Two Years in Tokyo
It took a while but here goes!
As I covered in Fate, this trip happened entirely due to a bizarre set of circumstances. We only had barely three months to prepare and judging how long it took me to finally start writing this, that's virtually no time. We just had a couple of days in between the Taiwan trip and this one and until just a couple of days, my mind was primarily focused on getting the Taiwan details right. Japan had this simple outline: snow/skiing, a scenic view of Mt. Fuji, buy toys for Rafa, eat good food and see some very unique sights in Tokyo during that time of the year. We had a place to stay, tickets for the Mt. Fuji tour and Legoland and a rough idea on how to go to the ski resort but that's about it. I was basically winging it for most of the trip. Oh, I also planned to eat in a restaurant that my wife will surely think too expensive.
Night 1/Day 1: Shinjuku, Odaiba & Legoland (December 27/28)
The flight in was uneventful in a good way (as expected): on schedule and relatively no transportation hassle for two adults carrying two full size luggages and a 5 year old on a stroller. However, what surprised me are two very important things that we had to endure throughout our stay: the distance of the Airbnb that we are staying in from the nearest train station (Ebisu) and the degree of coldness. The station was a good 10-15 minute walk depending on your pace but that is enough to make you feel really, really cold if you don't walk at a brisk pace which in turn would then tire you out quickly. I was battling exhaustion and the beginnings of a fever by popping paracetamol pills multiple times daily. But the walk to and from the Airbnb would actually have been pleasant enough if not for the biting cold. It was a couple of degrees colder than I was expecting to and I was terribly unprepared for it. I brought enough jackets to never have to repeat any of them during the entire trip (what a waste of luggage space, never again) but what I lacked are the additional layers that I needed in order to combat the coldness. Thank God that I brought enough sleeping clothes to last me the whole trip and I was wearing them under my sweaters.
On our first morning in Tokyo, we had to go to Shinjuku station to get our JR Tokyo Wide Pass. Unfortunately, this pass cannot be bought outside of Japan unlike the usual JR Pass - I would have actually prepared for that. Getting to their office proved quite troublesome as we didn't have a map of Shinjuku station where we can find it (as I said, I was unprepared). What made it worse is that there's a long line of people already queued waiting for their turn and I had to line up close to an hour before we could get our passes. It was quite the delay already considering this is Japan and we actually have to rejigger schedules. We were supposed to go to Gala Yuzawa that day and the next but the train that we're after already left. So we had to move it to the day after next because the weather forecast for Mt. Fuji the next day is the only sunny one in the time that we will be there. The remaining question there is what to do on that day itself.
What we decided on was to just go to Legoland in Odaiba and spend the afternoon there. We had lunch at a restaurant called Bills and it's okay ("okay" in the sense that it's really good already compared to my standards but I know Tokyo can do better). This was in Deckss (the mall where Legoland is also situated) and it is overlooking Odaiba beach and it's a very relaxed place and Rafa took advantage by sleeping inside the restaurant. This allowed me to have some time taking photos and videos of Odaiba beach and the surrounding buildings. After around an hour of nap time, we were now on our way to Legoland.
I bought our Legoland tickets through Klook. We decided early on that we will not go to Tokyo Disneyland or Disneysea this trip as we just went there last 2016 (so it's technically three years in Tokyo?) but I felt that we need to have something in the itinerary that's specifically for Rafa similar to the Taipei Children's Amusement Park in our Taiwan trip so that's the Tokyo Legoland Discovery Center for this Tokyo trip. Ticket per adult is only at P888 (Rafa is free to enter) so I wasn't expecting anything that will truly amaze me and my (low) expectations of it turned out to be very much aligned with reality. It was in a mall so it can't be that huge and there were up to four or five attractions inside (we tried one) and the rest of the space were different play areas. Had fun crafting a rudimentary buggy with the lego sets for Rafa and Rafa had fun wrecking them but for the most part it was largely just okay. It was good, quality time spent playing and running around with Rafa but I felt that I could have been more creative in finding a more interesting place for Rafa's part of the trip. Day ended with us eating at a pretty good sushi place in Ebisu called Edomae Bikkuri Zushi.
