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Part 12: Hawaii — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 11: Tokyo

Why Maui/Hawaii?

It’s paradise on American soil. It’s the vacation for my vacation as the last stop of my trip. I had heard so many nice things about Hawaii and this was my opportunity to see for myself.

Itinerary

  • Wednesday, 12 November: Arrive in Honolulu airport, fly to Maui. Settle in.
  • Thursday, 13 November: nothing
  • Friday 14 November: Lahaina: surfed and explored downtown
  • Saturday 15 November: Hiked Maui tour in East Maui
  • Sunday 16 November: Departed Hawaii, headed home, and ended Little Big Trip

My Impression

Maui was quite nice. The open landscapes with lush green mountains and vast rhythmic seas naturally got me to open up and allowed me to listen to my thoughts more deeply. The island was relatively quiet and pretty low-key, but it did have the conveniences of modern society in each city. It was a really nice place to just slow down and enjoy the ordinary moments of life.

While it was still warm, I would like to spend more time in even warmer weather to get the full experience that most travelers raved about.

Getting There

Starting to see the Hawaiian Islands

I flew from Tokyo to Honolulu, went through customs and immigration, transferred to the domestic side of the airport, then flew to Maui. From there, I rented a car and drove to my hotel in Kihei.

About to land in O'ahu.

I booked the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu as the last leg of my round-the-world ticket, before I decided to go to Maui. I thought the inter-island flights would be cheap and frequent, but I find out later that I had to book them ahead of time just like most flights.

Had I known and decided that I was going to Maui, I would have booked my flight straight to Maui, and I would also have booked the flight straight from Maui home in the Bay Area.

Instead, I had to sneak cellular service while I was landing in Honolulu to check in to my Maui flight, be shepherded into a shuttle, waited through the lines at immigration, and speedwalked to the domestic security check to catch my flight to Maui.

As I filled out my immigration form, I was very excited and proud to put in all the countries I had been to; it was like a badge of honor that only I and a small percentage of people in the world had done.

Summarizing my Little Big Trip on the immigration form.

Getting Around

I rented a car from Maui airport and pretty much drove everywhere. This was made possible when my wallet (which had my California driver license) was found back in Albuquerque, and I was very thankful I had one less thing to worry about during the trip.

Some sort of smoke or clouds in the mountains on the way to Makena Beach.

I couldn’t remember seeing public buses, but it would’ve been impractical to travel in Maui this way, although since I had a very little agenda in Hawaii, I probably could’ve taken my time and taken the bus to different places. I definitely could’ve done it if I had to. Still, it was nice to be able to drive to where I wanted to go in my own time.

Enjoying the vast landscape on the drive back to Kihei.

The one issue was that it was hard for my to drive long distances; I already knew this before the trip but was reminded when I had to drive in Maui. I had a tendency to want to doze off if I drove long distances, like on the highway. And the weather in Hawaii made it easy to relax and be comfortable. The time it took to go from one part of Maui to another would take thirty to forty-five minutes, and while the view of the landscapes was very beautiful look at, they also calmed me down on the road. This was probably my own problem; as most drivers rarely experience this, I believed.

Driving to Lahaina with Third Eye Blind playing. Such a mix of emotions.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Mid-November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.


The weather was mildly warm. For a beachy vacation spot, it could definitely be warmer, but it was comfortable temperature-wise.

There was a slight humidity, though. It wasn’t enough to feel gross and sticky, but I could feel it and it made me want to head indoor somewhere or wish there was at least a breeze, like by the shore.

For the most part, I just wrote a T-shirt. I wrote my loose synthetic pants but even that was a bit stuffy at times.

At certain seemingly random times, there was rain for maybe thirty minutes to an hour, and the skies would change quickly between clear to cloudy.

People

The people were pretty much standard American (at least the kind I had come to know in California). Customer service was good and not overly friendly. Of course, some were better than others. The lady who worked at Local Food in Lahaina was very sweet and friendly; it made me feel good to have bought food from her. The college-student-looking folks who worked at the shave ice shop were just busy shaving the ice and finishing orders; they had little time to connect with customers, but the shave ice was delicious so that sort of made up for it.

Language

People spoke English, which was such a relief and made my time in Hawaii more easy-going.

Activities/Sightseeing

Surf

One of the things I wanted to do in Hawaii was surf, because I heard it was much easier to surf in Hawaii, and I needed the confidence boost and practice. However, I realized later that that was probably only true in certain beaches, and probably the popular beginner surfer beaches in the touristy part of Hawaii like Honolulu. Nonetheless, I still wanted to try.

I had breakfast early in the morning at Kihei Caffe. The food was decent, and it felt a little weird to eat at a restaurant where the people spoke English; I had to brush up my normal restaurant social skills.

Breakfast at Kihei Caffe before surfing.

There was so much butter on the biscuit.

Very buttery biscuit.

I then drove up to Lahaina in search for one of the many recommended beaches. Apparently, many of those beaches did not exist or were right next to resorts, so I just went to the public beach near Lahaina Harbor. I rented a board from a man who had car-shop looking store front with a couple of boards and a bunch of tattered rash guards and hole-y booties. He was really laid back, almost to a point where he seemed like he didn’t care at all. I was almost scared to leave him my rental car keys.

I rented a long board as I usually did, and my session started off just like all the other times I “surfed”: mostly trying to surf. There was a lot of trial and error,and a lot of internal thinking, trying to figure out how to do better the next time. Also typical of my surfing experience, the gentle rhythm of the waves distracted me from focusing on catching the waves properly.

Then someone came up to me and started telling me how to catch the waves. Not knowing who the guy was, I tried to ignore him at first, but he continued to shouting instructions. He was a middle-aged man with a totally bald head and seemed to have some tattoos. On the surface he seemed like someone I would not normally socialize with. But being a newbie and naturally following people who shouted commands at me, I did what he said, and I did no better or worse than before. But I did something.

Soon after, he told me my board was too long and that I should use a shortboard. He told me to switch with him, and not knowing how to politely refuse, I took his shortboard. I then tried to catch the next wave and surprisingly, it was slightly easier to do. I still didn’t pop up, but I felt that I could the next time. This man suddenly earned my trust.

The tattooed bald man continued to give me instructions to improve my timing. Still not knowing who he was, I had yet to fully embrace and apply his commands. That reluctance and lack of confidence kept me from fully clicking with the sport, so I continued to fail one time, succeed the next, and then fail again, except it was at a better level than before.

It turned out the man was a surf instructor, and his name was Bully. He told me I had the basics right, and I just needed to improve my timing and refine my form. He mainly did private lessons, and he was curious how long I was in town for and if I would want to take a lesson. He had a plastic baggy of business cards and handed me one. I felt it was too sales-y, but then I switched on my “Take chances” and “Just do it” mindset and started working out my schedule to see if I could do it. He even pulled out a business card from a resealable plastic bag and handed to me. I thought it was going to dissolve in the water, but it held up pretty well. The back of the card advertised his wife’s stand-up paddle board classes.

