A Tokyo whirlwind tour, part I

Last week Mom and Dad flew across the Pacific Pond for their first visit to Japan. In fact, it was their first trip overseas ever, unless you count Puerto Vallerta or Alaska.

There visit was only five full days, so planning a schedule was a little tricky. We wanted them to experience all of the different aspects of Japan, and in such a truncated visit, you are really just licking the wrapping.

We ruled out a trip to Kyoto. It’s a 4-hour round trip and the bullet train costs $300. It didn’t seem like an efficient use of time.

We decided to keep most of our travels close to home to avoid the crowded JR trains as much as possible. This ruled out a trip to Odaiba and some of my favorite parks – Rikugien and Showa Kinen.

We made two concrete plans – we bought tickets to a Japanese baseball game at Mom’s request and we scheduled

brunch with Lisa’s brother and his family, which includes 17-month old Takuto and 5-month old Hiroto.

With all of this in mind, our list of things to do still ran long, and several plans were scrapped, such as watching an early morning sumo wrestling practice and strolling through the Tsukiji fish market.

Mom and Dad will just have to come back for a longer visit next time.

One of Dad’s requests was to visit a karate dojo, since he has his black belt. However, we only stumbled upon this children’s karate club in Yoyogi. Still, he was able to identify the different kata on the sign, and he was able to explain them to Lisa, who was riveted.

For posterity’s sake, here is a rundown of everything the Folks did on their great Tokyo adventure of 2013:

Thursday, May 2: Arrival. Mom and Dad drove from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to Minneapolis in order to catch a direct flight to Narita Airport. Everything went as scheduled, even though Minnesota was hit by a freakin’ snowstorm on May 1. Midwest weather is like a young starlet’s rap sheet: unpredictably predictable.

Nevertheless, they made the 12-hour flight and I found them in terminal one. We took the express train to Shinjuku where Mom and Dad were electro-shocked into Tokyo’s train station experience. Dragging loaded suitcases up and down staircases through the streaming masses is a fine how-do-you-do.

Lisa was at home cooking a homemade dinner. She made hamburger patties, not wanting to force feed too much seafood and rice right off the bat. By the time supper was over, jet lag had caught up and the ‘rents were passed out in the guest room by 10 p.m.

Some old dude plays a shamisen at Meiji Jingu.

Friday, May 3: We didn’t want the first day to be overwhelming. When I made my first visit to Tokyo eight years ago, my inaugural jaunt through the streets of Tokyo was like the first day of junior high. Wide-eyed nervousness in an alien world. At least in Tokyo I didn’t have to remember a locker combination, though there is that whole foreign language thing.

Keeping that in mind we wanted to simplify for Mom and Dad. This was their Groundhog’s Day. We didn’t want them to see their shadow. After a quiche breakfast (again made by Lisa) we gave a tour of our Sasazuka neighborhood. The weather for their entire trip was sunny with temps in the upper 60s – perfect vacation weather. The highlight of the first day was the grocery store, where Dad ogled the fresh selection of fish and an entire section devoted to tofu. I pointed out that the frozen pizza section was two shelves, compared to the entire wall of pizzas displayed at the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee, like an enticing meat and cheese slot machine carnival.

Dad also enjoyed the vintage motorcycle shop around the corner. He sauntered inside to fawn over the Harleys, Triumphs and Indians, dragging Lisa along as his interpreter. It was nice that by exploring our local neighborhood my folks were able to experience a side of Tokyo you would never get by going through a travel agency.

Mom rinses her hands in ‘holy’ water before entering Meiji Jingu Shrine.

There is a walking trail that leads from our neighborhood to Meiji Jingu Shrine, the largest Shinto Shrine in Tokyo. The total walk takes about 50 minutes. Since we had already spent an hour strolling through Sasazuka, we only walked halfway down the trail, jumping on the subway to finish the journey.

First, we stopped by a chain ramen cafe for a lunch of ramen noodles and gyoza. Dad became infatuated with the ramen, which was our cheapest meal of the entire trip, but the tender noodles were boiled in a broth of pork fat and miso, topped with slices of meat and vegetables. By the end of the trip Dad was wondering if there was a way he could make the same ramen at home in Iowa without having to use the 99 cent bags of straw-like noodles college freshman eat at 2 a.m.

Anyhow, after lunch we made it to Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is a courtyard of religious buildings surrounded by acres and acres of forest smack dab in the middle of Tokyo. We were able to catch a wedding procession as well as musicians strumming on traditional Japanese guitars called the shamisen. We were pretty lucky to be able to witness the procedural, but we felt bad when the security guard admonished us for taking pictures while standing under the roof of the temple.

Rather than walk back home, we decided to take the train from Harajuku station, which is on the opposite side of Meiji Jingu. Harajuku is a notorious entertainment district of Tokyo known for the cosplay teenagers dressed up like anime characters and the unique fashion and boutique stores. There happened to be a teeny bopper concert of some sort underway and the crowd around the train station was hellacious. We battled through to a French cafe, Cafe de F.O.B., where we were able to have cold drinks and gellato and people watch.

Mom and Dad just hangin’ at a French Cafe in Harajuku.

With the afternoon waning, we fought the tide of teenagers back to the train station and made our way home. We rested up a bit before taking Mom and Dad to a local Sasazuka izakaya for dinner. The izakaya is the customary Japanese bar. It isn’t like your American sports bar or European pub where patrons mingle around a bar and interact with strangers. In the izakaya you get a personal table enclosed with privacy curtains. Waiters are at your beck and call to serve beer, sake and dishes, usually an assortment of fish and vegetables. Some izakaya happily supply free raw cabbage with mayonnaise for dipping.

