Day 5: TOKYO to KYOTO, 1st Shinkansen experience

13 July 

Heading Towards Kyoto

Weather : 34C degrees at noon

We checked out from the hotel in the morning and from Okachimachi we went to Tokyo station. Since this would be our first Shinkansen experience, we took the tickets for the 11:50 train. Not too late not too early. We found the lockers and locked in our baggage. There were many lockers but since lots of people pass through busy stations, most of them were already filled, so it took a little time to find a non-occupied one. There are size options in the lockers, for our luggage we chose the 700 yen (app. 7 dollars) option. The rule is that your stuff can remain there for 3 days at this price but we needed only for a couple hours. We ended up settling for the price since there were no cheaper/shorter time options.

Tokyo station is really big*, so we decided to take a tour first and spotted the shops for Bento Boxes. It was so crowded with so many options, we had to walk at least 3 times the same shop. It was really hard to choose but we managed to make one, for me sushi and for Erhan is a really big Bento box and of course some drinks to accompany. Time to take the luggage and head to the train…

* Erhan’s Note: Although the main building of the Tokyo station looks old and relatively (especially relative to building around it) small, it  has a huge underground complex, something that is fairly common for most stations we saw in urban areas. It is really easy to get lost in them.

Finding Your Train in Tokyo Station

It was easy to find the train if you follow the line signs. The track/platform was written in your ticket in numbers along with other Japanese signs and your seat numbers (if you had a reserved ticket) If you have trouble finding which line, Google maps was working really well even within enclosed spaces such as train stations and shopping malls. I’m sure that you heard the story of the Japanese shinkansen conductor who had to apologize for coming early to the destination. This is true because they are known with their punctuality.* Fearing that we would miss the train in the madness of the station, we went there at least 20 minutes earlier. 

* Erhan’s Note: The entire nation seems to be functioning on a seamless consequent displacement of people, vehicles, and goods without a break. It is very much like what a healthy circulatory system should look like, even with the overcrowded public transport. 

One Additional thing that I learned before coming to Japan is that the track officers bow down to incoming and outgoing trains, as well as conductors within bowing when they exit individual train segments. A lot of bowing down happens in general in Japan, but I think in this case it functions as a memory tool, something that the officers and workers use to indicate that they are present, and that their duties are performed satisfactorily, to the point where they can bow out with relative assurance. Sort of a ritualistic non verbal mass communication punctuation that has both internal and external significance.

Silent, Efficient, and Fast: Cleaning Team of the Shinkansen

The train came, passengers exited, and the cleaners came to the train with their pink outfits and cleaning equipment. It was so ceremonial, fascinating to watch.* They left the clean train at the same time and at the exact time, waiting passengers started to step in.

* Erhan’s Note: Also a bit like formula 1 pit stop teams, but with elderly women in majority. Acting all in unison and precision. They went in and came out and everything was squeaky clean.

Shinkansen Food: Bento Time!

Erhan and I were so excited that the minute the train left the station, we opened our Bentos, even though we were not yet hungry.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet Train

Shinkansen speed is about 220 to 330km/h . And of course we tested the famous stability of the train along the tracks with our drinks to see if they would spill along the ride! The answer is of course no, not a movement.

Drinking on the train is always fun.

With this speed, it took approximately . 2.5 hours to go to Kyoto from Tokyo station (normally it’s almost an 8 hours drive) . At the 50th minute of the ride, we saw 富士山 (FUJI-SAN) a little bit, with its glorious curves. As Turkish persons, we are very keen to watch scenery along the way since Turkey has also an impressive list on its own. In this sense, this ride was almost poetic for us.

And finally KYOTO… A Dreamland in the Normal World.

Since we planned a long stay in Kyoto, we had arranged an Airbnb house there. The check out time was 4 pm, it was still early to go there, so we decided not to spend any money for lockers twice in the same day and took our luggage with us. 

Once we stepped into Kyoto station, a music welcomed us from far away, when we approached we saw there is a presentation of Gion Matsuri and the music is coming there, a special music to the festival.

