Monday, March 31, 2014

edo wonderland

Our last day in this area was spent at Edo Wonderland or Nikko Edomura, a history theme park which recreates Japanese life from the Edo period (1603-1868). I loved being able to see all the old architecture and people can even dress up in olden day clothing but it was a little pricey so had to pass on that.

they even have a river that runs through the town!
art work posted around town - look closely at the pic!
This theme park doesn't have any rides and most attractions are aimed for little kids or cost extra money which was a real bummer since I was expecting a lot more stuff for adults. There were some haunted houses that were real laughable because it wasn't scary at all. The most interesting things at the park are the performances, we saw all but one since shows are only held at certain times.

traditional japanese performing arts theater - water goes around
This water show was interesting with water shooting out of all these hidden tubes. Coming out of knives, fans and even her sleeves!

audience member acts as a customer for an oiran, a high ranking courtesan
being a good housewife and tending to the hearth!
the cutest little farmer :P

The best attraction were these fun houses that were built at a slant. Once I entered the house I could barely move and I got so dizzy from trying to adjust to the weird angle in the house. It was crazy trying to move through the entire place and my legs felt so heavy - illusions man they mess with your mind! I had a fun time at the theme park but I think once was enough. It wasn't so entertaining that I would come here again.

had this for breakfast - it was pretty good if you like red bean
The Details
Edo Wonderland
Hours: summer 9-5pm & winter 9:30-4pm; closed on Wednesdays
Admission: Adults Day Pass 4500 yen & Half Day 3900 yen
      - the Kinugawa Theme Park Pass includes transportation to and from Tokyo to Nikko and entrance to the park (saves you over 1500 yen compared to buying them individually)
Access: There is a free shuttle bus from Nikko to Edo Wonderland (5 round trips a day) - check website for shuttle bus schedule

Sunday, March 30, 2014

nikko - toshogu shrine

After spending a night in a bed that was set up on the floor underneath a bunk bed (literally had to crawl to get into it), woke up at the crack of dawn to meet Ellen to head to Nikko. The cheapest way to Nikko from Tokyo is by taking Tobu Railways which start off at Asakusa Station. I only had a couple of minutes to buy my rail pass and to make the train or risk missing it and waiting an hour for the next train. On top of not being able to find the station it had also started to rain.

I chose to visit Nikko because it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and on my bucket list of things to see in Japan includes trying to see all the world heritage sites. Nikko is most famous for the Toshogu Shrine which is all we really saw because the rain was so heavy that we didn't have the energy to explore other places.

shinkyo bridge stands at the entrance of nikko's shrines and temples

Toshogu Shrine is special not only because it enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu but because the buildings are so extravagantly decorated which isn't seen in Japan. Upon first entering the paid area you will pass by lavishly decorated sanjinko (storage houses). The most famous carvings of Toshogu can be found on these buildings.

look closely at those elephants - they were carved by an artist who had never seen elephants
hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil monkeys
dressed for the weather in front of the main hall

There is an area where you will have to take off your shoes in order to enter - do it! It is so worth it. A lot of people couldn't see what they were taking their shoes off for and since it was raining, thought it was too much trouble to do so. The boring hallway leads to the inside of the main building and allows for a closer view of the amazing architecture. Pictures aren't allowed inside but I'm sneaky so...

the white paint is also very unique and made everything very pretty

The third of the famous carvings of Toshogu can be found on the Sakashitamon Gate. Judging from the crowd of Japanese tourists clustering around trying to take pictures of this carving I would say it's the most popular of them all.
nemurineko - sleeping cat (don't get why it's so popular)

The gate marks the start of some super steep steps made treacherous by the rain.

These steps will lead to something amazing. Isn't that usually the case? 

We were seriously disappointed when we climbed all those steps and all we saw was this. I was expecting something seriously amazing and super intricate like the halls and buildings below. I had no clue what this was even for. After doing some research I found out that its the mausoleum of
Tokugawa Ieyasu. An important place for sure but in my opinion not worth the climb - I suggest skipping this section if you don't have the time or the physical endurance.

I recommend visiting Honjido Hall which features a dragon on the ceiling. A priest will clap two pieces of wood together which due to the acoustics of the building will produce a ringing sound. So cool! Pictures are not allowed here and neither is clapping your hands to see if the ringing sound can be reproduced. The priest reprimanded me for it and no, clapping won't cause anything to happen. Again I was sneaky so here is the dragon!

