On September 29th, Dan and I headed out into a rainstorm in search of greener pastures. When we went on our honeymoon I think I had more of a say in where we went and what we did, so when planning our next big trip, I wanted it to be something Dan had always dreamed of. I asked him off the cuff one day, "If you could go anywhere in the world, right now, where would you go?" He responded almost immediately, "Japan." It was clear from the speed of his response that this HAD to be our next vacation spot. I was a little nervous. Japan was never some place that jumped out at me when I was thinking about travel. But, I knew Dan was super excited about going, and I was keen to try out something new. I could never have anticipated that this would prove to be the best trip I had ever taken.
Although we are nowhere near having the ability to travel first class on a 13-hour flight, we did have the option to upgrade our seats for some extra legroom. It was only a few hundred dollars between the two of us, and it was some of the best money we ever spent. We booked the emergency exit row, and it felt like first class! I slept so peacefully throughout most of the flight, something that almost never happens. Being able to stretch out like that made, what could have been a rough trip, an absolute delight.
Another one of the best parts of the plane journey was that around 8 hours into the flight and after dinner, they served a snack of hot cup-of-noodles. Since "Cup of Noodles" originates in Japan, it was a nice touch to making the flight that much more personalised to the country we were about to enter.
Whenever I wasn't sleeping, I was going over my Japanese phrase book. I had spent a few months before we left, trying to learn the basics as well as a few characters in Kanji that would come in handy. I loved the time I spent learning the language. Japanese is so beautiful, but I only just grazed the surface. I was thrilled with how much I was able to retain and even how even speaking a few words would bring huge smiles to people's faces I met. It was definitely worth the time I put into it.
We arrived in Tokyo at 2 in the afternoon, right on time, despite some small delays getting out of Toronto. The sun was shining, and the weather was relatively warm for the late afternoon, a complete 180 from the weather when we left Toronto. We breezed through security and without any bags to pick up, thankfully we packed only carry-on bags, we were able to head straight away to find our transportation into the city.
The signage in the airport was phenomenal. Never had we been anywhere that had easier to follow directions. There were both English and Japanese characters as well as some stellar informational design elements which made navigating the airport a breeze. We quickly found the kiosks where we could buy tickets for the Airport Limousine service that would take us directly to the metro station opposite our hotel. We could have travelled on the subway system, but since this was a direct route, we opted to go for it. Seemed easier and being fresh into a city where we didn't speak the language, it felt like the right option for easing into things.
We made our way outside the airport and down to where the buses picked up their passengers. These buses took people to all sorts of different areas of the city and were such a great service that was offered. Unfoteunely, the buses didn't run too frequently, so we had to wait for a little over an hour before the bus going to our area arrived. While we waited, we watched the many different buses pull in, fill up with passengers and then head out on their way. Before the buses left, the employees would gently bow towards the bus. They weren't bowing to the bus, but towards the people inside of it. In Japan, a deeper bow indicates respect. It was so interesting to see the amount of respect the employees had towards the people coming into their city.
We passed the time exploring the airport and checking out our first Japanese Vending machines!!! It might seem silly, especially to Japanese people for whom these are ubiquitous, but I'm obsessed. Japan is the mecca of vending machines. I am fascinated with the way they work, the look of them, and especially the unique ones. Old, new, big and small and full of all sorts of goodies. The ones we found at the airport were relatively standard, full of sodas and juices, but it was still exciting to put in my first bill and watch the mechanical arm reach out at the iced tea I had selected. There were dozens of different cold drinks to choose from and seeing as I couldn't read most of the labels, I just picked something completely random and was pleasantly surprised. This would prove to be one of my favourite games throughout the trip, trying random drinks from vending machines all over the country, and seeing what surprises were found under the cap. For the most part, you could surmise what kind of drink it was, but you'd be amazed at how many different flavours and varieties of tea there was!
At exactly the time indicated on our ticket, our bus arrived. We gave the woman at the gate our luggage and got onto the bus. It was impeccably clean and completely silent. By this time, since it was the fall, the night has already started to creep up on the city. We could see in the distance the lights of the city begin to illuminate the sky. The bus drove off promptly after picking everyone up and I dozed off a bit as we drove off. I woke up as I felt the bus begin to slow down. We had entered the central part of the city and rush hour traffic was in full force. I brushed the sleep out of my eyes and started to squint out the window, trying to study the city unfolding before me. The enormity of neon lights was the first thing that caught my eye. Everything seemed to light up, sparkle and shine, as we drove through the tiny streets and alleys of Tokyo.
After a slow slog into the city, we arrived in Akihabara. Akihabara is one of many districts in Tokyo. The word Akihabara means "autumn leaf field" which comes from the fact that a fire destroyed the area in 1869 and after that, a shrine was built in honour of the firefighting deity "Akiba". Akihabara is also known as 'Electric Town'. After WWII there was a post-war ban on electronics, but Akibahara sold them on mass via the black market. If you needed a piece of new technology, the backstreets of Akihabara was the place to go. These days, Akibahara is still known for its vast electronic stores but also has become home to "otaku" culture. Otaku means "a young person who is obsessed with computers to the detriment of their social skills". But colloquially it means "nerd culture". Therefore, in Akihabara, you'll find some of the best video game, anime and manga shops the city has to offer. Maid cafes are also rampant, and even while driving in, we could see dozens of young women, dressed up in maid costumes, handing out flyers on the street to young, shy, Japanese boys.
