A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Tokyo from the top

Hiking Mt. Takao-san

sunny 92 °F

We had another fantastic day, and it was a great way to cap off our Tokyo experience. I realize the last few posts were a bit long (I think even Kevin got bored when he read it this morning!), so I'll try to make this one shorter. When we woke up today, the forecast was still for a 40% chance of rain, but the skies looked blue and nearly cloudless, so we decided to go forward with our plans to hike Mt. Takao-san. We hit the gym for a run, had breakfast, and headed out on the 64-minute train ride to the base of Mt. Takao-san (even navigating the train without issues!). We read somewhere that Mt. Takao-san is the most climbed mountain in the world, but we're not entirely sure this is true (Wikipedia notes more than 2.5 million annual visitors). It is 599m (1,965 feet) tall from base to peak, and there are several different paths to the top. I had scouted out the recommended routes for best views, so we planned to take #6 up and #1 down.
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Trail #6 was 3.3km (plus the 0.5km at the start), and had gorgeous scenery right from the start. It was never so steep that we were climbing with our hands, or so hard that we were too out of breath, but it was definitely not a cake walk - we had to work hard to get up there! It was about 90 degrees and incredibly humid, and we were soaked within the first few minutes (and it only got worse!). It wasn't super crowded, but every time you would pass someone they would be sure to greet you with "Konnichiwa" (good afternoon).
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After 70 minutes or so, we reached the top! We stopped a few times for sightseeing, but otherwise we were pretty much going as quickly as we could. Just look at some of the gorgeous views!
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After spending a while looking around and enjoying the views (and some "non-fried edamame snack"), we headed back down on Trail #1, which was 3.8km (plus the 0.5 starting portion). This trail was paved the entire way, which made footing a non-issue, but man was it STEEP! We couldn't believe we had covered so much distance on the way up, because it hurt almost worse going down! We got to see a series of beautiful temples; the main one was called Yakuoin Temple and is thought to have been built in 744 to honor the Medicine Buddha. The temples hold over 2,500 important documents from the Japanese Middle Ages on the relations between the temple and the community.
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We saw some more incredible views on the way down, and laughed at the signs, which we imagine say "Beware! Wild monkeys!" and kind of reminded us of the Evil Monkey from Family Guy.
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We reached the bottom around 2:30 and were fast in search of lunch. Kev snagged a bean curd bun along the way, and then we settled into a restaurant where we got some delicious soba noodles (plain for Kev, in a broth with veggies for me). We did our very best to eat the noodles with chopsticks (slurping up the noodles is not considered rude, and you don't cut or twirl them at all), and I think we did OK!
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We rode the train back to Shinjuku, and were more than a bit excited for a shower after we got back around 4:30. We spent the afternoon packing, napping, and sending a few emails, and then headed back out to our favorite area for exploring and dinner. We ended up going to two conveyor belt sushi restaurants (which our friend, Nori, tells us are called kaiten) because the first one didn't really have much that appealed to us. Unfortunately, I forgot to snap any photos of dinner, but we do have one from before (in our hotel lobby) and one of the green tea ice cream that I had afterwards while watching the women's Olympic Marathon (couldn't miss it, even from Japan!)
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Tomorrow, we head to Beijing, and two logistical things are worth noting: 1) If we don't post for a few days, don't worry! We know that Facebook is blocked by the government in China, and we have no idea if our random blog site will be blocked as well, so if we can't access it we will be sure to do a mega-post once we get to Thailand. 2) If you have been getting to our blog via Facebook, we won't be able to post the links for the next few days (assuming we can blog at all). Here's an easy solution - on the right side of the screen is a "Subscribe" button, which will email you every time we post.