Business card from Bully during my surf.

But in the end, I didn’t do it, partly because the timing was too tight, though I wish I did if I had more time. His free quasi-lesson made such an impression on me that I would recommend him to anyone if they happened to be in Maui for a few days, including my future self.

Downtown Lahaina

After the surf session, I drove down a few blocks to downtown Lahaina for some lunch. Based on my Yelp research, I stopped by Local Food, which was walk-up window type of joint, and ordered a delicious and filly kalua pork rice plate with piping hot spam musubi (see food section below).

I parked in a paid parking lot in downtown, pretty close to the Lahaina Banyan Court, and became amazed by the incredible banyan trees seemingly interconnected with one another.

Crazy tree network in downtown Lahaina.

Then I just strolled down the street checking out the shops, looking for patches for my luggage and souvenir stickers for my notebook. I also got some shave ice.

The street was by the water, and I had to capture to beautiful scene. I took a vertical panoramic picture that showed the tree above me, the bright sky, calming waves, and smooth sands at the bottom.

The vertical view of the water from downtown Lahaina.

The scene of the water from Lahaina.

Hike Maui

Hawaii - Hike Maui - LBT 2014

For my last full day of the trip, I decided to take a tour of Maui and take advantage of where I was and learn more about it. I found the tour company Hike Maui, which offered a number of tours ranging in length, location, and level of physical activity. I signed up for the “East Maui Waterfalls & Rain Forest Hike” which was supposed to allow guests to swim under the waterfall. It was not in my plans to do that on the trip, but since the option came up, I quickly imagined the cheesy, picturesque scene of me right under the waterfall with my arms wide open, and it suddenly became a goal for me to accomplish.

I booked the tour a little over twenty-four hours before, and the website/company was relatively responsive and gave me a confirmation pretty quickly.

The confirmation email did ask to bring shoes we would not mind getting wet and dirty in, and since I did mind getting my hiking shoes wet and dirty, I bought a pair of water shoes from Safeway just for this tour. I found out at the start of the tour though, that they had a box of water shoes for guests to borrow, so I didn’t have to buy my own pair. After the tour, since I didn’t have room to bring them back home with me, when I checked out of the hotel, I left the shoes in the hotel’s pool supplies room for others to use.

Bought water shoes for the hike.

When I arrived at the pick-up place, which was a random parking lot on the side of the highway near Kahului. When I arrived, it was just my car in the parking lot and it was raining. I was worried somehow I missed the pick-up or that it was canceled. After so many tours on this trip, I was still nervous about a tour going wrong.

But pretty soon, I saw a Hike Maui branded van pull up and I quickly got my stuff and got on the van. We then drove to the Hike Maui headquarters and picked up the supplies, including water shoes and our packed lunches.

The drive to East Maui was a little long; it took about an hour, but like any good tours, the tour guide, Ashley, who was also our driver, filled the time and talked about our agenda for the day, some history and culture with Hawaii, along with information about the towns and natural landmarks that we passed by on the way.

We were told that the area we were hiking was privately owned, and Hike Maui (along with a few other companies) had deals with the owners so not everyone could go to where we were going.

Once we arrived, we loaded our bags with food and other gear, used the porte-potties (because we weren’t supposed to do our business anywhere else, and started our tour.

As I learned from the videos on the website, Hike Maui’s tours were different from most tours I had been on. Throughout the hike, in addition to just talking about local plants and biology, Ashley the tour guide pulled off different plants and fruits to show us more in detail whatever she was saying. It was a really neat format that helped keep guests engaged.

Tour guide getting us guava.

Tour guide making twine.

Tour guide serving avocado.

Not sure what this was but pretty tart.

About forty-five minutes into the tour, we reached our first waterfall. We got to take a dip to cool off, then we continued our hike. The water was cool, and the warm weather made it easy enough to dry off quickly.

Taking a dip in the first waterfall.

At the second waterfall, we took a lunch break, and we were allowed to jump off the short cliff over the waterfall. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but the “Just do it” part of my brain kicked in again and I did it.

Jumping over a short waterfall.

This was also my opportunity to do the dramatic waterfall photo. So I asked Ashley to take the video and photo. I could sense her silent awkwardness as she watched me do this cheesy pose, but I didn’t care nor did I try to diffuse the awkwardness by acknowledging. I wanted the shots.

Dramatic waterfall shot.

After that we hiked some more, checked out a few more waterfalls, ate some things that Ashley pulled off and cut up for us, and unknowingly, we arrived back at our starting place.

The drive back to Kahului was pretty low-key. We did drive by very long, clean, blue waves long the shore, with a couple of surfers hanging out in the line-up. It made me very envious and wish I had more time to check this side of Maui.

Incredibly beautiful waves and colors.

Ashley dropped me off in the parking lot by the side of the highway where I got picked up. I thanked her and gave her a tip. We said our good byes, and she drove off to drop off the other guests.

Makena Beach

After the hike tour, I decided to take up my last chance to hang out at the beach in Maui, since I still had yet to do so. I heard that Makena Beach/State Park in south Maui was pretty popular. But when I got there, the sun was about to set and the temperature was already cooling down. So I made the best of it and enjoyed the sunset instead.

Almost sunset at Makena Beach.

As I watched the sunset, I reflected on the past forty-some days of my trip, especially on the second day, in Albuquerque, when I temporarily lost my wallet. I watched the sun set in the Albuquerque landscape wondering with worry what else could happen in the next forty-some days.

Sunset at Makena Beach, Maui.

Sunset on the second day of the trip.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Hawaii - Food - LBT 2014

Fish Tacos

The first meal I got after arriving and settling in in Kihei, Maui was fish tacos from Coconut’s Fish Cafe. I never really had a preference for fish tacos but it showed up on yelp for being very good, and I was really hungry, so I gave it a try.

Coconut's Fish Cafe

The fish tacos turned out to be quite delicious. The fish was freshly cooked and pretty filling. The mango salsa was a bit spicy but tasty. It was kind of messy to eat. Still, it was definitely satisfactory. I ordered two and it was a good amount for me.

Fresh fish taco

Hawaiian Foods

On my second day, I was so tired from traveling that I spend the whole day in the hotel, mostly sleeping and TV surfing. But I still had to eat dinner, so I got take out from a restaurant that was probably not the best representative of Hawaiian food, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. This was normally not part of my diet anyway, but it was one of the places that was supposed to have spam musubi, which I was craving. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it, so I just had the chicken katsu plate. It was still filling, though.

Fast food dinner from L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Did the job.

After a surf session in Lahaina, I found Local Food on Yelp and got the kalua pork rice plate, as well as the spam musubi.

