Trip Start Jul 09, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Flag of Japan  ,
Monday, July 9, 2007

  The standard international maximum for bags is around 40lbs.  As a precaution, we did a quick check to see where our bags weighed-in.  My bag was a limit-pushing 35lbs, and Phil's bag weighed a whopping 47lbs.  Lucky we don't encounter the weight restriction until South Korea.  The day before we left, there was a major role-reversal in trip-planning and preparation.  I became completely lethargic, and chose to watch Sex and the City re-runs rather than help poor Phil with last minute packing.  I rationalized my selfishness and apathy by a necessary one last dose of American culture for closure. 
Day 1- The Flight (or should I say flights)!
  After a beautiful drive to JFK with dad, Phil and I met Carole (Phil's sister) at the terminal.  We were soon informed that we were not seated together on the first portion of our direct flight to L.A.  As I sat in the waiting area still complaining about our seating situation, a happy Aussie man began telling us of his month-long vacation across America that had just come to a close.  As he explained that he was escorting a group of teenagers who have overcome cancer, I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I vowed from then on to be grateful for this trip, and to stop being petty.  The plane rides were extremely uneventful thanks to a couple of Xanax and blow-up neck pillows. 
Day 2 - Arrive in Tokyo
  Our first experience in Tokyo was a pleasant one.  We found the Keisei line easily and spoke with a very friendly Airport employee on his way home.  The train was so smooth and sparkling clean (until we spilled our iced tea all over the floor).  We found our hostel in Asakusa (the Khaosan Tokyo Annex) with little incident.  The hostel was in a very quiet, completely residential part of Tokyo (across the river).  You are required to take off your shoes after entering, but the stairs have sharp metal gratings across the top which make it an unpleasant four-story climb.  We anticipated the room to be small, but nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to experience.  Our room housed one set of bunk beds, which I believe were the exact same dimensions as the room itself. 
  A free drink for each (of age) guest of the hostel was awarded at the Smile Guesthouse a few blocks away.  We immediately headed there and sucked down our first (or at least my first) authentic sake.  It was served in a tall shot glass inside a short square box.   I would also encounter my first authentic Japanese bathroom system at the Smile Café.  At first glance the bathroom seemed normal.  There was a sink and mirror followed by a row of stalls.  The first stall opened to what looked like a urinal built into the floor.  I hoped that the second door would prove to be a better choice.  And it was !  A perfect "western toilet" awaited me.  A sink was built into the back portion of the toilet (on top).  And as you flush, water flows from this sink.  I had a hard time using this sink (somehow feeling that the same water from the toilet was being sent through the faucet).  Lucky for me, there was also a sink directly across from the toilet as well.  After asking the bartender why there were three sinks in the bathroom, he erupted into laughter.  I never got an answer to that question.
Phil's Food Spot:
  Our first meal was in downtown Asakusa, a chain restaurant called Doma Doma.  Coincidentally, we had read about them online.  It was housed in a ten story building which showcased a different restaurant and cuisine on each floor.  In our lethargic state it was just what the doctor ordered.   Modern, hip, cheery waiters with a menu full of pictures that covered most Japanese cuisines.  Think Japanese Fridays but 50x better.   We shared deep fried pig belly squares (Barry, are you reading?) which were simply battered and fried to perfection.  Scallion, sprout dumplings came on sizzling cast iron and burst with a freshness quality that said "you're in Japan now".   Chitterling hot pot followed.  I was unimpressed with the cuts but the sauce and mixed vegetables were very good.  Finally the menu offered an item titled "surprise" with a picture of a covered dish.  Of course we had to try it. Tonight's surprise was very tender dark meat chicken with onions and sprouts over rice in an egg-teriyaki like sauce.  Hardly a fear-factor entry but very, very good.  I would recommend Doma Doma.  (Just a note, the chicken we've sampled so far has been simply excellent.  The quality, be it organic, local or what have you, is unsurpassed).
Day 3 - The Cash Disaster L
  Our first night's sleep (if you could call it that), was interrupted by extremely loud French teenagers who dominated our entire floor.  Between the noise and the time difference, we were unable to sleep past 4:30am.  Phil and I had the bright idea to get up and head to the Tsukiji market (fish market).  We showered in the shared shower on our floor.  Good water pressure and large shower room, but the shower would shut off every 15 seconds, and you must push a button to restart it (this kinda sucks when you have soap in your eyes).  We were showered and out on the road by 5:30.  Just a quick run to the ATM (we had to use all of our cash to pay for the room) and we would take the train to the market.  Well, the whole "grabbing cash thing" turned out to be a huge mess.  We were able to find several ATMs, at 7-11's and such, but none accepted foreign ATM cards.  Between the two of us, we have four ATM cards, and a half-dozen credit cards.  For some crazy reason, we felt the need to try each one of our cards at each ATM (just in case).  They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Well, if we were being watched, both Phil and I would have been immediately committed. 
