Category: Study Abroad

Girls Fun in Tokyo: Last days

On Monday of our adventures, we had planned to conquer Nippori’s Fabric Town, a street with dozens of fabric stores, notions stores, etc.  Both my friend and I love fabric, so this was going to be the highlight of our visit.  Was.

Oh, yes, O-Bon.  Little did I know when I was scheduling my trip back in June that O-Bon was such an important holiday.  I think almost as many shops are closed during O-Bon as during the New Year celebrations.  And everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) seems to be on vacation, so Tokyo seems even busier than normal.  Monday morning I checked the hours of the shop we both most wanted to visit, Tomato, and it was closed from August 10th – 16th!  If we had known that, I would have gone during my summer and my friend would have gone the day she arrived from the States.  We were, and still are, disappointed.  Maybe it was the universe telling us we didn’t need more fabric?

We decided to head over to Fabric Town anyway, just to see if anything was open.  Not much was, but we both found a couple of things we couldn’t resist.  In one shop, we spied this bolt of fabric and looked at it, wondering what in the world it was.  It looked like a cool cityscape border print, but on closer inspection…

Yes, an oil refinery border print cotton.  Found in a random little shop in Nippori.  What the heck?!  My friend and I had never seen anything like this before, so of course I had to buy some.  I’m already planning what I want to make from it.  I have a wearable muslin in the works, so hopefully this will become a dress soon.  (I’d love to have it done for my birthday.)

After Nippori we headed back to Kamata, so my friend could pick up this fabulous Hello Kitty Liberty of London lawn that had been haunting her since we spotted it on Saturday.  Purchases in hand, we ended the afternoon at Ladureé in Shinjuku for some macarons.  I had to sample their new gelato: rose gelato with raspberries and crumbled macarons.  Such a smooth and subtle gelato… fabulous!  We then got some macarons to go and headed back to base camp.

The next day, Tuesday, was adventuring in Ikebukuro.  We were reserved for lunch at Cafe Swallowtail, so we did some shopping before.  (And after.)  The meal was fantastic, I thought.  I think my friend was less impressed.  That’s ok.  We both got to enjoy their house-made Earl Grey scones; I enjoyed them with some orange Darjeeling jam.  The combination is one that will haunt me until I can replicate it.  (I just reproduced the scones yesterday, more or less, so now it’s just figuring out a recipe for that jam.)

Last item on my “must do” list was heading to Tokyo Station to buy some castella from Fukusaya.  Castella is a specialty cake famous in Nagasaki, and Fukusaya makes the best.  When we were last in Nagasaki, we tried several makers, but none was better than Fukusaya.  I hadn’t been to Tokyo Station in years, and it seems to be under renovation, so I was thoroughly confused.  Information desk to the rescue!  I asked in my polite Japanese if she could direct me to Fukusaya.  “Yes, it’s…”  I’m amazed at the knowledge the Information ladies (because in Japan they are always ladies) at stations and malls can call up at a moment’s notice.  That’s Japanese customer service for you.

We found the shop, they had some castella left, so I bought some for home and some for gifts.  Mission accomplished.  Now it was time to pack for leaving the next day.

And that’s when I discovered I needed a bigger bag to travel home with.  I’d brought two duffels along with my (carry-on sized) suitcase, but that wasn’t enough.  I guess I accumulated more than I thought over six weeks.  I blame my textbooks.  So, with an hour before I’m supposed to meet a friend from PSU at the Nippori station so we can all have dinner together, I’m dashing out of the ryokan and off to Akihabara for more luggage.  This wasn’t the first time this has happened, so I knew exactly where to go and took a couple of minutes to decide what to get.  45 minutes later, I was back a the ryokan with my new luggage.  Yay!

The favorite okonomiyaki shop I wanted to go to was full (again!), so we tried out the Indian place in the neighborhood.  Not bad.  A good evening chatting and relaxing, then back to packing.

On Wednesday, we checked out, left some of our luggage at the ryokan and put some in the lockers at Nippori.  A last lunch at Coco’s in Akihabara, then it was time to schlep the luggage up to Nippori and head to the airport.  The Girls Fun in Tokyo adventure was over.

Girls Fun in Tokyo: Meiji Shrine & Harajuku

On Sunday of our Girls Fun in Tokyo trip we decided to head to Meiji Shrine, as my friend had not been there before.  We headed to JR Harajuku station and found more strange advertising there that we had to capture.

Off we headed to Meiji Shrine, which was super busy.  There were more groups than usual, and seemed to be a lot of youth baseball teams, too.  I didn’t know if they were playing, or coming to pay their respects at the shrine after the summer season or what.  The place was packed and it was, yes, you guessed it, hot.  We did have a brief rain shower cool things down for an hour, but after that, it was steamier than usual.  Yay!