Local Food in Lahaina after surfing.

The rice plate was so good and filling. The kalua pork had just the right amount of flavor and it wasn’t too salty.

Kalua pork rice plate from Local Food. So good after surfing.

The spam musubi was wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and it was quite hot to handle. Even after eating the rice plate, it was still piping hot. Also, I was expecting delicious flavors from this neatly packaged treat, but it pretty much tasted exactly as what I could see: rice, spam, and seaweed.

Spam Musubi from Local Food. So hot!

Snacks

While on the flight to Maui, a newlywed couple sat next to me and being natives, they recommended a bunch of Hawaiian snacks with names of businesses to check out. One of them was Home Maid Bakery in Kahului. I managed to find it one night and and picked up a bunch of different pastries and treats:

The mango flavored coconut cream mochi was sweet and a bit tangy, but too soft to hold its shape after biting into the creamy center.

Mango coconut mochi with cream.

The tuna musubi was a mix of diluted rice and tuna flavors.

Tuna Musubi from Home Maid Bakery in Wailuku, Maui.

Inside tuna musubi.

The texture of butter mochi reminded me of a Chinese treat (they were probably pretty similar), but the semi-savory flavor threw me off with what I associated the name “mochi” to be.

Butter Mochi from Home Maid Bakery in Wailuku, Maui.

The mango was pretty much a big crumbly cookie with a little bit of filling inside; there was too much cookie and too little filling for my preference.

Sweet Potato Manju from Home Maid Bakery in Wailulu, Maui.

This was a hand pie of some sort, I honestly didn’t remember what it was, but it tasted okay.

I don't remember what this was.

Shave Ice

The breakout food from Hawaii for me was shave ice. I fell in love with it the first time I had it. The folks at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice did a good job packing the ice, carving it out, and assembling the cone with flavors and toppings.

Green tea/mange shave ice with mochi and azuki beans

My favorite parts to the shave ice aligned with my green tea and mochi obsession, which conveniently carried over from when I was in Japan: green tea, mochi, and azuki beans. I only wished the weather wasn’t so warm so I had more time to enjoy the shave ice before it melted.

Gelato

Noticing a highly-rated gelato shop in Hawaii, I figured I should try it out.

Ono Gelato in Kihei.

The first time, I got a local favorite, the Sandy Beach. It was basically a very caramel-y sweet, dense gelato with bits of brown sugar and other things in it, making it a bit gritty, like sand. Overall it was good, but it was one of those flavors where I would recommend trying once and then move on to other flavors.

"Sandy Beach" gelato from Ono Gelato in Maui. Quite sweet and rich.

The second time, I got a lemon gelato. Even though I realized I liked milk-based gelato more than fruit-based, I figured I should try it one more time. It turned out I was still right. This lemon flavor was really sour, almost in the lime territory.

Lemon gelato from Ono Gelato.

Getting out

I flew from Maui’s Kahului airport to Honolulu, then flew to San Jose, California.

However, I was having trouble checking in to the flight from Honolulu to San Jose. The flight was co-operated by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, but there was a slight time change, and somehow that wasn’t updated with one of the airlines or some other reason, and the check-in website said to call the provided number.

I was very fortunate this happened in the States where I had a cell plan, because I ended up spending at least an hour doing the “We can’t do anything on our system, you’d have to call the other airline” back and forth multiple times.

It was quite stressful as the thought of not being able to return home on time was becoming more and more real. Knowing that I could fly direct from Maui to the Bay Area instead of connecting in Honolulu with a very short timeframe, I started toying with the idea of dropping the two original flights and booking a new flight from Maui.

It was somewhat ironic that I was stressed from the potential of being stuck in paradise. But it was also ironic that the flights I had the most problems and was most stressed out with were the ones to and from the most relaxing part of the trip.

Finally, I had to stop the back and forth calls, and decided to go to the airport earlier to sort it out. That would mean I had to skip the final two food runs I wanted to do in the last hours of my trip. Instead, I got McDonald’s breakfast, which was honestly a fine alternative, because I allowed myself to indulge on McDonald’s whenever I went on vacation.

From My Travel Log

October 6 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH

  • Wallet’s found, but not after I canceled my cards, and had them send replacements.
  • Also, it was found only because I emailed and that I remembered the bus number. At least my ID was recovered so I can rent a car in Hawaii.

November 15 2014, 5:59pm, Hakena State Park Parking Lot

  • Just saw the sunset of the second to last day of my trip. I remember when I saw the sunset of the second day of my trip, when I lost my wallet and I thought about how the rest of my trip would go and what kind of misadventures I would go through.
  • The trip was amazing, And I am impressed I’m proud to have done it and have done all these and so many things in such a short time. I’ll try to get a better sense by laying it out in a collage or video montage, but I know it’ll never capture the real feeling I have. I don’t even know what feeling that is myself.

November 16 2014, 11:39pm, Maui, Kahului Airport Airside

  • Waiting for flight, came in extra early to do with check-in problem with American/Alaskan Airlines. So not going with American next time, and so going to fly direct to the island instead of jumping around.
  • I still have to see if I can make it to that flight with an hour to de-board, run to terminal, go through security, and run to the gate. If not, my back up would be to book a new flight to Oakland overnight.
  • This is the last leg of traveling of my trip. A couple of hurdles. It’s interesting how on the second day of my trip I wasn’t sure if I could leave the country (technically I could but I wouldn’t be able to rent a car here in Hawaii without my driver’s license), and last night I wasn’t sure if I could get back to mainland U.S. on time.
  • With this incident, I realized that I’m often with my foot halfway out the door and use money to solve my problems. Maybe I’m traveling and spend more freely, But I think the principle is still there in my everyday life now.
  • With this incident, I’ve been aching to go home, that I am done with this trip. But I know I’m going to miss it and wished I was still on it when I’m back. I just want to mention that while I’m still on the trip, specifically, that there isn’t anything left that makes me want to stay on the trip, but I still regard the trip as a great success with amazing experiences and incredible achievements.
  • I am modestly proud of what I’ve done, and only time will allow me to realize how much more significant this trip is than I think right now.
  • I think about the first half of the trip and feel so proud or more proud of what I’ve done, and with the Europe and Asia portions, they’re still recent, or feel recent that I feel them less. I know, and I hope that, while I can’t possibly feel it now without deep analysis, I will feel it in a few weeks from now, with some distance, and with sorting of the photos and videos. That’s the most that I can expect, and I hope they’ll come true.

