Category Archives: travel

Kyoto – Days 1 & 2

Yes, I have in fact been back in the U.S. for over a week – what of it? I couldn’t manage to motivate myself to write on the flight back, despite the 10 hours spent in the air…  I actually got some sleep, though not enough to stave off pretty severe jet lag that I haven’t quite fully shaken (though when I woke up at 3:00 this morning, I was able to fall back to sleep by 4:00 – so that’s an improvement).

At any rate, we departed our hotel in Tokyo via taxi, laden with four suitcases and three backpacks – including Chris’ seven (yes – seven) pairs of shoes he’d packed. Our trip to Tokyo station went smoothly, we managed to schlep all of our bags to the appropriate platform and boarded our nozomi train to Kyoto.  I slept for a good part of the two-and-a-half our voyage, though I did wake up long enough for a nice glimpse of snow-capped Mt. Fuji on the horizon.

Pine trees at Nijo Castle

At Kyoto station, we quickly found the ANA Hotel shuttle which took us and our myriad bags to our home for the next few days, right across from Nijo Castle. The hotel was serviceable, if not quite as roomy or fancy as our place in Tokyo – though the staff were certainly as kind and helpful as ever. I think our biggest complaint was that the butt-cleansing toilet seat was noticeably inferior to the one we’d had in Tokyo – even at it’s highest pressure, it just didn’t do the job completely, if you know what I mean.  I should point out that the inferior toilet seat was not Toto brand – which I think was the primary reason for its sub-par performance.

Since it was only mid-afternoon, we got started on our sightseeing at Nijo Castle, an impressive collection of buildings and some lovely gardens dating from the mid-1800’s. As we toured the castle’s interior, we got to experience “nightingale floors” – wooden floor boards designed to emit squeaks and squeals to alert the occupants of any ninjas trying to sneak in and kill them.  I’m thinking of having them installed in our bedroom so I have some forewarning of when our 17-pound cat is about to leap onto my chest (or balls) as I drift off to sleep…

We didn’t spend too much time here, as they start clearing people out of the place at around 4:00. So, off we went for the #12 bus as we’d been advised to do by the front desk, bound for Gion, the center of old Kyoto.  We didn’t see any geisha, but we had a nice stroll down the main drag, popping in and out of shops selling fans, ceramics and sweets. At the end of the street was the Yasaka shrine, a bright-orange-and-gold affair, adorned with lanterns. Our arrival was at twilight, a really lovely time to see the temple and the surrounding park, where the trees had started putting on their fall colors.  A peaceful counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of our nine days in Tokyo.

Ramen with pork cheek in miso broth.

We spent the next hour or so trying to find a tempura restaurant we’d read about and had a rather difficult time of it – though the streets we meandered through were charming… We did finally find the place – closed for the evening. We hadn’t bothered to note the entry in the guidebook that indicated it was closed on Thursdays.  Thursdays? Really?  Anyway, added it to our itinerary for Friday night (at least we’d be able to find it easily…) and set off in search of Santoka, a ramen place that was supposed to be quite good.

And it was.  Took us a bit of time to find – despite it being exactly where we thought it was, in a complex of restaurants right along the river.  But of course it was the only one that indicated its name only in Japanese, so we were rather slow in identifying it…  But the ramen was excellent – great noodles in a rich miso broth, served with braised pork cheeks – tender and scrumptious.  The evening was a bit on the chilly side, so it was a perfect choice.

Next stop: a gay bar.  Or so we thought… Still not really sure.  I guess it was too early to go out – we were the only customers in the place…  And our drinks were ¥1000 – about $10, which isn’t too bad…  Though there was also a cover charge…  So our two rounds of drinks wound up costing ¥6000.  I think we could have drunk everything in our hotel rooms mini-bar and still have spent less.  But we’re on vacation, so what’re you gonna do?

Up early-ish the next morning, bound for Kyoto Station where we met up with Johnny Hillwalker, a well-known local guide for a walking tour.  There were about 20 people on the tour, so a manageable size. And what a tour it was…  We were on the go for over five hours, exploring temples, shrines and the warren of narrow streets housing family workshops.

At Higashi Hongan-ji. Only one of these kids seems to like pigeons.

