Mega Recap: June!

Hello everyone,

So… It’s been a busy month and a half since I last posted.  In that time, I’ve made two round-trips between Tokyo and San Francisco, attended two baseball games (one in San Francisco and one in Toyko), attended a wedding in Sacramento, and participated the Opticon user conference.  Whew, it makes me tired just thinking about it all!  So, rather than giving you a detailed report of everything I’ve been doing since my last post, I figure I’ll just do the highlights.  Here goes!

June 7th – Hiking in Okutama:

The weather was great this weekend, so I decided to do a serious hike in Okutama national park.  The journey started out bright and early at Shinjuku station where I caught the same Holiday Express train I took last time.

IMG_3432

Looks like I wasn’t the only one trying to take advantage of the good weather!  Once I made it out to Mitake station, I transferred to a crowded bus, then to a crowded cable car, and then to a chair lift to the top of Mt Mitake.  It might sound like cheating to take so many different modes of transportation to start the hike (and it felt like it at the time), but don’t worry, I sure paid for it at the end of the hike.  More on that later.  There were some great views from the top!

After making it to the top of the chair lift, the hike wound it’s way through some hotels and shops leading up to the main Mitake shrine:

And then finally the hike began in earnest, winding through the forest and into a beautiful valley filled with moss covered rocks and a stream:

Climbing out of the valley, the hike got very steep, especially during the approach to Mt Odake.  There were probably half-a-dozen places where chains had been bolted into a rock face, and the trail had to skirt along precarious ledges.  It wouldn’t have been an issue, but the trail was really crowded, and waiting for descending hikers to pass took quite a bit of time.  Once I finally made it to the top of Mt Odake, the cloud cover had descended, blocking what apparently it quite a nice view of Mt Fuji on a clear day.  Oh well, that’s what you get when you hike in June in Tokyo!

After eating a quick lunch, I decided to press on to Mt. Nokogiri, hoping to escape the crowds at the top of Mt Odake.  The crowd did thin out quite a bit as I made the steep descent down the other side of the mountain, and by the time I got to Nokogiri ridge I was able to hike by myself for a good stretch.  The climb up to the top of Mt Nokogiri wasn’t as strenuous, and it was less crowded so I was able to snap a few pictures!

The next stretch of the hike down to Okutama town was pretty intense!  Remember all that elevation I gained by taking the bus, cable car and chairlift at the beginning of the hike?  Well, what goes up must come down, and my legs paid the price!  The trail had quite a few places where metal ladders had been installed, and there were more chains to hold onto.  The views of the valley below made up for it somewhat!

By the time I made it to the valley floor, I was feeling pretty warn out.  What better time to check out the local onsen?  The path from the trailhead to the onsen was marked with interesting street art and crossed a cool pedestrian bridge:

After soaking in the onsen for an hour or so, I ran back to the station and just barely caught the last Holiday Express train back to Shinjuku.  All in all a very successful hike!

June 16th – Giants vs Mariners:

Fast forward 10 days and I was back in San Francisco to attend Opticon, Optimizely’s annual user conference.  And what a conference it was!  The weather was perfect, and the venue had amazing views of the Bay Bridge:

But the highlight of the conference was the fact that our good friends Evan Burkosky and Ryuji Noguchi from e-Agency (our Japanese reseller partner) came out from Tokyo.  I really wanted to show them a good time and give them a real San Francisco cultural experience, so we got tickets to a Giants game!  Noguchi-san really took advantage of the opportunity to participate first-hand, including devouring a street dog from one of the vendors outside the stadium.  A good time was had by all!

And of course no visit in San Francisco would be complete without some serious cuddling with Ariel, our poodle mix.  Oh, and there was cuddling with Becky too, but there’s no photo evidence : )

IMG_3512

June 27th – Yokohama:

My first weekend back in Tokyo, I was invited to have dinner in Yokohama.  I’d never been to Yokohama before, but I’d read that they have the finest ramen museum in the country.  Being a rameniac (that’s a thing), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out.  I was not disappointed!  The museum occupies three stories, and the two basement levels feature a recreation of a 1950’s Tokyo Shitamachi area, complete with props, sets, and lights.  It was like a theme park, but instead of featuring rides, the attractions were ramen shops, 9 of them in one building!  Each shop specialized in a different kind of ramen, and they all had a “mini” option so you could eat a few bowls without exploding.  I chose the German ramen shop because they had a tonkotsu shoyu soup (very unique), and I wasn’t disappointed!  The soup had the rich porky flavor of standard tonkotsu, but the shoyu broth cut down on the thickness, making for a satisfying but light overall impression.  This place is like the Disneyland of ramen, and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the neighborhood!

After stumbling out of the ramen museum in a pork broth-induced haze, I made my way out to Yamashita Park on the Yokohama inner harbor.  The weather was nice, and I spent a pleasant hour hanging out and seeing the sites.

As evening approached, I headed over to Yokohama Chinatown to meet up with my friend Hide Ota.  I met Hide during the Kitakami visit in last October when she was helping to interpret for our Japanese guests.  It was great to see her again and check out Chinatown.  We were treated to an amazing sunset and a thoroughly enjoyable evening!

June 29th – My 30th Birthday!

Ok, so I don’t usually make a big deal about birthdays, and I had a chance to celebrate with my family when I was in San Francisco for Opticon.  So when Evan Burkosky asked me what my birthday plans were, I responded with “Oh, I don’t know, I’ll probably go grab a beer and hang out alone in my apartment”.  Suffice it to say he was having none of that, and he invited me to come have dinner at his place.  I’m not sure how he and his girlfriend Kiwako got everything together so quickly, but by the time I showed up a few hours later, there was a birthday cake, a banner, and delicious homemade okonomiyaki!  I was truly touched, and it ended up being a very memorable birthday party!

June 30th – Swallows vs Tigers @ Jingu Stadium!

I’ve always wanted to see a Japanese baseball game, and we finally had a chance when Nick’s friend Eric came to town.  I had heard that the Japanese were crazy about baseball, and I was a little bit worried we wouldn’t be able to get tickets at the last minute.  The game started at 6:00pm on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon, and I guess I shouldn’t have worried because the stadium was half-empty when we got there in the second period inning (thanks to my father for the correction, you can tell I’m a hockey fan)!  We got great seats (unfortunately in the Tigers section, the Swallows are the hometown Toyko team), and it was blast!  Like American baseball, you can buy junkfood at the stadium (although the yakisoba isn’t typically on the menu at AT&T Park!). Unlike American baseball, you can buy draft beer from the event staff without ever leaving your seat!  For our section of 100 people, there were probably no fewer than 2 mini-keg toting attendants at any given time.  And the prices are really reasonable, we’re talking $6 draft beer!  This is a trend we need to bring over to the states.