After getting off the bus at Akihabara station, we walked right across the street to find our hotel. The staff at the hotel didn't speak much English, and we didn't speak much Japanese. But they were incredibly helpful and got us checked quick enough with a little bit of non-verbal communication. We picked up our portable wifi device which was waiting for us at the desk and headed up to our room. I was pretty anxious about the size of the room, I can get a little claustrophobic and was worried it would be unbearably small. Thankful, it was perfect. It was definitely on the small side, but bigger than expected. The bed, on the other hand, was a little on the hard side. This is something I might have been able to fix, by asking for a "western style bed" upon check-in. But considering the language barrier problems we had on the way in, we thought it was best just to leave it, and let the bed be another part of the cultural experience. Along with a double bed, there was a humidified, a small tv, a lovely bathroom - with a tub! -, and a set of traditional Japanese pyjamas and slipper for both of us.
After unpacking a few things, we thought to fight the jetlag we needed to get out and walk around for a bit, making sure we didn't just fall right asleep at 5 pm. There was a slight chill in the air, and we felt a hot bowl of steaming ramen was the perfect antidote to fight off any bugs we might have picked up on the plane.
Dan got the portable wifi working (which is a must have if you're travelling around Japan) and searched for the nearest Ramen shop within a few minutes of our location. We found one with great reviews and headed on over. We crossed over the river which ran behind out hotel and walked along the quiet cobblestone streets. There was an overwhelming sense of peace as we walked, we were only steps from the busy, bright and bustling main road, but along this side street, it felt like we were the only two people in the world.
We arrived at the restaurant a little before the rush, so we only had to wait in line a few minutes before we were seated. We were thankful for the small wait as it gave us time to figure out how to order. This restaurant had, as many in Japan do, a vending machine kiosk for ordering. At the front of the restaurant, you put your money into the slot and pressed the meal item you wanted to eat. Out a small slot at the base of the vending machine came a little paper ticket with your order printed on it, in Kanji of course. Then all you had to do once inside, was give the ticket to the chef, and he would prepare the meal as indicated. This might seem strange, but it's an ingenious way to cut down on staff and allow the chefs, who also act as the waiter and server, to get your order without ever having to touch dirty money. I had thoroughly researched this process so thought I'd be a pro. Dan wanted the pork ramen, and I was desperate for something spicy. So I searched the machine for "spicy ramen", but didn't find it listed. All I saw was "spicy" so I figured that was it and clicked that button along with Dan's "pork ramen". When an employee came to seat us, he noticed my ticket and started to shake his head. It was evident I had ordered something wrong. He was so sweet and explained, without using many words, that I had ordered just an add-on, and needed to order the base of the ramen first. He scuttled away and brought me back change and helped me re-order. He was so sweet about it never made me feel bad, it was the first of many kind encounters we would have along our journey.
After figuring out our orders, we were seated inside. The walls were painted jet black, and the ceiling was decorated with bright red Japanese Gigaku masks. These masks were traditionally used in the theatre to represent the faces of superhumans, demons, lions and birds. Used here, they gave a dramatic flourish to the otherwise simple restaurant decor. Everyone sat around the "L" shaped counter, looking into the kitchen and the cooks preparing everyone's order. On the table in front of us was everything we would need to eat our ramen. A tin full of chopsticks, our personal jug of water, a hot tap for green tea and a big bib so as to not sully our shirts. Which was a blessing for me since I'm not a dainty eater....
My favourite part of the experience was watching the cooks at work. They Seamlessly filled bowl after bowl with it's required ingredients, making even the simplest dish look like a work of art. Adding different combinations of ingredients to create a myriad to dishes.
The ramen itself was the best I've ever had in my life. Hands down, no competition. The broth was so rich it almost takes like cream. The pork was cooked perfectly, and even the greens just seemed to pop with flavour in my mouth. The noodles were incredibly fresh, and that was by far, the biggest difference from all the ramen I've had before. Maybe it was just because it was the dish on our first but this was also my favourite ramen of all the ones we had in Japan.
After thoroughly filling up on hot, delicious soup, we needed to walk off our enormous meal. After generously thanking the chefs, we headed off into the night to explore the streets of Akihabara. The corporate businesses were closed for the evening, and the sidewalks were clamouring with young teens playing arcade games, trading cards and giggling nervously at the "maids" lining the streets. "Salarymen" in white button-ups and black slacks were just getting their night started and gregariously piled into bars, singing along loudly to whatever K-Pop was blaring on the radio inside.