After checking the presentation a little bit, we spent our time in Mister Donuts in the station. The donuts are always a good threat but a bad idea for the health at the same time:)

We followed the directions of our Airbnb host and took a bus in front of the station. Every first experience was a new lesson to us.*

* Erhan’s Note: We had heard so much about it, and were excited like little kids. Right off the train the station itself was quite impressive, and out of the station we were greeted by the Kyoto tower. 

Our first Airbnb experience in Kyoto

Following the directions of our Airbnb host, we found the bus to the house. Tip: In Japan, you pay the bus fare to the driver while descending but always prepare your money beforehand, otherwise everyone is waiting for you to pay and it’s very uncomfortable.*

Erhan’s Note: The bus experience was very traumatic for me because I was scrambling to get the exact change for the bus fare. I had to give it to the driver instead of depositing it in the box near the front exit, and he waved me off, probably saying it was ok. For some reason I felt the entire nation would be angry with me for failing such a simple and basic activity. Silly tourist…

Our house has only one bedroom including the entry, the kitchen and the living room:) but after the hotel room, we thought that it’s big and comfortable. It even had a balcony. In Turkey, we are used to taking out our shoes while entering home, but I know that most Americans or Europeans are not very used to this habit. Be prepared, in Japan, you will definitely take your shoes frequently, while entering houses, temples, onsens, some restaurants, even some ryokans…

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When we came Kyoto was extremely hot but windy, unfortunately the wind stopped after a while, and we faced the real Kyoto weather: hot and extremely humid.*

* Erhan’s Note: Calling it hot and humid is not enough. There needs to be another word for that. 

Time for a Small Crisis: Migraine in Japan

Erhan’s Note: One overlooked part of long travel excursions is what to do when crisis strikes. In a civilized country such as Japan there is always people that are willing to help especially in visibly bad crises, but small crises such as a simple headache may be more trouble than its worth. The language gap is huge for most people, especially because of the alphabet. Google translate helped a bit, but finding boxes of tiger jaw leg wing 1000 instead of simple ibuprofen can be taxing after a while.

I have chronic migraine, and the Kyoto humidity and the tiredness didn’t help it. Fortunately, there is 7’elevens near the house, so Erhan managed to get us some bread and cheese to calm down my stomach and my headache a little bit.* First cheese of the week (there is cheese in Konbini but it’s quite expensive compared to Turkey, therefore we avoided for a while but in our everyday life we used to eat cheese everyday for breakfast, thus 1 week of avoidance was enough:))

* Erhan’s Note: Like a brave little scout, I walked down the street, crossed the road, entered the konbini, bought the goods and exited the store and returned home. All by myself. 😀 

So we decided the that we will rest for the evening and prepare for the busy days ahead of us.

Total steps of the day: 4245 

Next: The famous GION MATSURI! stay tuned

Day 4: TOKYO, Ameya Yokocho Market

12 July– Weather 29 C at noon 

Last day before Kyoto…

We started the day with breakfast at the hotel (it is a little expensive to have it everyday outside since the breakfast at the hotel was included in the price). We had a pretty full schedule in Kyoto ahead of us, so it was wise to take the day off before heading to Kyoto. Having difficulty deciding what to do, we found ourselves in Tully’s again.

Japanese Toilets: Open Sesame!

I know that many people know about the Japanese toilets already but believe me I wasn’t expecting to enter the toilet at Tully’s and see the lid of the toilet open automatically for me 🙂 For a public toilet it’s super useful not to touch the lid, and of course you can arrange the toilet seat temperature, a music accompanying the session, the temperature of the bidet’s water. One could write a whole book about toilets and public restrooms in Japan, but I will leave it at a paragraph or I would never reach the end of this blog.

By the way the most common brand for the toilets is TOTO, which means butt in a cute baby talk way in Turkish, this coincidence made us laugh each time (You see I’m still talking about toilets)

Erhan’s Note: Japan toilets are famous for their adjustable bidets, temperature control, and pleasant bird songs that mask the noises digested matter makes when your body twists and strains itself to do you know what. Being Turkish we welcomed the idea of a bidet, a common part of the toilet experience, which I know is already a shock in itself for some westerners, especially Americans. Automating the whole experience of course adds to hygiene, especially in public areas.