November 16 2014, 1:42pm, OGG -> HNL

  • Hawaii looks small, But still large and islands are far enough apart.
  • For this final flights incident, I’ve called American and Alaska back and forth so many times with very little to no results. In the process, I’d looked into alternative flights, including ditching my two flights and buy one direct to Oakland from OGG, to buy an earlier flight from OGG to HNL, to ensure I make it to the second flight on time with lower costs. After a certain point of calling back and forth and making myself “ask” for what I want, I had to call it and stop calling and hope for the best in the morning (with some resuming of the request to fix issue). And that’s what I did. I went into problem-solving mode this morning and skipped the trip to Home Maid Bakery for more mochi, or any other place for more Hawaiian food. I got breakfast from McDonald’s because it’s safe and predictable, and I went to the airport with a commitment to resolve this. As a result, I should not worry about my ability to resolve issues. I know it’s practically innate and I should focus on doing my best with plan A.

November 23 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.

Thanks

  • Immigration officer who seemed half curious half serious about where I went and how long it took
  • National rental person who was really nice about my reservation and in general and with my credit card issue
  • Terel who helped me check-in
  • Lady who cleaned my room very quickly
  • Nice guests who say hi whenever we passed by.
  • Marty the massage therapist
  • Tez and Kai who were returning from their honeymoon
  • Lady and young woman at Kihei Caffe who took my order and served me food
  • Weird staff at L&L who seemed to not know much about California’s Asian/Chinese population
  • Lady at L&L who probably has mental problems and she seems to be talking to nobody, even when I’m not responding
  • Guy who rented me surfboard and shirts/shoes
  • Bully the instructor
  • Lady at Local Food who was really sweet
  • Lady at general store who pointed me to the souvenir patches
  • Crew at Uluani’s Shave Ice
  • Ashley and George, the tour guide and tour guide in training
  • Lucy
  • Portland couple
  • SD couple
  • Older lady
  • Staff at Saimin place
  • Staff at Home Maid Bakery
  • National rental drop off staff
  • Lady at Alaska counter who helped me to check in to last flight
  • American and Alaska phone support (Not really)
  • Woman and man next to me on last flight (this one right now) swapping stories about parents in assisted living and diseases and whatnot
  • Alaska airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny airlines crew for being casually friendly and a little funny

Tips

  • Don’t book tickets that were co-operated, especially by American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. If they have a change in the flight information, the other airline may not update, and you may not be able to check in online; and you’d have to check in at the counter the day of the flight.
  • There are plenty of flights that fly directly to Maui (OGG) from both Tokyo and the Bay Area. You don’t need to book flights to Honolulu and then shorter flights to Maui.
  • The Honolulu airport seemed to be very spread out, so book flight connections with a lot of time in between just in case.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Maui/Hawaii, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 11: Tokyo — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 10: Beijing

Why Tokyo?

I had a fascination with the Japanese culture. But since I grew up near Japan and was more familiar with Japanese culture than most Westerners were, my fascination was more on the orderliness of the people and way of doing things, especially when compared to the Chinese. Relatedly, there’s a particular design sensibility that also aligned with mine.

And since Tokyo was the largest and most well-known city in Japan, I thought it would be the best place to experience what Japan had to offer.

Itinerary

  • Sunday, 9 Nov: Arrive in Tokyo.
  • Monday, 10 Nov: Visited Tokyo SkyTree and Asakusa Shrine, Ate Ramen, and Checked out Shinjuku streets.
  • Tuesday, 11 Nov: Visited Edo-Tokyo Museum, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku area, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Tower.
  • Wednesday, 12 Nov: Visited Roppongi Tower’s Observation Floor and Imperial Palace East Garden, and Departed Tokyo.

My Impression

On the whole, Tokyo to me was a hardworking, bustling city like any other. There were pockets of unique qualities in the different wards, and it was fun exploring and checking out a few of them. But Tokyo was too large to fully experience in three days.

I knew about the Japanese being known for being organized and tidy, but it was kind of shocking to see in person how true it was. Usually, in major cities, there would be random areas that would be filthy with trash or unpleasant smells. This occurred in some cities more often than others. But in Tokyo, every street and alley was practically spotless. It actually almost felt sterile.

With Tokyo being a seemingly nice place to be in, I thought for a moment about living in Japan. But I quickly realized that in my profession, I would probably become the well-known Japanese salaryman working extra hard, be obligated to to go out drinking with the boss, and be very subservient to people above me in a very structured hierarchy. There would be trade-offs to consider.

Getting There

I flew from Beijing to Narita Airport. At the Narita airport, I tried to figure out by myself how to buy a train ticket to the city, but I was confused by all the different options and route splits, so I asked someone at the ticket counter which line I should take. The lady knew extremely limited English, so I repeated many times what I thought she said and what she pointed at on the train map just to make sure.

Tokyo subway map from the airport.

About half way on my train ride, I started getting nervous about whether I was on the right train or if it was one of the routes that split off to a different destination. I couldn’t match the station names with the ones on the train map anymore, so instead of having faith and being patient like I normally would, I got off the train and figured out where I was.

Perhaps I was more willing to take the risk because I was in Japan and felt more safe than other places I had been. Still, once I realized I actually was on right train, I had to pick out the next right train from the wrong trains to continue my journey.

Accommodations

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Hostel - LBT 2014

I booked my stay at Nui. Hostel, which was in the Taitō ward, fairly close to the Kuramae station. It’s been said to be a “hipster hostel”, which made me feel less worthy to stay. Regardless, it was a nice hostel.

Staff

The ground level was a restaurant/lounge open to the public. I knew this going in, so when I entered, I looked around at the front desk until a worker greeted me. She could tell from my luggage that I was staying at the hostel instead of getting food. I made a reservation online but did not mention it. I didn’t see a computer so I wasn’t sure if my reservation mattered. She made a copy of my passport and I filled out the registration form. The worker shuffled some paperwork and got me checked in.

Map for the Nui. Hostel. (Front)

Info for the Nui. Hostel. Back.

She handed me the guest information and went over it with me. As she was starting, I tried to respond in Japanese with simple phrases like “はい” (Yes). But when she asked me if I knew Japanese, I quickly shifted and said “すごし” (Little), “Very すごし”. She knew some English and it was enough to communicate.

The rest of the guest-interacting staff also knew a little bit of English, and they were very nice and accommodating when I needed assistance.

Room

I booked an eight-person dorm. It had four wooden bunk beds, two on each side of the room with an aisle in the middle, leading to the window. Near the door were small wooden lockers with small metal loops for small locks.

My bunk is at far upper right. Nui. Hostel.

With the concrete walls and brown wood bed frames, the room was somewhat dark, especially towards the door. I supposed that helped with sleep and keeping things quiet. Lighting in the room was also limited, but each bed had its own lamp. Also, since each bed had curtains, the space felt a little tight when all the curtains were closed. The dorm was really just a place to sleep.

On my side of the room, I met my roommates. One was a Japanese guy around my age from Seattle traveling to Japan to see family. One was a white American but was living and working in Shanghai. Another one was French. Throughout my stay, the two from the States just talked about different things, from places to check out in Tokyo and traveling to movies and international politics. I talked about my obsession of mochi and green tea, and they seemed amused by it.