…Aaand just like that, the blog is caught up again!  Woohoo!  Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

Hiking in Western Tokyo: Asoyama and Hinodesan

Hey folks,

Here’s the next installment in my series of Golden Week articles.  This time, we’ll head out to to the mountainous wilderness of Oku-Tama in Western Tokyo!

After taking it easy for a few days (read: eating ramen and drinking beer, both in large amounts), I decided it was time to do something active.  I wanted to do a good long hike, and I wanted to get away from the crowds I’d experienced at Takaosan.  So, I did some research and settled on a remote path through the mountains, starting from Musashi-Itsukaichi, summiting Hinodesan, and ending up at Tsurutsuru Onsen.  Here’s the path I took:

I got started bright and early on Tuesday morning (well, early for a day off!) and hopped a train bound for Shinjuku station and points west.  This being a national holiday, the aptly-named Holiday Express bound for Oku-Tame and Musashi-Itsukaichi was crowded with hikers and their luggage.  Luckily I got a seat, otherwise I would have had to stand for the 90+ minute ride out to the wilds of Western Tokyo!

Once I arrived at Musashi-Itsukaichi, I bought provisions at the 7-Eleven at the station.  “Provisions” included:

  • 2 liters of water
  • 3 tuna-mayo onigiri
  • 2 ham and cheese sandwiches
  • 2 snickers bars

Seems like good fuel for mountain climbing, right?

The first part of the trail was quite steep, but I was soon rewarded with an excellent view of the city:

IMG_3297

A bit further up the trail was a small shinto shrine.  I couldn’t figure out the name, and the place was all closed up.  It was pretty creepy:

The real highlight of the shrine was actually back behind the shrine building.  There were some pretty serious boulders, one of which was clearly sacred and had a small shrine all of its own.  I wonder if this is why the shrine was built originally?

IMG_3308

After leaving the shrine, the trail followed a remote ridgeline up towards Asoyama.  The scenery was beautiful, and it was extremely quiet.  I only saw two other hikers the whole way between the shrine and Asoyama.  It felt a little strange to be so far removed from people after enduring the crush of Tokyo for the past few months.  Well, strange and refreshing!

After a very enjoyable hike along the ridge line, it was time to scramble up Asoyama.  The summit was mostly covered in trees, so the views weren’t great.  But, the trees provided some nice shade and a great place to eat some onigiri and sandwiches for lunch!

After Asoyama, the trail followed another ridgeline on the way towards Hinodesan.  The views were pretty spectacular thanks to the clearcutting of large swathes of the forest along the trail.  The contrast was stark:  In some places, the east side of the ridge would be a sea of stumps, while on the west side was a very healthy forest, with the trail serving as the dividing line.

After reaching the base of Hinodesan, the trail transitioned from gently rolling along the ridge to going straight up the side of the mountain via a seemingly endless series of stairs.  As a way of helping to quantify your progress, some well-meaning soul had counted the steps and written counts on little green pieces of tape placed at regular intervals:

IMG_3330

The fact that each flight of stairs started over again at “1” was only slightly difficult mentally!  Fortunately, the views from the top were pretty spectacular.  Unfortunately, all of those Tokyoites I had avoided for the past few hours had taken the cablecar up to Mitakesan and had hiked up to the summit from that side.  So it was all I could do to cram myself in a little bit of shade in the rest area to catch my breath.

After spending about 15 minutes at the summit, I got tired of the crowds and headed back down the way I had come.  The rest of the hike was straight down, and it was pretty tough on the legs.  But I was motivated, for I knew that a hot bath awaited at the bottom!

Once I made it to Tsurutsuru Onsen, I showered off and hopped in the outdoor bath for some serious soaking.  The water has some sort of minerals in it which makes your skin feel slippery (hence the name), and it was the perfect temperature.  I probably spent a full hour in the various baths, and by the time I was done my tired muscles felt great.  Finally, I changed into fresh clothes and hopped on the bus back down to Musashi-Itsukaichi, and then took the Holiday Express back to Kanda.  I am now of the firm belief that every good hike should start with an express train and end with an outdoor bath!

Western Tokyo: Shimokitazawa and Numabukuro

Hello everyone!

As promised, I’m back to report on the events of Golden Week.  After returning from Kitakami, I still had 5 glorious days off work, and what better way to spend it than exploring some parts of Tokyo I don’t normally go to?

First off, I ventured out to Shimokitazawa.  Shimokitazawa has a reputation as being very hip.  It’s also very close to Shibuya and Shinjuku (just a few stops on the train).  The combination of convenience and trendiness have made it one of the most sought-after places for young people to live in Tokyo.  I’d heard all this before I hopped on the Odakyu line bound for “Shimokita”, but would the place live up to the hype?

I’m happy to say, yes it did!  Shimokita was super walkable, had lots of interesting shops and boutiques, and so many places with outdoor seating!  I spent a very pleasant afternoon eating, drinking and relaxing.  Highlights included:

Tasty burger and fries at Bistro Burger!

Trendy, independent stickers at B-side Label!

Aimless wandering in pleasant side-streets!

By the time I finished up in Shimokita, it was getting on towards dinner time.  So, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the most famous tonkotsu ramen shop in all of Tokyo, Muteppo.  Muteppo is legendary for having intensely porky soup, and I’ve wanted to check them out ever since I heard about the place.  The only problem is that they’re way the heck out in Numabukuro.  Not exactly convenient!  But, since I was already in Western Tokyo, I figured I might as well swing by.  As it turns out, getting from Shimokitazawa to Numabukuro isn’t exactly easy.  First, take the Odakyu line two stops to Shinjuku.  Then, transfer to the JR Yamanote line and head north two stops to Takadanobaba.  Finally, transfer to the Seibu Shinjuku line and ride  four stops out to arrive in Numabukuro.  That’s quite the journey with three separate railway companies involved!  If you could drive directly between the two stations it’s less than 5 miles, but the rail network is laid out to get people from the suburbs into central Tokyo, not to make it easy to travel between suburbs.  On the plus side, I arrived at Numabukuro station just in time to see this!

IMG_3264
It takes about 10 minute to walk from the station out to Muteppo, but I had seen a shrine from the train that I wanted to check out on my way there:

After a nice stroll through a nice residential neighborhood, I found myself at a different kind of shrine:  Muteppo!  I was there right around 6:30, still a little early for ramen, so I had no trouble purchasing a few tickets from the machine and getting a seat at the counter.