Everyday life in Tokyo

We sat at Tully’s for a couple of hours, relaxed a bit, and enjoyed our time just sitting about 2 hours. If you followed the blog so far, then you know already that I’m amazed seeing daily life in my perspective as a street photographer. While sitting in Tully’s it was again the case, seeing these well dressed up ladies enjoying their cup of café together for example, or seeing the all black dressed cool Japanese guy gave me inspiration. 

Two different views

While I’m oriented to shoot people in streets or streets in a larger perspective with people in it, like this one

or this one

Erhan is attracted to some very interesting objects and houses around. For example this little garden with its beautiful trees just between the houses

or this tree growing attached to the houses

or this electrical lamp while some may say it is grotesque while Erhan found it very interesting.

I love the fact that we see the same streets with different perspectives, we complete the world’s puzzle together.

A day off? Not really… then let’s go to Ameyoko

                                          

A day off? It’s difficult for us to sit somewhere for more than a couple hours, so we decided to go to Ameyoko (Ameya Yokocho) Market, again around Ueno. It’s mostly formed by fish, fresh fruits, and vegetable sellers. We didn’t buy a fresh thing since we’re staying in a very tiny room without a kitchen and felt overwhelmed after seeing so much stuff together.

Just a decor of a fish shop:) a bit too much, don’t you think? but again, it’s Japan, everything is too much
what is this? I really don’t know

Of course there was also Kebap House, I couldn’t think of a market without Kebap House, back in Turkey so it only made sense that in a Metropolitan area such as this, somebody, probably another Turkish person would import the idea of the convenient kebap. We didn’t try it since we’re in Japan and it didn’t make sense to us to eat kebap when there was so much else going around. 

Erhan’s note: I would rather try a regular burger franchise in Japan than a kebap place. Who knows what the quality of the food they served there was. 

There was also some cheap retails

It was again a very hot day and even the sellers were experiencing it pretty bad.

Erhan’s note: We were hearing the occasional “atsui”, “atsui desu” already 😀

What a towel really is for?

You know what Douglas Adams was right in “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy when saying : “A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”. 

Apparently Mr. Adams got the idea for this phrase when he went travelling and found that his beach towel kept disappearing, but I am sure if he had been to Japan he could have gotten this towel idea here as well. A wet towel around your neck keeps you sane, cool and healthy, or a light cloth towel around your head will prevent your sweat from entering your eyes in the hot and humid Japanese summer days. We learned pretty quickly that you shouldn’t NEVER NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE WITHOUT A TOWEL IN JAPAN! Especially in the summer. I don’t know why we don’t practice this in Istanbul.

Photographer vs the shot

There is a trend going these days in twitter, photographer vs. the shot, so I wanted to share in this page from this day such a shot.

A close encounter with the eight legged kind: Takoyaki

After the market, we found a Takoyaki (octopus pancake balls (literally grilled octopus)) place nearby. Osaka style 🙂 Definitely worth the try. By the way, yaki 焼き means grill and we thought that the symbol looks like a man grilling 🙂 We saw some Gyozas on the menu so we had to try it too. Result: Of course we love them. As Turks, we were already fans of “mantı” and all associated cuisine (classic pasta dough rolled out and filled with a mince of either lamb or beef and onions and spices then folded and cooked in water), so basically it’s similar to Gyoza (Japanese dumplings) except the cooking process and the shape. 

Outdoor shopping

We saw some shops in the way, and bought outdoor trousers from North Face for the hikings ahead of us. 

Shinkansen tickets

The next day, our plan was to continue our journey in Kyoto, so we bought our Shinkansen (Bullet train) tickets from the ticket machines (since we didn’t know the procedures we wanted to be pre-prepared ). 

First sushi experience and the second dinner

By chance, we saw a sushi place called Magurobito Okachimachi by walking. I was pretty fond of sushi back in Turkey so I was very excited for this experience. We entered but couldn’t find any English menu, therefore we were completely out of our comfort zone, no tourist, full of Japanese people. Normally it is good sign, this means we found a local place but when you don’t understand a thing it’s really difficult to handle. We ordered by showing the sushi. Even though there was a man sitting right next to us and was nice to chat with us a bit in English, we were quite intimated by this experience (I didn’t even took a photo because I was afraid they will tell us not to do. So I decided to took a quick video but Erhan warned me, so it’s shaky and short. ) Thus we decided to stop before we were done.

