Our flight to Tokyo from Seoul was very early in the morning, landing at 9:30am. After getting through customs and finding an ATM to take out some Japanese yen it was time to find our way into the city. Tokyo, and we would later discover, Japan in general, has a huge number of trains, all across various train systems. This means that most of the country is highly accessible by train (which is great!), but it can be a bit overwhelming at first to figure out which train you want, and extra hard to avoid very expensive trains by accident. We went to an information desk to get help rather than trying to figure it out ourselves, and we were quickly on our way.
The hostel could not allow early check in, so we went out for walk, looking for lunch and to kill some time. First mission, lunch, was a total success. We got very delicious ramen meals including some sides and rice for around $6 a person. We also had our first cultural surprise. Smoking was allowed in the restaurant! Apparently it was legal indoors everywhere until very recently. In July 2018, they passed a law outlawing smoking in public buildings, schools, and hospitals. Tokyo opted to also ban smoking in large restaurants, but even in Tokyo with its stricter laws, it is still totally legal to smoke in more than half of existing restaurants. This latest push came largely because of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Continuing our walk we found a pretty garden and pointed ourselves in the general direction of some museums that were marked on Google Maps. Then we stumbled upon a museum of Japanese swords! Eric was very excited and asked someone who had just come out if it was worth the $10 entry fee. He said, “it’s a bunch of sword blades, but if you’re into that, then it’s worth it.” Eric was totally into it, and Jess wasn’t, so we split up for the next hour.
This museum was exactly as advertised… a bunch of sword blades. The intro to the exhibit described how people, both foreigners and locals, wished there was a “way in” to understand the world of Japanese swords, and so this exhibit was supposed to help teach people how to appreciate Japanese swords as art. The first floor exhibit had a descriptions of how Japanese swords were created along with a video of the traditional process. The second floor was the main exhibit and contained around 40 blades tastefully displayed. We call them blades, because it was just the blade of the sword, no handles or guards. The blades themselves come in four different sizes, tanto, wakizashi, katana and tachi, in ascending order.
Descriptions of each sword were conveniently available online in English, and an English pamphlet explained how to appreciate the blades. Each blade differs in subtle ways, not only in its shape, but also in the designs visible in different regions of the blade. Different folding, heating, tempering and blade finishing techniques all result in different patterns in the steel. All of the swords were over 200 years old, and some were 700 years old, still looking brand new. Overall it was a beautiful exhibit. Icing on the cake was seeing a blade made by Masamune, regarded as maybe the best sword smith of all time, and recognizing the name from the video game Final Fantasy VII… ahhh the nostalgia.
What’s more interesting than swords? Earthquakes! It just so happened that the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum was around the corner from the Sword Museum and it was free. The Great Kanto Earthquake was a magnitude 7.9 tremor that occurred on September 1, 1923. It was so strong, the seismograph recording ran off the page and then broke. At the time, it was widely regarded as the worst natural disaster to have struck Japan. The earthquake was followed by a 33-foot tsunami and fires which broke out all over the city and were difficult to control. It is estimated roughly 140,000 people died. Approximately 40,000 of them were killed when the fires that raged after the fire reached the Army Clothing Depot where they had sought shelter. The first floor of the museum is dedicated to the earthquake and the damage that was done. Upstairs there is an exhibit dedicated to people killed in the Tokyo Air Raids during World War II when much of Tokyo was destroyed.
Upon returning to our hostel we were able to check in. We had dorm beds to keep the price down, but this was no issue as the facility was very well laid out. It also had a decidedly Japanese feel, taking shoes off before entering each room, sliding doors everywhere, and floor sitting tables in the kitchen/dining area. We finished the day by going grocery shopping and cooking dinner.
The next day started with planning. We had to consider our time in Japan, decide what we wanted to see, how we would schedule our time around our WWOOF-ing experience, and decide how to book the numerous trains we would need. The J-Rail Pass is very well priced to be tempting, but we were not sure it would be worth it given the number of days we would be traveling.
Our reward after all that planning was getting to see our friends!! Sol and Travis were in Tokyo traveling with Sol’s family, and we had planned this leg of our trip to align with them. We went to their hotel to meet them, and then went to find the rest of the crew at a sake tasting shop. It was a very fun place where you get to choose your own sake tasting flight by going to the refrigerator, pulling out bottles, and putting them on your table. They then come around and pour the flight for you and answer and questions you might have. The labels of the bottle very helpfully indicate various properties of the sake, the two primary traits being acidity and sweetness/dryness.
Sol’s friend Alex showed up, and we were off to dinner. Alex has lived in Japan for years now and had made a reservation for us at a restaurant. It was great to catch up with Sol and Travis and hang out for the evening. Then we separated and planned to meet up the next day.
The next day was quite eventful, and long. We met up at a temple/shrine during some kind of special ceremony. A large decorated box was carried out of one building and brought to a central temple with much pomp and circumstance. There was a fairly formal looking procession, and guests were clearly not allowed too close, even being on the same entry driveway was discouraged by nearby guards. The outside area was still quite pretty, and there was a Japanese sword dueling show being put on as well.
We then went to the “War Museum” which was connected to the grounds of this temple. As we went into the museum we both wondered “which war is this for?” It turns out, it is for all the wars. The museum starts with a summary of pre-shogunate warfare, and then proceeds chronologically through all of the wars Japan has been a part of since the period of relative peace experienced during the Shogun reign. At some point we had to start breezing through because we had not realized just how large the museum was, and we were all getting hungry.