Day 2: Mt. Fuji & Lake Kawaguchi (December 29)
This will be our 2nd time in going to Mt. Fuji. The first time was in 2016 where we went to the 5th station. It was quite good but the views were not that spectacular since we were already so close to it. It's more of a view from Mt. Fuji. What I wanted for cinematic reasons (and for the new experience, of course) is the full view of Mt. Fuji and there is no better place for that than the views from Lake Kawaguchiko. I considered the Klook option with a side trip to Gotemba but we weren't really interested in shopping and the time in Gotemba is too long in my opinion. So we just opted for the Tokyo Wide Pass since we're going to Gala Yuzawa anyway. The thing is, the earliest available train leaves at around 10am so we already arrived by 12 noon. We hurried to have lunch at this tempura place aptly (if a bit plainly) named Tempura Restaurant. We had to line up for at least 45 minutes before we got a table. There is no other way to say this - it has the best shrimp tempura that I've ever tasted in my life. I got additional tempura AND ate Rafa's share as well, it was just sooo good. We finished eating at around 1:30PM and we jumped on the bus to the Lake Kawaguchi area.
We got an Omni red bus from Fujikyuko Bus and we're off to Mt. Fuji. It was around a 30 minute ride to Oishi Park, our desired sightseeing area although there are other options around the lake as well. When we arrived there, I was hustling to take enough photos and videos of the family with the picturesque Mt. Fuji as background. We stopped for some lavender ice cream which was so good even if the weather was getting colder as the afternoon passed by. All in all, we spent less than three hours in the park then we had to go back because the sun was setting already. We had so much fun there and the photos and videos from the place were simply stunning but I felt that we missed going to so many places around the area because of the limited time that we had. I think we needed at least a day and a half to two full days ideally to enjoy the vicinity around Lake Kawaguchi. It will not even be enough to explore the whole area but you'll get to see plenty. A random observation that I had on the way back to Tokyo is that our very own Mt. Mayon is at least as majestic as Mt. Fuji (it has a better shape IMO) but the area around Mt. Mayon needs to be developed more so that it can attract and support more tourists. Anyway, we ended the day with dinner at a burger joint called Shake Shack (weird name for a burger place but they do have shakes) and their burgers are quite nice. We needed to turn in quite early so we can catch the early train to Gala Yuzawa on the following morning.
Day 3: Gala Yuzawa (December 30)
We were already on a train to Tokyo station by around 6:30AM and was waiting for the Max Tanigawa train (basically a double decker bullet train going to the vicinity of Mt. Tanigawa) by around 7AM. It will be our train to Gala Yuzawa, the only ski resort in Japan that has its own train station. We didn't have reserve seating so we had to find unused seats in the train. The unique thing about this train is that it’s actually two trains combined and (after seeing multiple signs after we were seated) I realized that it will leave the other train behind Echigoyuzawa, the train station before Gala Yuzawa. So I traversed what felt like the whole train and also found out that there is also no access from our train to the one in front. So I frantically went back to my family, told them about the situation and advised the train attendant as well. After a couple of exchanges and the help of another Japanese passenger, the language barrier was broken and we were advised to quickly walk the length of the train (my third time to do so within 30 minutes) to be as close as possible to the train in front and run to the next one on the next stop. We didn’t have time to traverse the whole train even if we’re hustling so at the next stop we had to get out to the platform and run like hell to the next train. We barely made it. What was supposedly a comfortable an hour and some change ride became a bit of stressful endeavor. Until we saw the snow.