After the crowds at the main shrine building, we decided to pay and explore the Japanese Gardens on the grounds.  I was unimpressed by them, but as we were wandering around, I spotted an animal trotting around the grounds.  “Tanuki!” I cried.  And we rushed, quietly, to follow as best we could and take some (by which I mean tons of) photos.

Others in the gardens noticed us and came over, too.  “Tanuki da!” were the excited cries we heard.  Eventually the tanuki took some deep cover and we went to finish the rest of the walk around the garden.  Our way back, however, took us by the tanuki spot… and there was another tanuki headed for his friend/relative!  Two tanuki!  So back we went and took some photos of the two tanuki.  One of them, the smaller of the two, was much less skittish, so we were able to get within a couple of feet.  They were so cute, we really wanted to take them home.

Eventually we gave up on the chase and headed to Harajuku for some lunch.  I knew of a branch of the Jyangara ramen shop there, so we were intent on finding it.  Jyangara serves Hakata style ramen, which features thick tonkotsu (pork bone) broth.  Their noodles are slightly harder than usual, the way they’re served in Hakata.  Pure deliciousness.  If I could only eat one style of ramen for the rest of my life, it would be Jyangara’s Hakata-style ramen.

We found the shop and greeted the wizened little man minding the register at the entrance.  He pulled out all of his English and produced an English-language menu for us to peruse.  After ordering, we stood in line and waited for seats to open.  Although this branch is about twice as large as the one I’d visited in Akihabara, it’s still tiny by American standards.  We got two seats together at the window, so we could watch the Harajuku/Omotesando crowds as we ate.

After our nice respite, we took the plunge: Takeshita Street.  On the Sunday before O-Bon. What were we thinking?!

In the 100 yen shop, we found some cryptic floor guide entries.

Gasbombe?  That’s what they katakana says, too, so I still am unsure what that is.

Eventually we made it through… or rather, I declared that I was through with the crowds and needed to escape a bit.  (Fair warning: too hot + too many people for hours on end = Gretchen is a grumpy girl.)  My friend was in pursuit of Kiddyland, a Hello Kitty store somewhere there in Harajuku.  We saw banners for it, but couldn’t find it.  We eventually resorted to asking the natives.  Finally, we found it: five floors of Hello Kitty and friends goods.  I took half a dozen steps inside, surveyed the crush of parents/adults and blur of children running around, and promptly returned to the street to join the ranks of the those seated on the fence waiting.

After heading home for a little breather, we headed back out into the night for some dinner.  This time at my favorite curry restaurant chain in Japan: Coco Ichiban curry.  I love this place!  I think we may have first discovered it in 2007 in Okayama as well.  Over the summer I’d had a chance to try curry at various places around Tokyo and I still like Coco’s the best.  Perhaps because I can get exactly what I want, without any ordering difficulty.  My favorite: fried chicken curry with cheese.  When I’m feeling like being good (i.e. eating slightly less badly while on vacation in Japan), I’ll get the half-size with a corn salad on the side.  I wasn’t feeling like being good that night.

On the way out, I picked up some souvenirs for hubby.  (And me.)  Their curry pickles are almost as good as their curry.  So now we’ll be able to have the taste of Coco’s at home here in the States.

Another fabulous day: great food, fun shopping, and cute little tanuki!

Girls’ Fun In Tokyo: Fabric Shopping, part 1

Fabric shopping was one of our main objectives on this trip.  Both my friend and I love fabric, so hitting Nippori’s Fabric Town was to be the highlight of the trip.  Was.  But that’s another post yet to come.

On Saturday of our adventures, we decided to head down to Kamata.  I remembered a pretty impressive craft store (Yuzuwaya) that had 6 or 10 shops in and around the JR station there.  So we took the Yamanote to Ueno, then changed to the Keihin-Tohoku to take us to Kamata.  I had forgotten that the line went past Hamamatsucho, where the Tokyo Tower is.

We spent several hours in the craft and fabric stores there and found some things that we couldn’t resist buying.  I was just amazed at all of the bias tape and notion choices they offered.  If only I could find a shop like this in the states!  Fabric Depot and Mill End Fabrics here in Portland offer a lot of choices, but goodness, those Japanese stores have them beat on variety.  It’s probably good that I don’t live there.

After shopping until hungry, we grabbed some lunch from the department store basement food halls: great shumai and some yummy nikuman.  It was broiling hot, so we found a tiny bit of shade in the plaza in front of the station and sat down to eat our lunch. That action seemed to prompt one bum to get up, stand in front of us staring for a bit, before settling himself directly across from us, with one leg up and spread wide.  He stared at us for I don’t know how long.  My friend suggested we take a photo of him to scare him off.  I thought it would have the opposite effect: encourage him or cause him to get angry.  In any case, we tried to avoid eye contact and concentrate on our lunch.