While we're sad to leave Tokyo and loved every second of it, we're excited for the rest of our journey! Thanks for reading!
-Megan and Kevin

Posted by megandkev 04:42 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Change of Plans, Etiquette, and $39 grapes!

overcast 90 °F

Konbawa (good evening) from Tokyo! Our time here is 2/3 done, and we are still loving the city. Today started with another early morning, and we decided to hit the gym when we woke up, then relaxed in the room with coffee and breakfast ("fresh bread" for Kevin that was best described as a mix between angel food cake, a donut, and a slice of Wonderbread, and yogurt + chia seeds from home + my last orange from home for me). While running on the treadmill this morning, I noticed some looming dark clouds and wondered whether they would get in the way of our planned hike of Mt. Takao-san ... a quick look at weather.com confirmed that this might not be the best idea, so we swapped tomorrow's itinerary with today's. My Type-A self kind of panicked at first :), but I'm glad we did - it turned out to be a great day!

We started by walking to the Meiji Shrine. Our concierge told us it would take about 45 minutes, but it wasn't that long, and we got to explore some neighborhoods on the way.
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When we got to the Meiji Shrine, we were impressed by the beautiful green forests and huge entrance gates (torii), which mark the entrance to Shinto shrines and symbolize passing from the profane to the sacred. I knew from researching that you are expected to bow upon passing under the torii (to show respect), and it was fun to feel like we knew what we were doing!
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Because the park was so pretty, we took a very circuitous route to the actual Meiji Shrine, and saw a few interesting sites (like the below casks of sake, which are offered every year to the enshrined deities by members of the national Sake Brewers Association).
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After a while, we got to the actual Meiji Shrine, which was built in 1920 to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken (and rebuilt after fire in 1958). Both the Emperor and the Empress are enshrined here, and we learned that people particularly respect and honor Emperor Meiji because of his push to modernize Japan and adopt many Western practices. Empress Shoken was also very committed to women's education. When you face the place that they are buried, it is custom to bow once, clap twice, and bow once again. The guards were very strict about not taking pictures very close to the burial area, so here are a few of the surrounding shrine.
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Just as we were about to leave the shrine, we saw a ceremonial procession coming through the middle of the courtyard! We are still not sure what the ceremony was, but there was one person dressed in a large white outfit that seemed to be the center of attention. There were about 8 costumed people at the front, and about 25 people in plain, Western-style clothing following them. Don't worry - dozens of tourists were snapping pictures along with me, so I don't think I was being rude (or at least I really hope so!).
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After leaving the Meiji Shrine (through the wrong entrance thanks to me trying to follow 3 different Japanese-only maps), we decided to walk to Yoyogi Park. On our way, we passed the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center, which we thought might be an Olympic training facility, but we think is actually a youth education program. Yoyogi Park was another huge, well-maintained, very green park (it's SO nice that they have so many despite the city being jam-packed with people and buildings!), and it was fun to see several performing arts groups practicing (a capella, theater, and dance). By this time, we had been walking for several hours, and it was about 90 degrees, so excuse the sweatiness!
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After Yoyogi Park, we planned to walk to Shibuya Crossing, and passed a great music festival on the way (the National Stadium is in the background). We weren't sure exactly where the famous Shibuya Crossing was, but every single intersection seemed to be a madhouse of people going in every direction (the traffic lights turn red all at once, and people can cross the street in any direction, including diagonally, simultaneously). After a few, though, we came across one huge one that just must be "the real deal." The pictures don't do it justice - it was crazy!
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We stopped for lunch at a place that required us to ride a very small elevator up to the 6th floor, and then meander around some unmarked hallways before finding it. After several days with no fruits/ veggies on any menus, I was THRILLED to see "seasonal stir-fried vegetables" listed, and ordered it right away. It turned out to be bok choy + some unidentified vegetable (bamboo?), and it was just what I needed! Kevin got some gyoza and a bunch of side dishes, and really enjoyed it. While we were at lunch, the rain came pouring down, and stopped just as we were done - perfect!
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I want to take a second to mention a few things about etiquette in Japan. It is absolutely astonishing how kind everyone is, even when dealing with foreigners who don't speak a lick of Japanese and have to point to the menu to order things! Any time you enter any restaurant or store, you are greeted with a chorus of every employee in the place singing out "irasshaimase" (which basically means "I am here, ready to serve you!"). They also call something out when you leave, although we haven't quite been able to catch what it is. Waiters are very attentive to any requests in restaurants, and some customers seem to almost ignore them. We read that a waiter or a store employee is literally meant to serve their customer, and the customer is "king or queen," so some people take the liberty to treat the employees like servants. There is a very elaborate and explicit culture of bowing, the rules of which we don't quite understand (certain bows require your hands to be in different positions, and the length of bows indicates both the "hierarchy" of the bowers, as well as the intent of the message), so we generally try to give a little nod to people who help us out, and hope we're not offending anyone. Money (or credit cards) are also treated with respect, and you must use both hands to present them (and many stores use little dishes instead of handing the money directly to the employee, to show deference). Everyone smiles all the time, and I just can't stress enough how friendly everyone has been to us. Being in a country where we can't even make out any letters (symbols) has really made us appreciate seeing foreigners in the US, and I hope we help them out a bit more in the future!