  After walking several miles, and trying about fifteen different ATM machines, we finally resolved that we would have to wait until the Post Office opened (at 9:00am).  Most of the banks didn't open until 10:00am (what happened to that crazy Japanese work ethic??)  By 7:45 we were starving and decided to eat at the only place that was a) open, and b) would accept American credit card.  And that was Denny's!  I must say that I could not have felt any worse for Phil.  Here he is expecting to eat at the foodie equivalent to Disney world (the fish market), and he is stuck having his first Japanese breakfast at Denny's.  The food actually turned out quite good, and the presentation was shocking.  My sunny-side up egg was beautiful and perfectly (barely) cooked.  I had a side of bacon and sausage (the freshest best cuts of meat that I've ever had for breakfast).  The meal came with miso soup and fermented soy beans (miso=great, beans=not so much).  Phil had a potato hash looking concoction that he said was fantastic but the portion was so small. 
  Denny's was conveniently located across from one of the major tourist destinations in the area- the Asakusajinja Shrine.  We walked through the long market area, and asked Buddha for some luck on the trip (and some cash).   It was finally time for the Post Office to open!  The site of money being spit out of the machine rather than a receipt written in Japanese, was more beautiful than anything I thought I would see in Asia.  With money in hand, we were ready to start touristing.  Our first stop was Rock Flower Road, or as I like to call it- Gamblers Row!  There were rows of what looked like huge arcades with gads of people waiting outside them.  I finally saw a sign that said Pachinko, and we knew what we were seeing.  I'm starting to wonder if they have purposefully delayed the opening of businesses to allow the Japanese to "invest in the economy" through gambling before facing the day of work. 
  Our next destination was Kappabashi.  This road is famous for the stores that sell all of the plastic food that you see in the windows of the restaurants.  It was certainly a trip.  They had sushi and sashimi flash drives!!  The other oddity that we saw all over Kappabashi was groups of babies being pushed around in carts.  The day care centers in the neighborhood would walk the children up and down the street in what looked like playpens on wheels (with up to seven babies holding onto the sides).
  We then walked to Ueno, and through the park that housed the National Tokyo Museum. The museum was fine, but we hoped to find older stuff.  At first all of the paintings and sculptures were from the 17th and 18th century.  We finally found the old section, and marveled at the weapons and jewelry from 3,000 b.c. 
  By now we have realized that we are visiting Japan in their rainy season.  The rain didn't stop our tour of the park, though.  We walked through a little Japanese Garden with rows of little houses that looked like the town in Memoirs of a Geisha.  In Ueno we tried to use our Japanese phrasebook to find the best ramen in town.  We ended up at a vending machine restaurant (out of desperation) and managed to order with the help of a very sweet girl from Hong Kong. 
 We shared two ramens.  One hot with mixed vegetable tempura, egg and pickles on the side (simple, very good).  The other served cold (we didn't know) with the same vegetable tempura, boiled egg and pickles on the side was a bit disappointing as the noodles seemed a bit starchy outside of the broth.  Both dishes came out to about 1,000 Y (less than $10) 
  We took the train back to the Hostel around 5:00pm, and decided to take a quick nap (worst thing to do for jetlag). 
Day 4 - Tsukiji, Finally!
   We arrived at Tsukiji market a little after 7:00am (we were able to sleep until 5:00am this morning), and were warned by an American couple to "watch out for the trucks"!  As New Yorkers, we sort of laughed the couple off.  We knew all about crazy traffic.  Right?  The market, and all of the surrounding paths are filled with trucks and fork-lift-like carts traveling around 30 mph, and stopping for nobody.  We were certainly put in our place, and will no longer doubt fellow-tourist advice.  The market was like nothing I have ever seen.  Big fish and small fish, blue fish and still moving fish.  I think I know where Dr. Seuss got his inspiration.  I'll let Phil describe the market better in his food section, because it went way over my head.
 "Eye popping", "jaw dropping" are just a couple ways to explain the massiveness of this place.  The Tsukiji Fish Market exceeds all expectations.  Picture every sea creature you know or tasted and add 10,000 new ones.  Countless rows of sellers and buyers negotiating, yelling, arguing, laughing, moving product in every direction.  A controlled chaos which leads to feeding millions in Japan and around the world.  It became apparent, quickly, that big eye tuna is the main game.  It seemed like every other stall featured the chubby, oval creatures.  We saw specimens ranging from 20 to 300 lbs.  Clearly they're obsessed.  It's hard to believe that the oceans can continue to offer these massive quantities for years to come.  Time will tell.  After a brief tour we were ready to sample the goods.  Our friend, Larry Lee, suggested Daiwa, a tiny two sided sushi bar only which is so cramped the stools touch each other.  We were lucky to find only 15 people or so ahead of us.  (It was 8:00am) We were tucked in the corner within twenty minutes and greeted by a smiling chef.  He suggested we start with the standard sushi assortment which normally I would have balked at but sounded like a good idea considering the language barrier and the mob of hungry co-eaters awaiting.  