Our original plan had been to go somewhere else (Shibuya? Nippori Fabric Town?) afterward, but we were pretty tired, so we hopped off the train at Hamamatsucho and headed toward Tokyo Tower.  We had seen a neat little waterway with boats (yakatabune?), so we wanted to backtrack and find that to take some photos.  First, though, we headed to Zojoji Temple to explore it a little.

I don’t know what the temperature was, but it felt like it was about 100 degrees and 5000% percent humidity.  (5 years here in Portland has spoiled me.  Yes, it rains practically all year, but it’s never as humid as Texas or Tokyo; I can’t explain it.  In any case, I cannot handle humidity any more.  Especially not when combined with near 100 degree temperatures.)  Like a gift from the gods, there was an ice cream vendor on the temple grounds.  And he had (purple) sweet potato ice cream for sale!!  I was a happy camper.  (The photo is not what I wanted, but I have yet to master the ways of photography.)

The first time I had purple sweet potato ice cream was at the top of Sakurajima on Kyushu in 2008.  I keep an eye out for it, but don’t see it much.  It’s not as sweet and has an earthy sweet potato flavor.  Very yummy.  I recommend it if you’re a sweet potato fan.

A little ice cream break, then we explored the temple grounds, including the large section of Jizo statues, all dressed up and provided with pinwheels for the summer.  With O-Bon happening the following week, there were fresh offerings as well.  It was beautiful, but also a bit sad.

Off to Tokyo Tower after that, where we continued a series of photos we had accidentally started at the Sky Tree: falling from buildings.  We took our photos, then retreated to a cafe to get some liquids and some shade/cool.

A fun little street sign near Tokyo Tower:

(This is probably me saying for the 1000th time how &#$^& hot it is.)

After that, we went in search of the boat canal we had seen from the train.  It appeared to be a fireworks night in the neighborhood, as there were lots of younger couples dressed in yukata and geta.  Everyone was headed to the waterfront, so we avoided that.  We eventually found our boats, just as they were getting ready to move out to pick up customers for the fireworks.

And we found a nice little park nearby, too.  (The bums in the park were entertained by my friend playing.)

They did ask that you please not choke the flowers, though.

Not ones to pass on opportunities to photograph random Japanese advertising, on the way home, we jumped off at one station (Tokyo?) to grab photos of this:

After a little take-out bento dinner and some rest, we headed out again: More Fun for Girls in Tokyo!  This time we were headed to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku for drinks with a view.  Sadly we were not seated in the main room, but we had a great view out to the Sky Tree.  And a rotation of waiters that we could barely tell apart.  The drinks were wonderful, the scenery magical, and their homemade chocolates to die for.  Expensive, but a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime memory.

And yes, even the Park Hyatt has Toto washlets.

We caught the next to last train from Shinjuku Station, so that was also a new experience for me.  Thankfully we weren’t on the Chuo Rapid, as it was packed.


Girls’ Fun In Tokyo: Sky Tree

Catching up on my blogging, as I discovered that being a tourist in Tokyo is even more time consuming than being a student there.  So, I’m moving backward in time to catch up on the fun vacation I had at the end of my studies.

On August 10th, I moved from my host family’s house over to the ryokan where I would stay with a friend for the next five days.  She and I share a love of cute things and fabric, we both have Japanese-enabled husbands, and we both had never done a solo trip to Japan before.  We had joked back and forth about having a Girl’s Weekend in Tokyo sometime, when we could shop a much as we wanted for fabric and such without driving our husbands to madness.  And thanks to her wonderful husband for watching their kids, we we able to do just that.

So, morning 1, after dropping my luggage at the ryokan, we headed over to Tokyo Sky Tree and Soramachi, the ginormous mall underneath.  We decided that we didn’t need to go up in the Sky Tree itself, but would explore the shops and such instead.  I suggested Friday, as I knew the weekends at Soramachi were insanely crowded, and knowing that O-Bon was the following week, I thought it wouldn’t be much better.  Little did we know…

I had picked up some maps before, but my attempts to find the Moomin Cafe on it were futile, so I stopped and asked the sweet Information ladies for assistance.  One of them, looking very smart in her uniform and matching hat, showed me the way on the map… the way through the shopping mall which was insanely crowded already.  I asked if there wasn’t another route that went by the Ghibli Store and she replied that there was, but there was no shade on that route and I was not wearing a hat, so I should be careful.  She then pointed out yet another route to the Cafe that was shaded.  Such customer service!