Our first stop was the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. A rather amazing looking place – though the information Johnny shared with us was probably the highlight, including an overview of religion in Japan. “The Japanese are 99% Buddhist, 99% Shinto and 1% Christian” – his point being that most people follow tenets and observe rituals of both Buddhism and Shintoism – even the Christians…  And that everyone pretty much just gets along when it comes to such matters…  Unlike other many other countries and cultures.

Handsome

From there, we ambled along through the surrounding streets, visiting a few other smaller temples and shrines; passed by a geisha school; visited a couple of family-run businesses, including a fan-maker and a potter; saw the original Nintendo, which long before it manufactured video games was in the business of making playing cards; were treated to some tofu-skin-wrapped rice balls; visited a sweet shop; and ended our tour near Kiyomizu temple, where Johnny encouraged us to continue exploring on our own…  Chris and I both really enjoyed the tour – we learned a lot and explored parts of Kyoto we’d probably not’ve found on our own.

Mmmmm... Collagen...

We took Johnny’s advice and headed for Kiyomizu. We climbed up a long street on a hill, lined with shops catering to tourists (though not hideously touristy) and stopped for an ice cream on the way up – where, for reasons I have yet to grasp, one of the four flavors offered was “collagen.” Something lost in translation maybe? I kept urging Chris to get the collagen, but he stuck with green tea…

We arrived at the temple and it was grand – high atop a hill on the eastern side of Kyoto, surrounded by autumn trees bursting with red, gold and yellow. The temple itself is large, with a large walkway jutting out over the hill and affording wonderful views of the city below us.

Navigating the love stones.

There are also several shrines on the temple grounds, one of which is dedicated to a god of love. In addition to the tons of charms and other accoutrements being hawked, there was a pair of “love stones” – two rocks set 10 meters apart that one must navigate end-to-end with eyes closed. Doing so successfully means you’ll find love.  Chris was able to do it – though he indicated he’d cheated by peaking…  Hmmm – not sure I want to analyze that in too much detail.  As for me, I made it too, thanks in large part to shouted instructions from my beloved…  “Stay left…  No! LEFT! Not that much!!  Too far right now… Oh my god what is wrong with you? JUST GO STRAIGHT!  Are you retarded?”  But I made it, to much applause from some onlookers – I guess they were surprised to see a retard make it…

Note that they all tore their masks off before posing. Also, shoes are exellent!

Another shrine was mobbed with school kids lined up to partake of one of the three streams of water, said to impart success in studies. This was also the setting for one of my favorite photos from this trip.  A trio of boys saw me taking pictures and started mugging for the camera (I especially loved that they all tore off their H1N1 masks as soon as I aimed the lens in their direction). As we were walking off, their teacher stopped us, asking if we’d pose with the kids.  Of course we said yes and were instantly swarmed with kids.  I managed to hand my camera off to her for a shot with my camera…  It was great fun.

One of my favorite pictures from the whole trip.

Dinner that night at Ozawa, the tempura place we’d tried to get to the night before.  No room at the counter, so we ate in a tatami room – which was fine, other than the fact that Chris and I both had difficulty getting back on our feet after dinner.  But they brought us about 12 small courses, two or three at a time: shrimp, gingko nuts, white fish, corn (which was sublime – Chris compared it to Michigan summer corn from his childhood). After dinner, we walked around a bit, then headed back to the hotel.  We wanted to get an early start on our day trip to Nara.  More to come on that leg of our journey…

Tokyo – Our Last Few Days

I didn’t have a chance to blog for a few days – then I had to recover from one of the worst hangovers I’ve experienced in recent memory.  It took me a good 36 hours to even approach feeling better…  And once I’d gotten that far behind, the task of catching up was just too overwhelming.  But I wrote this while sitting in the business class lounge at Kansai, waiting for our flight to Seoul, where we had a two-hour layover before heading home…

Fantastic steaks at Beacon

So where did I leave off?  Ah yes – Chris and I were headed to have a Western dinner.  We’d both been doing pretty well eating Japanese food, but the temptation to go someplace where everything was recognizable and familiar was hard to resist.  And the restaurant turned out to be excellent – a place called Beacon in Shibuya. A bit on the fancy side in a sleek and modern setting – though to our surprise, the evening we were there was the weekly barbecue night.  Chris had an excellent bowl of black bean chili, while I got the last five raw oysters in the joint – really good.  For dinner we both got steaks, which were wonderful – grilled just right and perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and just a hint of cayenne for a bit of extra zip.  Accompanied by shoestring fries that were crispy, piping hot and fantastic (oh, and so were the onion rings). Also splurged on a great bottle of Ramey chardonnay – one of our favorites. It was a great night – really revived us both.