It was definitely porky!  I didn’t get a good picture of the kitchen area, but it was dominated by a massive soup pot.  Sticking out of the pot were all manner of pork bones.  We’re talking serious bone action!  The guy who was manning the pot spent the majority of his time using a massive metal pole to stir the broth.  Periodically, he’d use all of his bodyweight to pull down on the rod, crushing up the bones and letting out the good stuff.  When it came time to serve the broth, he’d dip a strainer into the pot and come out with a clump of stuff.  Seriously, there were more solids in that strainer than there was liquid, no ladles for these guys!  He’d then hold the strainer over the bowl and shake it  few times to extract some liquid, and then dump the solids back into the pot.

This process resulted in the most intensely pork-flavored tonkatsu broth I’ve ever tasted!  Seriously, the chashuu (pork slices) which garnished the soup were less porky than the broth was.  The soup was also wonderfully thick and stuck to the noodles perfectly as I slurped them out of the bowl.  The one negative aspect of the whole thing was the presence of some grit in the soup.  I have to imagine this comes from all of the bone grinding action going on in the pot.  It wasn’t really noticeable when I was eating the noodles, but it definitely prevented me from drinking the rest of the broth.  Oh well, it’s probably for the best as I was stuffed already!

So, my verdict on Muteppo is this:  If you’re a pork fiend, it’s definitely worth the trip.  It may not become your favorite bowl of ramen, but it’s an experience worth having!

That wrapped up a very enjoyable day in western Tokyo!

Golden Week in Kitakami!

Hello everyone!  It appears that cadence for my posts is slowing down, and I haven’t had enough material to do a post on a weekly basis.  So I’m going to be switching from weekly updates to posts which focus on specific things I’m doing.  We’ll see how the new format works.

So, it’s Golden Week in Japan!  Golden Week is a series of four national holidays which happen within about a week of each other.   This year, the Golden Week holidays aren’t all connected.  Last week we had Wednesday off, and then this week we’ve got Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  Golden Week is one of the busiest seasons for domestic tourism because most people take the time off, and the weather tends to be good!

So, what did I decide to do with my Golden Week?  Well, knowing that most people will be traveling during the second part of the holiday (where most of the days are connected), I decided to make a trip up to Kitakami last week.  Kitakami is a city in Iwate prefecture (in the Tohoku region).  There’s not much to orient on in that part of the country, so let’s just say “It’s north of Sendai”.  You may ask, why would someone want to visit Kitakami?  Let me give you a few reasons:

  1. It’s known as one of the three best places to see cherry blossoms in Tohoku.
  2. It’s the home of Oni-Kenbai, an exciting traditional performance where participants dress up in demon masks and dance around with swords.  It’s really cool! 
  3. It’s not Tokyo!  (can you tell I’m getting a little stir crazy?)

But most importantly, Kitakami is the sister-city of Concord, California.  I just happen to be on the board of the Concord Ambassadors, a nonprofit group which maintains the sister-city relationship.  We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the relationship in October 2014 by hosting a large group of visitors from Kitakami (check it out here!).  So, I was looking forward to reconnecting with the people I had met from the trip!

I took off early on Tuesday afternoon to catch the Shinkansen up to Kitakami.  Getting there from Tokyo is actually quite convenient as Kitakami has a station on the Tohoku Shinkansen line, and it only takes about 3 hours on the train.  I LOVE Shinkansen travel!  It may be my favorite thing about Japan, no joke.  The trains are clean, quiet, and FAST.  And I made a new discovery!  The sinks have built-in hand dryers.  Remember how I was really excited to find these at an upscale office building in Shibuya?  Well, Shinkansen’s got ’em too.  Just one more reason to love Shinkansen!

'nough said
‘nough said

You guys know I’m a train nerd (see my post about my visit to the train museum), so it should come as no surprise that I was pretty psyched to board the Yamabiko 55 from Ueno station.

I was a little excited.
I was a little excited.

After a relaxing trip north, I arrived at Kitakami station and was greeted by Noriko Oikawa.  Noriko stayed with me she came to Concord last year, so it was really good to see her again!  After a brief stop at the international assembly hall to check in with the fabulous Keiko Usugi, we headed back to Noriko’s family home.  Noriko’s family is great!  I was the first non-Japanese guest they’d had in their home, but their initial nervousness quickly gave way to warm hospitality.  And the food was great!

They live in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of town called Furukawa.  The property has been in their family for over 100 years, and even though much has changed in that time, it’s still a very tranquil place compared to the hustle and bustle of urban Tokyo:

IMG_3161

Wednesday morning saw us headed out to Tenshochi park, just across the Kitakami river.  There are sightseeing boats on the river, and we used one to make the crossing:

There's Noriko!
There’s Noriko!

We had planned to do a hanami party with some of the people from the Concord visit, but unfortunately most of the blossoms had dried up already due to the unseasonably warm weather.  Bummer!  That’s ok, we did manage to find one grove of shidarezakura which were still going strong:

We killed some time waiting for the rest of the group by checking out an event put on by the city’s firefighters.  There was a marching band and lots of drills in formation, but the main event was something so unique it’s a little bit hard to explain.  Essentially, it was firehose target practice.  The crews all lined their trucks up along the riverbank, and then the hose teams stood under a row of boxes attached to a wire above them.  Each of the boxes contained a scroll with a fire-safety message written on it.  Then, one by one the crews used a stream of water to break the boxes and reveal the scroll.  When you add in the fact that they put colored dye in the water, it was quite a spectacle!

We had a great picnic lunch under a willow tree and enjoyed the warm weather!

IMG_3187

After finishing up in Tensochi park, we headed up into the hills to the east of Kitakami to pay a visit to Noriko’s in-laws.  It was beautiful up there!  Very remote with plenty of room to grow flowers and vegetables.

The reason we made the trip (other than to say hello) was to collect some fresh  mountain vegetables for dinner that evening.  We took turns using the telescoping shears to cut the green parts.  It’s actually surprisingly delicate!  If you cut too far up the stalk, the green part just breaks up before you can get your hands on it.  If you cut too far down the brown part, it’s too tough for the shears to go through.  Despite some initial difficulties, we ended up collecting more than enough for dinner!

Once we got back to Noriko’s place, we had some entertainment before dinner:  Noriko’s father Gunji and her brother Taku performed a Shishi Odori for us!  This dance was taught to him by his father, and his grandfather taught his father, so I really felt like I was getting to see a family tradition!

Dinner was amazing, with plenty of tempura made from the fresh mountain vegetables.  It turns out Taku-san is also a sake connoisseur, and he was generous enough to let us sample some delicious nihonshu!

