Tokyo travel tips, day 4 (part 2): pork guts and fighting robots

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.

We got back to Shibuya after our day on Mt. Takao at about 5 pm. That gave us enough time to get cleaned up and have dinner in Shinkjuku's "yakitori alley" before heading to Kabukicho for the Robot Restaurant show.

The official name for the yakitori alley is Omoide Yokocho (memory alley). It's also known as Piss Alley, but I didn't smell any piss. The grid of narrow pedestrian alleys, crammed with tiny bars restaurants, was as clean as Disneyland's Main Street USA. We got there around 6:30pm and it was already crowded with people ready for beer and grilled meat.

We found a place with a couple of available seats around the counter. It was called Ucchan. We sat down and were greeted by a busy staff. We asked for sake and they served it in glasses of crushed ice. This was the first time I had it served that way, and it was wonderful. I noticed that the glasses of beer that people were drinking had ice in it, too. One of the staff spoke a bit of English and I asked for a combination of grilled meats. He said it was pork only, and I said that was fine. Carla is not a huge fan of pork, though. Read the rest

Tokyo travel tips, day 4 (part 1): grilled mochi, trick art, and a steep hike

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 fourth day in Tokyo was a day of extremes. After breakfast in our Yoyogi Airbnb, Carla and I took the train to Takaosanguchi Station, which is a 1.5 hour, straight shot from Yoyogi Station. Our plan was to climb Mt Takao, a 600-meter tall mountain with lots of hiking trails, a monkey park, a Buddhist temple, and other attractions.

It was interesting getting out of Tokyo into a rural area. Buildings were fewer and more far between. Once we got to the station, surrounded by trees and hills, we felt like we were hundreds of miles away from busy Tokyo. One thing that caught our eye outside the station was a large building called the Trick Art Museum. Curious, we walked over and bought tickets. It was a museum dedicated to optical illusions. It consisted mainly of big rooms with trompe l'oeil paintings on the ceilings, floors, and walls. It was an hour well spent. (The photo of my head in a box is from the museum)

We then walked along a street leading to the trailhead. It was lined with shops and restaurants catering to Japanese tourists. It happened to be a national holiday so a lot of people were walking around, and the restaurants were crowded. Read the rest

Tokyo travel tips, day 3 (part 2): Micro-pets, micro-restaurants, and fluffy pancakes

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.

After our refreshing visit to the hot springs, we took a short train ride back to the Kichijōji neighborhood of Tokyo.

Some of the train and subway stations have English on their maps, and some don't. It can be a bit of a challenge to get around, but the conductors speak English and are happy to answer questions. (The two photos below were taken at Yoyogi Station, not Kichijōji.)

It was early evening, and we wanted to have dinner at one of the dozens of little 8-seat bars in Harmonica Yokocho, a grid of alleys next to the train station. It was crowded with pedestrians (the alleys are too narrow for cars) and the stores had red lanterns to entice customers. The coziness and intimacy here was magical. Most of the seats in the bars were fully occupied, but we eventually walked by one that had two open seats. A worker saw us looking through the window and waved us in. Image credit

We sat down and could smell the delicious food that the guy behind the bar was cooking on an electric grill. He asked us in Japanese what we would like to drink, and we said cold sake. He filled a couple of glasses with crushed ice and poured sake from a large bottle. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

Tokyo travel tips, day 2: busy Takeshita street and quiet alleys of Harajuku

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.

After walking around peaceful Yoyogi Park, we crossed the street and entered one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the world: Takeshita-dōri. This youth-oriented strip has fashion boutiques, restaurants, candy and ice cream shops, and the (now commonplace in Japan) cat and owl cafes, where you pay by the hour to spend time with animals. The crowd on Takeshita-dōri is made up of about 20% tourists and 80% Japanese teenagers. There are long lines to get into some of the stores and restaurants. The longest line was for a place called Johnny's. At least 100 people were waiting to get in. Every person in line was a Japanese teenage girl. The line was broken up into two separate queues. One line was in front of Johnny's. And another line was down the street, next to Harajuku station. The girls were waiting patiently for a uniformed guard to escort them into the main queue in batches. We thought Johnny's was a clothing store, so we decided to go back in the afternoon when the crowds had thinned to see if there were things to buy for our daughters, but when we went inside it was just a big maze-like room with thousands of small photographs of teenage boys taped to the walls. Read the rest

Tokyo travel tips, day 2: Yoyogi park

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.

Image: Wikipedia/Pawel Loj

I don't think you're supposed to fry onigiri, at least not the triangle-shaped ones that you buy at convenience stores in Japan. But that's what I did when I made breakfast in our Airbnb on our first morning in Tokyo. The onigiri weren't wrapped in seaweed, and they didn't have a filling. Instead, they were mixed with "mountain vegetables" and pressed into triangles. I heated them up in a skillet with butter, and the outside got crispy brown. They went well with the scrambled eggs I made. (I ended up buying this rice mold on Amazon so I can make them at home.) One thing about Japanese eggs - the yolks are a deep orange color. I don't know why, but they were delicious.

Torii gate at Yoyogi Park

After breakfast we walked to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. This 40-foot torii gate was just a few minutes' walk from our Airbnb. As soon as we passed under it, we felt like we were far away from the hubbub of Tokyo and had entered a quiet forest. As it was early in the morning (the time difference between LA and Tokyo made it easy to wake up at 5am) there were few people in the park. Read the rest

Tokyo travel tips, day 1: Airbnb in Shinjuku and an adorable curry restaurant

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

We arrived at Narita airport about 1:30pm Tokyo time. At the airport, I noticed a lot of vending machines selling SIM cards with high-speed data. You can get a week's worth of unlimited data for less than $10 a day. If your phone is locked, you can rent a wi-fi hot spot for about the same amount. I used a wi-fi hotspot to consult Google Maps many times every day to navigate around the city. Google Maps will also tell you which trains to use to get from one place to another. We also used Yelp to find restaurants and learn when they open and close.

There are several ways to get from Narita to Tokyo (about 50 miles). A taxi or Uber costs almost $300 and you will have to deal with traffic. There are also luxury buses, which can take you right to your hotel (provided you are staying in one of the major ones). My favorite way to get to Tokyo from the airport is by train. Both the Narita Express ($28) and the Skyliner ($22) have terminals inside the airport. They are convenient and fast. The Skyliner is faster and cheaper, but stops only at the Ueno and Nippori stations. The Narita Express stops at more places, including Shibuya and Shinjuku. Read the rest