After all that rain we decided to go soak in an onsen (nakey times)! So hilarious as I sat there trying to be inconspicuous these old Japanese ladies are talking to me which I hadn't even noticed because I was trying to avoid eye contact with people and I never pay attention to Japanese. Ellen tells me the ladies are saying to me "Your friend, she's so white right?" and just kept going on about how white she is. I'm pretty sure these ladies would have just talked about Ellen behind her back but because her so called "Japanese" friend was with her that would have been too rude! Haha Ellen had to translate and she told the ladies I didn't understand so their conversation became about how come I couldn't speak Japanese and how I looked Japanese despite being told that I'm American. The whole Asian American bit never gets old...

The Details
Access: Tobu-Nikko - Tobu Railways from Asakusa (Tobu/Subway) Station; there is more than one Asakusa Station so make sure you're at the right one
There are a variety of rail passes offered by Tobu Railways that include round trip train tickets to and from Tokyo, unlimited travel in certain areas and free or discounted admission to some places. A majority of these passes are only available for foreigners and that includes foreigners living in Japan. They didn't require a passport or ID so if a Japanese person spoke English well enough they could potentially pass or have a friend buy a pass for them.
website (useful for looking up the time table or information on the passes and where to buy them)

What and where to eat in Nikko
Across from the Sunkus convenience store within walking distance of the train station
Didn't have my camera so don't know the name but hands down the best ramen I've ever had in Japan! Want a bowl of that ramen right now. Get some - you will not regret it!

Toshogu Shrine
Hours: 8am-4/5pm depending on the season
Admission Fee: adults - 1300 yen (the most expensive entrance fee I've ever paid!)

Nikko Guesthouse Sumica
Dorm Rooms from 2600-3000 yen a bed
Highly recommend this hostel with an awesome location and great staff members who helped me booked bus tickets for my next trip. Would stay here again if I ever come back!
TIP: I recommend booking through their website rather than through hostelbookers or hostelworld because when you send them your information they don't ask for a credit card number so you don't have to pay a deposit (like the websites) and there won't be any charges for cancellation (there is a cancellation policy but not sure how they can enforce it without knowing your credit card number).

Saturday, March 29, 2014

yokohama chinatown

After a less than stellar morning in Tokyo, I decided to head over to Yokohama which has the largest Chinatown in Japan and is also its second largest city. Even though I know Yokohama Chukagai (Chinatown) is the biggest draw to this city I wanted to give the city a chance and chose to explore Minato Mirai, a seaside urban area located a 30 minute walk from the Yokohama Station. The biggest reason I wanted to come to this area was because of the Red Brick Warehouses that used to serve the area when it was a port. However they have since been converted into a mall and actually most buildings and attractions here were shopping complexes. Very disappointing since I was hoping to find some cultural or unique stuff and not to do shopping (not even good stuff like H&M or GU - just expensive boutiquey stuff).

The outside looks pretty nice but the inside was narrow and so crowded I couldn't even move. I entered and I quickly exited - too claustrophobic for me. Also around this area is a Cup Noodle Museum which I actually wanted to visit but was turned off by the hordes and hordes of children inside. The only problem with weekends is that everywhere gets so crowded. Give me my empty quiet Mondays any day!

Yokohama Chinatown is definitely the biggest one in Japan with several different streets that I got quite lost easily. The other Chinatowns were just one or two streets of Chinese restaurants and shops. I went on a panda themed shopping frenzy: socks, towels, bags, etc.

pandas know how to get it done :P

The panda theme didn't just stop at the merchandise...

A lot of the stores sold the same stuff so walk around and try to get the best prices! In terms of food I enjoyed the Chinatown in Kobe more because of the variety of food stalls they had there. Yokohama's had food stalls which is better than the Nagasaki Chinatown, which had nothing but restaurants. However most of the stalls were selling the same stuff and at exorbitant prices!

soup dumplings - forgot the price but I believe somewhere between 300-500 yen for a set of four

Oh man these soup dumplings were horrible. I was expecting something like a xiaolongbao but this style had a thicker skin more akin with Chinese buns or bao rather than the skin used for dumplings. The thicker skin made it difficult to eat it all in one bite which meant most of the juices leaked out after the initial bite. Then the sauce they gave wasn't just regular soy sauce but one with a strong vinegar taste! Blarghh and I poured so much of it on my dumplings. If I wasn't by myself I would have preferred to eat at a restaurant but each dish were upwards of 900 yen! Freaking expensive!

sesame tangyuan in gingery rock sugar syrup - 400 yen

I have been craving tangyuan so badly that I braved sitting by myself in a cafe restaurant just to eat some! The syrup was too gingery for my taste but was still delicious. I still prefer the ones we make at home. If I can find some rock sugar I could probably make these in my apartment (tho I lack that dedication). Definitely enjoyed the shopping that can be done here and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves panda stuff but not sure I would make the trek all the way to Yokohama again just for the Chinatown. Having visited all three Chinatowns, I really want to go back to Kobe's Nankinmachi just to be able to try all the different types of food I wasn't able to before.

