Tokyo travel tips, day 3 (part 1): Buddhist goddess and panic at the hot springs

Carla and I took a one-week trip to Tokyo. It was my sixth visit to Japan's capital, and it was my favorite so far. For the next few days, I'll be writing about recommended things to do there. See them all here.

Our plan for day 3 was to visit a neighborhood of Tokyo called Kichijōji. It known for its large park called Inokashira Koen. Kichijōji has interesting shopping and a grid of alleys called Hamonika Yokocho, which contain over 100 tiny dining bars called izakaya that offer skewers of fried meat and vegetables, sashimi, noodles, pickles, beer, and sake. We also had a reservation to visit a nearby onsen (Japanese hot spring and bathing facility).

After cooking breakfast in our Airbnb — scrambled eggs and yaki onigiri (fried rice triangles) we took a short walk to the massive, mind-bogglingly complex Shinjuku station.

There was a Blue Bottle Coffee (8am – 10pm) on the way so we stopped for a tasty espresso.

We were hoping to see a lot of cherry blossoms during our stay (March 17-23) but we were a bit too early. This tree outside Shinjuku station was a rare exception. A lot of people were hanging around for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and taking photos. We took a few photos then worked our way into the station.

The ticket machines at Japanese rail stations will present instructions in English, but they don't tell you how much a ticket to your destination costs. Here's what we learned to do: buy the cheapest ticket, then when you reach your destination, insert your ticket into one of the "Additional Fare" machines near the exit turnstiles. The machine will tell you how much money to add. Also, the ticket vending machines accept all forms of coins (except 1 yen coins) and all currency denominations up to 10,000 yen (about $100) and give you change in paper and coins. I love that. Here's another tip – Google Maps often doesn't tell you which platform to go to. There are conductors who speak English at every entrance. Just ask them! The rail stations in Japan are wonderful.

We got off at Kichijōji station and took a 5-minute walk to Inokashira Park. There's a long pond in the park with paddle boats you can rent. We walked around the pond and stopped at a shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, a Japanese Buddhist goddess. This park is also connected to the famed Studio Ghibli Museum, a must-see attraction (we went the last time we were in Japan so we didn't go again).

We headed back towards the Kichijōji station to have lunch before going to the Japanese hot springs. Unfortunately, all the alley bars were not yet open (we went back at night, and I'll cover that in the next post), but we stumbled on a place called Ishigamaya Hamburg Atre Kichijoji (11am – 11pm) that makes incredibly delicious large baked meat balls. They were so juicy that you are instructed to cover your torso with a napkin while the server cuts them open. My mouth waters just thinking of them. The next time we go back to Japan, I'm eating here again.

Next, we headed to the onsen. We took a train to another station, then waited for a shuttle to pick us up. There were no other foreigners in line or on the shuttle. When I asked the driver "Onsen ni ikmasu ka?" (which is very mangled Japanese that might mean something along the lines of "As for the bath, is it going?" he grunted in affirmation.

After a drive through a nondescript neighborhood that could almost pass for a boring part of Los Angeles if you squinted, we arrived at a plain looking building. This was the Yumori No Sato onsen (10am – 10pm). We stepped inside and everyone was taking off their shoes at the front. They all wore socks. I wasn't wearing socks (I never do) so I started to panic. Was it OK for me to walk around barefooted when everyone else was in socks? What was I going to do? Luckily, Carla spotted a single pair of plastic sandals, which I put on. Crisis averted!

No one spoke English at the Onsen. We showed the desk our reservation number and they gave us a key and a towel. None of the signs had a single romaji (English) character. It was all hiragana, katakana, and kanji. It was fun, even though it made me a little nervous that I was going to do something gravely offensive at any moment. We know enough kanji to recognize things like entrance, exit, man, woman, etc., so we at least knew which locker room to enter.

Once inside the locker room, I saw a lot of signs in Japanese with some words in red and with exclamation points. I just kept watching everyone out of the corner of my eye and copying what they did. They stripped off their clothes and walked into another room with a pool on one side and a row of showers on the other. They sat on tiny stools under the showers and soaped up, washing every part of their head and body. Once thoroughly clean, some of them men tied small towels to their head like headbands. They looked pretty cool, but I didn't know how to do it, so I just copied the guys who didn't do it. Some of the men entered the pool inside the room, others went through a door leading outside. I went outside and saw several pools of steaming black water. This was charcoal water. I got in and it was hot and felt really good. My anxiety melted away. After staying in for as long as I could stand it (20 minutes or so) I got out, showered, and dried off. I walked into the main part of the building and found a room where people were napping on the floor and reading books. I went in and found another door leading out to some comfortable-looking chairs that were hanging from chains. I got in one and closed my eyes for another 20 minutes. I met Carla there and we walked around the rest of the building to check it out and discovered that they give massages. We booked them and it was a great way to end our visit to the onsen. There are some photos and more information about Yumori no Sato Onsen here.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the second part of our day in and around Kichijōji.