IMG_3221

After dinner, the young people went out to the fields for some good old-fashioned fireworks!  These were no joke, they really got some height!  Noriko and her family were shocked when I told them that these kinds of fireworks are illegal in California, but I think it made sense when I reminded them that California is pretty much a desert these days, so fireworks represent a pretty significant fire hazard.  Not a problem in Japan, the land of high humidity and frequent rain!

IMG_3222

The next morning, we headed south to Hiraizumi, home of the World Heritage Chusonji temple.  I had no idea there was anything like this in Tohoku, but apparently Hiraizumi rivaled Kyoto at its peak in the mid-12th century.  Things have gone downhill in Hiraizumi somewhat since the city was razed by Minamoto Yoritomo in 1189, but Chusonji is still pretty special.  You approach the temple complex on foot up a steep, tree lined path:

The temple buildings rival some of the most impressive I’ve seen in Kyoto, and there’s even a functioning outdoor Noh stage (very unique!).  The weather was fabulous and we enjoyed a nice time strolling around and seeing the sights.

After Chusonji, it was time to head back to the Shinkansen station.  Goodbye until next time Kitakami, it was fun!

IMG_3248
Sending me off on the platform. I felt bad for the guy sitting in the seat opposite me!

I enjoyed my luxurious ride back to Tokyo, this time on the Hayabusa!  I arrived back in time to catch a beautiful sunset from my apartment in Kanda.

Well, that’s all from my trip to Kitakami!  Stay tuned for more Golden Week adventures!

Tokyo: Weeks 7 and 8

Hello everyone!  It’s been a few weeks since my last post and I really have no excuse this time.  I sat down to write this post a few times, and each time something else seemed more appealing (like the new seasons of Game of Thrones and House of Cards!).  But it’s also good to reflect on what’s going on in my life here.  So here goes!

We left off last time right before the e-Agency hanami party, so let’s start there.  This was over two weeks ago now, before Becky left to return to California (so strictly speaking it should have gone in the Week 6 post).  Anyhow.  Hanami is a pretty cool thing.  The cherry trees all bloom at the same time, within the course of a few days, and this means that everyone has to have a hanami party right now.  The e-Agency party was in Ueno park, one of the most popular places to see blossoms in Tokyo.  Competition for good spots is fierce.  I spoke with some of the e-Agency staff who were responsible for grabbing a spot, and here is the process they went through:

  • First, they showed up at 8pm the previous evening with blue tarps to stake out a spot.  The rule is that people have to stop partying at 8pm, so this means that the groups who were using the spots that afternoon all vacate at around the same time.  So the e-Agency crew swooped in to claim a spot as soon as the previous group cleared out.
  • Next, all of the junior employees took turns guarding the spot in two-hour shifts, all night long.  Camping is prohibited in the park, so no tents are allowed.  It was pretty chilly that night, so they really suffered to keep the spot!
  • Preparations are going on all day on the day of the party.  The tarps are actually laid out on top of broken-down cardboard boxes to provide some cushioning.  Other cardboard boxes are lined with plastic bags for use as temporary ice chests.  Beer and shochu are collected and brought to the site throughout the day.  Food starts arriving around 4:30pm.
  • Then, the rest of the staff starts showing up around 5pm, and the race is on to drink all of the booze and eat all of the food before they turn the lights out on you at 8pm!

I have to say that their hard work really paid off!  The weather cooperated and the late afternoon light really showed off the pink blossoms which were in full bloom.  There was just enough wind to shower us with small snow-storms of falling petals.  The mood was light, and everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly.  It was a great opportunity to get to know some of the folks we don’t get to work with on a daily basis.  Truly a unique cultural experience!

Incidentally, I found out the following day where all of those falling petals end up…

IMG_3023

Not quite as pretty as when they’re on the trees!

Ok, what else has happened…  Well, looking back through my photos, it seems that several experiences have involved Nick Benavides and oversized containers of alcohol:

And some unhelpful Japanese signs:

So nice that they went to the trouble of translating just the first line of this food allergy warning...
So nice that they went to the trouble of translating just the first line of this food allergy warning…

There’s been quite a bit of ramen too, as you’d expect.  The best I’ve had recently was at a place called Sengoku Jiman in Uguisudani.  Uguisudani has a bit of a bad reputation.  It’s probably well-deserved because it has the highest concentration of “love hotels” that I’ve seen in Tokyo (see here if you want to know what that’s all about).  But this hidden gem of a ramen shop (recommended by my coworker Goto-san) is worth the trip to an otherwise grubby and uninteresting neighborhood.  The noodles are pretty basic and the chashuu isn’t anything to write home about, but the soup is really what makes this a special bowl.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  It’s got a traditional Tokyo-style shoyu base, but floating on top of that base is a plentiful helping of pork fat that’s usually reserved for Hakata-style tonkotsu.  The combination is absolutely delicious!  You can tell I liked it because I drank the whole bowl… Not something I usually care to do!

Yum!  I also ate arguably the worst bowl of ramen I’ve had since I got here.  It was at a shop in Akihabara which I noticed the first week we arrived in Tokyo.  It has the look of an authentic place, and I’ve seen long lines waiting there on the weekends.  That said, it was an inferior bowl in almost every way.  The noodles were completely uninteresting, the chashuu was cold and stringy, the soup was super oily without much flavor, and the spinach topping only succeeded in making each bite slimy.  Oh well, not every ramen shop can be delicious I guess!  Here’s a look at what not to do if you’re an aspiring ramen chef:

IMG_3134

But it hasn’t all been simply eating and drinking (although there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that!).  I’ve also been making an effort to get out and take some day trips on the weekends.  Last weekend, I hopped on a train and headed out to Mt. Takao, a popular hiking spot on the western outskirts of Tokyo.  The weather was beautiful, ideal for hiking in a t-shirt and working up a bit of a sweat.  The scenery on the way up the mountain was gorgeous, so green and so much water coming down off the mountain:

Takao-san is a sacred mountain, and the path went by several small shrines set back into caves, and one larger shrine by a nice waterfall:

When I made it to the top after 90 minutes of fairly strenuous hiking, I was a little bit peeved to find that the rest of Tokyo had the same idea I did!

Oh well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised as there was a cable car and a chair lift leading directly to the top of the mountain.  At least I was rewarded with this somewhat hazy view of Mt. Fuji!

IMG_3076

After eating my lunch of convenience store onigiri, I took the chairlift back down the mountain and headed back to the station.

The trail was pretty muddy as it had rained quite a bit the previous day, but not to worry!  Keio railways provided this handy boot washing station.  Certainly not something I’m used to seeing in the states!