With jet lag still not quite shaken off, Mom and Dad were ready for bed by 10, so we had another quiet night at home.

The view of downtown Tokyo from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The Sky Tree can be seen in the back right.

Saturday, May 4: When you visit Tokyo, the thing about jet lag is that it works in your favor. You are wide awake at 6 a.m., ready for the day, and completely tuckered out by 10 p.m., able to sleep like a basset hound on Xanax. Unfortunately for Lisa and I, we are no morning people. So while my parents were up and at em bright and early on Saturday morning, Lisa and I were bleary eyed and brain-addled.

Being the gracious hosts we are, we had coffee and toast ready to go by 8 a.m., and by 10 a.m. we were ready to hit the streets. For our second full day, we wanted Mom and Dad to experience Tokyo, and after dipping in our toes on day 1, on day 2 we belly-flopped right into the deep end.

We went to Shinjuku. Shinjuku Station, as I mentioned before, is the western hub of Tokyo. Besides Tokyo Station, most of the subway and train lines convene in Shinjuku, and teems of travelers mill about transferring from train to train, like salmon swimming upstream. For two small-town Iowans now in their 60s, Shinjuku Station is like dropping a kitten in the bathtub, not that I’ve ever done that.

We stopped by the Keio Department Store, showing Mom and Dad the Tokyo shopping experience. We took them through the food department on the basement floor, where the counters and counters of sweets, pastries and treats are endless, as are the lines of people. Next we went to Yodobashi, the 7-story electronics store. We ducked in and out of the first floor camera department, where Dad wanted to check out the latest Canon lenses.

A statue in the courtyard outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

After that we escaped the shopping district to take the elevator to the free observation deck on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. We could see all of Tokyo spread out before us, along with a view of the Sky Tree, the largest telecommunications tower in the world. The 1,093 foot tall Sky Tree opened one year ago. It costs $20 to go to the top and it was an hour out of our way, so it was another site-seeing opportunity that was crossed off our list.

After Shinjuku we had lunch of Japanese curry in Yoyogi at a kitschy little cafe called Camp Curry. As Lisa explained, curry is a staple camping food for Japanese people, and the cafe was decorated with Coleman lanterns and faux picnic tables. Japanese curry is sweeter than Indian curry and not as spicy, plus it is loaded with different vegetables, including tomatoes, pumpkin and peppers.

Inside Camp Curry.

The curry was also placed high on Dad’s list of favorite Tokyo foods. We sent some packets of curry home with him along with English directions. He also wanted to know where he could find some Coleman lanterns like the ones they had at Camp Curry, but he might just have to check the REI catalogue.

Yoyogi Park was our next stop. Even though we were already in Yoyogi, to reach the park it was quicker to get back on the train and go one stop back to Harajuku. For the second time in two days we found ourselves battling the crowds of teenagers in Harajuku. Luckily, the battle was brief and it only took five minutes to reach the doorway of Yoyogi Park.

We went to Yoyogi Park on a lark. Tokyo was celebrating, for the first time ever, Cinco de Mayo. What I love about Tokyo is that they celebrated Cinco de Mayo on May 4, one day early. Of course, they were also celebrating Oktoberfest on the same weekend. Why they didn’t just call it Maifest I don’t know, but that is why I will never understand how to market events and products towards Japanese consumers.

Fabiola Jaramillo performing at the inaugural Tokyo Cinco de Mayo Festival.

It took us a little while to find the Cinco de Mayo festivities. Yoyogi Park was built for the 1964 Olympics. A large stadium remains, and they converted the Olympic village into the park it is today. On that beautiful Saturday the park area was crowded as all get out. Groups of young people were smattered about the landscape, lounging around on blankets, playing guitars and tossing around various projectiles. It was a serene scene, but there were literally thousands of vacationers, and no Latinos or other signs of Cinco de Mayo. Finally we discovered a bridge that crossed over the highway towards the stadium, and we heard the dulcet sounds of the Spanish guitar wafting through the afternoon air.

Taking a rest break in Yoyogi Park.

We crossed the bridge and from the halfway point we were able to spot scores of green vendor tents, a vibrant stage with a swirled yellow and pink Cinco de Mayo banner and another freakin’ ridiculous crowd of people.

Thirsty, we waded in anyway. We found some stiff margaritas from the Jose Cuervo tent as well as beers. Scandalously, there was no Corona anywhere, only Dos Equis and Tecate. We briefly listened to the Spanish pop singer on stage, a scantily clad Selena-knock off named Fabiola Jaramillo. Nearing the end of the second day of the festival, they were completely sold out of tacos and burritos. However, we still enjoyed the names of some of the stands, including Drug-on Tacos (which apparently in Japanese the sign read Dragon Tacos. The sign translator apparently had different ideas) as well as my favorite, “Buffaro Wing.”

Drug-on Tacos
Buffaro Wing

Finally, we found a retaining wall to sit on away from the crowd and enjoyed our drinks and soaked in the chill atmosphere. As Dad noted, there is no way a similar event, with free-flowing tequila and low-cut short shorts, could ever be held in the States with everyone behaving so civilly. We did not see a single cop, not even a security guard, patrolling the crowd, and everyone got along swimmingly. Americans should take note.

Slightly buzzed, we moved on to the next stage of our day: Shibuya.

The Tecate girls at Cinco de Mayo. Stay tuned for part II coming soon.

One response to “A Tokyo whirlwind tour, part I”

  1. Very interesting report of the trip. Your Dad was all worried before he left that you might plan too much for them to do!! Glad you left out the trip on the bullet train. Love GP & GM

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