Anyway, after lunch, we explored Shibuya a bit more - there is so much to look at just wandering around the streets!
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When we went down to the metro at Shibuya Station, we were greeted by an amazing surprise - a GIANT grocery store! It wasn't like an American grocery store, but rather there were hundreds of individual mini-stores, each one selling a different type of item (bakery goods, sweets, meat, fish, sushi, prepared foods, etc.) - I can't imagine doing my real shopping here, and having to go to several different stores to get what I needed. It was such a bustling place (with every employee, of course, calling out a greeting to everyone who passed, which was nearly constant!). I love exploring the foods of different cultures, and this was like paradise - I could have walked around for days (and we did stay for over an hour!). I got to sample some really interesting things, like crunchy dried mushrooms, several types of cakes, edamame, passion fruit, corn, and more. And perhaps most interestingly - we figured out why fruits and vegetables are nowhere to be found on menus in Tokyo ... produce is SO expensive!!!! If you can even believe it, this small package of grapes was about $39, and a single (large) peach was about $10! I had grand hopes of bringing back some fruit and veggie snacks to the hotel room, but settled for a $7 3-pack of oranges. Wow! (By the way, it's worth mentioning that, while Tokyo is a relatively expensive city in general, most things are not as crazy as the running shorts and produce that I've harped on. These are anomalies!) I also spotted what I believe is the Japanese version of the American Food Pyramid. This stuff is crazy interesting to me, so I could go on for hours, but I'll assume that not everyone is as interested as I am and stop for now!
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After Shibuya, we intended to go to the Mori Tower observatory and the Sony Building, but the day was still pretty overcast and Kev wasn't as interested in the Sony Building as I had thought he would be, so we passed on both. Instead, we went to another subway-station-grocery-store right by our hotel (I was hooked!) and explored for a while, before coming back and taking a quick nap and shower. We were completely beat - we estimate we covered over 6 miles and had been standing ALL day. It is actually pretty amazing to me that either of us could run 6 miles in a heartbeat, but walking for so long made us exhausted and sore - our feet/ ankles/ calves were killing!

Tonight, we headed back to the same area as last night (which we think is Kabuchiko) for dinner and more exploring. We had done so well in eating "authentic" Japanese food, but tonight we caved and hit an Italian restaurant. The good news is that we were the only white people in the place, so it made us feel a bit less like sell-outs! Kev demolished a tomato-basil-mozzarella pizza, and I got a mixed vegetable salad plus a side of vegetable stew topped with a poached egg, which was great! We were pretty tired, so we headed home, and on the way stopped at a convenience store, where I found this awesome-looking frozen dessert (that I assume was a wafer + green tea ice cream + maybe some of the bean curd we tried the other day?). Unfortunately, it was only OK, but don't worry, I also got some sweet potato cookies, which were pretty amazing!
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We're still looking at a 40% chance of rain for tomorrow, but we're planning to head to Mt. Takao-san anyway, unless it looks really bad in the morning. Stay tuned for our last day in Tokyo!
-Megan and Kevin

Posted by megandkev 05:03 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Tokyo in a Day

Hato Bus Tour, Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, Senso-ji Temple, Shinjuku Gyoen Park, Shinjuku

sunny 94 °F

Well, another fantastic day is in the books! It was HOT today, and we're still battling a bit of jet lag, but we crammed a lot into today and learned a lot more about Tokyo.