The Details
Minato Mirai
Access: Minato Mirai Station - Minato Mirai Line (2 stops away from Yokohama Station, 180 yen) or a 30-40 minute walk from Yokohama Station.

Yokohama Chukagai
Access: Motomachi-Chukagai Station - Minato Mirai Line (210 yen from Yokohama Station) or Ishikawacho Station - JR Negishi Line (160 yen from Yokohama Station)

fish and cherry blossoms in tokyo

Back in February, Ellen and I had planned to go to Nagano to see the famous snow monkeys soaking in an onsen. However due to a freak snow storm all transportation to Nagano were stopped! This was the beginning of my weather curse. So we had rescheduled to go to Nagano this weekend but we found out that so late in March that most of the snow had already melted and we really wanted to see the monkeys surrounded by snow and maybe with heaps of snow on their cute little heads. Next year! Instead we heated over to Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I had a three day weekend so I had an extra day to kill before I met up with Ellen. Since I arrived in Tokyo before 7am I thought I would check out the Tsukiji Fish Market - to see what all the fuss was about. Boy was I disappointed. I knew that the tuna auction would be way earlier in the day but I thought I would be able to see the regular hustle and bustle of fish sellers and the like. If you're not going to come at 4am or so to get a ticket to the tuna auction then don't bother coming to Tsukiji until after 9am which is when the wholesalers areas are opened to the public. All I saw were a couple of stalls that were opened and a lot of sashimi & sushi restaurants with long lines of people. [Just realized as I was doing research for this blog post that there is an outside market that is opened earlier and has more stuff, I was in the restaurant area adjacent to the wholesalers section] Also saw a bear doing something shady to a fish...

glad they said they were joking - with the crazy expensive prices here I wouldn't be surprised if this was serious...
After that disappointment, I thought I would go check out some cherry blossoms, naively thinking that since it was so early I would get a chance to view them in private. Never underestimate the Japanese! They see cherry blossoms every year but they are still so obsessed with taking pictures of them...

The cherry blossoms on the main path were crowded with people but if you head to Shinobazu Pond there is a path of cherry blossom trees that aren't as crowded.

Totally a nice place to just sit and take in the scenery. Unfortunately the camera can't capture all the swarms of flies that were everywhere. Small little flies that you couldn't see until you walk face first into their whole nest. That is the only bad thing about water areas - so many freaking bugs!

cherry blossoms with bentendo, a temple hall, in the background

The Details
Cheap bus to Tokyo: Willer Express

Tsukiji Fish Market
Access: right above Tsukiji Shijo Station - Oedo Subway Line or a five minute walk from Tsukiji Station - Hibiya Subway Station

Tuna Auction - max 120 people per day (two groups of 60)
tour times: 5:25-5:50am, 5:50-6:15am
tour registration: Fish Information Center near the Kachidoki Gate  - starts at 5am

Wholesale Area - open to the public after 9am
Outside Market open from 5am-2pm

Ueno Park
Access: Ueno Station - serviced by both trains and the subway

Sunday, March 16, 2014

little world with dani-chan!

Little world is an open air museum located near Inuyama, that consists of a whole bunch of buildings from different countries around the world. Dani and I have wanted to go for awhile and we were motivated to go now rather than later because the tax rate is increasing from 5% to 8% in April which means pricier tickets!

plain indian tent from america
toba batak house from indonesia
alberobello house from italy
kassena compound from africa
The entrance for the female buildings are so low to the ground that we had to bend super low to get in (so dark inside no windows). The floor is lower than the entrance which means getting out also meant getting on our hands and knees to get out. Vastly different from male entrances and buildings pictured below...

unfair anyone?
At Little World there are areas where you can wear traditional costumes from different countries. We initially wanted to try all the costumes but they were costly, around $5-7 for each outfit, so we just tried on one.

korean hanboks!
I really enjoyed this place because I love seeing the architecture of various buildings when I travel so it was nice to see buildings I probably won't have a chance to see all clustered in one location. There are also stamps at each site and you can purchase a passport booklet to collect all the stamps. If you manage to get all of them you get a prize! Dani and I spent the whole time trying to find the stamp stations and we joked about how we were more interested in getting the stamps rather than checking out the buildings.

