Japan Day 4 – Asakusa with friends

Today we played tourist with some locals! Ben has been penpals with Koichi for years. We were thrilled that he and his wife Kaho wanted to meet us. Not only that, they planned a whole day of fun together!

They wanted to show us the Asakusa district of Tokyo. We took a cab to a kimono rental shop to play the part. We saw many people wearing rented traditional clothes in many cities during the trip. I think we would never have been bold enough to try it without our friends as guides. Ben knows some Japanese and Koichi speaks English very well. But Kaho and I were completely at odds with language! I wasn’t sure how it would go when we had to separate by gender to get dressed. Luckily we both had translator apps, and mine had a strong signal in this particular building to cover when she lost her signal. She was very friendly and fun. We helped pick out colors for each other and got our hair done.

We met up with the guys who looked just as good! Ben and I both had trouble getting shoes to fit. Our friends were shocked to hear our feet are pretty average sized for Americans. Then we met the rickshaw driver who would be giving us a tour. A rickshaw!! Another activity we would never have booked ourselves, but ended up being so fun! The guide Mako had heaps of enthusiasm and said he was also a photographer. He took a lot of fun shots for us. We waited a little for our special guide who knows more English. We felt bad when this tiny woman appeared! Sion was more than capable though, and kept up a casual banter while huffing and puffing us through Asakusa.

And take-off! First we stopped at part of Sensō-ji Temple.

Next we rode to the Sensō-ji Gate for photos.

Then we rode a bit longer to a park with a good view of the Sky Tower for photos. I was enthralled by the rows and rows of hydrangea in bloom.

Our final stop was the Matsuchiyama Shoden temple. I hope our guides had time to get water and catch their breath. Mako didn’t rest long, he took us on a whole tour of the temple with instruction for entering, washing, and praying. Once again, he enthusiastically took a ton of photos, directing us where to stand and how to pose. I was surprised to find later he even took video! I definitely would have been uncomfortable dressing and play-acting worship while filming. But the locals seem to encourage it, so I guess it’s ok? This temple was known for its daikon motif.

Then we rode back to the start.

After our ride we walked over to Sensō-ji to get a closer look on foot. This temple felt like a busy tourist trap with heavy crowds and market stalls. Very unlike the temple we visited via rickshaw. We washed ourselves in the incense smoke and I touched the giant shoe for prosperity.

We were all hot in our robes and sore in our feet – even Kaho and Koichi admitted the geta and zori shoes were uncomfortable. So we went to the rental shop to change into our regular clothes before eating.

Lunch was tonkatsu. It was nice to sit and talk a little more about what we had seen so far. I made a terrible faux pas by eating my katsu curry with chopsticks. This launched an interesting discussion about how Japanese food is served in the US – including chopsticks with curry!

A short walk to the covered market arcade got us some delicious taiyaki! Seriously, it was so good, much better than any I’ve had in the states.

Time to get out of the heat – Koichi led us to a Japanese cafe to sit in the aircon and enjoy some cold drinks/shaved ice. They were interested to hear about our adventures the previous day in Kamakura and Disneyland. We were getting pretty good using our translator apps by then.

In the afternoon Koichi has booked a class to make traditional etched glass. We were all surprised and delighted at our success with the craft. It looks quite complicated, but it was surprisingly easy. It was a nice change of pace to sit and work on a project after the hustle of the last few days.

That was the end of our visit to Asakusa! We went back to Ginza and briefly stopped in our hotel to freshen up. Then we walked to dinner at a teppanyaki restaurant. This was one of the best meals of the trip – high quality food guided by friends who could translate the handwritten specials on the wall and communicate with the waiter. And by now we knew each other pretty well and could talk about the differences in our day-to-day living.

Filled with delicious asparagus, egg, beef, veggies, noods, and octopus (well, not me!) we spilled out of the restaurant. We gave them our gifts, including American snacks, Colorado art stickers, and beer from a local brewery in a portable cooler. We said our good-byes and promised to be safe on the rest of our journey. I think they were really worried about us, so cute!