The day started when my wonderful husband woke up at 5am (ah!). Fortunately, he was nice enough to get us both coffee in return, and realized that Tokyo is DEAD at that early hour. Krispy Kreme and Starbucks didn't even open until 8am (but McDonald's pulled through for coffee). Around 7:15, we left our hotel to walk to the pick up for the Hato Bus Tour. I panicked a little bit when we couldn't find the bus at the designated location (since I had struggled a bit with the Japanese reservation system), but it was just a block away! We drove for about an hour through the city picking others up, and then headed to the Tokyo Tower. The Tokyo Tower was built in 1958 for TV, but is now used only as a backup after Tokyo changed to digital last year with the building of the taller Skytree Tower. The Tokyo Tower (333m) is taller than the Eiffel Tower (320m), but we "only" went to the 150m Observation Deck. The views were incredible, and give you some sense for how HUGE the city of Tokyo is - it spreads out as far as the eye can see in every direction!
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On the drive to the Imperial Palace, our Hato Bus Tour Guide, Mori-san ("Mr. Mori"), told us a lot about the history of Tokyo. Tokyo was formerly named Edo, and was the headquarters of the Shogun in the 17th-19th centuries. A Shogun is the "boss" of the Samurai warrior class (there were four classes at the time, Nobles, Samurais, and two lower classes made of mostly farmers), and the Shogun was responsible for military and political matters. In 1868, the Shogun system was abolished after 250 years, and a big revolution brought about a new government, which made Edo the capital (instead of Kyoto) and renamed it Tokyo (which means "the east capital").

The grounds of the Imperial Palace (which is the home of the Emperor and Empress) were huge - it is 250 acres! However, the Palace itself is closed to visitors (except January 2nd for the New Year and December 23rd for the Emperor's Birthday). You can see the guards manning the Palace gates, as well as the famous Nijubashi Bridge ("Double Bridge"), which holds the gate to the Imperial Palace. When we got back on the bus, Mori-san showed us a picture of the Palace, which you see in the photo below. We also learned that the Emperor is mainly ceremonial and diplomatic; the Prime Minister actually serves as the political leader.
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On the way to our next stop, we learned a bit more about Japan today. Japan, which the Japanese call "Nippon," meaning "the land of the rising sun," is made up of 7,000 islands, and in total is the size of either Montana, California, or Sweden. It spans about 3,000km from north to south. The population of Tokyo itself is over 12 million, and the greater metropolitan area holds over 32 million! Right now, the Japanese are celebrating "Obon," when many Japanese visit their relatives' graves and their home towns for the summer holidays.