IMG_3090

All in all a very nice outing!  Then, this weekend I made a trip out to the JR Railway Museum in Oomiya.  As you all know, I’m a pretty serious train nerd (the term in Japanese is testu-ota, a contraction of tetsudou otaku, literally translated as “railway nerd”).  So it was with great excitement that I hopped on the train at Akihabara station and headed north to Saitama prefecture.  Well, let me tell you, the train trip was well worth it!  The train museum exceeded my wildest dreams.  There was so much good stuff!  Ancient steam locomotives, lavish passenger cars from a more civilized age, early electrified trains, and examples of the first trains to bear the mighty title of shinkansen!

The museum was also chock-full of priceless memorabilia.  Like these plaques commemorating the breakup of Japan National Railways (JNR) and the establishment of the privatives JR companies in 1987:

The museum did a really good job of catering to families (Japanese children are even more passionate about trains than I am!).  There was an incredibly detailed model train set featuring a full cast of JR East trains, outdoor “lunch trains” where you could eat your lunchbox in an authentic environment, and mini photo-op trains:

The museum also had quite a large number of interactive exhibits.  My favorite were the train simulators!  I got to take a “beginners” class in one of the simulator rooms.  There were 24 consoles lined up, each one occupied by an amateur rail enthusiast.  After being provided with my very own pair of white gloves (“used by real JR train operators to prevent injury” we were told), I was escorted to my console complete with the same knobs and levers you’d find on a real JR commuter train.  The 40-minute class focused mainly on how to stop the train at the right point on the platform.  As it turns out, this is a pretty difficult undertaking!  The problem is that trains take a long time to slow down, like a very long time.  We were told that a train traveling 100 kmph takes approximately 400 meters to come to a complete stop, but it also takes some time for the hydraulic breaks to pressurize after you throw the switch.  And if you throw in rainy or snowy conditions, it takes even longer.  We got to practice breaking 5 times, and I only managed to stop the train in the “green” zone once.  You’d think that in this day and age this would all be handled by computers, but nope, there’s a real live operator on each train making sure that the passengers can actually step onto the platform when the doors open.  I have newfound respect for this profession!

Suffice it to say that the train museum was a big hit in my book.  If you ever find yourself in Tokyo with a free day, I highly recommend checking it out!

Ok, that’s all for today.  Have a good week everyone!

Tokyo: Week 6

Hi folks!

As you’ve probably noticed, I skipped a week.  Well, I’ve had a good reason!  Becky came to visit me for the past week, and while I love writing blog posts, I love spending time with her even more.  Gotta have priorities!

Before we get into all of the fun things we saw and did (and ate) while Becky was here, I need to share some classy Akihabara stuff with you.

Classy Suehirocho platform art
Classy Suehirocho platform art

The first is this awesome artwork from the Suehirocho subway station platform.  There are only two thing which are remarkable about this subway station at the northern end of Akihabara:

  1. It has no connections to other rail lines.  This might not seem odd, but in central Tokyo it really is.  You really notice it when you listen to the announcements inside the train which announce the approaching station and any connecting rail lines.  Normally, you’ll hear one or two connections, and for the really mammoth stations like Shinjuku there are 10+.  But dinky little Suehirocho station has not a single connecting rail line.  How sad.
  2. This awesome early 80s artwork.  I actually have no idea when it was put in, but judging by the leg warmers the dancer is wearing I bet I’m not far off.  I’m also guessing that the stuff in the background (record players, sewing machines, electric typewriters) were supposed to be a sampling of the high-end electronics one could acquire in nearby Akihabara.  My how times change.

Ok, here’s the next thing, and it actually is the opposite of classy:

Duly noted.
Duly noted.

…so yeah.  Akihabara is cool in many ways, but it does tend to attract a geeky element.  Apparently those geeks are not above using their hightech devices to catch a glimpse of forbidden undergarments on the escalator.  And apparently it happens frequently enough that JR had to put these signs up to warn unsuspecting mini-skirt wearers.  This is the only station in Japan where I’ve seen these signs.  Akihabara is a special place.

Leaving Akihabara behind for the time being, let’s talk about Becky!  Being away from her for the first 5 weeks of this trip was tough, so I was really excited to see her when she stepped out of the customs area at Haneda airport late on Saturday night.  We woke up on Sunday morning to clear blue skies and a beautiful spring day in Tokyo.  It’s officially cherry blossom season now, and the tree were in full bloom.  Becky was feeling energetic from the jet lag, so we got an early start and headed across town to Shinjuku Gyoen.  There are over 1,000 cherry trees in this city park, and conventional wisdom says that it’s a great place to take in the blossoms.  Well, conventional wisdom was right!

Cherry blossoms are serious business here.  I’d say the folks in Shinjuku Gyoen were equally split between people staking out picnic spots with blue tarps an serious amateur photographers.  All those people snapping photos is really contagious.  I’m not usually all that in to taking photos, but as you can see from the above I made an exception.  Becky got into the act too!

After thoroughly enjoying the blossoms, we strolled down to Harajuku where we happened upon a modern-looking ramen shop with a pretty good-sized line out front.  It’s very unlike me to eat at a restaurant that I didn’t find on a review website, but it just looked so inviting that we decided to give it a try.  The place is called Afuri, and they specialize in Yuzu citrus ramen.  Sounds crazy, but it’s actually delicious:

The citrus really cut the greasiness of the soup and gave it a delicious light flavor.  Also, if you happen to check out Afuri, make sure to order one of the mini donburi side-dishes.  We got the charcoal-grilled chashuu and it was really good!  This is probably the best ramen I’ve had on the trip so far.

We traipsed around in Harajuku for a bit before heading home:

IMG_2921

Monday morning saw us headed to Tokyo Tower!  Not for the fun of it actually.  I’ve had this awful cough for the past four weeks (literally a full month), and I finally decided to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get it checked out.  All of my Japanese coworkers have been telling me that I must have pollen allergies, and I’ve vehemently denied it (based on solely on the fact that I’ve never had seasonal allergies before, so why would I now?).  Well, I spent about 3 minutes wit the doc and he confirmed what should have been obvious:  I’ve got bad allergies!  Luckily they have good medicine for that over here, so I feel much better now.  The good news is that I was in and out with prescription in-hand in less than an hour, so it didn’t chew up too much of my time with Becky.  And we got this beautiful view of Tokyo Tower in the spring!

