Day 3: TOKYO, Akihabara

11 July  – Weather 33°C at noon 

After all these walks of the day before, we let ourselves sleep that morning and woke up late. 

We decided to see our options for breakfast since the breakfast at the hotel wasn’t something to talk about. We went to a nearby cafe at the corner of the street, and took some delicious tuna sandwiches. Cheese sandwiches are not very common in Japan, and they have a bit of extra air of “exoticness”, which is very normal since Japanese culture relied on fish, rice, and vegetables for a long time. (However they have mastered the cheesecake and it is everywhere! Omg Japanese people adore cheesecake, I won’t complain because I do too). We had our cafe at Tully’s (we didn’t know then but quickly discovered that it’s a chain cafe store like Starbucks and they have delicious sandwiches, breakfast choices etc.)

Erhan notes: Perfect for westerners who are looking for a break from the Japanese cuisine which can be a bit overwhelming.

The sitting order
some people looks like they are from an anime

There are all kinds of people around Akihabara: business people, otaku, chic ladies, tiny humans…

Akihabara in the day

A Vampire Hunter D Hunter in AKIHABARA 

Akihabara is close to Ueno, therefore it was a good place to spend the day. I knew Akihabara is an otaku (people who consume a lot of anime, manga, and related everything) heaven but I was still taken by surprise by its sheer size. At the beginning of the street the manga and memorabilia shops start and go one after another, but don’t think that these are one-floor-shops, no no, nope, at least 5-6 floors of anime goodies. Everything you can possibly imagine and more. There was so much stuff that we couldn’t decide to buy anything, we thought we would look again later, maybe when we return to Tokyo. Expectedly things weren’t cheap either. I limited my search to only one thing, if I had found it I would buy it immediately: a figure of Vampire Hunter D! Unfortunately we had no such luck and bought nothing. 

Erhan notes: This is the first time I ended up convincing Mine to climb just one more floor in an anime toy Store. Which turned out to be 6 floors. Most Japanese weighing less than 90 kilos and having no bags of camera with them (unexpected I know) usually are able to climb but less active ones use the elevators which are often hidden deep somewhere in the labyrinthine layout of the stores. Later on, we learned it is best to locate these elevators and go to the top floor and take the stairs only to descend. The sheer size of the stores’ inventory really took us by surprise and we did not even understand what was the purpose of half of the stuff they were selling.

the hidden elevators

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Universe of Everything: Don Quijote

While walking we encountered the famous Don Quijote shop (the Akihabara one), we were missing some goodies so we entered the shop: actually it’s not a shop really, it is another universe!  Every corner, every floor has another theme… chocolates candies , cosmetics, some adult stuff, baggages, everything you can think of. It’s crazy, you can spend hours there and buy so much stuff you do not need normally.

Erhan’s Note: Which is interesting how Japanese live in this constant pull and give between a yearning of the so called zen simplicity vs allure of the over cluttered public and personal spaces. We’re all human after all. 

Heat Exhaustion

Again we were pretty exhausted from the sun, so we decided to take it easy and went to the hotel to rest. For lunch, we took some goodies from the Konbini and ate them in the room while cooling 🙂 We spent about 4 hours in the room, recovered from the heat exhaustion so that we can go back to the streets in the night when it’s cooler most importantly less humid.

Onigiris, egg salad and another salad. And the blue thing under the Onigiri is medical great cold compress gel pack for our knees, now serving as a compact refrigerator in the hotel:

It was our third day but heat exhaustion had already started to affect us, by then we didn’t know how difficult it would become along the way.

Next post: Our adventure of 11 July continues: Akihabara in the night…

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Goshuin and Stamps: A Great way to bring Japan back home with you

Once you are in Japan, the first thing that hits you is that it is different from home in every aspect, especially if you don’t already live in East Asia and it’s not just the alphabet.

First, it’s really colorful, not only in the night with the neon lights like in Shinjuku or so, but under the daylight too. You can see decorations and lanterns everywhere if it is a festival day perhaps in the summer when there are lots of lots of festivals (Matsuri). 

You will probably buy some stuff from the Matsuri counters, maybe a Japanese fan, an item that embodies Japanese culture more than others, like we did in Gion Matsuri (had to, due to sweltering heat anyway). Because it’s quite hot in summer, everybody has a fan in their hand, it’s a necessity more than an accessory. Or a souvenir from Matsuri?

Special Festival Shrine Stamps, or Goshuin

However the biggest souvenir from the matsuri are Goshuins which are special stamps that you can get imprinted on your Goshuincho (for more information about it, please read this post) from temples and shrines. 