Our next stop on the bus tour was the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. This temple was originally built in the 600s, after two brothers went fishing and pulled out a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon, a Buddhist river goddess. The village headman converted to Buddhism and built the temple in honor. Buddhism was actually brought to Japan from India in the 6th century, and is not exclusive with Shinto, the native Japanese religion. The Senso-ji Temple was actually a series of buildings and statues, and looked exactly how I would picture a traditional Japanese temple. It was really beautiful and welcoming! There were tons of people there, and a lot to look at. One of my favorite attractions was getting to shake a big silver container until a stick came out (similar to a chopstick). You had to match the Japanese symbol on the stick that came out to a small drawer with the same symbol, and then pull your fortune out of the drawer! A few highlights from mine: "Encourage yourself and you will be fortunate" ... "Building a house ... will not cause you any trouble" (I interpret this as buying a house!) ... "It is good to make a trip" ... "Both marriage and employment are good."
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In the midst of our exploring, we stopped to mimic some statues, and have a Green Tea bun. I had read about how a traditional Japanese breakfast may be a sweet bun stuffed with bean curd, and I wanted to try one, so we did! It was actually great, and even Kevin liked it! We may have to get some tomorrow!
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Our tour finally drove through the Ginza shopping area, the Akihabara electronics area, and wound up at the Tokyo Station. We wanted to grab lunch along a small strip of 10 or so restaurants in the middle of several office buildings. The menus didn't have words, but they all had pictures, so we figured we'd be fine ...
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...until we got inside and realized we were supposed to order at this machine with only Japanese characters! Luckily, a very nice waitress helped us out. Kevin got a chicken, egg, and rice dish, and I got a side salad, miso soup, and a side order of salmon.
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We got into Tokyo station to head to the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden, and managed to navigate the somewhat-confusing Metro fairly well! The Garden itself was beautiful, and VERY empty - we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves! We walked around and explored various parts of the garden, which we really enjoyed.
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At this point, it was HOT, and we had been walking around all day, so after our 20 minute walk back "home," we wanted to just quickly grab some workout shorts for me and get back to the hotel to cool down. Well ... easier said than done! Uniqlo's only women's work out wear was LONG terry cloth pants, which would not work for running in 90+ degree temperatures. We headed to a department store, where the only women's running shorts cost more than $120!! Working out is very important to me, and I don't want to stress too much over money on vacation, but that was just ridiculous. Kevin and I were both hot, tired, and not in the best moods, so my frustration over leaving my shorts at home wasn't helping! Finally I bought some $13 men's shorts to tide me over until we could find more ... ladies, I know you're jealous, I'll auction them off to highest bidder upon returning stateside :).
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Once we got back, we both worked out (and let me tell you, long shorts make you even hotter! I don't know how guys stand it!) at the hotel's small gym. We headed back out to a sports store which claimed to have 5 stories of sporting goods ... but you guessed it, no shorts. Well, they did have running shorts, but they were $60+, and I couldn't stand to buy the several pairs I'll need for this 27 day trip. I settled for some men's bike shorts (in the baseball section), and we'll keep looking. I'll try to stop boring you with the details, though!

At night, we walked around another part of Shinjuku. It was packed with people, and we think the crowd tonight was much younger and having more fun. Part of that, of course, is that it's Friday night, but it also may be the location. We had a great time people watching, walking around, and settled on another conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Again, this one was great, and such a fun experience. The fish is so great here! (Although, I did comment to Kevin that aside from the apple I had for breakfast that I brought from the US, and the romaine lettuce I had for lunch and dinner tonight, I haven't had a fruit or vegetable since we've been here, which is hard to believe for me! The Japanese are SO healthy, and there are very few overweight people in Tokyo, but I'm not sure how they get by without the tons of produce that I'm used to!). After a bit more walking around, we headed back to the hotel. Kevin's been sleeping for a while, so I'm rushing to hit the hay as well, but thanks for reading! We have another exciting day planned for tomorrow, so stay tuned!
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-Megan and Kevin

Posted by megandkev 05:58 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

The 36-hour first day!

Arrival in Tokyo

sunny 87 °F

We made it to Tokyo in one piece and our first day has been great! It's been a long one, so I'm not promising the best blog entry ever written, but I'll do my best to recap.

We woke up at 5am to get in a run before leaving for the airport. After hitting a snag in our homebuying process last night, packing was a bit of a whirlwind, but we threw what we could in some suitcases, cleaned out the fridge, double-checked our passports, and locked the door behind us. (After unpacking tonight, I realized that I missed the pile of running shorts that I laid out, which made me angry at myself for a few minutes before I got a grip and realized that if that's the worst thing that happened, we're all good! I've always wanted to buy something at Uniqlo anyway, after all those retail case studies!).