On Monday, we took the train out to Chiba City to see the Tokyo Motor Show. Saw some pretty cool cars and other crazy vehicles.  Honda had some sort of thing shaped like an “8” that one sat on and it drove around – looked fun and potentially deadly.  I think the only thing that was a little disappointing was that this was a strictly Japanese auto show, so we didn’t get to see any of the concept cars from Europe, Korea or North America.  But of course this was made up for by the wacky “sketch” Honda used to introduce their latest concept car, which is just a little box of a thing that gets some power from solar and can apparently chat with your friends (we weren’t completely clear as to how this worked or why one might want it – but judging from the smiling boys and girls onstage and the cute cartoon video, everyone just loved it!)

After taking the train back, we returned to Harajuku to do a bit more shopping and attempt to find the G-Star store which we’d had no luck tracking down on our last visit. We fought our way down the same insanely crowded little main drag, with a few stops to look at clothes that were too youthful for a couple of old queens (not to mention generally not available in sizes of sufficient girth), back up the fancier main shopping street and had a rather nice walk home on this chilly evening.

Just another Tuesday night on Takeshita Dori in Harajuku

For dinner, we had something of a “when world’s collide” meal at Fonda de la Madragana, a local Mexican joint with reputation as Tokyo’s best (or so said the guidebook). The place is done up in the usual terra cotta tile, stucco and cast-iron decor one expects in such a place.  Of course, we were seated by a very proper Japanese hostess – though our order for tacos and margaritas was taken by a gentleman who appeared to be Mexican. I never got a chance to ask, since the rest of our meal was served by a Sri Lankan.  I didn’t know which language to order in – my broken Spanish or my far-more broken Japanese.  This being Tokyo, I just did what I always did – ordered in English.  I just made sure to speak very loudly and slowly, as if I were speaking to someone slow-witted – you know, the way an American should speak English when abroad… (I kid, of course).

The food was quite good, and as provincial as it may sound, it was nice having another meal with no mystery ingredients.  And the serving of guacamole was huge and tasty (OK, it needed salt, but I’m not one to quibble) and reasonably priced.  I was concerned that avocado might be sufficiently exotic to the locale that it’d be a miserly portion (as is so often the case in the U.S.). Tacos also good, meat tender and savory and margaritas decent.

¡Ay Caramba!

And speaking in hindsight, I think I’m going to blame my consumption of three margaritas for what happened later that evening… I was fine when we left the restaurant, headed to our favorite boite Dragon for our usual nightcap. We had a drink or two there, checked out one other place that was dead as a doornail and then headed to Arty Farty, another fun little place in Ni-Chome with a dance floor (we’d spent part of Halloween night there). In front of Arty Farty, I literally bumped into a guy and muttered my standard “sumimasen” to which he responded, “Oh sorry about that.” Obviously, it’s not unusual for a Japanese to speak English – but turned out this guy lives in Los Angeles. He asked us about Arty Farty, whether it was fun, etc., so we all went in together and bought each other a few rounds of drinks. Turns out our new friend, Joji-san, is originally from Tokyo but has been in the U.S. for seven years – he was here visiting his family.

Decisions, decisions...

Anyway, Arty Farty was kind of dull, so back we went to Dragon which had livened up a bit.  Chit-chatted with some of the bartenders and regulars we’d befriended, more rounds were bought and a fine time was had by all.  Chris and I decided to head off and check out one other bar then head home.  The other place we went to was completely dead, so we decided to call it a night…  And then fate intervened. We bumped into Joji-san again.  He suggested some other places we could visit – other places that we’d be unlikely to find on our own what with the language barrier and all.

And that’s all she wrote…  I have vague recollections of the evening, most notably our visit to a gay Japanese bath house – and yes it had components of both Japanese and gay bathhouses. So we had a nice soak – but we also got quite an eyeful of the activities going on in one of the “quiet” rooms on another floor. Then there was a room filled with recliners and a thick cloud of cigarette smoke – everybody in their paper robes (provided to all patrons upon entering the establishment), dozing in their chairs while the news played on the big screen TV on the wall (yes, the news, not a porn movie). Joji-san and I continued our debate on the pros and cons of American-style capitalism (no, I’m not kidding) while Chris encouraged me (unsuccessfully) to refrain from purchasing another beer from the vending machine.