On the other side of the room was an older Japanese man staying in a hostel for the first time, a Chinese (man?) who mostly kept to himself, maybe coming in late at night drunk?, and a French couple who unfortunately had bed bugs or something and asked to switch rooms and washed all their clothes the next day. They seemed to be the only ones affected, and they were in the corner of the room farthest from me, so I was a little less concerned.

Bed

I was on the top bunk for the last time of the trip. It included power outlet next to the bed, curtains for privacy (similar to St. Christopher’s Inn in Paris). Sheets and light duvet were included but I had to set it up myself (with instructions given in the check-in info sheet).

Top bunk at Nui. Hostel.

There were two metal loops in the ceiling with hangers, which was such a simple but genius idea.

At the foot of my bed was a straw or bamboo blinds separating me from the other top bunk. At night, when the other guest had his lamp turned on, I could kind of see into his bed, which was kind of weird.

Bathroom

The bathroom was dorm style and shared with other dorm guests on the floor. It had a few individual shower rooms and toilet rooms, including one just for ladies. The toilets were not the fancy Japanese kinds with bidets and whatnot, so I didn’t get a chance to try the different settings.

The shower room had a space to change/dry off, and a space for the actual shower. The shower had a two-pane folding door on a track that must be closed completely for the shower to turn on. It was a neat design and a pleasure to shower, thought it could get a bit claustrophobic. The shower also included soap and shampoo dispenser.

Nui. Hostel dorm bathrooms.

Near the entrance to the bathroom was a counter of sinks with mirrors. It was the first time using a co-ed dorm bathroom, and it felt kind of weird brushing my teeth next to ladies doing their make up or blowdrying their hair, but I just stayed cool and minded my own business. Such a noob moment.

Common Area

There was a restaurant/lounge area on the ground floor for the public and a guest-only lounge on the top (6th) floor. I only hung out at the restaurant for breakfast on my last day. It seemed to always have a lot of people, but it was really laid back.

Nui. Hostel ground floor lounge in the morning. Jack Johnson playing.

Aside from sleeping, I spent most of my time at the hostel in the guest-only lounge. It was a good-sized space with a large dining table near the elevator entrance. There were two long desks along the walls, with a bench on the far side. There were outlets and lamps at the desk for people to work at. Plenty of windows on one side provided pretty good light. There were many reading materials, including magazines and city guides.

Guest-only lounge area at hostel.

There was also a small kitchen area near the dining table but I wasn’t sure if it was for guest use. Between the kitchen and the elevator was the laundry room, with a few coin-operated washing and drying machines. I used the washing machine but dried the clothes at my bed.

I usually brought breakfast from outside back to the lounge to eat before starting my day. There weren’t that many people using it, probably because it was on the top floor and felt secluded from everything else. It was still a nice place to just relax; though it could get boring.

Wi-Fi/Internet

The Wi-Fi was good. It was not hyper fast but it was quite sufficient for looking up stuff on websites and maps. It worked in the room as well as the lounge area.

Food

The restaurant offered breakfast for sale in the morning, with different breads and pastries. I had a croissant and ordered a cup of tea from the kitchen. The food was decent.

Breakfast at Nui. Hostel.

On my first night, I noticed that they had a full dinner menu, but it was too late to order anything and I never got a chance to try the dinner.

Getting Around

Japan was a huge city, and it has a complicated subway system owned by three companies. I took the subway to go from one area to another, then walked within that area and got on the subway to head to another area.

Because the subway had too many options, and that I was only going to be in Tokyo for about 3 days, and that I had planned very little with my time in Tokyo, I opted to just buy tickets as I went.

The fares were determined by distance, so I had to decide where I wanted to go when I bought the tickets at the machine. At first, the machine was kind of confusing with so many choices, even when I toggled to English. It had really specific options so I had to know exactly where I wanted to go.

The ticket design was kind of utilitarian with a hint of Japanese sensibility. It was a rectangular piece of paper with a hole and custom-printed text. Either the machine could scan the text on the ticket or the tickets had an RFID chips in them.

Transfer ticket for subway.

Japanese trains were known for being on time. Some stations had digital boards listing upcoming trains and times. For the most part, the trains came frequently enough that missing one would be fine, at least for a traveler with little regard for time.

The subway map was really confusing but it was relatively easy to understand after taking the subway a few times. It was still frustrating to find that the shortest route across town would still take thirty minutes or more.

Tokyo Subway map. English.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Mid-November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

Tokyo was mostly cool throughout the day. But when the sun came out, it got a little warm and I only had a T-shirt.

At night, or when the weather was gloomy, I had a long-sleeve shirt and/or a light jacket on.

It also rained a little bit at certain times.

People

The people were very friendly. I think they were just trained and also grew up that way. Even if they didn’t speak English, they would smile to hide their embarrassment and either tried to get help or did their best.

But sometimes, their smiles and bows did little to help me and left me wondering if 1) they had accepted my request and were continue to help me or 2) I was asking for something they could not comply so they nonverbally ended the interaction. I would then have to pursue further to confirm either case, or that I would suggest doing something else if I asked for an undeliverable request.

Nonetheless, the people were nice and would do as much as they can to help me. For example, I was heading to the airport and wasn’t sure which ticket to buy because it wasn’t on the usual subway menu. I asked the station attendant but he couldn’t speak English. He pointed at route maps on a counter and at ticket machines, but I couldn’t understand him. I walked to the ticket machine trying to do what I thought he wanted me to do. But the attendant eventually came out and pressed the buttons for me.

From my limited experience reading people, he was a young man who seemed to have held the attendant job for only a short time. He didn’t seem to care a whole lot about the job, but his sense to serve seemed to have driven him to continue to help me. And I was glad he did, because I really didn’t know what to do. I probably would’ve figured it out myself or took my best guess after poking around on the screen a few times, but it was very nice of the attendant to help me.

Language

I took one semester of Japanese in college, and I became mildly interested in it ever since. It may have been because my Chinese language background made learning Japanese easier, or that I was naturally interested in learning languages.

I had learned the Japanese alphabet, both hiragana and katakana, and could still recognize most of them.

For the trip, I took a course of the audio tapes like I did for the other languages, and it was nice to get a refresher but also good to learn new basic actions, like eat, drink, go, etc., even though, like the other languages, I didn’t have enough confidence to use or the sufficient practice to understand.

Tours/Sightseeing

Tokyo Skytree (Shopping Center)

When I checked in to my hostel, I noticed the Tokyo Skytree in the near distance. So I walked up to the river near the hostel and tried to get a good shot of it, even though it was sort of raining. At first I did not know it was called Skytree; I thought it was called Tokyo Tower!

The next morning I figure it would be a good way to get my bearings by walking to the Skytree. I crossed the Asakusabashi bridge and had a direct view of the Asahi building.