Lunch was a fun and simple meal at a ramen place. It had a relatively common format for Japan, where you make your meal selection outside, paying at what looks like a vending machine. You then take your ticket inside while they prepare your order. There were two slightly confusing things: One, they ask you what size you want when you come inside to sit down… after you’ve already paid. Apparently the price doesn’t change with how many noodles you get. Second, the thermos on the table, sitting next to all the cups, is not, in fact, tea. Jess discovered it was not tea after pouring herself a cup, and tasting a nice sip of broth!! You are meant to prepare your noodles with the condiments at the table, eating some, then adding broth whenever you like to complete the ramen meal. Live and learn 🙂
After lunch we went to Akihabara, which is also known as Electric Town. It’s a busy part of Tokyo, popular for anime and electronics. Think Times Square where all of the billboards are for Anime games or television. We simply wanted to walk around and explore the place, and wandered into a BIC Camera store, which sells all sorts of electronics. It is a fun experience, not totally different than shopping in the US, but seven floors of electronics ranging from the usual cellphones and laptops all the way to home laser hair removal devices.
We continued to walk around in the city eventually finding another specialty of Tokyo, an owl cafe. The Forest of Owl cafe we stumbled across actually has a quite nice reputation for rescuing owls from various circumstances and caring for them. The cafe is definitely owls first, cafe second. We paid $11.50 each to get a vending machine cappuccino, and then spent the next 40 minutes meeting, petting and maybe disturbing the dozen owls that are in the room. Even if it was a bit costly, it was totally different and very fun. Some owls were so fluffy!
After the owls we went looking for a drink before dinner. This proved to be surprisingly difficult, as we were traveling in a pack with Sol’s four-person family, plus a total of five extra friends. Not many bars in Tokyo were prepared for a party of nine foreigners! The one we eventually found was in the gayborhood of Tokyo, and while we were not the intended clientele, they kindly welcomed us into their outdoor patio.
From there we had to hurry quickly to our sushi restaurant reservation when Alex showed up and told us that timing was critical, because almost everyone takes dinner at exactly 7 PM. So if we arrive at 6:45, we can get a table, but at 6:55, we might have to wait until 8. We hurried over, got a delicious sushi dinner, and then went out to the last group activity of the day… karaoke!! Japan really does karaoke right. We got a reserved room for the whole group and were able to pick our songs and have a few pitchers of beer delivered right to the room. It was a super fun two hours, and if you ever get the chance, go sing.
The final adventure for us of the night was yet to come. We heard that the trains stop running at midnight, but you can realistically catch the actual last train at 12:10, so the young-uns in the group went out for just one more drink around 10:45. We got the classic Japanese highball and some sake, and then headed to the train station. The two of us needed to go a different direction from everyone else, and the station was a madhouse of people running to catch the last train so we did a very hurried goodbye and ran to get a ticket.
Scrambling to get a ticket after a few drinks is not the most relaxing way to end the evening, and it got worse when we found out that our particular train had stopped running at 11:00 PM!! So, now we were looking for any way home from a series of unfamiliar routes that were still running. Asking repeatedly for help from the station attendants did not help as they would point in the direction of six trains, and we could not figure out which one they meant. We were running around, as the station guards blew their whistles signaling the last trains, trying to avoid gates that were shutting down whole sections of the train station. Through a combination of frantic Google Maps navigation, Jess’s quick thinking Japanese translating, and the mantra “just keep swimming”, we managed to get on the last possible train to help our situation, which fortunately got us to within one mile of our hostel. So, the final stretch was a bit of a drizzly 60-minute walk through nighttime Tokyo, but Tokyo is a pretty safe city, and the walk even had some pretty moments when we went over a bridge.
Our last day in Tokyo came with old friends! Rory and Gen, who we met in South Korea, were in Tokyo at the same time as us, and we decided to meet up with them before we left Tokyo. Another coincidence was that the Rugby World Cup was happening in Japan while we were there. So, we decided to met up with Rory and Gen downtown before we took a train to our next city.
We emerged from the subway downtown carrying all of our bags, planning to lock them up in a locker. We should have thought about how busy it would be during the semi-finals of the World Cup; there were no lockers to be had. So, we proceeded with all of our stuff into a crowded Irish pub (that’s right) in the middle of Tokyo, and stuffed our bags under the table that Rory and Gen had claimed. We were so happy to see them again! We’d exchanged some messages back and forth, but it is not the same as seeing friends in person, and we had nearly forgotten how quickly friendships form while traveling. The game was thrilling, even though we both had to ask questions after almost every single play… rugby is confusing!!!
England won! The Irish pub wasn’t too pleased about that, but Rory and Gen were thrilled. They had to leave to take care of the cats they were looking after, so we parted ways. We found a quick curry dinner at a place they recommended, and then we were on our way to a hostel we had reserved for just one night before our train. The hostel was a dorm style, and a bit cramped, but it was not a big deal. We really just needed somewhere to sleep before the train. The train was at 10 AM, and we arrived very early to figure out how to take our first Shinkansen, or bullet train. There are seemingly loads of options, and it is a bit confusing as there is a base fare and a ticket fare depending on your destination and you have to pay both. We bought our tickets at the counter to make sure we got the right thing and got the cheapest, fast train we could find, and we were on our way to Kyoto!