So, I’ve just described three of this place’s nine or ten floors.  And decorum (as well as an unwillingness to further embarrass myself) requires me to refrain from providing any further details… Though I will reveal that I spent a good ten minutes at one point freaking out about losing the key to my locker, running around the place with Chris and Joji, panicked that I’d be walking home in my paper robe – only to have the attendant point out that the bracelet holding the key was hanging from my upper arm (hidden by my robe).  How humiliating…

Needless to say, waking the following day (i.e. afternoon) was unpleasant. Chris, for some reason, was in far better shape than I. But I did manage to get myself showered and dressed, though accompanied by the usual hollow promises of never drinking again…  We headed for Ueno Park to see the Tokyo National Museum – had an uninspiring though serviceable tonkatsu (and a beer) nearby than made a quick tour of the museum.  The exhibit we saw was just right – a one-floor circulation that provided some history and examples of a wide-range for Japanese art, antiquities and other objects: pottery, masks, screens, costumes. Very accessible and interesting, especially given my delicate condition.

Alive and kicking - and yummy - at Mon Cher Ton Ton

Back at the hotel afterward for a much-needed lie down. Then off to Mon Cher Ton Ton, a teppanyaki place I’d read about and wanted to try. It was a fancy-ish, expense-account type of place, so a bit of a splurge – though not as much so as someplace like the Park-Hyatt. I was still not fully recovered from the previous night, though a Jack-and-Coke seemed to help considerably.

As for the restaurant, it was good – though perhaps a bit stuffy for us.  Had a couple of very nice appetizers, including probably the freshest scallop I’ve ever had and what were indubitably the freshest prawns I’d ever had. I say “indubitably” because they were very much alive when they hit the grill in front of us. Neither of us quite realized it a first and thought perhaps they were just “sizzling” – but no, the chef had to hold those suckers in place with his spatulas, to ensure they didn’t jump up and run into our labs. And they kept jumping around for a lot longer than I’d’ve thought. So, it was little strange for us, but gotta remember that we’re eating animals right? Oh, and they were delicious, including head and legs, which were served separately, all crispy-crunchy…

Did we really bring this much luggage?

Steaks were very good too, with more marbling than I’d ever seen – though frankly I think I prefer a meatier steak, with a bit more texture to it. And the chef’s skill with knife was impressive (and no, none of the food became airborne and there was not an onion ring volcano). The bill was also impressive…  But Chris and I enjoyed ourselves. Sadly, though, having such a rich meal on our last night in Tokyo was unwise – I didn’t feel that great, so we just went back to our hotel to prepare for our noon departure to Kyoto – not an easy feat considering the ridiculous amount of crap we brought. Have I mentioned that Chris brought seven (yes, seven) pairs of shoes? He did…  He did throw one old pair away – but then bought some new ones the next day…  Sayonara!

Tokyo – Some Random Pictures

So, yeah – I still haven’t updated with any stories of our travels.  We had one especially debauched evening in Tokyo and I never really got back on track with the blog updates.  However, I am still writing and will be posting more tales…  In the meantime, some photos from Tokyo.

Tokyo – Can’t Keep Track of Days Any Longer

Met up with our second Tokyo Free Guide on Saturday morning.  Had a walk through the Imperial Gardens, a really tasty lunch of grilled pork and a stroll through another of Tokyo’s many lovely gardens.  And though we enjoyed our tour, our guide was not as good as Takako-san – he wasn’t very organized, so the trip felt a little aimless.  For instance, while at the Imperial Gardens, he didn’t bother to take us to the Meganebashi Bridge, a lovely spot with a view of the emperor’s residence – we found it on our own when we went back on Monday.

Anyhoo, we said our thank-yous and farewells at around 2PM and headed to Tokyu Hands and Uniqlo to pick up items for our Halloween costumes – which were Krispy Kreme donut makers.  Our friend Skip had sent us Krispy Kreme hats last year and Chris brought them with us to Tokyo.  Since there’s a Krispy Kreme right across from our hotel, he picked up a dozen donuts and an extra box to cut up and make our “uniforms” – and did an amazing job of it.