Note: We were told that it is best to get a separate goshuincho for the matsuri seals. When the priests saw our goshuincho with some temple stamps already in on it they looked confused and we asked around if it was ok to do it. 

During the festival they have exclusive and special stamps associated with each float (a wooden construct that is sort of a shrine on wheels, that gets dragged along a route during the final day of the festival), and they are really beautiful. We realized this quite late and did not get all the stamps from the floats. Well there is always the next time 🙂

The Goshuin collected is a good souvenir also because you will see so many temples and shrines that after a while you don’t notice some of them in the way. Getting to the counter, and asking for a stamp really puts a face in your mind associated with the place and creates a unique memory. This is why the most meaningful and precious remembrance from Japan is our Goshuincho. Every time we were in a temple or shrine, the first thing we did was pay our respects and then go to get our Goshuin. 

Where to get a Goshuincho? 

You may get a goshuincho from the first temple/shrine you visited or from a stationery store like Tokyu Hands. We did get one from the first temple and I got one just for the love of its cover from Tokyu Hands but got filled only with the temple one, the other is waiting in our library for our next trip to Japan. 

It’s waiting for our next trip to Japan

Note: Beware that if you stamp or write anything else in the goshuincho, the priest may decline to use it for Goshuin. It makes sense to keep things tidy given how the priests also give an effort to their calligraphy. We got by by looking confused, disheveled, and a bit lost so they gave us no trouble, but I could sense some were annoyed with the state of our dirty and untidy goshuincho. Bonus fact: they also sell amazing Goshuincho covers and bags so that the books don’t get dirty. (Ours did get dirty after all that handling). So treat it with care and love:) 

And beware that sometimes there is no one in the temple/shrine, but they are leaving already prepared goshuin for that purpose, and you pay the fee and collect it.

Maybe the most precious Goshuins are the ones we got from Iseshima

More Stamps to collect: Japanese philosophy of “gotta get’em all”

Goshuin philosophy extends into regular locations in my opinion as well, as the Japanese put a certain value to every public location in their life; it may be a post office or a national museum or a trekking route or a park. That’s why every place has a stamp as a souvenir. Therefore my advice is to bring a (several in fact) notebook(s) that you love or buy from there especially for these stamps. Unfortunately we didn’t notice these stamps until Hakodate, so I decided to stamp the pages of my notebook where I took the notes of our journey everyday (hence the blog can be written after 2 years).  

Erhan’s note: There are amazing guidelines to collecting Goshuin, or even Goshuincho themselves are highly sought after. I have even heard of a wooden walking stick that gets fire branded with temple stamps along the trekking/pilgrimage route in Kumano Kodo. I regret asking for it. Here are some links to goshuin guidelines where you may find more detailed information.

  • About the Gion Matsuri Goshuin

Sharing kyoto a guide on goshuin

  • Some  reddit posts that explain quite a lot 

guide temple and shrine stamps

unique goshuin

  • Some more links about goshuin

a guide on Savvy Tokyo

Japanese stamp books on the book loving pharmacist

I really hope you read this post before going to Japan, and get these notebooks with you home. Our goshuincho is maybe the most valuable thing we bring from Japan. It is amazing how dear a souvenir becomes when you actually put something of your own into it.

For past travelers, did you know these before your trip? Did you get any of them? Any crazy goshuin we should have not missed, or goshuincho that is coveted? Comment below to share your experiences. 

Next post: Our day in Akihabara…

Stay tuned

Day 2 (cont.)- TOKYO, Ueno Park

10 July (continued)

JOMON EXHIBITION

We saw the banners and we saw the posters. Some odd looking clay figures and pots that look deceptively simple. 10000 Years old prehistoric art in Japan. Even though we had not planned a visit, we had to see it; which was the best thing about a long trip: space for unplanned events and exploration!

If you ever have the chance to see it yourself, go for it! We saw the exquisite Dogu figures which resembled to little gingerbread people 🙂 (for more information Wikipedia) as well as many more interesting arts and artifacts in the complete collection of the museum.

Erhan’s note: From a game developer’s perspective, the Jomon period explained almost the entire history of Japanese game art and where most of their inspiration came from (especially the mainstream ones such as mario, zelda series etc.). It was especially surprising for me since I would have never thought to see the roots of digital art in a museum featuring 10.000 year old artifacts. In retrospect it makes total sense.