The main street for people watching is Chuo Dori. It's the one with all those bright and colourful buildings lining the street. Upon entering Chuo Dori, we passed the "Radio Center" where Akihabara got its name 'electric town’ after WWII. These days, Radio Center still sells open boxes of electronics and replacement parts for virtually anything you can think of. But unlike after WWII, these stores are now hidden amongst Retro Gaming centres and modern Japanese arcades.
As we strolled down the street, we stopped into the central metro station to buy our 'Suica' cards. These were metro passes you load up with money which you can swipe when entering and exiting any metro station and your fare will automatically be calculated. This makes it so simple to travel since the Japanese subway system requires you to pay different fares for different distances. Armed with these cards, we knew we'd be ready to hop on the metro the next day without fighting the morning rush of traffic.
After picking up our Suica cards, we decided to venture into 'Taito Station' arcade! Inside this behemoth of a building were six floors of fun, each one offering up something different. The first floor of most arcades consists of UFO catcher machines while the upper floors each have different sets of video games to play with friends or just on your own. Some levels felt more like casinos, full of smoker playing digital slots. Others were complete with retro arcade games and classic fighters.
While exploring the different floors, we found these blue and white cubicles where you could sit inside what looked like a spaceship and play a video game where the screens surrounded you. The chairs inside swivelled around to the movement of the game making it feel all the more immersive.
But it was the retro games that we were really interested in. Down in the basement we found a simulated Mario cart game where you got to sit in a little cart and use real peddles and steering wheels to race. We battled against each other, and of course, I lost. But it was surprisingly close for someone who actually can't drive in real life.
My favourite part these games were the little photos they took of you before the race started. We each picked our character and the machine would take our picture, embedded onto the character we picked to play as. Dan made a pretty cute Bowser.
Inside the arcades, there were always these drink stations. I suppose people often stay here for hours upon hours so having some refreshments on hand is clearly top priority. But NON-FREE!
After playing around downstairs for a bit, we headed back to the main floor to try our hand at the UFO catcher machines. These seemed rigged for you to lose but they were still a lot of fun to play. It was always a very dramatic moment when Dan almost had the prize in his grasp, and at the last moment, it would fall back to the ground. These crane machines are only 100 yen per try, and the prizes range from anime merchandise, Japanese snacks, stuffed Pokemon toys and even random products like giant portable gaming machines.
There were so many cute stuffed animals in those machines; it was hard to resists at least giving one or two a try.
Although jet lag was starting to kick in, we couldn't leave without trying the Japanese photo booths in the basement. Down in the depths of the building, there were dozens of these boxes, each a little bit different, offering up a unique experience. Inside, you put your money into a small slot, and the touch screen would direct you to your green screen photo booth. Unlike photo booths you find in North American, where you step in and just take your picture, these use a green screen. Once you finish your photoshoot, you walk into another booth and get to decorate, alter, add filters and text to all the photos you took. Then, they take all the photos you've edited and create a collage that prints out for your to keep.
Here was the first one we took! This photo booth was most likely more for the ladies since it gave you many options for "beautifying" your face! It was great fun trying out different poses and spending as much time as we were allowed decorating the photos.
The other thing we found inside (and out) of all the arcades were more vending machines! Seeing them at night was a treat as they lit up the night and blinked incessantly, like some sort of manic video game.
As we wandered, we saw again, and again these fake food models on display in all the restaurant windows. They were so lifelike you'd swear they were the real thing. These models are big business in Japan, and every piece is hand painted for maximum realism. They were very helpful for foreigners since its so simple to just be able to point to whatever you wanted to order.
After wandering for awhile, we found ourselves at the Akihabara Gachapon shop. I had been looking forward to this place. Gachapon refers to vending machine dispensed capsule toys. The word 'Gachapon' is onomatopoeia for the sound of the crank on a toy vending machine. These devices each contain different sets of toys, and you never know which item from the set you're going to receive. Most sets include some rare toys which become sought after collector items. The toys change pretty often, so there's always something new to buy.
My inner child (and lets face it, outter adult) was immediately drawn to all the 'Sailor Moon' sets. I decided to go with the most expensive machine where you could win one of 5 different Sailor scout wands. I got Sailor Jupiter's - my favourite Sailor Scout - and had a lot of fun back at the hotel putting it together. There were toy sets of little cats sitting on rice cookers, tiny replicas of vintage buckets, Pokemon cookie toys and lots of different Japanese charcters often themed along with the next holiday. Therefore we saw so many different Halloween themed toys sets, I even got a tiny plastic Mickey in the shape of ghost. The store was closing, so we couldn't spend too much more time exploring, but it was so cool to see just how many of these machines were crammed into one little shop.
Even though our heads were eager to keep exploring, our bodies were turning against us. We stopped quickly into a 7/11 to pick up a few treats as we headed back to our hotel.
I decided on a matcha flavoured ice cream bar since it looks too delicious to pass up and not something you'd find at home. I hopped into my freshly pressed pyjamas and curled up in bed with whatever Japanese game show was airing on the television. We watched for awhile, and soon, despite the hard bed, we were fast asleep. Ready to wake up early and start exploring this city which had, already, won over our hearts.