Ben and I wanted to walk off the meal and talk about the big day, so we wandered over to the Imperial Garden, by Tokyo Station, and back home to our hotel. Oh, after I stopped for dessert at a shop we had been passing every day. It was my last chance to try it!

Tomorrow we leave for Kyoto. Good-bye Tokyo! Thank you Koichi and Kaho!!!

Japan Day 3 (Ben ver.)

On the morning of Friday, June 21st, Rachel and I boarded the Hibiya line at Higashi-Ginza station.  We rode to Hatchobori station and switched to the JR keiyo line bound for Maihama station.  It was not very crowded and was a smooth ride!  Rachel bought an umbrella at the Maihama station Newdays store and then I walked to the entrance to the Tokyo Disney loop train and said goodbye for the day.

I realized that the unicorn Gundam statue was on the way to Kamakura city, so I found a route there.  I took the JR Keiyo line back to Shin-kiba station.  It was very crowded!  I began to be concerned that I would be causing problems for commuting people and started looking for routes to Kamakura city that would not be used by commuters.  From Shin-kiba, I took the Rinkai line to Tokyo teleport station, which was also busy, but not commute level crowded 😀

From there, I walked to see the unicorn Gundam statue!  I was very impressed 😀. It was still early, so no shops were open.  I was hungry, so I walked across a long pedestrian bridge to eat at Yoshinoya.  I had a breakfast set with raw egg and natto 😉

From there, I took the Rinkai line to Osaka station and switched to the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line bound for Ofuna station.  By now, it was raining a lot, but the train was quiet and I had a nice seat to watch the city pass by!

I saw train pressers with boards on the opposite platform when stopped at Yokohama station.  Honestly, I was afraid of experiencing that while in Japan, but I didn’t.  Having spent so much time on Japanese trains, I am a lot less afraid, but I still imagine it is unpleasant!

I arrived at Ofuna and switched to the Yokosuka line for Kamakura.  When I arrived, I was happy and amazed to see a giant Torii over the city!  I walked down the street a little, then moved over a street because I liked the look of an alley I passed 😅. I’m glad I did because I found another large Torii gating a beautiful tree lined walking path toward Tsurugaroka Hachimangu.  Even though the rain was heavy, I was amazed at the shrine.  It was very beautiful and peaceful despite many people being there.  I climbed the stairs and offered gratitude at the shrine!

I then wanted to eat しらす/whitebait since I heard it was a Kamakura specialty, so I started walking to “わさいやくら” (wasaiyakura).  Before I got there, I saw a shop selling small ceramic dishes, so I stopped to buy one for Amanda 😀

わさいやくら had a small line, so I chose to wait.  My meal was very good!  I had しらす and miso soup.  I also had a type of pudding I didn’t know.  My friend Akiko later told me that it was called “Chawan-Mushi”.

After lunch, I wanted to ride the enoden train,  and decided to visit the 大仏 (big buddha) at Kotoku-in temple.  The enoden was cute and fun!!!  But the walk to the temple took a lot of energy.  The narrow sidewalks were very crowded and I often had to move my umbrella and I got very wet.  I enjoyed visiting 大仏!  I thought it was very impressive and beautiful, as were the temple grounds.  

By the time I got back to the enoden, I knew I was too wet to continue my adventure in Kamakura city… I expected I would get a blister since my socks were wet. I had one last mini adventure as I loaded onto an enoden car with dozens of elementary school students. I was impressed how well behaved they were, as I only saw one potential “minder” for all of them.

I took the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line to totsuka station, transfered to the ueno-tokyo line for shimbashi station (where I saw a beard papa store) and finally took the ginza line to ginza station and walked back to the hotel.

I changed clothes and dried off and let my feet rest while the rain died down a bit.  Once the rain was lighter, I went out to explore Hibiya park. I was still tired, but it was a neat park and I saw lots of interesting plants. It was also nicely empty and peaceful.

From there, I explored Ginza some more and I found Yasuhira shrine in a small alcove.  It seemed to be a popular shrine for worship!  

From there I walked to the Hatchobori neighborhood and enjoyed the quiet neighborhood feel.  I also found a small shrine there called Hatchobori Tenso.  I liked the tan colored Torii there.  