The rest of the collection was worth visiting too. Having been exposed to classical western and to a degree islamic classical art for the most part it was amazing to see what kept the Japanese inspired and busy through the ages.

Even though it seems from the photos that Erhan is defiling and pillaging the ancient artifacts like a hapless giant who hopes his wanton destruction goes unnoticed, these were only interactive parts of the exhibition, which made it more interesting.

Further interesting photography from within the museum as well as other details of our museum tour

Erhan’s note: The 4th picture looks totally like it is from a Mario game.

Of course we were not the only ones who spent the afternoon to avoid the sun, as always there were lots of people enjoying the AC and some even relaxing in the cool air of the museum by sleeping on the benches (during the journey we learned by experience that this behavior was totally normal for Japanese people).

Inside of the museum
the best place for sleeping, the hall of the museum
A little overwhelmed, I am sitting in a dark corner of the museum waiting for Erhan to shoot some more photos:)

First Curry Experience

For lunch, we saw some food trucks in front of the museum, we took some food and found some shade. 

Erhan’s note: This is where we ate our first curry and rice in Japan. II have to say it was not good. Mostly because it was from a food truck in front of a museum under sweltering summer heat. I have to admit I thought all Japanese curry had to taste amazing for some reason. I blame Ghibli animations.

In front of the museum and the food truck in question
our first curry in Japan, thankfully not the last (curry is so delicious normally)
Walking to the museum in the sun

University of Arts

After the museum, we continued to walk in the park and saw Tokyo University of Arts. Giving in to our curiosity, we walked in, (usually entering university grounds is a big issue in Turkey and prohibited or entirely regulated by private security) and had a lovely time in their outside cafeteria. Watching colorful characters of students and staff, and seeing the university life was an interesting experience that not many tourists get to enjoy. 

Erhan’s note: This statue by Rodin (more about it here), standing in the garden of the Tokyo University of the Arts, drew my attention. People who are familiar with Japanese manga, anime, and otherwise popular culture are probably aware of their comically effeminate yet perfectly proportioned male figure trope. I thought it was just a quirky comical effect found in popular culture references. A way of poking fun at western idea of human perfection. It was a welcome shock to see it in the bronze in front of me on a park near the university grounds. Although many such casts exist out there across the world, this statue had such a stark contrast that it stood out along with its un-Japanese surroundings, and undoubtedly has influenced many people who attended the Tokyo University of the Arts. It was about two westerners (well Istanbulites at the very least) seeing what Japanese think the western values uphold. This among many other things we saw across our travels explained so much about what inspires the Japanese culture. Incredible adoption of German cultural features in some cases, as well as an infatuation with things of the French nature. We even visited an Italian restaurant in Tokyo towards the end of our trip and I am glad we did. (more about that later :D)

University’s garden
University students enjoying a fine day
Students

Let’s enjoy the park from above

Even though our short visit was refreshing, we had spent quite some energy walking around. We still needed to sit and drink something, and found a rooftop restaurant in a building within the park (Ueno Seiyoken), after a long day the first Japanese beer was rewarding and made up for all the exhausting steps.

small erhan’s note: my beard looks at tip top shape here… it gradually gets rowdier towards the end of trip. This blog is worth reading just to witness that if not for anything else 😀

Erhan’s note: I remember checking google to find a decent restaurant nearby and not coming up with much given we were in the middle of the park. We walked into the building that we thought was a restaurant but had to climb up to the top floor to find it. There is something that gives you the butterflies about not being completely sure where you will end up, but the relief when you arrive in a welcoming place as often the case is in japan is completely worth it.

The meal wasn’t anything to write home about, but from up there you can see the entire park, all green with water lillies, and the rest of the metropolitan city scape; it was a special moment of us that marked the first excursion in Japan, first real day of our adventure.

View of the park from the rooftop
View of the park from the rooftop
another perspective from Erhan’s camera

Erhan’s note: And it had gone spectacularly well for a first day too. 😀

We decided to finish our day after the beer time and to walk straight to the hotel but we were intrigued to see our first gashapon and claw machines in the wild, to be frank they are quit tempting even though you know it’s nearly impossible to win something worthwhile.

We passed some busy streets while walking to the hotel, enjoyed our first evening stroll.

When we reached the hotel, since the room was too tiny and no window could be opened, it was a little difficult for us to sleep with the AC (and we were still adjusting to the Japan time). 

our hotel room window

Have you been to Ueno Park? Did you enjoy it too? Did you see the full bloom? Comment below, let us know more!