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They like us... They really like us!

My friend Kenneth met us at our hotel and we took to the streets, donuts firmly in hand.  And we were a huge hit everywhere we went – especially with the people who were lucky enought to get some of our donuts. The original plan was to head over to some big crazy dance club, but we had so much fun in Ni-Chome (home to a bunch of Tokyo’s gay bars) that Chris and I just bar-hopped around there, before stumbling home, happy and donut-less.

We didn’t get an especially early start on Sunday (I know – what a surprise…  I think we made it out of the hotel at around 1PM). Grabbed some rice balls and fried shrimp from the food halls across the way at Takeshimaya which, along with copious amounts of fluids, revived us sufficiently to get on the train to Harajuku.

And what a lovely afternoon it was. Our first stop was the Meiji Jingu Shrine, set inside of a beautiful park right next to the craziness of Harajuku.  The shrine itself is lovely – I think my favorite so far – and being a Sunday it was filled with families who were bringing their young children to the shrine for special blessing ceremonies…  The moms in their best kimonos, the children adorable in their traditional garb. It was a great way to spend our afternoon.

DSC_2293We also ran into our guide Takako-san, who was showing a trio of Angelenos around.  We told them how lucky they were to have her as a guide.  Also ran into a couple of Brits we’d met during our Halloween escapades…  They were even more hungover than we were.  Really fun, though, bumping into people one knows in a city as large as Tokyo.

After the shrine, we headed into the heart of Harajuku. And it was insane – a narrow street mobbed with people, tiny shops crammed into every nook and cranny of every building, other narrower streets branching off in every direction, with more shops and more people.  It was great… Chris and I bought some cute sweatshirts at a jeans shop – despite being about 20 years older than their usual demographic.

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Harajuku - very restful and spa-like.

As we wandered toward Aoyama, the tone starts ramping up – first we hit La Foret, home to a bunch of trendy shops like Top Man; right next store is H&M; then comes Ralph Lauren; Louis Vuitton; Dior; a fancy-shmancy mall; Comme des Garçons; and the famous Prada store.  The  buildings are beautiful – tons of stunning and trendy architecture that, as Chris observed, makes Union Square look like downtown Dogpatch.  And the streets were PACKED with people every step of the way.

We stopped for dinner at Maisen, famed for it’s tonkatsu – and it was delicious.  I had a big slab of breaded, deep-fried pork loin – hard to go wrong there – and it was juicy, crispy and delightfully piggy (literally and figuratively). Wandered back to the train station for a little recharge back in our room before heading to our now-favorite haunts in Ni-Chome.

Met a Japanese fellow, Satoru-san, who used to live in SF and had a nice long chat with him.  I also developed a crush on the super-cute bartender at Dragon Men…  Though it sure made me feel old – he looked like he’d just gotten out of high school (ew, sorry – that sounded kinda pervy…)

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Deep-fried breaded pork - yes, please.

Chris eventually dragged me home from Arty Farty, a little dance bar nearby…  I’d gotten the opportunity to do some voguing, so the night was clearly a success.

Another late-ish start today. We went to re-visit the Imperial Gardens, only to find them closed – but we had a nice walk and enjoyed getting to see the residence.  Then off to Shibuya, for more crowds, craziness and shopping. Going back to Shibuya shortly for dinner at a Western-style place – we’ve been doing pretty well with Japanese food, but after a long week here, we figure a little taste of home will help perk us up – and we’ll need perking up…  Tomorrow’s a national holiday, so it’s a logical Friday night – meaning we have to go out and do another pub crawl…  It’d be rude to stay in…  Sayonara!

Tokyo, Days 3 & 4

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Chicken balls - figuratively, I think.

Dinner at Birdland.  Very good – rather small place  specializing in chicken yakitori…  We were seated at the counter, so we got to watch the busy chefs at the grill.   And nothing goes to waste, as was evidenced by being served heart, gizzard, liver and skin.  I ate everything – though I didn’t manage to finish all five of my chicken hearts – but Chris ate all of his.  I finished all my livers, though, which Chris did not… The chicken breast and meatballs were delicious, as was the special house sake.

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Kampai!