Tokyo Skytree and Asahi building.

Near the Skytree center, I went to a convenient store to get some snacks. I noticed these Skytree shaped bottles, which was not surprising at all.

Sky tree water bottles.

The terrace outside of the Skytree center already had some sort of Christmas decorations and booths set up with Christmas trees and polar bears.

Christmas scene around Tokyo Skytree.

I looked up ahead of time that going up the Skytree required some sort of reservation, so I already gave up on doing that. Instead, I roamed around the shopping center for a little bit.

A restaurant around green tea!

I noticed a green tea restaurant, and my eyes lit up. I wasn’t sure about having a full meal inside, so I asked to just get a green tea ice cream to go. There were so many choices I had trouble picking just one. Finally, I choice the green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean. It was really cold but delicious.

Green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean in a cone!

After that, I went to a stationery/office store and got some stickers for my travel log as well as for my nephews as souvenirs. Then as I was about to leave, I noticed a Studio Ghibli store, and I had to check it out.

Totora is sleeping. Studio Ghibli Store at Tokyo Skytree shopping center.

It was very tough narrowing down the number of souvenirs I wanted to get. Because of my limited storage, I ultimately got small Totoro figures for my nephews.

Asakusa Shrine and Tori-no-ichi Festival

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Asakusa and Tori-no-Ichi - LBT 2014

I made my way back to the other side of the river and headed to the Asakusa Shrine. I knew very little about the shrine or the temple, but I remained respectful and I took pictures and videos of what I felt was the important stuff.

Asakusa Shrine.

I saw people at the chozuya cleaning their hands with a ladle of water.I wanted to do what they did but I didn’t know if it was appropriate. Even with illustrated instructions, I was a little confused.

People using the Chozuya to purify themselves.

Instructions for how to use Chozuya.

There were also a wall of wooden plaques (called Ema) and they supposedly had wishes and whatnot.

Ema plaques at Asakusa Shrine.

I left the shrine area and went out to where the temple and other structures were. The shrine was a relatively low-key quiet place, but the temple area was much more popular and crowded with people.

Scene at Asakusa.

I noticed one section had people shaking tin cans, letting a stick fall out, and then taking a fortune from one of the many drawers. I had seen this in Chinese temples so I wanted to get my for fun.

Getting an o-mikuji fortune.

The o-mikuji fortune has an English translation.

My o-mikuji fortune.

I then made my way to the main entrance of the temple grounds, through the shops and to the “Thunder Gate” with a giant lantern.

Looking down the shops at Asakusa

"Thunder Gate" at Asakusa.

I thought it was neat how popular this temple was, even with young people, because in Chinese culture, this types of stuff mainly interested the older generation.

After Asakusa Shrine and Temple, I made my way to the Tori-no-ichi Festival, which I learned was happening while I was in town. I still had little understanding of what it was, but I just knew it was something that the locals celebrated.

As I was getting closer to Washi Shrine, I noticed people walking away holding large sticks with shiny decorative elements and a semi-creepy-looking mask-face. Apparently, these were rakes and people get them for good luck.

Decorated rakes at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa.

I noticed a line to enter the shrine area, but I didn’t get on it because I didn’t know what it was for exactly and I was not interested in the festival enough to wait in a long line. What I did notice was that next to the line was regular pedestrians passing by, only distinguished by colored tape on the ground. I was quite impressed at the level of order this piece of tape provided to the festival goers. In other countries, people would undoubtedly cut in line, or that tall barricades would be required to separate the queue from passerby.

Orderly Japanese people waiting to enter Tori-no-ichi Festival

Also, the line apparently was to ring some sort of bell.

People waiting to ring the bell at Tori-no-ichi Festival.

I managed to find another entrance to the general festival area. But all it had were vendors that sold practically the same things: rakes.

Inside Tori-no-ichi Festival.

After realizing that that was all there was, I started walking farther away from the main area and noticed street food vendors catering to any people checking out the festival.

Street Food at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa

Toasted Fish at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa.

I didn’t get any food at the time because I wasn’t sure what some of the things were, and I didn’t feel like going through the trouble with the language barrier and ask.

Shinjuku

My hostel roommate mentioned a street food festival happening in Shinjuku, and since I wanted to see Shinjuku anyway, I figured I should check out the street food as well.

It took me a while to find the street food, I walked in a large circle around the Shinjuku area before finding it. It was mainly a long strip on one side of the street where there were vendors set up and people walk along the sidewalk and picked the things they liked.

Walking on the sidewalk next to street food vendors in Shinjuku.

There were plenty of the “usual” Japanese street food, including that one where the cook flipped little balls of food from a mold of semispheres.

Shinjuku street food.

There were other vendors that sold practically a meal, with meat and potatoes and a fried egg. I would’ve gotten it if I were more hungry and that it didn’t feel greasy.

Practically a meal. Shinjuku street food.

Then there were the desserts. For the novelty, I had a chocolate-covered banana with Koala March cookie, which was disappointingly more healthy than I thought (it was just a banana inside).

Covered bananas with Koala March cookie. Shinjuku.

I ate a fish-shaped cake with caramel filling before I saw a green tea version, so I had that as well. They were also disappointing in that there was more cake than filling.

Fish-shaped cakes with different fillings. Shinjuku.

Caramel filling inside fish-shaped cake. Shinjuku.

Fish-shaped cake with a dot of green tea filling.

I then saw boba drinks that was available in green tea. It was very milky and watered down.

Matcha boba.

Out of cash and full on sweets, I continued walking around Shinjuku and was mesmerized by the lighted signs.

Crossing the street in Shinjuku.

The lights of Shinjuku.

There were plenty of karaoke bars and night clubs in Shinjuku; it was clearly a place for a good night life, but I was just not in the mood, especially by myself. There was an American-English speaking guy trying to get me in to come in to one of the clubs, and I could tell it was probably not a good idea.

After seeing all that I needed to see, I headed back to the hostel for the night.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Edo-Tokyo Museum - LBT 2014

With little on my agenda, I decided to check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida, which was near my hostel. It was a really interesting visit. Edo was the original name of Tokyo, and the museum pretty much went through the history of old Tokyo to today. It had a lot of amazing large, detailed diorama models illustrating different eras in Tokyo’s history.

Model of old Tokyo town. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Figures on bridge model and beyond. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Everything was organized and relatively easy to understand, especially if I could fully understand Japanese.

Woodblock printing process. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Old currencies. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

It even had a special exhibition on the 1964 Olympics to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary, displaying the clothing, posters, relay torch, and other materials from the time.

1964 Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay torch. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

It also went through the Westernization of Japan as well as Japanese involvement in World War II.

Unexploded bomb.