I met Rachel at Hatchobori station, and I honestly can’t remember what we did after that, but I think we got a simple meal at a Lawson.

I was disappointed that I didn’t do as much in Kamakura city as I had planned, but writing it out, I see I did a lot! And I enjoyed my time exploring the quieter areas of Chuo city!  

Japan Day 3 – (Rachel ver.)

Ben and I realized that we both had activities the other was not very interested in. Rather than drag one along, taking up a whole day abroad, we decided to split off for individual itineraries!

Ben rode the train with me to the Disney Parks to make sure I got there safely. I also made the most important purchase of the day at one of our station transfers – an umbrella. Leading up to our trip the weather was forecasted to be warm and cloudy. As the time approached the forecast changed to heavy rains. Indeed, most of the day was spent racing under beating rain and hard blowing wind. Quite unpleasant.

Yes, I was scared to be alone. I would have preferred the split day happen later in the trip after gaining more experience in a foreign land. But this is how the schedule worked out, and I did it! Well, a Disney Park is probably the easiest place to manage without speaking the native language, but I’ll still take the win!

Tokyo Disneysea is a unique park. It has a completely different landscape and many rides that you cannot ride anywhere else. Everyone says the atmosphere is insane, and you need at least a full day or two experience Disneysea to the fullest.

Phooey, I said. I only care about rides – no shows, parades, or character meetings for me. I don’t even care about the special food items that fans love to post on social media. I’ll eat whatever I can find. I ONLY want to ride the rides that are unique to Disneysea. I figured I could easily do it in a day, and possibly squeeze in Disneyland next door in the evening. All the online folk said it was impossible and ill-advised. Spoilers – that’s exactly what I did! When it’s pounding rain you don’t care about soaking up the ambiance, you’re already soaking! I sped through both parks in a single day and even left before closing.

I queued up an hour before the gates opened. We were up with jetlag anyway, and I wanted a chance in the lottery for access to the new Fantasy Springs section of the park. One can only enter there by gaining a virtual ticket after entering the park – so the sooner you scan in, the better your chance of getting a spot. I succeeded! I got a priority pass for the new Peter Pan Neverland Adventure and a standby pass for Anna and Elsa’s Frozen Journey (supposedly the best ride in the park).

Brief aside – Disney toilets are legit! Aside from the standard bidet/privacy noise options they had so many kid accessories! USA you gotta step up!

I went to the back of the park to “Indiana Jones: Temple of the Crystal Skull,” planning to blitz through the single rider line. As soon as I arrived they shut it down for maintenance! So I went next door to “Raging Spirits” and did my first every 360 loop on a coaster!

I was already cold and wet. I needed some time to plan the next moves and arrange more virtual passes. So I ducked into the “Mermaid Lagoon” for shelter. The inside was beautiful! The rides in there are mostly little kiddie rides, along with lots of dry seating and a gaggle of youths posing for the gram. I squeezed into a less favorable selfie spot, rather than wait for the prime location that had quite a crowd.

I was excited for a Potato Churro – silly me assumed it was sweet potato and cinnamon sugar. Instead it was savory and smooth with a “demi-glace” filling. Weird. A good precursor to the eerie ride “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

I had a priority pass for the big E-ticket ride, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” right next door, so I didn’t want to wander far. I got some famous popcorn (just caramel corn, not too crazy like their soy garlic, curry, or roast beef popcorn) and a regular Coke, texting my dismay at Japanese Coke options to my family while I sheltered from heavy winds under the volcano cavern.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” was AMAZING. I was not prepared to be blown away like that! The theming and story-telling were great, the effects were all working and exciting, and the final animatronic was insane! Then the ride shoots you out of the volcano into the sky before racing to the finish. Totally awesome.

At this point I was mostly waiting for Indiana Jones to open again and for my time slot in the new Fantasy Springs. Another famous unique Disneysea ride “Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage” was closed for renovations. So I booked a pass for “The Magic Lamp Theater.” It was a stage show with some magic tricks by humans blended with 3D animation on the screen above. Not bad, mostly a good way to step out of the rain. It gave my shoes a chance to leak out in puddles at my seat.