And of course, we ignore it and went via the Ghibli Store and the unshaded route.  Which was fine, since we came upon the 100% Chocolate Store, which features 56 kinds of chocolate.  And it offered a place to sit, unlike most of the other cafes we’d passed.  So in we went.  And oh, it was a good thing I hadn’t known about the shop for the prior six weeks.  Along with the drinks and cake we ordered, we each got a piece of that day’s featured chocolate.  With the date printed on it.  How very Japanese.  And how very delicious.

Fortified (and buzzing) we dived back into the crowds and proceeded to find some wonderful stores, with photo ops that left us giggling like mad.  I don’t remember the last time I had laughed so much in one day.  This was definitely going to be a fun vacation.


Why yes, that IS a giant fried shrimp on the wall.

Always on the alert for high school baseball opportunities, I saw this trio in a shop and asked if I could take their photo.  Nonplussed, they complied.  Hopefully it didn’t leave them too disoriented for the rest of the day.

The best store of the day; we couldn’t stop laughing at the decor.  It was so bizarre!

And later, in trying to get to another section of the mall we stumbled across an art installation.  (Did I mention that Soramachi is confusing as hell, with the Sky Tree itself cutting it in half on certain levels?  It’s almost as bad a Shinjuku Station.  Almost.)

We found the Pon de Lion Cafe (of Mister Donut fame).  Cute!!

And later, Cheese Garden, which was not mobbed, but we were so tired I didn’t make it in.  I think it was filled with snooty cheeses, though.  Probably very tasty and very spendy.

And on the way back to our ryokan, we stopped off at Akihabara Station because I wanted to photograph the umbrella vending machine that I’d seen countless times on my commute.  Let me say that again: umbrella vending machine.  Just when I think that Japan can’t possible wow me with another vending machine technology, it does.





Sunday I wanted to relax a bit, so I headed to one of my favorite museums in all of Japan, the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku.  I had seen a poster in one of the stations on my commute about a special exhibition, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.  I thought I’d check it out.  Somehow when buying the ticket, my attempt to convey that I wanted to be sure to include the special exhibition (特別)must have come across as I only wanted to see the special exhibition, as my ticket was for teh special exhibition only.  Which was exactly enough and just what I needed.  My brain was stuffed by the time I finished, so I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the regular exhibitions at all.  Hooray for miscommunication!

The exhibition was all about Nijo Castle in Kyoto.  According to the exhibition (well, the bits I could read), it is undergoing a major renovation and restoration, allowing this exhibition to happen.  (And proceeds from the exhibition go towards that restoration, so it’s a win-win situation.)  The exhibition consisted mainly of decorative screens and door panels from Nijo.  Which doesn’t sound very impressive when written, but is definitely impressive when seen in person.  Absolutely no photography was allowed, so you’ll have to trust me on some of this.

Nijo palace was originally built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and evolved over the centuries to be their castle/stronghold in Kyoto.  When the shogunate ended in 1867 (a copy of the proclamation was on display, reminding me once again that I can’t read kanji script at all) the castle was handed over to the Imperial family and measures were taken to transform it into more of an imperial household.  The Tokugawa mon (metalwork family crests) over the gates were worked from behind and transformed into Imperial chrysanthemum.

One of the features for which Nijo is famous is the nightingale floor, which is engineered in such a way as to squeak in alert anyone that might try to sneak up on the shogun.  They had a recording of that playing near the entrance of the exhibition, but for the first 10 minutes I didn’t realize what it was.   All I heard was some screeching that sounded like a rusty waterwheel in dire need of an oiling.  I figured that when I rounded the corner there would be some sort of mechanical display to explain the noise, but there was nothing.  I finally saw the speaker system, with lights or lasers or something that passing feet would trip, causing the noise.  Then I realized it was supposed to be the nightingale floor.  Of course!

The screens and doors that were on display were exceptional examples of the Kano family of artists’ work over the centuries.  They were the court painters for the Tokugawa shogunate.  I’d studied their works in my Japanese Painting class in the spring term, so it was incredible to be able to get just a few feet away from some of the works I had studied.  Amazing.

After the exhibition, I did a little shopping in the strategically placed exhibition shop, took some purikura (print club) photos of myself with Nijo Castle exteriors, then stopped by the little Kyoto mise for a snack.  While it was lunch time, I couldn’t take my eyes off the vanilla soft cream (soft ice cream) with adzuki red beans, green tea syrup and dango (little sweet rice balls).  When I saw that it came with a pot of tea or coffee, the decision was made.  Dessert with matcha for lunch it was. お願いします。With that, I think I fully realized my appreciation of the not-so-sweet sweets in Japan.  The combination of velvet-smooth vanilla ice cream, the earthy(?) red beans, and slightly bitter tea syrup and matcha matched perfectly.  I wanted to remain in that moment of pure enjoyment for a long time, but the ice cream was melting, so I ate up.