after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Tokyo/Japan How-To’s

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t says:  Before we left on our trip, we pooled as many resources as possible to ensure our visit to Japan would go smoothly.  Neither of us speak Japanese, we have no friends/family to show us around, and we’ve never been!  We had a great time, and we’re going to put some tips/tricks here just so we can find them on a future date (for our next trip!).

TRANSPORTATION:
JR pass is amazing to get around using the Shinkansen.  If you’re going to at least make one trip on a bullet train out and back, they’re pretty much worth it.  We did get the “green pass” which is a bit pricier than normal, but it offered the convenience of  reserved seats for some of the longer legs of our journey which was useful (sometimes the trains can be quite packed and we’d rather not be forced to stand).  To get one of these passes (green or regular), the cheapest way is to purchase a voucher while you’re still in the states, and then bring it to a “JR Service Center” (we used the one in Narita Airport), who will swap out your voucher for the actual pass (which you must not lose as it’s irreplaceable).  It’s also useful to know which bullet trains you want to go on and when (use hyperdia.com) so you can book the reserved seats at the same time you exchange your voucher for a pass.  This includes making a reservation on a train to get to Tokyo (e.g. the Narita Express).  Keep in mind that this will not cover certain bullet trains (e.g. Nozomi), so when you search hyperdia, be sure to click “off” those trains in the search options.
– JR is not the same as the Metro, although both have local stops in the city and have routes that show up on google maps.  If you have one of those JR passes, and you intend to use a local JR line, you can just flash your pass at the attendant at the turnstile and he/she’ll wave you in.  If you plan on using the Metro, or if you don’t have a JR pass but want to use the local JR line, you can either purchase a ticket (there are electronic kiosks with English option in the upper right hand corner) or do what we did and just get a Suica card (Pasco cards are available, too, but we heard that Suica is more flexible).  These cards can be purchased at a variety of subway stations, and help you breeze through the turnstiles at all stations (just keep in mind that if you have a JR pass and are using a JR line, don’t swipe your Suica card because it’ll charge you for something that you should be doing for free!).  The Suica card can also be used at some vending machines and convenience stores, so it’s quite handy.  We were also impressed that you input your information when you buy one (e.g. name), and it gets printed on the card!  And it’s such a cute card! (it has a penguin on it!). While you have a JR pass, try to use the JR lines, but otherwise the Metro trips are usually on the order of $1-3 depending on where you’re going.
– Taxis are plentiful.  They usually operate in cash, but we’ve seen a few advertising some kind of Taxi pay application, but we never got to check it out.
– Last train is at midnight, and taxis get to jack up their prices; plan accordingly

GENERAL:
– Cash is preferable in most places – so make sure you have some around.  ATMs will dispense 10k JPY ($100 USD) bills unlike the US ATM’s fixation on $20 bills, which can be a bit unwieldy, so make sure you pick some more granular quantities so you can get some small bills, too.
– No tips, nowhere, for nothing.
– Finding a trashcan is harder than finding a needle in a haystack – keep a small plastic bag on your so you can sequester your garbage as you travel.
– We traveled around with a 30L hiking backpack.  Try not to go much bigger than this because otherwise you’ll bump into people on trains and be unable to stick it in those baskets under your seat at restaurants, making it (and you) quite annoying.  Just having a hiking backpack will immediately label you as tourist – but if you’re like us and rain follows you around everywhere, you’ll appreciate its waterproofness as you carry around your necessary electronics and retail purchases.
– Eating on trains like Shinkansen is fine – eating while walking is rude (so stand still!).
– Some stores offer tax-free purchases – but they need to attach stuff to your passport.  Customs didn’t give us any problems with our purchases (g and I got some clothes, shoes, souvenirs – you know – the usual).
– Rent a WiFi hotspot from the airport – they’re amazing for giving you constant access to google maps and photos of exteriors of restaurants.  They can get pricey, but are totally worth it.
– Bring along an extra battery.  My phone (iPhone 6S) could only go for about 6-8 hours with all the Google Mapping we were doing (with brightness turned down).  We got ours from Amazon (EasyAcc 1675 mAh portable charger) which allowed us to plug in multiple products on the go, and we coupled it with a multi-port plug (Anker Quick Charge 3.0 42W 3-port USB Wall Charger PowerPort+) so we could charge all of our peripherals at night through a single, two-pronged socket (which is the normal in Japan).  The portable charger (without plug) does weigh almost a pound with the necessary cords, but it’s worth it.  For us, 1200 mAh portable charger would have probably been fine and saved some weight – we just didn’t know at the time we bought it.

