Return to the Rising Sun, Days 2-3: Sweltering Shinjuku and Under the Tokyo DisneySea

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Day 2

I slept the sleep of the dead. . . or at least the sleep of the extremely exhausted.

When I awoke the next morning, I had a light breakfast of pancakewich and orange juice and then went downstairs for a bath.

Baths in Japan are an interesting thing.  You actually shower outside of the tub, then get into the tub to soak and relax, if you so choose.  The floor design is arranged so the water falls down a drain in the floor.  As such, the floor gets sopping wet as I learned the hard way.  I had merely tried to take a bath, unaware of this cultural set-up so I left my clothes on the floor while I bathed.  I fetched a fresh set of clothes while I set my first set out to dry.

Our apartment in Shinjuku was small, but comfortable.  On the lower floor were the bathroom, laundry room, a small living room, and a bedroom.  On the upper floor contained a kitchen and 2 more bedrooms.  There was also a toilet with a sink built into the top.  When you flushed the toilet, it turned on the sink, recycling its own water.

With only 1 washroom for 7 people, it took a bit to get everyone bathed and ready for the day.  Once we were we headed over to Sunkus, a local convenience store to pick up some stuff for the others.  While there, I noticed they had my beloved Van Houten Cocoa, so I bought some.

The plan for the day was to wander around Shinjuku, famed for its shopping and restaurants.  Our journey had a bit of a delay as Dave’s niece, Amy, forgot her passport and rail pass, so back we hiked to the apartment to get it.  Then it was back to the train station to get to Shinjuku.

One could spend hours exploring the area, but our explorations were limited to a tiny area due to a thunderstorm that broke out in the area.  Being an island nation, it rains a lot in Japan and a typhoon off the southern edge of the country was triggering more rain than usual as well as sending the humidity right through the roof.

We first visited the Hotel Gracery building which also holds the Godzilla Head and Toho Cinemas.  A new Godzilla movie just opened in Japan (we’re considering going to watch it on a free night) and Toho Cinemas is going all out to celebrate it.  Outside of the movie theater was a picture montage featuring every Godzilla film ever made as well as character designs and fan art.  On the 15th floor of the building was the Godzilla head, built to scale, and it was a pretty cool sight.

While in the building, the rain exploded with a mighty crash, so we ducked into a 7-11 on the bottom floor and bought some umbrellas.  We made a quick stop in Don Quixote’s (similar to a dollar store) and poked around the store.  When the rain didn’t let up, we made a mad dash across the street to Taito Game Station to wait it out.

Japan loves their arcades.  Sadly, even arcades over here are not what they once were as the only new cabinet games they seem to make are fighting and dance games.  But the arcade also had claw machines and a few games outside of the fighting/dance genres.  I played a couple of rounds on Luigi’s Mansion which was quite fun.

By the time the rain let up, we stopped at a restaurant for an extremely late lunch.  But a meal of green tea, pork cutler, rice, miso soup, and cabbage served to restore the inner man.  With our meals tucked away, we headed to Shinjuku Station to pick up Mat’s friend, Andrew, who would be the final member of our little troupe.

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Mauricio suggested we visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Building as it has an observatory on the 45th floor.  I considered this event the highlight of the day as we looked at views of the city just to get an idea of the massiveness of the most populated city on Earth.

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The jet lag and humidity began to take a toll on us and we returned to the apartment to relax and crash.  We were all sound asleep shortly after 9pm.

Day 3

Now this is one of the days I had been looking forward to as we were going to spend the day at Tokyo DisneySea.

For years I was an amusement park junkie and though my tastes have changed a bit over time, I still maintain a soft spot in my heart for Disney parks.  From a financial standpoint, Tokyo DisneySea & Tokyo Disneyland are good deals as the entry fee to each park is less than $100.

Two things worked against us that day.  One, I believe Mat made a minor error by wanting to visit the park on Friday.  He thought the kids would have been in school, leaving the park a bit more open to the grown-ups.  Being Friday, I can’t say I was surprised to see the park pretty full as I imagine parents took the day off to bring their kiddies to the resort.  Also, it was a beautiful day.