IMG_2925

Monday night went by in a bit of a tipsy blur.  We started out at Hitachino Brewing Lab (see my previous post for more photos):

IMG_2922

And then wandered down the street to a new brew pub that opened just last week called Yona Yona Beer Kitchen.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the place was packed!  Once we got in, we were absolutely blown away.  The beer was great (they have an honest-to-goodness West Coast IPA that can compete with the best of them!), and the food was even better.  We dined on tasty gourmet sausages, spicy rotisserie chicken, and a mushroom and bacon salad that couldn’t be beat.  Unfortunately I was a bit too many drinks in to have the presence of mind to document the occasion with photos, but never fear!  This place is just down the street from my apartment, and I know I’ll be a regular customer!

On Tuesday, we ventured forth to make a trip to Hakone.  Hakone is an onsen (hotspring) resort destination about an hour south of Tokyo, so it makes for a convenient overnight trip.  At least half the fun is getting there!  We headed to Shinjuku station, and after purchasing lunch provisions from the Odakyu department store’s excellent basement food court, we prepared to board the Romancecar express train!

IMG_2944

This awesome train runs straight to Hakone with no transfers required and is really quite luxurious inside.  We had a wonderful lunch of Gyoza, Kara-age and Sushi on the way down!

The aptly-named Romancecar takes you as far as Hakone Yumoto station, and then you transfer to the Hakone Tozan railway which is dinky, slow, and really cool!  It makes the steep trip up into the mountains.  The way is so steep at times that the train actually climbs a series of switchbacks.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Basically, the train pulls up to the end of the track, and then the conductor and the driver jump out, run the length of the train and switch places.  The train then moves up to the next switchback and they trade places again.  It’s slow but quaint!

IMG_2980

The Hakone Tozan railway delivered us to the station, and then we took a shuttle up the hill to our onsen ryokan.  This was a modern ryokan, so we aren’t talking a traditional, sleeping on futons on the tatami kind of place.  Our room was massive, had real mattresses on a raised sleeping platform kind of area, and a tatami sitting room.  We splurged and got a room with a private outdoor bath on the balcony overlooking the mountains.  It was pretty amazing!

IMG_2974

A short walk away from the ryokan, we found this incredible waterfall which was recommended to us by the shuttle driver.  There’s all kinds of volcanic activity in the area (hence the hotsprings), and this waterfall just kind of seeps out of the ground.  I forget the Japanese name, but it translates to 1000 threads:

The next morning, the weather got very foggy which put a bit of a crimp in our plans.  We had planned to complete the “Hakone Round Course” before heading back to Tokyo.  The round course consists of taking the Tozan railway, transferring to a cable car which climbs through the mountain town of Gora, then taking a series of ropeways through the mountains to scenic lake Ashinoko.  Once at Ashinoko, you can take a sighseeing boat (which looks like a pirate ship?) down to the southern end of the lake, transfer to a bus, and head back to Hakone Yumoto.  Unfortunately, the sighseeing boats were closed for the day due to the dense fog.  We made it halfway through the mountains on the ropeway before deciding to turn back.  The ropeway could be really spectacular on a clear day (views of Mt. Fuji!), but we couldn’t see more than a few feet in the fog:

IMG_2984

So, instead of going down to the lake, we took the ropeway back down the way we came and spent a pleasurable few hours at the Hakone Open Air Museum.  This place was really cool!  They have a bunch of sculptures strewn around in this beautifully landscaped garden, and several of the sculptures are basically play structures which kids can climb around on.  The place is really popular with families, so that was neat to see.  I don’t have any photos to share, but it ended up being a really great plan B on a foggy day!

After getting back down the mountain, we boarded a Romancecar bound for Shinjuku.  This leg of the trip was special because I’d reserved “observation deck” seats.  These seats are in the very back of the train which is specially constructed to provide a panoramic view.  This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was pretty neat to be able to have an unobstructed view of the passing scenery!

Ok, that’s all the time I’ve got to write today!  I’ll write again soon to tell you about the awesome cherry blossom viewing party we had with e-Agency the next day!

Tokyo: Week 4

Hello everyone!

It’s hard to imagine we’ve already been here in Tokyo for one full month.  Seems just like yesterday I stumbled off the plane and found my way to the airbnb in Sendagi!  It’s interesting, this week really felt like a “normal” work week.  I found myself going through my daily routine (eating breakfast, catching up on email, riding the train to Yūrakuchō, eating lunch with all the salarymen, working from my desk at e-Agency, going out for drinks after work, etc.) without really thinking “holy crap, I’m living and working in Tokyo!”.  Guess it takes about a month to get used to something?

Speaking of Yūrakuchō, it’s a really interesting place.  Walking around the area between the train tracks and the imperial palace, all you see are high-rise, high-rent office buildings.  But if you explore the streets and alleys underneath and around the tracks, a whole warren of bars, restaurants, and after-work entertainment assaults the senses.  You could literally spend your whole life away from home working and playing all within about 5 minutes walking distance from Yūrakuchō station, and I suspect many salarymen do just that.  On my way back to catch the last train on Friday, I stumbled down this alley (more like a tunnel) under the tracks:

IMG_2850 IMG_2851

We spent some quality time in Shibuya this week as well.  We saw a whole series of billboards that really embodies our daily experience of Japanese capitalism:

Life is only once + money
Life is Only Once + Money.  Yup.

Among the many interesting things to be found in Shibuya, we encountered this strange and wonderful bathroom appliance:

IMG_2849

It’s kind of hard to tell what you’re looking at, but it is a sink with a motion-activated hand dryer built right into the basin!  I was audibly excited when I found this, much to the amusement of the Japanese folks in the bathroom with me.  This firmly cements Japan in my mind as the country with the most advanced bathroom facilities in the world.  Remind me to do a post about Japanese toilets someday.

In addition to being home to futuristic inventions like sinks with built-in hand dryers, Shibuya is also a major entertainment district.  We were there on Saturday night and the place was so packed we could barely make our way down the sidewalks.  But, even in a hustle-bustle district like Shibuya, enterprising party-goers can always find a quiet corner for a nap:

Pillows are for wimps.
Pillows are for wimps.

I found some time last weekend to check out more Akihabara’s electronics scene.  You really can find almost anything here, including software from a bygone area apparently:

Office XP was the bomb.
Office 2000 was the bomb.

I also had a chance to grab a bowl of Chuka Soba.  We really are deprived of decent ramen in the Bay Area, but here in Tokyo the array of ramen options is truly dizzying.  Traditionally, ramen has been considered “Chinese Food”… I guess it is an adaptation of Chinese noodle soup?  Chuka Soba literally means “Chinese Noodles”, and places that specialize in it tend to be pretty traditional.  Chuka Soba usually comes with thin broth flavored with soy sauce or salt, and it isn’t nearly as interesting as the hardier pork-based tonkotsu broth.  But sometimes when you want a change a pace, it can be pretty tasty!