On the way to Gala Yuzawa, we noticed that snow was falling and that was just amazing for the family. It’s the first time for both my wife and son and while I’ve seen snow when I visited the US back when I was in grade school, I was quite excited as well. Directly experiencing the snow would have to wait for another hour or so after we arrived at Gala Yuzawa since we had to line up for registration and for snow gear and equipment. The place was quite packed and while the line was orderly, there were just too many people. At long last, we were in our rented waterproof jackets and pants and snow boots, and it was time for some snow-filled fun. Seeing a fresh blanket of snow is great but experiencing lightly falling snow for the very first time and playing in it was just magical. The family loved it so much and it was already worth the price of admission. The very best photos and videos of this trip came from this time. We had a quick lunch then it's off to our ski lessons.
The ski area is accessible via cable car from the train station and the views from there are spectacular. We had an Australian instructor teach us the basics of skiing and boy was it quite challenging. Rafa was having a very hard time of it and me and Claire weren't doing so hot either. We had two hours worth of lessons and even after that, I don't even think we were prepared for even the gentlest slopes (not the fault of the instructor). I think Rafa and Claire could have just gotten sleds instead and I could have just joined the group lessons for skiing and that would have been way cheaper and more enjoyable for everyone. We ended our session around 3PM but I wanted time skiing so I headed to the slopes. The first sign that this was going to be one helluva disaster is when I dropped one of my ski sticks while riding the lift so I had to do the slope while using only one stick. I fell down quite early on and I wasn't able to get up again. At all. After almost an hour, it ended with me being dragged by the two park crew down the slope. Claire was quite furious that I took so much time at the slopes, Rafa fell asleep already from excessive crying while waiting for me and we missed our train back and had to ride the next one. Pathetic. Ended the day with ramen at Ippudo (quite good!) and conked out quite early in preparation for another day of skiing the next day.
Day 4: Gala Yuzawa, Akihabara & Tokyo Tower (December 31)
Thankfully, there's no train snafu anymore so we got to Gala Yuzawa without incident. The problem is that the wind is a bit stronger that day so the gondola had to stop periodically as it worked up the ski area. When we finally made it to the ski area, we just hung around in the kids area while Rafa was playing in the snow and I was taking video footage. That was the plan for the whole morning. We had lunch of very big servings of katsudon and we were enjoying it (I was eating Rafa's portions again) until the announcement that Gala Yuzawa will close for the day because of windy conditions. There were shuttles to the nearby ski resorts but we just decided to just play in the snow a bit at the train station/visitor center then go back to Tokyo earlier than planned. Highly disappointed that I wasn't able to redeem myself and my skiing but I guess that's just another reason to go back. I had to rethink our itinerary on the fly again and we decided to head to Akihabara for Rafa's shopping spree.
We arrived in Akihabara past 4PM already and we beelined to Super Potato, the toy store where Rafa's plushies are found. Ever since Rafa knew that we will be going to Tokyo, he has intimated that he really wanted to buy Mario plushies - essentially, dolls for boys. He was quite tired already when we arrived in Akihabara and he was dozing off in his stroller when we finally found the place. What happened next was something that I regret not having a video of - his mood instantly turned from grouchy to giddy in just a matter of seconds when he realized where we were. He was sooo excited as everything that he said he wanted was all in that shop. Fortunately (or unfortunately for Rafa), Claire was there to keep us in line in our toy shopping or else the damage would have been much worse. Spoiler alert: only Rafa ended had the chance to go shopping on this trip. We had dinner after (Sushi Go Round and McDonalds) and we were off to Tokyo Tower.
I bought tickets for the Tokyo Tower tour with Klook and it was very easy and painless as usual. Although one thing that I didn't notice was that it did not include access to the Special Observatory at 250m and the reason why it didn't is that it was under renovation. If I knew that back then, I would have opted for the Skytree and just reserve the visit to the Tokyo Tower on 2019, when it will reopen. Since we went during nighttime, it was quite dark in the 150m observation deck already and with a lights installation that is more on the space vibe, it did not make for very good photos (smart phone cameras still have a lot to improve on low light environments). We went to Tokyo Tower hoping that there might be some New Year salubong spectacle there but unfortunately there was none. In fact, Tokyo seems to be very tame during New Year's eve relative to most countries that I know of. So, we just went home already and just called the family in the Philippines to greet them a Happy New Year.
