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Family Vacation part 1: Tokyo

2010 January 24

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My bus got into Tokyo station early, so I made it to Ueno around 8 AM. Ueno station is one of the biggest in Tokyo, and the intersection in front of it pretty confusing, but last year I found it a convenient place to stay out of the real hustle and bustle of the city while still in range of easy transportation, reasonably-priced lodging, and plenty to eat. Once I got reoriented on the pedestrian bridges, I found my way and surprised my parents in their hotel room around 8:30. Sam joined us shortly thereafter. I’d been excited since the previous night, when they first made contact from Tokyo. It felt good to be on the same landmass as my family. But it was really something else to be with them in person.

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We had breakfast in a cool coffeeshop, and then set off for the station, where we obtained their JR passes. I forget if I mentioned the JR pass last year, but for anyone thinking of traveling in Japan, it’s definitely worth a look. You pay a set fee for one, two, or three weeks of travel on any Japan Rail-owned train, bus, or subway. Passes exist for different regions and for priority seats as well. The only disadvantage is that the Nozomi, the fastest bullet train, is excluded, and it seems like more and more Nozomi are in use. There are still enough other shinkansen that this isn’t such a big deal as long as you schedule your train slightly in advance.

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Our first day in Tokyo, we spent walking around central-central Tokyo, where the Imperial Palace grounds are.

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And by around, I mean all the way around. We were looking for the East Garden, but we went the long way around.

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On the way around the moat, I realized these cool tiles we were seeing represented the prefectural flowers of all 47 Japanese states. Shimane’s flower is the peony! Ishikawa’s flower is the black lily.

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We had lunch across from Yasukuni Jinja, which I insisted we couldn’t visit. Yasukuni houses the spirits of all who died serving the Emperor from the 1860s until 1951, including those who perpetrated war crimes in Manchuria and Nanking during World War II, which makes it a controversial place for heads of state to visit. Emperor Hirohito himself stopped visiting the shrine after Class-A war criminals were enshrined. Ironically, we ate at a Chinese restaurant. Fitting for our Christmas Day tradition!

When we finally got to the East Garden, it was closed, and I had sprained my ankle. We headed back to the hotel for a rest and then had dinner down one of Ueno’s lively sidestreets.

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The next day, we got on the Yamanote line, which runs in a circle around the major districts of central Tokyo. I figured it was a good way to see the city, despite the view from the train not always being the best. We made a couple stops: first was Shinjuku, where we found a great bakery and made our first pilgrimage to Uniqlo. Uniqlo is the Japanese Gap: cheap, basic fashion, although its single location in the US is making it hipper over there. Considering Japanese people always tell me my brother looks like a model, I figure he has a good chance of being hired by Uniqlo. He bought two shirts and a hoodie his first time in, so the relationship may work out after all!

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After Shinjuku, we went to Shibuya and saw the busiest intersection in the world. If you’ve ever watched a television program that showed Tokyo, they probably showed this intersection. There’s pedestrian traffic in three directions when the light changes, so it’s pretty amazing to walk through.

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We also did the escalator tour of both halves of 109, the super-fashionable department store that’s one of Shibuya’s landmarks. Japanese fashion is pretty peculiar and deserves a post in itself; suffice for now to say that it’s interesting to see how the desire to shape a personal identity and societal pressure to conform to a group work together to create a bizarre explosion of shopping culture.

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We also found a hat store, and Sam bought a hat just like he wanted. Hurray!

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After Vietnamese food in Shibuya, we moved on to Harajuku, fashion capital of Japan. Specifically, we went down Takeshita Street, where the “wild side” of Japanese fashion lives. Takeshita is where those “Harajuku Girls” Gwen Stefani loves to sing about do their shopping.

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On the way out of Takeshita, we ran into a crepe stand, and Sam learned his favorite bit of Japanese: ダーブルチョコ生クリーム, “daaburu choco nama kuriimu”. (Read it aloud and you’ll probably get what he ordered.)

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Instead of hopping back on the train at Harajuku station, we walked through Yoyogi Park. Meiji Jingu was closing, but we did enjoy a nice scenic walk.

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After resting up again at the hotel, at my insistence, we took the subway out to an older district in the same ward as Ueno called Asakusa. Dad’s guidebook recommended an do-it-yourself okonomiyaki place in a renovated old house, and I love okonomiyaki! The rest of the family was less enthusiastic, possibly because they were tired and possibly because we had to do all the work (or possibly I am the only one who loves okonomiyaki). Sam had do-it-yourself teppanyaki (food grilled on the hot table) instead.

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Before leaving Tokyo the next day, we ducked into the National Museum of Art to see some traditional artwork, relics, and handicrafts. Then we hopped to Tokyo station and boarded the shinkansen for Kyoto.

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