We were still hungry, what to do?

Sushi at a real sushi bar in a unremarkable spot in Tokyo. Still delicious…

So we wanted to find a cheap and simple option for our second dinner of the night. We saw a soba noodle place under the overpass of the Okachimachi station and we finalized our night by dessert to the room from Atré in Ueno Station.

We had a better night sleep, this means we’re adjusting to the time, Yay! The next day : Kyoto!

as always the summary of our day

Total steps of the day: 10595 

Day 3 (cont.) TOKYO, Akihabara

11 July (continue)

After fully resting, we were ready to get back up there and enjoy the night in Akihabara.

Akihabara in the night 

Around 6 pm, we went back to Akihabara streets for more exploration.

Salaryman/woman

The work hours were over and everywhere we looked there were Japanese salary men and women wearing a white shirt and black trousers and skirts. They were dressed as if they were the same person all over. Also some engaged in an interesting behavior: a few of them would stand around in a circle and each would bow to one another before going their own ways. I later learned this is often the case when the group of salarymen go out with colleagues (drinking and eating) and then when it is time to go home they say their goodbyes in this manner, especially in the presence of more senior colleagues. 

Erhan’s Note: Travelling to other cities (especially Kyoto) we learned people often derided and ridiculed Tokyo way of living where salarymen style of career life is most visible. It was often told us that nobody wanted to live that life, like a robot, no offense.  

Tall building where work never stops in Tokyo

The Hook for the Maid Cafe

There were some girls dressed as maids to attract customers to the famous Maid Cafes. We already watched some videos about these cafes before leaving for Japan, so we weren’t too interested in these, but believe me, many tourists were attracted to these girls and entering the cafes. I know there is nothing fishy going in there but then again as a woman, I’m not sure that I’m too happy seeing these girls having to work like this, but that is my personal opinion of course.

The maid realized we were taking her photo and did a cross sign with her arms indicating she would rather not be pictured so we decided not to put the photo here.

Mario Kart

I’m sure that you have already heard Super Mario by Nintendo. And most of you may heard or seen in Instagram, the tourist driving around Tokyo routes with the Mario go Kart cars. By chance, we run into to their garage while walking from the hotel to the Akihabara station. It was fun to see this scene. Along the trip, we saw the karts around Tokyo many times, especially in Shibuya.

Go up for the cafes

Yes you heard it right, we weren’t used to go up for entering to a cafe but in Japan,many good cafes are situated in upper floors of an ordinary building, you just have to look up.

Neon Lights

While walking in Akihabara, we saw many neon boards, again showing some anime advertisement and so.

Famous SEGA Building (Eee, one of them)

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A Spicy finish to a Fine Night: First Real Ramen

Since we skipped lunch outside, we earned the right to choose a good place to eat. Now, the research I did before coming to Japan had worked its magic and we went to one of our starred places: Kikanbo Ramen https://kikanbo.co.jp/. There were 5 people in the queue waiting, it was pretty quick because there was a machine outside where you choose the ingredients you want in your ramen and your drink and pay on the spot to receive a ticket. Once you enter you give the ticket to the counter and voila! The ramen you wished you had while watching all these anime is in front of you! The store’s ramen style was from Hokkaido and they had a dark theme going in the shop, which immerses you immediately, and the drums play a war tune in the background which went tamtı tamtıtı, exciting your appetite while waiting. Some monstrous creature sculptures watch over you from their spots on the wall. We loved the atmosphere, and once we tasted the ramen, OMG! So delicious and extra spicy. First ramen (and one of the best throughout the journey) .

BEFORE – waiting in line, hungry and excited

Erhan slurping his ramen like a PRO!

a macro view to my ramen choice (the napkin in the video is very useful because the ramen was very hot, believe me you need one)

AFTER -It may not be a good photo but I wanted to share it anyway to show you how hot it was eating the ramen:)

***

Eventually we were overwhelmed by the experiences of the day and went back to the hotel early. You could see from our timeline again, details of our walk.

