One thing we really like to do to explore a new city is to rent bikes and cycle around, just looking at stuff. We asked Kenji where we could rent bikes, and he didn’t know of a place but he googled and found a place in a district called Asakusa, so we went there the next morning to try to find it. We walked all around where it was located on Google Maps and didn’t find it, but we decided to just walk around and explore instead. Asakusa is by a river so we walked along the riverfront, and came to an interesting sculpture. It’s shaped like a giant bowl, but on stilts so it’s above the ground, with holes large enough for you to stick your head through but nothing else. We got some pretty interesting pictures here!
From there we wandered around until we found ourselves quite suddenly in the middle of a large crowd of people. We happened to walk near a very large Buddhist temple, Senso-ji. It was quite the scene there! A group of six junior high school students came up to us and asked if they could practice their English. It’s funny how similar this experience was to something that happened in Thailand – right down to the questions they asked us! Judging by the conversations we’ve had with Japanese people on this subject, Japanese people feel that their grasp of English, as a country, is very poor. We definitely expected people to have better English skills, but in reality they are no better than anywhere in Southeast Asia!
Later, we went to the Shibuya district to check out the shopping district. Well, the main reason we went there is because we heard that the best MTG shop in Tokyo is here! “Mint Shibuya” seems like a great place to play – unfortunately, we wouldn’t be in Tokyo the next time they had an event! The coolest part about their store was that it was also a bar (serving MTG themed drinks), and the tables are two-layered glass tables. Put your food and drink on the top layer, and play with your cards on the bottom layer – no danger of spilling on your cards! We got dinner at a place called Mos Burger, which seems to be the Japanese equivalent of Five Guys. Delicious!
Later that night, Julia went to an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring bathing facility. I wasn’t really feeling up to that, so instead I went to a sake bar down the block. I was the only customer there, so the old couple that owned the place gave me the works! They filled my glass full to the brim of a delicious white rice wine and gave me appetizer after appetizer. Neither of them spoke very good English, but I was able to communicate to them that I am from Seattle (“Ichiro!” – many Japanese people know Seattle solely because Ichiro left Japanese baseball to play for the Mariners).
The next morning, we went to Ueno Park, and walked by a poster advertising an art exhibit at the nearby museum that happened to be starting that day – Ito Jakuchu, a Japanese artist from the 18th century. This exhibit, featuring his life’s work “Colorful Realm of Living Beings”, was really interesting and quite the contrast from all of the art from the Western world that we are used to seeing at museums! Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures here, but below is one of my favorites from the exhibit.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the park and people watching, then heading to a cat café (don’t judge us), before heading to a restaurant that was recommended to us by some Canadian tourists that we crossed paths with on a songtaew in Chiang Mai. We didn’t know much of what to expect other than that there was traditional Japanese folk music and tourists were rare here.
We walked in and sat down (on pillows on the floor – our table was just a foot off the ground) and ordered some drinks. The show didn’t start for another hour, so two of the performers came over to chat with us! They were incredibly friendly and spoke English fairly well – like everywhere in Japan, we felt right at home! Everyone that worked at this restaurant (“Oiwake”, for anyone who wants to visit, and we highly recommend it) worked both in the kitchen and on stage! Not only that, but most of the performers played multiple roles – singing, dancing, shamisen (the traditional Japanese guitar), and drums. The show was legitimately entertaining – not just in an “appreciating the arts” kind of way – but really good music! They had so much grace in the singing and dancing, but also played the shamisen with a fiery intensity, plucking the strings so hard that they would have to retune several times during the course of the song!
For our last full day in Tokyo, we decided to explore the area surrounding Kenji’s house. We really enjoy the street from the house to the metro but hadn’t really seen much besides that! Fortunately, a tourist book that Kenji owned had a list of the best walks in Tokyo, and our area was one of the featured walks! The first stop on this walk was the Yanaka cemetery, a magnificent graveyard that stretches for over twenty-five acres. This cemetery is known for it’s beautiful cherry blossoms, but we appear to have just missed the blooming season here!
The guidebook mentioned a lunch place where the owner just makes one dish a day (different every day), and serves it until it’s gone. It sounded really cool so we set out to find it – and had a lot of difficulty! The map wasn’t to scale and we looked everywhere near the little dot for the restaurant, with no luck. The address was listed, and with that we deduced the complex address system in Japan, finally finding the restaurant at the back end of the alley. This is the type of place that doesn’t get any foot traffic, and doesn’t even look like a restaurant from the outside! Who knows how places like this remain in business. Anyway, the food was delicious – the homemade bread in particular!