Indiana Jones was operating again, so I headed that way with a short stop for a “Tipo Torta.”

This Indiana Jones ride is a little different than the version in California. Also, the ride is famous for actually keeping in good mechanical working order, unlike their USA sibling where the ride is coarser and many effects have been broken for years. I had a great time! Very spooky and thrilling! Seeing animatronic Harrison Ford talk to me in Japanese was a treat too.

Despite the fun rides, I was feeling a little lost at this point. Had I really done most of the park? Everyone said you need 1-2 days…the rain really dragged me down. Literally, it started pounding and pouring even more. I sheltered in a restroom for the worst of it, then darted across the park where rumors said I might find some Coke in a bottle.

It was fitting that I found my caffeine fix at the “American Waterfront.” Not only a coke, but a fountain coke zero and a sheltered table! I camped here until my time slot at Fantasy Springs.

Fantasy Springs was very beautiful, with shimmery ponds and gorgeous plants. The Peter Pan ride was cute. The theming in the queue was great. Most people said this was their most fun ride of the new area, so I was excited. It turned out the bobbing vehicle, the 3D glasses+screens, and the flying simulation made me to motion sick to fully enjoy it. Ah well.

I walked to the Frozen section around 3pm and eyeballed the 130 minute queue. I had a choice. Do I wait over 2 hours for this ride, then call it a day? Or do I delete my standby pass and switch to Disneyland? Obviously I chose the latter.

Tokyo Disney Resort doesn’t offer a park hopper ticket – you have a to buy a full day ticket for each park. Lucky for me, the yen is super weak so the cost of two tickets was still less than the cost for a single day pass to California’s resort.

Welcome to Tokyo Disneyland!!

The rain was letting up a little and staff were guiding the street rivers down the drain!

Straight to Haunted Mansion!!! I haven’t been on this ride since our trip to Anaheim in 2015. It was the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay during our WDW visit in 2016 and closed for renovations in 2020 at Disneyland (and currently closed for renovations AGAIN). This version was very close to the original. I love it still.

I wanted to ride Splash Mountain but the queue ballooned from 30 to 60 minutes while I was in Haunted Mansion. I also wasn’t keen to get wet again, as the rain continued to abate to a drizzle. So I just looked for the shortest lines for classic rides.

Pirates of the Caribbean was fun like usual. I liked hearing the ride safety information given in pirate accented Japanese, Chinese, and English. Behind me a girl whimpered “kowai kowai!” to her Dad the whole first half of the ride. Interesting that they updated the ride to include Jack Sparrow, but not to replace the wench auction as in the US.

Next Star Tours. Everyone took selfies with their glasses so I did too. Fun seeing the Force Awakens cast dubbed in Japanese. The flight video was the new version that ends in Batuu – the Star Wars land in Anaheim and WDW, but missing from Tokyo.

Outside I saw a crowd overflowing from the theater to watch the stage show. I heard they were super popular in Japan and it’s true! People were lined up on this far balcony to catch a glimpse. I skipped the Baymax ride, but walked through his large gift shop and fancy vending machines. They are CRAZY for Baymax in Japan. He seemed to be the most popular character.

A quick stop for a caramel apple churro – the closest to the original cinnamon sugar churro I could find. Then a quick pop into Pinocchio’s Daring Journey because it was nearby and had a short wait.

It’s a Small World was charming as usual. The guests had fun pointing out all the Disney IP characters that had been added to the ride in the last decade. I think the Japan dolls were expanded from the US version.

Now it was time for the big moment! As soon as I got in the park I had booked a priority pass for The Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast. This is widely touted as one of the top rides of all Disney parks worldwide in terms of theming, story, animatronics, tech, and general enjoyment. Boy oh boy did it deliver! This ride was incredible. I know I’m a theme park nerd, so it might not win over hard hearts. But everything I had read was true. It’s a plussed up dark ride that tells the movie story. The tea-cups swirl you around in an exciting but smooth (and not nauseating) dance. The animatronics are impressive. The story-telling and pacing is perfect, from the moment to enter the queue to the end. I got teary eyed, perhaps because I realized how close to my heart this movie is. I went to see it in the movie theater over and over, I performed it as a young ballet student, I saw it at the Denver Buell, and I choreographed it for a high school. I remember seeing the previews of this ride back in 2018 and thinking it looked amazing, but I’ll never see it unless they duplicate it here. And now here I was on the other side of the world getting to ride it! Well, that’s enough gushing. Here’s some photos.

