 train stops away from Ogikubo. It's a butcher shop with a steak house on the second floor. There's maybe 6 tables and a countertop for dining, and a huge line that forms daily out the door and down the steepest stairs I've ever seen. Excellent steak, hands down.

26. Kappabashi: For any foodie, this is the place to go. It's the street with over 150 restaurant supply stores where all the professional chefs and restauranteurs go to obtain many of their kitchen supplies, including professional Japanese knives, cookware, service ware, and the infamous life-like plastic foods.

Other things to do in Tokyo, for the regular tourist. :)

1. The Imperial Palace: the emperor's crib.

2. Asakusa: Old Town Tokyo. Touristy but a must-see.

3. Ginza: most expensive real estate in Japan and maybe the world. Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills...sort of, but more exclusive.

4. Edo-Tokyo Museum: I know we all get fed up with too many museums (sort of like visiting too many cathedrals in Europe), but we think this one is worth it.

5. Meiji-jingu shrine: a serene spot in the middle of Tokyo chaos. Very popular tourist and Japanese destination spot. Here's a link to the etiquette of visiting a shinto shrine.

And of course, our whirlwind overnighter to Kyoto on a shinkansen (bullet train). That's a whole 'nother write-up! Shrines, temples, geishas, maikos, history, and food; coming up next time.