We didn’t sleep much again in the night, still adjusting to Japanese time?

Total steps of the day: 11644 

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…

Stay tuned and don’t forget to comment

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…

Day 1: Japan, here we are: Tokyo 1st Visit

Hello TOKYO

We had to plan our trip starting from Tokyo because this is where the Turkish Airlines was landing. 

Erhan’s note: After considering various options with possible flight transfers from Seoul or Bangkok we decided that our landing destination had to be Tokyo because there was a direct flight from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. We did not want to arrive there all tired and confused, but more importantly given that we were packing valuable material such as cameras, laptops, and a drone, we could not risk losing them between transfers no matter how small the chance.

The day before we left home, I searched the possible routes from the Narita Airport to the city, and bought our Skyliner tickets online to the Ueno Station, because it was central and had direct route. We thought that we would be pretty tired after a long flight anyway, so we arranged our first hotel near the Keisei Ueno Station. It was Super Hotel Akihabara.

We got on the plane on the night of 8 of July (2018) and landed on 9 July around 19 pm (it takes about 11 hours) in Tokyo.

Waiting the plane, very tired since it was already midnight in Istanbul but also very excited

Erhan’s note: Mostly it was an uneventful flight. Turkish Airlines is well known for its service and comfort. We sat in 3’s, by the window side with a Japanese gentleman on the corridor side. He had a mask on and would cough quite frequently. I was nervous since getting sick on the first day of our long trip would not make the smooth start I was hoping for.

Once we landed, even though we didn’t require any visa to enter, they still asked us a couple of questions before entering the country. One of the questions was “how long will you stay in Japan” and we replied honestly (we were prepared to show the bookings if demanded also) and said 2 to 3 months (our return ticket was changeable but we bought it in the beginning as 15 September), and we received the sweetest reaction ever :

OH how nice, welcome to JAPAN! Thank you for staying such a long time!

We were already pretty motivated for our journey but this made us even happier.

The first things we bought in Tokyo were Pocari Sweat and tuna and pork onigiri. My favorite combination through the whole Journey!

Pocari sweat and Onigiri

We were already tired, but had to walk to the hotel from the station. Although it was nearby (11 minutes according to Google maps), it was a little hard to walk with the suitcases, but we didn’t mind too much since we were in TOKYO. A dream coming true… (a little note: after a while, we concluded that in Japan if Google maps says 10 min. It may count as 20 minutes for non-locals. The so-called 11 minutes must be in Japanese steps, who are usually traveling lighter, more conditioned to the climate, and are more aware of their surroundings. Pro tip: Don’t forget this fact when estimating your time!).

The first encounter with a Japanese hotel

It was very surprising for us: in front of the elevator we found the necessities, before going to the room you choose whatever you need: a comb, toothbrush and paste, razor etc. Oh, and we could choose our own pillow. So we learned that the Japanese hotels almost always provide you your basic needs whatever the cost of the room. 

As I wrote before, the room size is important in Japan, we learned that quickly in our first hotel, -although very equipped- the room was tiny for 2 people, especially someone tall like Erhan. 

Erhan’s note: And thus began our quest of guessing correct size of beds from photos in booking.com

The whole room in panoramic view

Exhausted, we went to sleep immediately.

More is coming in the next post. Stay Tuned!

Bookings

Hotels, hostels

For small or chain hotels there is always Booking.com. For example APA hotels are well known throughout Japan and situated in almost every city and these are easily booked by the online booking sites. 

The biggest advice I can give after the whole trip, is to be careful of the square meters of the room, especially if you are not traveling alone and are a tall person like Erhan 🙂 We never checked it in Europe, but in Japan some rooms are so tiny, it was really hard to move around. We faced this fact in our first hotel in Tokyo and started to be careful about it.

Not our first hotel but certainly one of the best we stayed in with Godzilla watching over the lobby.