We got a little bit lost after lunch – the map not being to scale and construction being in the way both contributing to this – so we just wandered around for a while looking at the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a festival with lots of tents selling food, offering free samples, and even some carnival games! It turns out there was an azalea festival going on that week, and there were a LOT of people there – way too many for it to be an enjoyable experience! The garden looked beautiful, but people stopped so often to take pictures on the narrow path that it was basically a standstill trying to walk through everything! We took some pictures from afar and then headed back to the house to recharge.
All week, Kenji had expressed interest in going out to dinner with us, and of course we wanted to get to know him a little better! He was so busy with his day job that his first free day was our last night in Tokyo, on Saturday. He recommended a restaurant that had all sorts of food that we ate family style – our favorite was a plate of sliced avocado topped with tuna – we had gone so long without having avocado that we couldn’t resist one of our favorite foods!
We walked the short walk back home and stayed up for a couple hours talking about random topics – mostly learning about each other’s cultures. Kenji told us that he originally didn’t know too much about traditional Japanese culture until he started being an Airbnb host, but so many of his guests asked about it that he decided to become more knowledgeable about the subject! We asked Kenji what he likes to do when he isn’t working, and he said that he just really enjoys hosting! He only has one house with three rooms at the moment, but he attends conferences and meets with other hosts to learn more! It’s clear that hosting tourists is a real passion for Kenji, and we’re very lucky that we happened to stay with him in Tokyo!
We left early the next morning to get on a train to Mount Fuji. When I say “a train”, I really mean “several transfers, a bullet train, and then two more transfers”. Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing that we’re able to take public transportation from Tokyo all the way to Mount Fuji, and I would love to be able to do that in America – but Julia and I each had a rolling suitcase, a backpack, and an additional bag (souvenirs and shoes, mostly) to carry! Thankfully, every metro station in Tokyo has plenty of escalators and elevators – we only encountered one subway station in our entire time in Japan that required us to use the stairs – so it was a lot less painful than it could have been. Other than carrying our bags with us, the journey was great! Riding on the bullet train was amazing – it goes so fast and rides so smooth!
We only had one night at Mount Fuji before we’d continue our journey to Kyoto, the western part of Japan. Unfortunately, when we arrived at Fujiyoshido (the town where we stayed that night), it was so cloudy that we couldn’t even see the mountain! Mount Fuji is nearly as tall as Mount Rainier, so this was quite the unlucky weather to have. We checked in to our Airbnb there, a traditional Japanese style house (complete with sliding thin wooden doors), and asked what we could do that afternoon. Our host told us of the Sengen-Jinja Shrine, that doesn’t have a view of Mount Fuji anyway, so we weren’t missing anything with the bad weather. Without anything else to do, we set off for the shrine!
Walking around the shrine felt almost like being back in the Pacific Northwest! We had gone so long without wearing jackets or long pants that walking around in the cold, damp fog actually felt pretty good! The less-than-ideal weather also meant that there were fewer tourists to interfere with our excursion.
We headed back to our place and chatted with some of the other tourists there. One of the nice things about the thin walls is that you can hear everyone talking during the day, so you can’t help but go and socialize. We didn’t pass up many opportunities to speak with native English speakers on this trip! Also, our host provided free tea, coffee, and snacks in the common area so there were always plenty of people to talk to. A very pleasant experience, even though we essentially slept on blankets on the floor!
After a homemade traditional breakfast from our host, we took an early train to a lake near the base of Mount Fuji to attend the Shibazakura festival, taking place for three weeks in late April / early May that celebrates the blooming of “Moss Phlox”, or pink moss. The weather was much more cooperative today, with nary a cloud in the sky to distort our view of beautiful Mount Fuji!
The festival area was great, but there wasn’t much to see after walking around for about forty-five minutes, so we found ourselves with some extra time in the town of Fujiyoshida. Luckily, there was another great shrine to visit. We walked all the way to the south edge of town and then (after getting lost a few times – we really took for granted having access to the internet in SEA) up a mountain (397 steps), and finally to the top of Chureito Pagoda!
And with that, our journey in Northern Japan was over…up next, a three night stay in Kyoto!