NEIGHBORHOODS:
– Toranomon: has a fantastic luxury hotel (Andaz), but is kind of in the middle of nowhere.  That said, it is convenient to a few metro stations that can get you anywhere you need to go, and is only short hike to the fish market and Ginza.  Not a destination in and of itself, but not a bad place to stay.
– Ginza/Maranouchi: some pretty good shopping, including some flagships (Muji, Uniqlo, KitKat).  A good place to venture after a morning at Tsukiji.  Close proximity to Imperial palace.
– Tsukiji: needs no further introduction.  It’s still there! (They haven’t moved it for the Olympics … yet).  Close proximity to Hamarikyu Gardens.
– Asakusa: a cute area with a few tourist attractions (e.g. Sensoji) as well as “kitchen row”
– Shinjuku: a busy shopping area with some big department stores.
– Shibuya: an even busier shopping area with a variety of stores – also Meiji shrine
– Harajuku: our favorite place to shop, as there are some side streets with some incredible “streetwear” that we were usually not cool enough to wear.
– Ebisu: a funky neighborhood that we ventured to to go the three Kapital shops (that I was most certainly not cool enough to wear – g had some good finds, though!).

HOTELS:
– g and I did credit card churning to make this trip happen, which meant that we had an allegiance to Hyatt hotels (the good ‘ol Chase-Hyatt-United trifecta).  The Andaz was amazing.  We did the standard king rooms, which were spacious, comfortable, clean, and full of amenities (free non-alcoholic drinks/snacks, free toiletries, spacious  tubs).  The view is absolutely killer (and all the rooms are at least 47 floors off the ground, so you’re guaranteed to see something in the distance!).  The staff was very nice and accommodating.  The hotel rooftop bar was ok (a bit pricy, but worth it for the views … although you have the same view from your room, soooooooo …), and there is the flexibility of the Toronamon building eateries below (and a Bicycle Coffee shop nearby – which was great!).  With churning, there was absolutely zero cost (not even taxes!) – amazing!  Definitely worth using Hyatt free-night passes, and even worth the 25k/night points!  The only drawback is its location (it’s not in glitzier Shibuya/Shinjuku), but it has a few nearby stations and is walkable to the fish market and Ginza.
– We considered the remaining Hyatt hotels, but because our trip was cut short, we couldn’t stay at any of them, so we’ll never know if any are better.  Park Hyatt in Shinjuku is supposed to be the crown jewel of Tokyo’s Hyatt’s (at 30k/night points), however, it gets a bit of a bad rap because it’s in need of an upgrade (but how do you turn down the “Lost In Translation” hotel?).  Maybe someone will let us know how it goes?  It also hard to justify the cost of the Park Hyatt because the Hyatt Regency across the street is far more reasonable in terms of Hyatt points (only 12k/night!, “Club King” for 18k!).  Grand Hyatt is Roppongi is even more in the middle of nowhere than Andaz, so we didn’t even consider it.
– If you end up Naoshima, go for Benesse House.  It’s quite costly, but the transportation around the island maximizes your experience.
– The Hyatt Regency in Kyoto is “ok”.  It has a reputation of being “as good as a Park Hyatt”, but I certainly hope not for Park Hyatt’s sake.  Nothing was at all bad – but the rooms are pretty standard (clean, reasonable size) without anything to give it a sense of “luxury”.