The Details
Little World
Hours: various hours depending on the season generally from 10am-4/5pm
Admission: adults - 1700 yen (after April 2014 tax increase)
Access: Meitetsu Bus from Nagoya Meitetsu Bus Station - 800 yen one way
Costumes: 400-700 yen and you can only wear it in that area
Stamp Passport: 500 yen

Upper: Bus schedule from Nagoya to Little World (left - weekdays, right - weekend & holidays)
Lower: Bus schedule from Little World to Nagoya Meitetsu Bus Center

Monday, March 10, 2014

boys meet some deer

Today was all about seeing some wild animals. Since we were staying near Gion, had to show them the Higashiyama Area (the streets surrounding Kiyomizudera Temple). Great place to find souvenirs and see one of the best preserved historic areas.

admiring the view or fake emo-ness?
i love this area!
None of us actually wanted to pay to enter Kiyomizudera so we spent most of our time wandering the streets, eating samples. Also the temple is undergoing some construction right now so a bunch of stuff are covered in scaffolding and tarps. The day started off nicely but in less than 30 minutes it started snowing!

Because of the snow we decided to skip seeing the monkeys in Arashiyama and instead headed directly to Nara to see the deer. I told them that wild deer just roamed the park and the streets adjacent to it. It was so funny because even though I told them this, Erik was literally rendered speechless when he saw the deer standing on the streets. After grabbing some deer senbei, I watched as Erik got chased around by the deer, squealing the whole time. Haha

erik: eeeekkk help me

if you don't feed them fast enough these deer will start headbutting you!

The Details
Nara Park
Access: Kintetsu Nara Station - Kintetsu Line (other lines also stop here like Hankyu, etc)
Take Exit 3 at the train station and walk up the hill for several minutes.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

cute and emo in japan

Jason and Erik! My second group of visitors! Jason totally surprised me and said they had bought tickets to come to Japan - unfortunately since it was a surprise the days they were coming coincided with me having to work on a Sunday. I had to use my precious vacation time to take that easy Sunday off! Totally made them pay in blood to make up for that.

Before heading out to Kyoto I brought them to the mall near my apartment to try some conveyor belt sushi. 100 yen a plate but the one at Telass Walk (pronounced Terrace Walk) is nasty - avoid!

hamburger sushi! - that is cheese from a can like cheese whiz not good!
Then grabbed some cookie dough ice cream from Baskin Robbins (they call it 31 here). Apparently cookie dough ice cream is seasonal and is only available in March! Gotta wait a year now to eat this again.

we got our ice cream as a cute panda! jason just got a regular cup...zzz but thanks for treating :D
Price of staying at my apartment is purikura - photobooth pictures. The guys were protesting so hard but when the camera started snapping they started pulling out all these cute poses! Totally took over and shoved us girls to the back.

Finally after a late start we took the Shinkansen (high speed train) to Kyoto. Dang the price to Kyoto from Nagoya is so freaking expensive more than $50 for a trip that takes less than an hour... rip off! First stop was Fushimi Inari to see those famous red torii.

the famous jason emo pose
erik is doing it too - emoness everywhere
did some off the path exploring - pretty!
Took the 206 bus to head towards Gion where our hostel was. Turns out there is a clockwise and counterclockwise one... What turned out to be a 15 minute trip took two hours! Avoid the clockwise direction! We didn't want to get off and have to pay the flat fare rate for the bus again so we just stayed on - did not know it would take so long. Now time for some TMI, I almost pissed my pants cause the bus took so freaking long. Just had to embarrass myself when we reached the hostel and was like screw check in I need to pee and so while the staff was talking to me I was just like bathroom now PEE and dashed off!

The Details
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
68 Fukakusa-Yabunouchi-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
hours: open all year
admission fee: free
directions: the JR Inari Station is right in front of the shrine, 5 minute ride from Kyoto Station (highly recommend) can also take the Kyoto City Bus #5 from the Kyoto Bus Staton to Fushimi Inari stop which is a 13 minute bus ride and then a 7 minute walk to the shrine