We made another attempt to find Advocates, the gay bar we’d heard about.  We took the subway to Shinjuku Sanchome, which we knew was pretty close – and we had a map.  Rather than try to find it on our own, we hailed a taxi right outside the subway station.  The driver apparently attempted to explain that our destination was essentially across the street, but we didn’t really understand what he was telling us – so he drove us two-and-a-half blocks to the bar… The place was tiny, but convivial – mostly gaijin hanging out.  After a few drinks there, we also stopped at Arty Farty and Dragon, two other nearby gay bars.  All the bars were pretty quiet, but it was nice to hang out with some other gays…  Also, I was plastered – yay!

Slept in a bit, had a Western-style breakfast at our hotel and then walked over to Isetan, a department store nearby. Chris bought some fancy floral underpants for me – they are super-cute and sexy…  Just not when I wear them.  But I love them nonetheless… Then back to the hotel, where met up with Takako-san, our Tokyo Free Guide. She was friendly, kind and knowledgeable – a very nice lady.  She took us first to Asakusa for a visit to the Sensoji Temple, as well as the nearby market – originally the location of the post-WWII black market.  Besides giving us a bit of history as we walked, she was answered our questions, which were far-ranging and various – though many were along the lines of “What’s he saying?” and “What’s that for?” – though we also asked and learned about some of Japan’s history.

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Chris-san and Takako-san

From there we headed to Ueno Park, a huge and lovely green space in the heart of Tokyo. We visited a Toshugo shrine, modeled after a similar shrine in Kyoto, which was very pretty.  At another shrine in the park, there is a memorial to those killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an eternal flame, taken from wreackage of a home after the destruction.  The memorial is quite dignified and very moving…

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Hiroshima & Nagasaki Memorial, surrounded by origami cranes.

Walked around a large pond that was filled with giant lotus plants, before heading to the Tokyo equivalent of a dollar store – retail shops here are endlessly fascinating.  Stopped for a quck bite – I had my first rice ball, which is my new favorite snack…  A slightly warm ball of rice, stuffed with a bit of tuna and mayonaise wrapped with a bit of nori…  Delicious.  Takako-san then took us to Akihabara and bid us farewell outside of the world’s largest electronics store.  Chris and I were weary, so we didn’t explore too much – we just went up to the fifth floor to admire the vast array of electronic toilet seats.  Seriously, I am getting one of those for our apartment back home – a plain old toilet seat feels downright uncivilized after using the automatic ass-washing variety…

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Prayers

Had a little lie-down at the hotel, then went for dinner at Tsunahachi, a tempura place recommended by one of Chris’ clients.  It was delicious – probably our favorite meal so far. Shrimp were amazing; Chris declared his scallops the best he’d ever had (and I have to agree – I like scallops, but I seldom swoon over them…  These were pretty swoon-worthy); and I had some kind of crazy autumn mushroom that was out of this world.

Just after we started eating, my friend Kenneth showed up – he’s a colleague who happened to be visiting Japan at the same time we were.  I’d emailed him the name of our restaurant and was very pleasantly surprised that he tracked us down…  We enjoyed the rest of our dinner together, then walked over to Ni-Chome again, for more drinks at the gay bars Chris and I had finally found the night before.  Had a great time – hung out with a Canadian fellow at Dragon, who is touring Japan with a choral group; met a couple of peculiar Australian gentleman; and watched in horror as a super-drunk Japanese lady did a face plant walking into the john…  I really expected to see her teeth scattered all over the floor, but she was helped up and had nary a scratch.

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Chef prepares tempura.

Home at a semi-reasonable hour, though we still didn’t get going today until about 11:00 for our trip to Disney Sea. Got there by noon and had a really fine time.  The place was rather crowded, but people-watching was good.  Some great rides, too – notably Journey to the Center of the Earth and Storm Rider, both unique to Disney Sea. Chris-san seemed to enjoy himself too – though I know he’s just indulging…  One of the many reasons I love him…

Decided to make it an early night – we have another tour tomorrow starting at 10:00, so we’re hoping to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Sayonara!

Tokyo, Days 2 & 3

I always forget what a pain in the ass it is to blog while I’m traveling.  We are generally on the go all day – when we get back to the hotel room, all I want to do is crack a beer and relax.  But since my posts also serve as something of a diary of our adventures, I feel obligated to write…  Plus, I don’t want to disappoint my three readers…  Of course, it doesn’t help that my writing style tends toward the flowery and is pretty much the polar opposite of concise.  Anyhoo, here goes…

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Our guide, Nakamura-san.