IMG_2843

This place was packed on a Sunday and I had to wait in line for 10 minutes to get in, but honestly I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.  The close off the main streets of Akihabara to car traffic on Sundays and the crowds get pretty intense, so I guess any restaurants within a few blocks of station get pretty busy.  Still, if I could find ramen this good in San Francisco I’d be elated.  Just goes to show how quickly your expectations can adjust!

This past week at work saw me deliver another Optimizely technical training session for the good people at e-Agency.  For you Optinauts who are following along, here’s what the snippet order of operations looks like on the other side of the Pacific:

Optimizely Deep-dive (JP)

Ok, that’s all for this week!

Tokyo: Week 3

Hello everyone!

It’s been another busy week here in Tokyo, and it’s nice to take a breather before we charge headfirst into week 4.

First, let’s start with work stuff.  My job here is to train our Japanese partners from a technical perspective.  We asked e-Agency which topic they were most interested in discussing, and we agreed to do a session on how to interpret Optimizely’s Results page.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Optimizely, the Results page uses statistics to analyze conversions and predict which variation of your website or mobile app is most successful at getting users to do what you want them to.  We recently made a pretty significant change to the way we do this analysis, moving from a traditional “T-test” to an industry leading “sequential testing” approach.  Sounds like a mouthful?  Try explaining it in Japanese:

Slide13
Shamelessly lifted from Pete Koomen’s excellent “5 hour statistics” course.

All things considered I think it went pretty well!

Also, Nick and I have been working hard to maintain Optimizely’s culture out here.  Some of the most important aspects of our culture are transparency, open communication, and drinking beer on Friday afternoons.  This all comes together in an awesome weekly event called “Show and Tell” where the whole company comes together to share what they’ve been working on the past week.  Because of the time difference, Show and Tell actually happens at 9am on Saturday morning, but we keep the tradition in our own way by watching last weeks recording on Friday afternoon Tokyo time.  Beer is (of course) mandatory:

IMG_2810
Nick says, “For relaxing times, make it Asahi Super Dry time.”

This weekend has been a great opportunity for some much needed rest and relaxation.  I started out strong on Friday evening with a visit to 鬼金棒 (Kikanbou), a ramen shop specializing in spicy miso soup.  The whole shop is Oni (Japanese demon) themed, with lots of masks and posters all over the place.  “Kikanbou” is the word for the spiky metal clubs Oni are supposed to carry to bash people with, and the shop is aptly named because eating this ramen is a bit like being bludgeoned about the head and face:

IMG_2811

You may be thinking to yourself, “well, that doesn’t look like such an intimidating bowl”.  You’d be wrong.  See, the thing about Kikanbou ramen is that they use two kinds of pepper to spice up their soup.  The first kind (the red flakes you see on top of the bowl) is just plain spicy, and while it makes the soup bright red when you stir it in, that kind of heat is something we Californians can handle.  It’s the second kind (the black paste under the red flakes) that is really crazy.  I don’t know what it’s called, but instead of a spicy heat, it actually numbs your mouth and makes it tingle.  It’s kind of strange and I not altogether pleasurable, but I will say that it has an interesting side-effect of enabling you to eat more spicy soup than you would otherwise be able to.  Luckily, if a numb mouth isn’t something you enjoy, you can choose both your spiciness and numbness levels:

Two kinds:  "Spicy" and "Tingly"
Two kinds: “Spicy” and “Tingly”

I opted for the medium or “futsuu” levels of both spicy and tingly, and I’ll probably dial back the tingly to the lowest level next time.  I’m pretty sure the miso broth was super tasty, but it was hard to tell once the numbing peppers kicked in!  Even with a numb mouth though, the pork was absolutely amazing.  So yes, I’ll be going back to Kikanbou soon!

On Saturday, I spent some quality town wandering around Akihabara.  It’s a real scene on weekends, so that’s fun.  My first stop was Super Potato, a shop specializing in retro gaming equipment.  It’s kind of a trip to see stacks of shrink-wrapped SNES, N64, Gamecube and PS1s laying around.  Also lots of controllers in near-mint condition!  I sampled a few of the N64 controllers and found the thumbsticks to be suitably springy (for those of you who played MarioKart 64 obsessively, you know this is a big deal for mini-turbos!).  I’m thinking about picking up an N64 or a Gamecube for nostalgias sake, but  the trouble is that I wasn’t able to find all of the games I’d want to play.  I’ll keep my eyes open and see if they get more stock in the future.  Unfortunately no photos allowed in Super Potato, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

IMG_2809 IMG_2814

Next it was off to Yodobashi Camera to pick up a beard trimmer.  It’s 6 floors of every type of consumer electronics you can think of, and it felt like everyone in the greater Tokyo metro area was there!  Most of their items work on a ticket-based system where you browse sample items on the shelf, take a barcode ticket up the register, and then they go get the item from the back for you.  What it means is that the density of products is absolutely incredible since you aren’t taking up shelf space with a bunch of boxes.  Kind of overwhelming actually, but I made it out with a shiny new Panasonic beard trimmer (the one I brought with me died yesterday).

On my away back home, I stopped off at 7 eleven to withdraw some cash (it’s actually incredibly convenient, pretty much all 7 eleven stores have international ATMs).  I could spend a whole post talking about how amazing Japanese convenience stores are.  They’re like a window into the soul of the city and the people who live here since they’re stocked with all of the things you might need at a moments notice.  Including a whole section devoted to getting salarymen through those awkward moments when you stumble out of a bar after a long night and realize you don’t have enough time to go home and change before you need to be in the office:

IMG_2815

In addition to the normal shaving cream and razors, you’ve also got “body wipes” (gives you that fresh smell when you don’t have time to shower), white work shirts, undershirts, underwear, and a selection of fine ties.  As long as your suit is still in serviceable shape, you can show up to work in a whole new wardrobe!  Space on the shelves of these convenience stores is extremely valuable, so while I’ve never actually seen someone buying clothing, I have to assume this stuff moves!

After the convenience store, I headed across the street to the recently renovated Manseibashi station.  Manseibashi used to be the terminal for the Chuo line back in the 1800’s, but it fell into disuse once the line was extended to Kanda and eventually Tokyo Station and was shut down.  For a long time it remained empty, but just last year it underwent a full-scale renovation and is now home to upscale shopping and dining.  It’s a really neat building and it’s just across the street from my apartment, so I’d been meaning to check it out.  They’ve built a beautiful observation deck which is at the level of the trains on the Chuo line… Great trainspotting!