Bombing of Tokyo geographically visualized. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

The museum had a lot of very fascinating information about Tokyo’s history that I felt would be even more useful if I understood Japanese. Many but not all of the signs had English translation, so I could only understand some of the materials.

Meiji Shrine/Yoyogi Park

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Meiji/Yoyogi Park - LBT 2014

Knowing that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics in 2020, I wanted to check out the progress on the Olympic Stadium. However, I didn’t realized construction had yet to begin, and all I could find was a boring-looking entrance to a stadium that was closed. Disappointed, I moved on to the Meiji Shrine, which was in the area.

The park around Meiji Shrine was totally secluded. I could only see tall trees and wide gravel paths, and I could only hear birds chirping and insects buzzing, and maybe the faint sound of continuous traffic in the distance. It was a really nice change.

Peace of nature at Yoyogi Park.

The shrine area was a big open space, with a small number of visitors. It rained a little bit, so may that led to fewer visitors than it could accommodate. There were Chozuya stations and Ema boards, just like in Asakusa.

Meiji Shrine area, near Ema plaques.

Chozuya outside of Meiji Shrine.

The main shrine was closed off for visitors, so we could only peek from the distance. The place where visitors could peak into the shrine had a pit for people to throw coins in and pray. There were instructions in many languages for how to pay respects, but I wasn’t sure if I should do it, so I just watched others do it.

There were also signs asking visitors not to take any photos, so I didn’t. But I noticed others who may not have seen the sign taking photos.

I arrived at Meiji Shrine just before closing time at 4pm. As the staff was escorting visitors out of the park, I managed to get a selfie with a torii gate.

Selfie with Torii gate at Meiji Shrine.

Harajuku

Harajuku was made famous in the States by Gwen Stefani. All I knew they had a unique sense of style. I figured it was worth checking out.

I actually wasn’t sure where exactly I could find the essence of Harajuku, but I did stumble upon Takeshita Street, which turned out to be popular street in Harajuku.

Clothing store in Harajuku.

I did a quick walk down the street and noticed many boutique shops, along with a crepe shop and a convenience store that sold green tea Kit Kat!

Crepe shop in Harajuku.

I wasn’t sure how good a Japanese crepe shop would be so I didn’t try it, but I did get the green tea Kit Kat.

Green tea Kit Kats!

Shibuya

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Shibuya - LBT 2014

After some research, I found out the place where swarms of pedestrians cross an intersection in Tokyo was in Shibuya. So I headed there and tried to see it for myself.

The Shibuya station was huge, with sixteen exits. There were walkways after walkways with exit number posting throughout the station to redirect patrons to the right place. I got lost a couple times because some exit numbers stopped appearing after following the directed paths.

Many exits at Shibuya station.

Shibuya station maps.

I asked a station worker in English about the intersection. She either understood English well or knew/assumed that I was just another tourist asking about it, because she was very prepared to point me in the right direction.

Shibuya Crossing.

The intersection, called Shibuya Crossing, had a lot of large lighted signs, not as densely overwhelming as shinjuku, and nowhere like Times Square, but it almost had that atmosphere. Also, it may not have been the best time of day or day of the week because there were about half as many people crossing the intersection as I had seen on TV.

Pedestrians crossing Shibuya Crossing.

But it was still nice to experience it in person.

Another reason I went to Shibuya was to continue my quest for the best mochi/daifuku in Tokyo. I learned about the shop Ginza Akebono, which had few stores throughout Tokyo, one of which was in Shibuya. I could see it on a map, but it took more probably twenty to thirty minutes of walking around and clamoring for the free Wi-Fi at the subway station to finally find it. It turned out that instead of a store, it was a counter in the underground department-store-style supermarket.

Daifuku at Ginza Akebono counter in Shibuya.

I got one or two of the different kinds of daifuku on display, which they boxed up in a nice, simple packaging.

Ginza Akebono daifuku packaging.

I was told I had to eat them within a day, which honestly wouldn’t be a problem. I waited until I was back in the hostel to eat them, but honestly, the texture was a little tougher than I’d like. They were totally fine, but I expected really fresh and soft mochi, but it was a little underwhelming.

Ginza Akebono daifuku with red bean paste.

At the underground supermarket, I also saw a counter with large cute breads/cakes on display. I couldn’t even.

Cute baked goods at Shibuya.

Tokyo Tower

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Tokyo Tower - LBT 2014

For some reason, the Tokyo Tower became the symbol for Tokyo for me. With all the documenting I was doing and all the collages and compilations I was going to put together, I needed something to represent Tokyo. The city had very few landmarks, and with the Skytree being fairly new and still lesser-known, I figured Tokyo Tower was the closest thing.

So I spent a lot time walking around Tokyo Tower trying to get a good clean photo. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, however, where it was largely open space all around, Tokyo Tower had a lot of buildings around it, obstructing views almost everywhere.

I must have spent at least an hour one night walking to different areas around the tower trying to get good full-height shots.

Tokyo Tower at night.

I also tried to get shots of it from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower observation floor, but it was cloudy and visibility was limited.

View of Tokyo and Tokyo Tower from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower Observation Floor.

I returned to the area again in afternoon before my flight for one more session.

View of Tokyo Tower from Akabanebashi station.

I believed I had done what I could.

Imperial Palace East Garden

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Imperial Palace East Garden - LBT 2014

In my quest to get good photos of the Tokyo Tower from a distance, I inadvertently moved closer and closer to the Imperial Palace. So I decided I might as well visit it anyway.

As I entered the area, I noticed a large canal separating from the outside, much like the the canal outside of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.

Outside of Imperial Palace
The canal surround the Imperial Palace.

Outside of Forbidden Palace
The canal between the Forbidden Palace and the outside.

Then there was a field of trees there were evenly spaced far apart, and walking by made the scene a little mystical.

Seemingly endless tree field outside Imperial Palace.

Once inside, there were wide walkways surrounded by square stone walls stacked very neatly. It sort of reminded me of old Inca structures in Cusco, Peru.

Imperial Palace:
Soon after entering Imperial Palace East Garden.

Walls in Saqsayhuamán, outside of Cuzco, Peru:
In front of Inca wall in Saqsayhuamán

Admission was free, but every visitor was handed a plastic chip as a visitor counter to be returned on exit.

Admission ticket/token for entering Imperial Palace East Garden. Japanese.

Admission ticket/token for Imperial Palace East Garden. English

It turned out that I was only visiting the East Garden, and the entrance to the palace was somewhere else. Without the energy, time, nor resources to find where that would be, I stayed in the East Garden, trying to enjoy the scene a little bit on my last day in Tokyo.

View from Imperial Palace East Garden watch platform.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Food - LBT 2014

Daifuku/Mochi

I love mochi and daifuku. The soft, pillowy, chewy treat is one of my favorite dessert. I often go to the supermarket in Japantown in San Francisco to get the fresh mochi and daifuku and eat them by myself.