Our tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market was amazing.  We met up with our guide, Naoto Nakamura, at just before 4AM around the corner from the market.  Their were five other Americans taking the tour with us – and they were all very nice. Nakamura-san spent a number of years in fish business, so he really knows his way around the market.  If we’d tried to do this on our own, I doubt we’d have seen nearly as much of the market.  One of the highlights was seeing a bunch of the highly-skilled fish sellers preparing the 600-pound tuna they’d purchased. It was incredible to watch. Also saw bits of the tuna auction itself, with the workers wheeling off old-fashioned carts laden with a giant tuna or three after they’d been purchased.

Once the tour finished, Nakamura-san took us to one of the many tiny sushi joints in the market.  I think it was one of the “famous” ones, i.e. where people (Japanese and foreigners) line up for sushi.  Since it was only 6AM, we had a short wait to get a a couple of the ten seats the counter.  We went with the sushi set – the easy way out, since we don’t speak Japanese.  The sushi guys were super-friendly and very good at telling us what to do and eat.  The set was good – though it included uni (sea urchin gonads) which I’d never tried and was frankly a little freaked out by.  But, when in Rome…  It tasted fine – though the texture did make me gag a bit.  But I was able to help Chris out by eating his.  He, by the way, was pretty impressive – he’s rather freaked out by raw fish, but he ate just about everything he was served (though the salmon roe turned out to be pushing the envelope just a bit too far…).  The shrimp and tuna nigiri were all pretty amazing.  I have to confess though, I think I’m just not a huge sushi lover – I like it, but I don’t think it’ll ever make me wax rhapsodic…

DSC_1750From there we headed back to the hotel via subway – easy as pie to navigate, I’m happy to say. Back at the hotel, Chris had a bit of lie-down before we headed back out to explore Shinjuku before our scheduled walking tour of the neighborhood that I’d booked through the Tokyo Tourism Centre.  We showed up at the appointed hour, reservation email in hand – and which I realized instructed a re-confirmation the day before the tour.  And I hadn’t done this – so no tour.  They were very kind and apologetic, but it was my own fault and I felt like an idiot – it was very disappointing…  But we did head up to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – it’s on the 45th floor, it’s free and offers and expansive view of the city.

More wandering through Shinjuku…  We decided to check out Tokyu Hands, which is sort of a Japanese version of Target – though that description really doesn’t do it justice.  We thought we’d just take a quick peak, but wound up spending three hours there as we explored all eight floors.  Chris bought a body slimmer and a tongue scraper; I bought some special hanging clothespins (to hang my Bluettes at home) and a wallet; and I think we physically handled about 60% of the store’s inventory.

After that we spent an hour in the food halls in the basement of Takeshimaya department store.  And yes, we saw $150 cantaloupes and grapes the size of ping-pong balls.

Then back to the hotel before heading to dinner at Yuian, a place I’d read about on Chowhound.  It is on the 52nd floor of the Sumitomo Building, so the view was spectacular.  Regrettably, our waiter was incompetent.  He was very nice, but I think it may have been his first day.  He didn’t take our order until we’d been there 45 minutes.  The food, once it did arrive was just OK.   Both of us wound up with “do-it-yourself’ dishes – mini-hibachi with steak for Chris, shabu-shabu for me.  The whole experience was really disappointing…

Next, off to Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s little gay section.  Though we never found it.  Got completely lost, I got really crabby, we finally gave up and went back to the hotel, and hit the hay, each of us really pissed off at the other…  Fun!

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Yes, I know - we felt guilty for eating this too...

Wednesday morning we ironed out our differences and got another early start.  Chris finally heeded the siren call of Krispy Kreme, followed by a chai latte at Starbuck’s.  We kind of hated ourselves for going to either establishment – but considering both of them were jammed with Japanese, I think we were actually being pretty authentical.

First stop, Ginza.  Saw a couple of the luxe retailers with their schmancy buildings (Dior was our favorite).  Of course, it also didn’t take us long to say to ourselves, “Oh my god, we can’t afford this shit…” So we headed back to the subway (though Chris did buy a pair of sneakers at a nice, though compared to Mikimoto and Gucci, decidedly lower-end shop) for Roppongi.