 A complimentary miso soup with tiny (Manila?) clams the size of dimes appeared before us. Excellent.  Our first piece was tuna, not white or fatty, just regular tuna which I normally don't order due to its lack of flavor.  It was easily one of the best pieces of sushi I've ever eaten.  It had a velvety texture and a flavor associated to no tuna I've had previously. The perfect beginning.  Every other piece was in a class of its own.  From sea urchin, to hamachi, ikura, tile fish, unagi, awaogi (giant clam?) and a couple others, we paused after each piece to savor the best sushi we've ever eaten.  Tiny Daiwa, we will never forget your mega sized, fresh flavors.   
 After the market we visited the Hama Rikyu Gardens next door.  We would not recommend this place!  The water channels, which supposedly run through the gardens, were nothing but very smelly muddy banks.
  Shinjuku was the next stop (we were trying to visit all of the recommended sections in the Tokyo piece of the Lonely Planet).  We passed through the seedy DVD area to arrive on a busy street where we grabbed a melon-vanilla ice cream float, and people-watched.  A few prostitutes, some rockers, and a drunk businessman or two later we moved on to Government Building #2.  The observation deck from the building would have proved to be a wondrous site, had it not been for the heavy rains and ¼ mile visibility. 
  The rest of the night was uneventful.  Phil was crabby because he was hungry, we ate some Ramon, grabbed our free drink from the Smile Café, and went to bed. 
Day 5 - Michelle's Day!
  I woke up crying this morning because Phil asks too many questions (and nobody speaks English, so they can't even answer them), and he spends too much time with the maps.  I'm not sure if it was appeasement or a dare, but he put me in charge today!  We were up quite early again, and brought our clothes to the neighboring laundry mat.  While waiting for the clothes, we found an adorable little local joint for some breakfast.  You can't get more fresh or homemade than this.  We had a packet of brown rice with shitake, and an amazing roasted pork roll.  We took a chance on this green tea dessert thing.  But, it looked like soap and tasted like chalk.  The whole meal cost 400 yen (around $3).
  Well, I was in charge and my first feat, the subway, proved to be a little more difficult than expected (but totally not my fault).  We must have been on some kind of express line, because they missed our stop.  It made me look like an idiot (and I'm sure Phil was reveling).  We finally (after four changes) arrived at Yoyogi-koen park.  The park wasn't great, but we were able to see a cool photo-shoot with crazy costumes.  We were trying to get to the Meiji-jinju shrine (of course I was leading), and we got a bit lost.  This time it was my fault.  We found the shrine with the help of some really sweet kids.  And guess what!  There was a wedding going on at the shrine!!  It was beautiful, and we caught it in perfect time! 
  Shibuya was great!  The signs alone could not be beat.  The streets are filled with trendy clothing shops with the craziest American names:  Bestlip, Rosebullet, Aqua girl on the street...  We enjoyed looking at the cool buildings and shops, but we were on a mission- Katsu (fried pork).  Raji (our Japanese resource) recommended a Katsu place, Maisen, above the Shibuya station.  Once again, I will let Phil do the food description, because there is no way I could do justice to the awesomeness that we had experienced
When you think of deep fried food "delicacy" doesn't usually come to mind.  Maisen's pork katsu dispels that thought process.  The batter ingredients, length of deep frying, tenderness and quality of pork make theirs excellent.  We shared an egg bowl topped with the pork over rice and a sampler with shrimp and shrimp croquette accompanied by shredded cabbage, rice and pickles.  So good.  We got up to pay and exit and were ushered back to our table to enjoy complimentary grapefruit sorbet-gelato.  Also above par.   
  We walked through this crazy intersection (hundreds of people crossing four different ways at the same time) on the way to Doegenzaga.  At the very top of the hill was the one tourist site I have been dying to see- Love Hill Hotels.  They have tons of themed "love hotels", which include Medieval, French, Mediterranean, Chicago (as in the musical), and Oceanic.  I wish I could have seen more than just the outside of the hotels, but alas I was able to check it off the list.  A quick (hour long) visit to quaint bar on the way to the station, and we were back at the hostel.  Another treacherous nap had us both up at 3:00 in the morning listening to a crazy kiwi (New Zealander) describe his six months through S.E. Asia.  I'm not sure if it was the Thai "girlie-boy" story, or the Vietnamese parasitic worm in the foot story, but we needed to sleep.  It would be an early morning on the bullet train, and then on to Osaka!!
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