Did you know that Google maps keeps your walking history? We learned that recently, here is the crazy summary of our 10th July.

total steps of the day: 17920 steps

The next day is another Japanese famous place: Akihabara…

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Day 2: TOKYO, Ueno Park

10 July – weather: 32 °C at noon

Erhan’s note: We woke up, took the comically tiny shower, and headed downstairs for breakfast. It was a combination of western/japanese sort of canned hotel breakfast type. They had little croissants, some miso soup, natto, rice, and some pickles on the buffet. First time having tasted natto (fermented sticky soybeans with a wet sock taste and consistency), I understood why people have different opinions on it.

Even though Erhan seemed to enjoy the taste of sticky wet sock, I was left a bit wanting after the breakfast. We googled our environment and decided to go to the Ueno Park: a great destination for the first day orientation. We grabbed our cameras and wandered out.

Ueno Park

It is a big park with a lake in the middle covered by water lilies. Unfortunately, we had missed their bloom, but it was already beautiful, covering the entire lake there was a sea of green leaves. I couldn’t imagine how beautiful they would be in their bloom (maybe a goal for the next time?). 

Ueno Park

Mystery of the Konbini Onigiri

For lunch, we took our Onigiri (Japanese rice balls where there is a flavored filling inside) from the nearby Konbini (Japanese convenience stores, like 7eleven, Lawsons, Familymart). I already had a favorite one: Tuna Mayo. I wouldn’t think something so simple would be so delicious (oishii: a word for delicious we would often use for the entire trip). By the way, being new in Japan, this was already our second time tasting the store sold onigiri and we were struggling with the packaging. They all had this double plastic wrapping with the seaweed in between, so that the rice ball would not touch the seaweed (Nori) unless it is opened. The reason was simple, the nori would get soggy and stick to the rice ball immediately once you opened the package, so it had to be kept isolated. Once we learned how to slowly unwrap it and hold the nori in a way to pinch the rice ball so it wraps around it, it was no longer a frustrating mess of rice and seaweed mush.

the Onigiri counter at the Konbini

First Temple Visit (temple/shrine count #1)

To our surprise our walk in the park led to our first temple visit! Benten-do Temple. 

Erhan’s note: We quickly learned that in Japan most parks have a shrine/temple or both given how the Japanese religious structure encompasses nature in a way. We further later learned that Japanese tend to build shrines everywhere nature or not. I had heard that some tourists experience Shrine Fatigue, a term which encompasses the disinterest they start feeling after visiting shrine after temple after shrine after temple. I was quite ok with it personally.

You may see from the photos how excited we were to come across it. The very thing we only saw in so many other photos was standing there in real life in front of us. 

Benten-do Buddhist Temple
Daikokutendo next to Benten-do Temple

We went straight to the booth of temple where they sold charms and temple related things. We immediately bought our goshuincho (御朱印帳), the special book in which you collect goshuin (御朱印) (seal stamps that worshippers and visitors to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples collect), and of course first goshuin was made there. Btw, you make a donation to take a goshuin, it’s normally around 300 yen, app. 3 dollars. 

Erhan’s note: I think we learned about the goshuincho during our preparation phase. So we already knew we should purchase it the moment we saw it. The booklets are beautiful for the most part, covered with a silk weave stitched on the covers, a depiction of whatever makes that particular temple or shrine you bought it from famous. Some booklets are really nice and some are rather minimalistic. Later in our trip, we also learned that even though most touristic temples charge you a fee for a stamp and signature, local temples where tourists rarely go to do not ask for a fee. Some temples just leave pre-signed leaflets to put in between your booklet, and a donation box nearby.

In the temples and shrines you may also purchase fortunes,  boxes, wrappings, charms, inscriptions in any form or method you can imagine.

Erhan’s note: I think we should make an additional blog post covering temples and what you can find in them.

me holding my first fortune 🙂

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Life in Ueno Park

We were already impressed with the local people when we saw this man casually chatting with his friends while playing/feeding the birds, he was so natural and nonchalant about it, he didn’t even look at them. 

the man and the sparrow

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Did I say it was a hot day? On the first day of our trip we had already experienced the famous humidity and heat of the Japanese summer. We started looking for some interior coolness.

While walking in the park we found out that there were many museums in the area, perfect for cooling down. Namely Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum for Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Science Museum. The park was also home to the Ueno Zoo. As appreciators of fine art, our first choice was The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. It was closed, so we chose to visit Tokyo National Museum.

And what a luck! we saw the banners for the “JOMON” exhibition, we wandered in excitedly.

To be continued in the next post…