The park was a little slow going at first due to the long lines and we only managed to ride 20,000 Leagues  Under the Sea before noon.  We decided to get some lunch to refresh ourselves and ate at a little cantina to try Mexican food done Japanese style.  I had spicy meat tacos which weren’t too bad, though they were not spicy by my standards.  I learned that Japanese people are actually very timid when it comes to spices, so to their tastebuds, this was the equivalent of a four alarm fire.

After lunch, we were able to get on a number of more rides, thanks to Fastpass.  Fastpass is a service that allows you to skip long lines at the more popular attractions.  You get a special ticket to return later in the day and you bypass the main line and get on the ride in about 10 minutes.  You are able to get a new one every two hours.  With this we were able to ride Tower of Terror, Raging Spirits, visit the Magic Lamp Theatre, and voyage with Sindbad.

We finished the Magic Lamp Theatre at slightly after 6pm.  At that point lines for the popular attractions were 90 minutes at a minimum and some were at a mind-blowing 2.5 hours.  I noticed that some people were tired (the humidity was brutal) and I suggested we should head back to Shinjuku. We ended up  hitting every gift shop on the way out.   I would have preferred spending that time waiting for one more ride, but oh, well.

We stopped for dinner at a place called Becker’s which serves burgers and sandwiches.  I had a double bacon BBQ cheeseburger and some fries as I was desperately in need of salt after sweating buckets.

With full stomachs, we returned to the apartment to rest for another night.

Return to the Rising Sun, Day 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

It was a journey 4 years in the making.  After the end of our escapades in Japan (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), my friends, Mat O’Donnell and David Sundberg, and I decided we would one day return to experience it anew.  With Mat’s impending wedding in November, it was decided that the adventure would take place in August 2016.

After months of planning and preparation, the day finally arrived to begin our return to the Land of the Rising Sun.

It takes a lot of time to get to Japan and I mean a LOT of time.  On August 16, Dave and I awoke at 2:30am.  Our first flight of the day would leave at 6:20am.

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Dave is bright eyed and bushy tailed for the day ahead.

My good friend, Jeff Bevirt, picked Dave and I from my home and drove us to Eppley Airfield where we met Dave’s niece, Amy Joy, who would also be joining us on the excursion.

We would be using United Airlines.  This was my first time utilizing their services and it was pretty good all the way around.  When we arrived at the nearly empty airport, a friendly desk agent took our passports and quickly checked us in and checked in Dave’s suitcase.  Using the “gussie” system of packing, I would be checking no luggage so I’d have one less thing to worry about.

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Transportation to Japan provided by United Airlines.

United likes to board early and we started getting on board nearly an hour before our flight started.  I happen to think this is a good business practice as if everyone manages to get onboard early, we can leave a little early which is exactly what happened.

After a brief flight, our little group laid over in Denver for an hour, where we scarfed a quick breakfast from McDonald’s (oh, how I hate to rush a meal) and boarded another plane set to take us to Los Angeles.

At LAX, I made my only miscalculation of the trip.  I decided to change my dollars over to yen while I was there.  I got a pretty good deal, but would learn that I should have waited until I reached Narita International Airport in Japan as they give you a much better deal.  My dough would have netted me an extra 15,000 yen had I waited.  So take my advice, if you go to Japan, always exchange your money at Narita.

We waited through a 2.5 hour layover at LAX before finally beginning the long haul of the trip.  I love to fly, but 12 hours is an awfully long time to be on a plane.  They do their best to distract one with a wide variety of entertainment from movies to music to TV shows.  To pass the time, I read a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche, began a new Nero Wolfe novel, watched a little TV as well as the films Money Monster and Insomnia.

There was something profound about this trip, especially as I was taking it in the daytime and could look out the window.  There’s something deep about looking down on the majesty of the Pacific Ocean and seeing nothing but blue as far as the eye can see.  We also went from day to night to day in a flash as we crossed over to the other side of the planet.  And there was something about flying over the edge of Alaska that put a smile on my face as I looked down upon it.

The food wasn’t too bad on the flight.  United prides itself on its 3 course meals and served us a lunch of teriyaki chicken, rice, vegetable medley, and salad with southwestern rice.  For dessert, they served us a wonderful vanilla bean gelato which was some of best ice cream-type food I have ever eaten.  Before touchdown, they served a breakfast of Udon noodles, though Dave had to be a rebel and order the scrambled eggs.