We boarded the flight and were lucky enough to be sitting in business class (consulting miles paying off yet again!). It's worth noting with the upcoming pictures that we are obviously NOT running a fashion blog here :). (And we're not running a healthy living blog, yet, although hopefully I will in the future!)
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The 13-hour flight passed relatively uneventfully. We were quickly served lunch (salad for both, chicken with purple potatoes and vegetables for Kev, shrimp and scallops with ratatouille for me - I know, who orders seafood on a plane? But it wasn't bad!, chocolate ice cream for Kevin, and a pretty measly fruit plate for me, which I supplemented with some strawberries from home that I just couldn't throw away - thanks, Mom!). Kev tried some wine to make him go to sleep (which didn't work so well). Neither of us slept for more than an hour the entire time, but we were definitely relaxing - reading for me, watching The O.C. (I should say that's for me to prevent Kev the embarrassment of liking teenage girl shows, but ...), doing a little bit of health coaching coursework, and generally entertaining ourselves as best as possible for 13 hours.
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Before landing, we got another meal - Kev got pizza, which had mushrooms so he just ate the crust, and I just went for the side salad, along with my tofu and spinach wrap from home (that, yes, had been unrefrigerated for 14 hours by this time, oops).
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When we got off the plane, I was so excited to take a picture of the "Welcome to Japan!" sign, and I happily snapped away for 2 seconds before a security guard frantically ran across the room, screaming (Japanese) in my face and waving his arms. "NO PICTURE!!" he finally said - oops again.
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Miraculously, the bus I had planned to take left at exactly the time we expected, and took us right to our hotel (in Shinjuku, the central area of a Tokyo, about a 50-minute ride from the airport). The bus employees had to bow to the bus every time we left a station, just one of many examples of how polite they are here. The ride was pretty fun, and it was great to see so much of Tokyo so quickly. We were amazed at how dense it is - every building is thiiiis close to the one next to it, and there are people ALL over! We were also surprised that the river system is so interspersed into the city, and how clean and well-maintained the city is! Asia_Day_1_and_2_019.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_023.jpg

Our hotel room is on the 29th floor overlooking the city. Here are just a few of the great views!
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We made the mistake of trying for a 45-minute nap as we were pretty exhausted by this point ... but neither of us could sleep for the first 20, and then we crashed hard for the last 25, making it hard to get up. We made it though, and spent the evening exploring Shinjuku. There is SO much to look at, and people milling all over the place. The convenience stores are especially overwhelming - there are signs, colors, and products in every inch of the place, and yet people march right on in and pick out what they need just as I would at a CVS. On a related note, I certainly don't mean to be insensitive, but we were actually surprised how homogenous Tokyo is - we expected more of a melting pot like New York City, but we very clearly stood out, and saw only a small handful of non-Asians the entire evening.
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After walking up and down several streets, we decided to look for a place to eat. We thought sushi would be a logical option, and tried to look at menus ... but realized that there was very little English, and very few pictures. I had read about "conveyor belt sushi," and was dying to try the experience, so when we came across a place that said "Sushi Go-Round Restaurant," we jumped. What a great choice! The restaurant was small and probably sat 15-20 people around a large station where the chefs prepared sushi and put it directly on a rotating conveyor belt. Each plate was labeled with a price, so you could look at the sushi as it passed and grab what you wanted. Everyone there was a local who clearly knew what they were doing, so we had to ask for a bit of help from the waitstaff (e.g. how to make the green tea using powder and a personal hot water spout at your place at the bar). We had some great tuna rolls, excellent tuna nigiri, and also got a bit adventurous. I tried the cuttlefish (we did get a "menu" about halfway through, although only some of the items were on the menu), and the texture was far too much for me to handle. I also tried clam miso soup! I made myself suck down 2 clams (for bravery points!) before just drinking the soup (which the waitress informed me was done straight from the bowl after I made a sign indicating that I'd like a spoon - oops one more time!) It was a great first meal in Tokyo and we already got to check something off our bucket list! Asia_Day_1_and_2_055.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_047.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_052.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_048.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_050.jpgAsia_Day_1_and_2_053.jpg

We explored for a bit longer before returning to our hotel (to great views!). We are going to crash hard tonight, and hopefully get in a solid 8 hours of sleep before the full day that we have planned for tomorrow!
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Stay tuned for some excitement, and thanks for following!!
-Megan and Kevin

Posted by megandkev 04:39 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

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