KNIVES:
– One of the more famous things people shop for in Japan is knives.  I have some opinions about this, as a bit of a Japanese knife enthusiast.  The most commonly visited shops in Tokyo are generally near Tsukiji (Masamoto Tsukiji, Aritsugu) or near Asakusa’s Kappabashi (Kamata, Kama Asa).  However, the brands in these stores can frequently be found at retailers in the US or shipped to the US (the world is a whole lot smaller now through the internet), so most shops in Tokyo/Kyoto don’t offer a lot of sparkle for true knife nuts (i.e. if you can read about it in a foodie’s blog, a knife nut won’t be interested).
– For the persnickety folks, there are some small maker’s spots in more remote places (e..g Sakai), or some very high end stuff (think price tags starting at $1000) worth checking out in Tokyo/Kyoto.
– All this said, for newbies, the above Tokyo shops are great for picking up your first set of Japanese knives after being allowed to touch/hold them in store.  You never forget your first Japanese knives.  My recommendation is to get an idea of what you are looking for ahead of time (Western-style double-bevel is most common; buying a single-bevel Japanese style requires specific cutting technique and sharpening) so you don’t get distracted by all the shiny tools.
– What did I buy?  After dragging g to multiple shops, Kamata had some good prices on some Swedish carbon Misono, so I bought one of those (they sell a lot of “house brand” stuff that I just didn’t know much about).  Got it for $110 instead of $190!  Not bad!

RESTAURANTS:
– Gyoza: Harajuku Gyozaro and Tenryu Ginza – both gyozas were great, with the former’s being smaller/denser and served in a casual atmosphere, while the latter’s are fluffier/lighter in more of a Chinese restaurant atmosphere.
– Ramen Breakdown:
— best pork: Rokurinsha (in Tokyo station, tsukemmen style)
— best noodle: Nagi Golden Gai (Shinjuku, “special” = shoyu style)
— Tsukemmen: Fuunji was less touristy, while Rokurinsha was more convenient – both were great!
— “something different”: Ginza Kagari (Tori Paitan), Soranoiro (Veggie Ramen)
– Pork Katsu: Butagumi

RESTAURANT REGRETS:
— Tonki Katsu: never made it but we wanted to compare it to Butagumi
— Tonkatsu Maisen: a chain of tonkatsu places that is supposed to be pretty darn consistent – not high on our list but good to know it was there
— Soba Genroku: located close to Andaz, it was our backup in case we got sick of ramen … we never did
— Kaikaya by the Sea: tons of testimonials as to how great this place was – however, we had to cut our trip short so we bailed on our reservations – bummer!!
— Nodaiwa: a restaurant that specializes in eel – man am I sad I missed that!
— Kotaro: needed a “native Japanese” person to make reservations – they wouldn’t take one from our hotel concierge!  It made me want to go there even more!
— Shima and Ginza Hirayama are both well-known for their steaks, but are quite pricey.  That said, they both offer sandwiches “to go”.  Usually reserved for take-away after you enjoy one of their set menus for dinner/lunch, there is a way to call ahead and see if they have any “extra” for sale at lunchtime.  Not cheap at something like $60-80 for a set of sandwiches, they have always looked amazing and every blogger says it’s worth it.  Andaz agreed to call for us if we wanted to make it happen, but we just never got around to it!
— Fancy Sushi/Omakaze: you’ll notice that g and I didn’t do any “fancy” places in Tokyo.  It’s not that we couldn’t decide (we got tons of great recs), rather, we opted to just enjoy the more reasonable places.  We didn’t want to dress up.  We didn’t want to make a fuss.  Maybe we’re getting older.  Maybe we’re getting stingier and crotchetier (?sp?).  But if a bowl of ramen or a plate of fried pork could make us that happy while being a uniquely Japanese experience, then why pay more?  Nevertheless, gun-to-my-head, I think we would have sought out that sushi place by Jiro’s younger son.  That and Aronia de Takazawa (super-jelly of some friends that got to go!).

OTHER REGRET: We were too late to get tickets for the Yayoi Kusama museum.  Missed it by one day!

MORE RAMEN: we have a map of ramen joints (about 40) throughout Tokyo – so if you want to know where they are, let us know (afterdinnersneeze_at_gmail).

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Japan was amazing.  g and I can’t wait to go back.  We have a sense that there’s so much more to see (go further south!   go further north!  go back to Tokyo!).  Because I was especially moved by the contemporary art at Naoshima, I’m feeling like the tri-annual Art Setouchi festival is the next time we should go – so how’s everyone feel about 2019?

Written by afterdinnersneeze

22 October 2017 at 5:46pm

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