That felt like the right note to end on. I looked at the 45 minute Splash Mountain wait and, as much as I wanted to see the original version (replaced at both US parks now) with Japanese-bayou accents, I couldn’t muster the energy.

I did some quick shopping on the way out – a Baymax keychain, a rose hairclip for Beauty and the Beast, and a Haunted Mansion purple wallpaper patterned towel for dance classes.

Those are some crazy eyes! Go to bed, Rachel!
This umbrella was the MVP. I dragged him by hand all the way back to Colorado as the ultimate souvenir for this monsoon memory.

Ben patiently repeated the train directions over and over so I could get back to Ginza. We reunited and collapsed into bed. Gotta sleep well – tomorrow’s another big day!!

Japan Day 2 continued – Shinjuku, Kabukicho, Shin-okobu, Ginza

After the Seventeen Cafe we took the train to Shinjuku, where I found more idols! NCT Dream were plastered all over the station shopping mall to promote their tour. We stepped outside and saw the adorable cat billboard. It was just as cute in person! I didn’t know it made noises, somewhere between meows and baby-talk.

Just across the street we entered the real life streets of Ben’s beloved Yakuza game series. He seriously knew his way around the whole neighborhood because of those games!

My main objective was a proper, icy diet soda. I navigated us to a McDonald’s for Coke Zero drinks (they don’t have diet coke in Japan). It was cold and sort of coke-like, neither as sharp as a Diet Coke nor as rich as the US Coke Zero. Their “L” is slightly smaller than our US medium. Good think I ordered two! It satisfied well enough and bought us time in an air conditioned dining room. My “be prepared” motto paid off when they served me terrible, thick paper straws – ha Ha! I had a plastic straw from home! Yeah, I love diet coke, and I have strong preferences for how I imbibe. Those first few sips are the best part of every day. I missed it in Japan.

A little beyond Kabukicho is the neighborhood Shin-okobu, aka Korea-town. You could tell right away when the writing all switched to Hangul and we heard k-pop pouring out of every store. I could have spent a lot longer browsing the shops here, but it had been a LONG day by this time.

We took the train back to the hotel to rest and refresh. We decided to split up a little. I wanted to check out the mega flagship store of Uniqlo. Ben wanted to see a shrine on top of the nearby department store/mall. After admiring the stranger walking his cat through Ginza, we split.

Uniqlo was crazy crowded. I got slightly lost when I crossed over a suspended pedestrian bridge for a Uniqlo extension that blended into the designer shop Dover Street Market. I got sorted out and met Ben for dinner at a nearby noodle shop filled with salarymen. We walked by the Kabuki theater, beautifully lit for the evening, and went to another konbini for a sweet finish. Remarkably, Ben knew of a park bench where I could SIT and enjoy my shaved ice at my leisure.

Japan Day 2 – Shibuya, Harajuku, SVT Cafe

Ben got an early start each day while I took longer to wake up. He usually walked around our neighborhood and ate a local-style breakfast. Here’s some photos he sent me from this morning:

I had a 10am cafe reservation in Harajuku. We had a couple hours to kill before then so we went o Shibuya before the crowds arrived. When we arrived at the famous scramble I was sure we were in the wrong place. It was so small! Ben found the Hachiko dog memorial and confirmed that indeed this was the famous Shibuya scramble. Not so impressive without crowds!

We popped into a konbini for drinks and curry bun before looking for nearby shrines.

Next stop was Harajuku.

It was too early for shops, so we walked and looked. We took some truly cursed photos at the Purikura booth shop where the noisiness was on another level!

More peaceful wandering:

The time has come . . . for the pop-up Seventeen Cafe!! Yes, I got to attend a real k-pop collab cafe for my FAVORITE group!