Erhan’s note: We spent hours arguing if the bed advertised would be big or tall enough for the both of us, or if we could fit in the room given we were traveling with enough luggage to support our entire excursion. It turns out some beds in Japan are only barely enough for two relatively slender people.

Japanese hotel rooms are full of equipment, even the tiny ones, everything you need is either in the room or in the lobby of the hotel (where you can pick your needs yourself and go to your room). In most of the hotels, you can choose your pillow type (In Europe this service is only in the expensive hotels but not in Japan!)

Erhan’s notes: It was also a different experience to pick which pillow to sleep with. It turns out some pillows had plastic beads in them to provide better support and some had soba (buckwheat) husks. Regardless they all helped me stop snoring (which is also beneficial for the hotel I suppose)

For hostels, Booking.com (or similar ones) is again the site you should go for. For capsule hotels, again same thing.

Ryokan

There is another concept in Japan called “Ryokan”. A Ryokan (旅館) is a type of traditional Japanese inn that has traditionally furnished and arranged rooms often with tatami mats, 99% communal baths, and other public areas like onsens, gardens etc.  There are some ryokans in Booking.com but not all of them are there. For more rural areas, we used the site https://www.ryokan.or.jp/english/ . We emailed many of them with our dates and book through this site. Beware that ryokans have limited rooms so these are mostly booked very early (especially during the Japanese vacations like Golden week etc.) Ryokans were really expensive in our experience so we had to hand-pick them and stayed there only where we should. Another property of the Ryokans were that a fixed dinner and breakfast are served to your room, or you need to leave your room so your bed/table can be set up, so you had to abide more or less by the rules of the ryokan. For us in all cases it meant that you slept on the floor. (I’ll give more details in the future posts about this)

The onsen towns and onsen hotels

The onsens are very important in Japan ( for more information, Japan guide). Mostly, there is an onsen or hot bath in every hotel. To be considered an onsen it should comply with some rules, therefore some of them are called hot baths instead of onsen.

Erhan’s note: Some hot baths were artificially minerally enriched.

Some towns were based on hot springs entirely with several ryokans or hotels in an area with their own onsens as well as more public onsens that are accessible and equally enjoyable.

Erhan’s note: We spent a good deal of time deciding which specific onsens to visit. A major hurdle was the rule of “being naked” in the onsen. I knew we could overcome that when the time came, but initially the idea made us relatively uncomfortable to the point where we looked for onsens where people can bathe with swimming suits or trunks. There were some, but we opted for the more “authentic” experience.

The concrete jungle view of our first hotel ever. It was comfortable enough but really cramped.

Airbnb and rental homes

In June 2018, Japan introduced new home-sharing regulations that affected Airbnb listings in all the country. So we have been affected by this change because there weren’t many listings and it wasn’t easy to understand what it is ok legally and what’s not. We had 2 airbnb experiences: one in Kyoto, one in Osaka, both very different from each other. Nowadays, I learned that Airbnb removed non-compliant listings, so I think that if a property in Japan has a listing on Airbnb, it’s legit. But again check yourself with the owner, and see if they have a license to rent.

Erhan’s note : How to stay in cities was a major point of our planning. Since it was planned to be a long trip staying in a hotel for 2 months would be expensive. The status of Airbnb was shaky at best in Japan. What about expat long stay options? Should we rent a house as a base of operations and make excursions from there? Provided how inexperienced we were and how alien Japan was with respect to what we were used to deal with, we ended up meticulously planning a string of continuous hotel stays, ryokan reservations and a few Airbnb locations. What bothered me was that I thought the  plan was doomed to fail provided the length of the trip, and we ended up researching alternative locations in case a hotel or Airbnb failed us. 

Spoiler: our plan stayed true almost to the end with only a few revisits thanks to Japanese having mastered local travel, hospitality, and cargo services. We had some trouble with Airbnb that cost us considerable time and money but we kind of saw that coming. It is entirely understandable why Japanese officials are not very keen on Airbnb given how many people are taking advantage of the online service and providing a false sense of cheap accommodation while it drives down the quality of the visit as well as the neighborhood which is often not very touristic with an influx of foreign tourists. (not all tourists are equal, regardless most end up being noisier than the average Japanese resident.