Day 5: Shibuya & Meiji Shrine (January 1, 2018)
Finally! I think I'm already done with all that needs to be written for last year (2017) and I'm moving on to 2018! I wanted to start 2018 right by trying to go shopping in Tokyo so we went to Shibuya hoping that we can get sweet fukubukuro but sadly, the only thing that tempted me a bit was the one at Adidas but it did not compel me to part with my money. What I was going after was the new Apple Watch but the Apple store there is under renovation so the only thing that's left to do there is to...take jumping photos at the Shibuya crossing!
We also tried to find a nice place for lunch there but almost all of the restaurants were closed. We just found a (sad) fast food and filled our bellies then we proceeded to the Meiji Shrine.
It was a custom of the Japanese to visit their shrines during New Year so we thought to see what's up with that. The entrance of the Meiji Shrine is wide enough but as you go in, it's a very long and wide line towards the shrines. In true Japanese fashion, people were still extremely disciplined and orderly despite the packed venue. So it was a slow trudge until we reached the inner sanctum and there, thankfully, was a line for children (and their parents, thanks Rafa) so we got ahead of the queue. When we reached the shrine, I think people say some sort of prayer and they throw coins at the shrine. It's actually quite bizarre for us but we didn't do any research so we'll naturally not understand. Anyway, we just bought the dog token outside the gates so we'll have pasalubong.
After that, it's the usual problem of where to eat dinner and I suggested that maybe we can go to Rokkasen in Shinjuku since it's supposedly a pretty good yakiniku place based on my research. We didn't have reservation so the chances that we get in are quite small but we tried to go there anyway. Luckily, someone cancelled their reservation. I was just planning to get the a la carte options as the food is quite expensive but unfortunately, only the eat all you can option is available. Fortunately, the wife agreed (or surrendered) to get the eat all you can option and Rokkasen delivered! The meat and seafood were fantastic and we were truly satisfied, the tiredness from the Meiji Shrine escapade completely replaced by pure bliss.
Day 6: Tokyo Imperial Palace (January 2, 2018)
The only thing sure in the itinerary of our last day in Tokyo was to go to the Tokyo Imperial Palace to see the Japanese Emperor. Based on my research, he shows himself to the public only twice in a year - January 2 and his birthday (which I'm too lazy to find out right now and is actually irrelevant to this piece) so I thought that we shouldn't miss the chance. Due to our need to pack our bags, prepare travel arrangements to the airport and to just simply recuperate from the travels of the previous days, we arrived at the Tokyo Imperial Palace by after lunch with the scheduled viewing at 2PM. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the lines here are even longer than the ones at the Meiji Shrine but it is also more orderly. They were police organizing the lines but I think the Japanese has this bias to just be organized and that they would have organized themselves regardless in there were police or not. Anyway, it was like a rock concert but very prim and proper. The Emperor was quite late though - he showed himself at 2:45PM but I guess the allowance is just to organize the queues and to allow for stragglers. Japanese flags were being given away and we got a couple for ourselves so we can sort of blend in. I have his whole speech on video but I don't understand but the people were cheering loudly (but in a very orderly manner) so I guess they like what they're hearing. After that, we made our way to the airport already (via bus, from Tokyo station) and bought lots of Royce chocolates there while waiting for our flight.
It has been a whirlwind of travel experiences ever since we left for Taiwan last December 15, 2017 and I am quite spent already. I'm taking paracetamol on an hourly basis just to fight a budding fever from the fatigue and the weather and coldness that is a couple of degrees colder than expected. Regardless, travelling to Japan has always been a very pleasant experience for me and that time was no different. Hopefully I'll be back in time for the olympics but until then, I think I'll explore other countries first.