The cafe was running from May to July this year. It was very difficult to purchase tickets. The websites were all in Japanese and required a Japan-specific web account from hubsynch, which required a Japanese phone and address entered in a specific way that was hard for us to figure out (our local pal Koichi got on video chat to help spot errors!).

After all of that I was nearly turned away at the door when I couldn’t login to load my reservation live on the site! Luckily the cafe worker kindly took my email confirmation and my passport and compared it to their list. It really looked like I was going to be denied at first and I was panicking so hard. But we got in!!!

First ones in! It was only empty for a few minutes.

The cafe soon filled up – mostly middle-aged women. It was so surreal to see them comparing their card pulls, talking about the group, seeing the group members as their phone lock screens. I saw some show off merch they bought at the recent dome tour in Japan (that’s why the pop-up shop occurred). I tried to make small talk, comments to invite conversation, but was brushed off. So I was surprised to see my neighbor pose for the selfie! I laughed and got her permission to keep the photo.

After eating, if you still had time in your reservation allotment, you could browse and purchase merchandise. I spent too much money – I blame their blind pack system! I wanted to be sure I got a couple favorites and I DID, so it was worth it 😉

Day 2 will be continued in a later post. We did so much and it was barely 11 am!

Travel to Japan and Day 1

After years of dreaming and months of planning, Ben and I travelled to Japan! Overall, it was an amazing trip and ended too soon. We feel like there is so much more we would have liked to see and do and eat. Ben is already thinking about a return visit!

We had a direct flight from Denver to Narita. The fancy seats definitely made our long journey more restful. Immigration at Narita was a total mess – hot, unorganized, confusing, and packed with sweaty, over-tired tourists. After we got through immigration and customs we had to wait in a super long line for Pasmo train cards. I used my yen for to first time to get a cold drink from the vending machine, something I would do over and over the rest of the trip!

After a long train ride to Tokyo, we arrived in Ginza! The hotel was beautiful and comfortable the best shower I have ever experienced. I immediately fell in love with Japanese toilets too.

Refreshed, we struck out on the town to see our neighborhood. I could have spent a lot longer browsing a stationary store called Itoya. I got a cute limited edition fountain pen and some pens for the kids too.

Prior to the trip I had wanted to eat at the Vampire Cafe if we had time. We realized it was now or never (our itinerary was packed!) so even though I had little appetite, we dived into the quirky theme restaurant.

Jack’s Europe Trip

Jack joined a school sponsored EF Tour in June. It sounds like they had an amazing, if at times harried, trip! The whirlwind tour included London, Paris/Versailles, and Rome/Vatican City in just one week!

He says he and his friend are working on photos/video logs. I hope to eventually see those! For now, here’s a picture dump of images I swiped from the group chat. I don’t know why these are mostly out of order – sorry!

End of School Year Wrap-up

So many things have been happening this spring!

We finished the Seussical musical. The kids did great! I feel the whole show season went very well! I’m happy with most of the dances I created. Like most years, I wish I had had more time to rehearse the dances with the kids. It’s so fun to teach them. But they did great with the time we had. Amanda secured mirrors for the theater department and oh my gosh, they were so great! I really think that’s part of the reason they did so well with the choreo this year.

Sam graduated from fifth grade with a ceremony. We are officially done with elementary school after nine years! I think he’s going to have a great time in middle school. He’s gotten really close to his pals this year and they are all going to the same school.

Jack graduated 8th grade! I had to work the night of their ceremony, so Ben took these photos.

I had the pleasure of picking up Jack on his final day. Very unceremonious 🙂

The Waterhouses came for a quick weekend visit. It’s always nice to spend time together! Mom and I did some serious plant shopping.

Jack had a party here with friends for his 14th birthday! Can you believe it? These kids are growing up so fast. They successfully played an escape room, then came back to our house for pizza and cake. The next day, on his actual birthday, he made the most ridiculous plussed-up sandwich ever.

And here’s an adorable photo Ben took of their music picnic while I was away at work. My boys!

Piano Recital

The boys took part in the music school’s spring recital this weekend. They both played beautifully! They have come so far in their musical skills. We are very proud of the effort and progress they have made, and it was a treat to hear them play outside of the house.

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