I wasn’t expecting to pig out on mochi and daifuku while I was in Tokyo, but when in Tokyo… “Fresh” daifuku were commonly sold in convenient stores, so I knew I had to take advantage of that.

Two of many daifuku (mochi with red bean) I had.

They also sold prepackaged ones, which, honestly was the best ones I had in Japan. They had the perfect balance of softness, chewiness, and mochi-to-bean-paste ratio.

Daifuku. So soft.

I also seeked out supposedly the best daifuku, which was Ginza Akebono. As I explained my experience in the Shibuya section, the mochi was tough and not at all soft. And it had too much red bean paste, although that wasn’t bad by itself.

Daifuku at Ginza Akebono counter in Shibuya.

I also had mochi ice cream, which I had risen above long ago, but it was green tea ice cream, so I had to have it. The ice cream was too hard to really enjoy the flavor or the experience.

Mochi green tea ice cream.

Green Tea Everything

An obsession I somehow began in Tokyo was green-tea flavored foods. I think it derived from my general preference for green tea flavored foods as well as a subculture obsession with green-tea everything. I figured I should become a green tea fanboy to see how it fit me.

I had fancy green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean paste from Nana’s Green Tea at Tokyo Skytree center. Good but very cold.

Green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean in a cone!

Fish-shaped cake with a drop of green tea filling. It needed a lot more green tea filling.

Fish-shaped cake with a dot of green tea filling.

Green tea boba drink. Too much milk watering down the green tea flavor.

Matcha boba.

Green tea mochi ice cream (see mochi section above).

Then at the airport, I had my last chance to get green tea-flavored things.

I got a green tea mochi kit, which I didn’t realize was a kit; I thought it was already prepared and I was going to eat at the airport. But I realized I wouldn’t have a way to make it so I had to throw it away.

Make your own green tea mochi kit.

Inside green tea mochi kit.

Green Tea pocky sticks. They tasted like sweet green-tea-flavored cream. Decent snack.

Green tea pocky.

And green tea chocolate covered macadamia nuts. These were actually a souvenir so I didn’t get a chance to eat them.

Green tea chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.

O-nigiri

I saw these commonly sold at the convenience stores like the daifuku, so I figured I should be like a local and eat as many of these as I could. I probably had about five to six of these in the three days I was in Tokyo.

Onigiri (Rice, seaweed, fish).

Most of them had some sort of fish or help inside, which added some flavor to the rice. But it was still mostly rice inside, which was fine.

Onigiri.

Ramen

I went to Ichiran near Ueno station for my ramen. It was my first time ordering food on a machine in a Japanese restaurant, and it was sort of confusing. It only took cash so I actually had to find an ATM to withdraw money before I could order.

After ordering, the host directed me to one of the booths with partition from others. The experience felt a little clinical in that other than the host, everyone was a faceless figure, and there were forms to order seconds and drinks that require me to press a button to get someone to come and process.

Faceless look at working area at Ichiran restaurant. Near Ueno.

Extra food order form at Ueno Ichiran.

But at least the ramen was good. I couldn’t tell good ramen from fantastic ramen, but mine was pretty good. I would want to try other combos in the future to find the right one for me.

I believed I order extra ramen for mine. Ueno Ichiran.

Other things

Japan had so many different type of foods and snacks (as shown by a quick stroll in a convenient store) that it’s practically impossible to try them all. But more likely than not, a lot of them are more or less the same thing, much like American snacks.

Aside from the ramen, the only other time I ate in a restaurant setting was at a “fast food” restaurant near my hostel that served Japanese home-style plates. I got a curry dish with rice and meat, because I also liked Japanese curry.

Curry rice plate at fast food restaurant near the hostel.

It was decent, considering that it was a “fast food” dish. What’s more fascinating was the set up. Even though it was a different set up from the the Ichiran ramen place, it might as well have been the same. The restaurant had an open floor plan, with the server in an aisle in the middle surrounded by booths, sort of like in sushi restaurants. Each seat at the booth had a pictured menu with a button.

Customers would come in, sit down, and order what they wanted. After the customer finished, they would press the button at their seat to get the server’s attention so they could pay, and then they would leave. Many of the customers were in business attire, so I assumed they were salarymen catching a quick, cheap dinner after a long day at work before heading home.

Getting out

I took the airport train from the city; pretty much the same way as I had arrived. It took about an hour, like before. However, this time there were a lot of people on the train in the beginning, probably because it was rush hour in the evening and people were heading back home from the city. It was also really warm and humid so the windows were beading with water.

On the train to the airport.

Thanks

  • Lady at reception and guy who helped me check into hostel and whom I confessed I know only “very すごし” Japanese.
  • Bennett (dorm mate)
  • Vilman (sp?) (dormmate)
  • Sho (dorm mate)
  • Old man who’s staying in hostel for first time
  • Chinese dude who stayed in the bed in front of me
  • French couple who got bed bugs
  • Staff from practically every store who were really nice
  • Metro station workers who helped me transfer to another line, who led me to the purchase kiosk and press the right buttons for me for buying tickets to the airport, who gave me a map to go across the street to enter the other side of the station, who gave me change back for paying too much for the airport train
  • Girls at Asakusa who helped me pronounce Asakusa Shrine in Japanese
  • Girl from San Diego (?) who helped me film my fortune shaking process
  • Restaurant staff who was nice but a bit awkward for helping me get my ramen
  • Lady who was nice to try to understand I was pointing at green tea, which occurred to me that it’s pronounced “matcha”
  • Weird guy asking me in American English whether I had plans that night in Shinjuku, which I assume he was trying to sell me entry to a karaoke bar
  • Lady at Edo-Tokyo museum ticket counter who explained the difference with the ticket types
  • Museum security who may have tried to tell me to not run down the escalators
  • Security guard who kindly let me go through to enter the Meiji Shrine even though he had understood what I was trying to say with “いきます?” (“I go”, without the question marker か)
  • Lady who may have been speaking Mandarin to the cook at the curry/rice restaurant
  • Ladies who help me figure out the difference between the two daifuku at Ginza Akebono
  • Japanese signage
  • Man who gave out chip to enter Imperial Palace Garden
  • Weird guy who sat next to me on the plane who seemed dodgy about what he’s doing in Hawaii

Tips

  • Download the subway app (see Links) to plan your route before heading to the station.
  • Because Tokyo subway systems are owned by three companies, some stations with the same name may actually be separate stations. Make sure you go to the right one. But even if you get to the wrong one by mistake, an attendant could probably lead you to the right place with hand signals or hand you a map.
  • At the subway station, figure out exactly where you need to go and which line you will take before getting on the ticket machine. The options of the machine will probably confuse you even more if you don’t know ahead of time.
  • When a convenience store cashier gives you change, let them put it in a tray before you grab it.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Tokyo, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.