Apparently, Roppongi isn’t what it used to be – a somewhat seedy spot that catered to tourists with overpriced lousy restaurants and hostess bars.  We went to Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Marketplace – two gigantic developments encompassing malls, offices and residences.  And it was as high end (if not more so) than Ginza.  We had tacos for lunch (they were delicious) and then rode up to the top of the Mori Building – home to an observation deck and a small but lovely museum featuring contemporary art.

And now we’re back at the hotel, just about done with our bottle of wine.  Back to Ginza tonight for dinner at Birdland, which specializes in chicken yakitori – and I think might serve chicken sashimi (no, I’m not lying).  And adventurous as I try to be, I will not be trying it…  Sayonara!

Tokyo Bound

And we’re off!  With nary a hiccup to boot.  Chris and I both packed (well, over-packed) and still had plenty of room left in our suitcases (OK, not really “plenty” – but considering we’re two big queens who hate to wear an outfit more than once, we did pretty well). No line at the check-in counter; had a decent breakfast at the airport food court; then headed to the Red Carpet Club…

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ANA must be embarassed to send their business class passengers to this United dump...

What a dump! Crowded; styrofoam (!) cups for water and coffee; a couple of stale cookies to snack on; and half-empty cups and crumpled up napkins all over the place.  And the best was when some kid knocked over a glass (yes, a real one – apparently her father was taking advantage of his two free drinks from the bar – as were we) and broke it.  They then took off for their flight…  The broken glass littering the floor and the deadly remaining shard on the table were still there when we left…

At any rate, what a relief to get on board our plane! Business class on ANA is heavenly (I know, how surprising…). Seriously, I’ve been looking at photos and reading reviews, none of which do the real thing justice. It’s spotless, tasteful, roomy, thoughtfully designed, airy…  I could go on and on. And the flight attendants are all lovely – professional, helpful and attractive.  Seriously, they are all very nice looking (as are the uniforms – the best part being the silk scarf…  which each stewardess has knotted in a different and elaborate bow).  Does that make me a chauvinist and/or racist?  Yeah, probably, but I’m enjoying the flight nonetheless…

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"Champers alright for you Pats?"

Mere minutes after we left the ground, the champagne was served – in real glasses.  Then a snack while we looked over our menus.  I was tempted to try the Japanese menu – though I’d heard it wasn’t as good coming from USA as from Nihon. So I chickened out and went with the “International” menu – it was pretty tasty.  Started off with a salad, pork pate and a stuffed artichoke – really quite tasty.  Next a filet of beef – it was “meh” though certainly not bad for airline food.  Dessert was crazy – “ANA’s special chestnut parfait.” It was two cream puffs on top of whipped cream and a scoop of ice cream with a berry coulis and what we’re pretty sure was Special K cereal at the bottom.  Odd, but we ate every bit…  Oh, and a green tea…  and a whiskey…

Anyhoo, seven hours to go.  Chris is “resting his eyes,” i.e. he’s passed out, though I think we’re going to watch “The Hangover” (appropriately) together when he comes to…  In the meantime, I’m about to start crossword puzzle number 2 of the trip.

So, the trip across the Pacific was delightful.  The 11 hours flew by (no pun intended!).  We arrived on-time at Narita in a pouring rain – hooray! But all went smoothly through customs and immigration.  However, I made a fateful last minute decision to take the “Limousine Bus” (it’s just a bus, despite the fancy sounding limousine part) rather than the Narita Express train – my thought being that having to schlep three blocks in the rain with our bags was not worth the extra 25 minutes (100 minutes by bus vs. 75 minutes by train) it takes to go by bus, which drops us at front door of hotel.

Needless to say, after spending over three hours on that bus (due to horrible traffic in Tokyo), I was in a foul mood – especially considering it had stopped raining long ago, thus negating the entire reason for choosing the bus…  Once we did get to the hotel, check in went relatively smoothly (thought of course there was a huge line of people who’d been on the bus with us). Couldn’t manage to get internet access in the room, which prompted a meltdown on my part – we still needed to confirm our tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market with our guide.  And the tour started at 4AM and it was already after 9PM…  Grrr…  Anyway, I used wi-fi in the lobby and left in-room access to deal with later…

So, we did get up and had a fabulous tour of the fish market…  I’ll post more about that later.  But we’re off for a tour of our neighborhood this afternoon, just as soon as Chris-san is done resting his eyes…  Sayonara!