As I said the journey was long and I only napped for about an hour as excitement fueled my body.  Upon arriving at Narita, we waited for Mat who was delayed as everybody on the planet decided to land at Narita at the same time he did.  This slowed down his going through customs and immigration which my little group blew through in about 15 minutes.

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Japan, I have arrived.

We collected our resident expert, then got our J-Rail passes so we could travel through Japan.  Then we hopped on the Narita Express for a 90 minute journey to Shinjuku to arrive at the first house we would stay at through Air BnB where we met Mat’s friend, Mauricio, and his girlfriend, Allison, who would be joining us on a part of the adventure.

Despite being beyond the point of exhaustion our little group went out to dinner at a place called Pronto’s which is a bar/restaurant.  I normally don’t like to eat late, but one thing I appreciate about Japan is that we share a similar size appetite as all servings in Japan are small.  I had some juicy fried chicken with a splash of lemon.  After dinner we stopped at a mini-mart to get some things for breakfast.  I grabbed an orange juice and some of the famed pancakewiches of Japan.

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Pancakewich

I passed out and I mean passed out on my tatami mat to end this day’s adventures.

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 3: Of Shopping and Sushi

Day 3 of this expedition was an all day shopping tour.  Shortly after breakfast, our group of gaijin headed to the subway station and set on off to the Ginza district.

Our first stop was the Sony Building.  Sony was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Bad album.  A life-sized cutout of Michael was set on a stage outside the building and people were encouraged to take pictures.  I got a photo of myself doing the moonwalk while Mat took a before picture of himself giving “Michael” the bunny ears followed by a photo of himself sprawled out on the ground, unconscious.  I guess “Michael” showed him who’s bad.

After perusing and purchasing various knickknacks in the Sony Building, Yukie took us outside the restaurant of a legendary sushi chef.  I don’t remember his name, but he had recently been the focus of a documentary.  His restaurant is incredibly small, but reservations must be made a month in advance in order to eat there.  There is also no menu.  The food is whatever the chef feels like preparing that day.  If you want to eat there, bring lots of money as the cost is a staggering $300 per person to sample this legend’s wares.

From there, it was off to the Shinjuku district where we visited the Square Enix store.  Square Enix is a video game company best known for creating the Final Fantasy series of games.  It was a very small shop, but it had lots of interesting models to look at.  I ended up picking up some mystery monster toys for my niece and nephew. 

After our visit to Square Enix, we headed over to Harajuku where we enjoyed a late lunch at a ramen restaurant.  I ordered a Kanoban (spicy) pork ramen.  Dave and Mat ordered similar dishes, but theirs had eggs in them.  When we received our meals, they inspired the classic Matism, “I can smell the porky goodness.”  And it was a delicious meal.

Once we had recharged our batteries with the food, we explored the market in Harajuku which has a more underground feel.  I bought a t-shirt for myself that had a kanji which translated to “I’m in Japan” and bought a Hello, Kitty thingamajig for my sister-in-law.  I also caved to peer pressure as I bought a crepe along with Mat and Dave.  I’m usually not much for sweets, but this was an excellent dessert.

Soon our time was up and our group of merry wanderers made its way to Shibuya where we stopped at a bazaar.  I did most of my souvenir shopping at this place as there were all sorts of items to choose from.  I chose several beautiful items made out of ceramics for my friends and family like fish, lotus blossoms, and a few interesting stones.

Afterwards, we headed back to our hotel for a little bit of down time before our group headed out to a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant for dinner.  The name is just what it sounds like.  We sat around a giant centerpiece that had all kinds of sushi being moved by conveyor belt.  If something caught your interest, you grabbed it and enjoyed it.  When you were finished eating, the plates would be counted up and that’s what you would be charged.  I seem to recall that the price was 118 yen (a bit over $1) a plate.  Mat, who has a superhuman metabolism, said he had polished off 18 plates of sushi when he had eaten at this place 2 years previously.  Mind you, the plates are about the size of a tea saucer with a just a piece or two of sushi on each dish.

Once we had dined, it was back to the Hotel Tokyo Metropolitan where we took it easy for the rest of the night.  We were going to need all of our strength tomorrow as we were heading for the centerpiece of the Tokyo Maximum Tour. . .the Tokyo Game Show.