IMG_2828 IMG_2827

I didn’t have time to check out all of the dining options, but I did end up having a drink at the Hitachino Brewing Lab.  Craft beer has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance here, and it shows!  The place was already packed when I stopped in at 6pm on a Saturday night.  The beer was pretty good, but the setting just couldn’t be beat!

The outdoor seating along the river was extremely pleasant and has great views into the neon jungle of Akihabara.  I think this may become a regular destination for me as the weather improves!

Ok folks, that’s all for today.  We’ve got a busy week coming up (we’re moving to a new temporary office in Akasaka), so stay tuned!

Tokyo: Week 2

Hello everyone!  As you can see, my cadence for blog posts has slowed down somewhat over the past week.  We’re pretty busy here what with opening a new branch office, training partners, drinking (lots of drinking) with partners… you get the picture.  So, I’m going to switch to weekly posts from here on out.

So, what’s been going on during this, our second full week in the capital?  Well, first off, I moved into a service apartment in Akihabara, nerd capital of a country full of nerds.  I haven’t had much time to explore and document the nerdiness in action, so stay-tuned for more details on that in a later post.  Here’s what a “service apartment” in Tokyo looks like:

IMG_2785

It might not be much to look at, but it sure is heaven to come back to after a long day out and about.  The bed is comfy, I can cook myself a halfway decent breakfast, the wifi is fast, what more could you ask for?  Oh yeah, a stellar view from the 11th floor!

IMG_2773 IMG_2784

There are many things I like about this view, including the fact that I can see the river and straight through to the heart of Akihabara whenever I feel like it.  But, the train-spotting opportunities are really what sold me on the place!  The train services I can see from my window include:

  • Chuo Line rapid service
  • Sobu Line local service
  • Kaiji super express with service from Tokyo station to Matsumoto station

And if I lean out on the balcony just a bit, I can also see:

  • Yamanote Line local service
  • Keihin Tohoku Line rapid service
  • Tohoku Shinkansen super express
  • Nagano Shinkansen super express
  • Joetsu Shinkansen super express

It’s absolute Nirvana for a train nut like me!  Furthermore, I’m within easy walking distance of subway stations on the:

  • Chiyoda Line
  • Marunouchi Line
  • Shinjuku Line
  • Ginza Line
  • Hibiya Line

It’s a pretty big deal.

Ok, one more thing about trains.  There are lots of public service announcements and signs in Japanese train stations.  Always invariably polite (i.e. “We kindly request that you not run and jump into the closing train doors.  We humbly thank you for your cooperation.”), sometimes cute:

IMG_2794

And sometimes downright terrifying:

IMG_2793

Nick and I agree that simply looking at this guy’s expression might be enough to cause you to fall down on the tracks… So maybe counter-productive?

Ok, so what else has been going on other than lots of train travel?  Well, Nick has recently moved out of his AirBNB into a serviced apartment of his own in Ningyocho.  We’ve been all over Tokyo meeting with a variety of prospective partners and potential employees, always “after work” and usually over drinks.  Our travels recently took us through Shibuya, one of the livelier districts in Tokyo.  Here’s a video of us crossing the scramble intersection outside of the famous Hachiko exit:

Also, in Shibuya, we spotted this mega, building-sized Disney advertisement.

IMG_2792

Now that in itself isn’t all that remarkable.  I mean, we’re no strangers to Disney’s marketing activities in the states, right?  But the subject matter of this ad is really what makes it interesting.  This, my friends, is Duffy the Disney Bear.  Never heard of Duffy, eh?  Well, neither had I until I visited Tokyo Disney Sea in 2011.  Here’s a quick overview to get you up to speed.  According to Wikipedia:

  • Introduced at Disney World in Florida in 2002 as a generic teddy bear with Mickey-shaped face, he was a total flop
  • Imported to Japan in 2005, he was an instant hit and quickly took over large swaths of Tokyo DisneySea (sister park of Tokyo Disneyland).  He even displaced Donald Duck as the main character attraction in the Cape Cod area of the park.
  • The Oriental Land Company (owner and operator of the two Tokyo Disney parks) gave him a thin backstory:  Mickey was leaving on a sailing trip and Minnie, worried that he’d be lonely, made a teddy bear to keep him company.
  • Since then, Duffy has been joined by Shellie Mae (his girlfriend?) and last year Gelatoni, a cat who draws using his tail as a brush and melted gelato as paint.  Strange.
  • When you visit DisneySea, fully half of the people in the park at any given time seem to be there for the sole purpose of purchasing Duffy-related merchandise, standing in line to take pictures with a guy in a Duffy suit, or posing their collection of Duffy’s (sometimes carted in in strollers *for real*) at one of many strategically located Duffy photo spots.

Tokyo is a strange and wonderful place!

Speaking of other strange things I’ve seen in the past week:

IMG_2798
“Froosh: Better than botox.”

Okaaaay… And this:

IMG_2799

This one I really can’t figure out.  Directly translated, Ikinari Steak means “Suddenly Steak”.  I’ve seen a few of these places around, so they must be fairly successful to have become a chain in the crowded Tokyo restaurant market.  But “Suddenly Steak”?  Doesn’t really promise a high-class dining experience, does it?

Well, that’s it for this week folks.  Let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see next week!

Tokyo: Day 6

We had a leisurely morning at the rental house today and ventured out into the world with one goal in mind: to find Nick the perfect apartment!  We began our journey at Toranomon Hills with a coffee and some expense reporting:

IMG_2722

We then met up with the incomparable Shindo-san.  Shindo-san is a real estate agent who Evan Burkosky has done business with in the past.  In his words “Shindo-san knows how to follow the rules when that is what’s called for, but he can also bend them if the situation requires it.”  Shindo-san bundled us into a taxi and it was off to check out some high-rise apartment buildings on the landfill islands in Tokyo bay.  We started by checking out an apartment on the 42nd floor of a brand new building:

IMG_2724 IMG_2725

The views were incredible, but the neighborhood was very sterile and Nick decided it wasn’t his cup of tea.  We then walked over to Tsukishima, another landfill island that actually has quite a rich history.  The view from the 30th floor was incredible and Nick simply had to have the place.  Shindo-san did his thing (which involved simultaneous use of two cell-phones) and set the process in motion.  There are still a few hoops to jump through (since although the Optimizely Japanese KK has now been incorporated, Nick and I still need to apply for our working visas), but if all goes according to plan Nick will be living with this view of downtown Tokyo outside of his window every morning.

IMG_2729 IMG_2730

After Nick had settled on an apartment, we retired to the nearby convenience store so Shindo-san could print out the contract and the rest of us could celebrate with a cold can of Asahi Super-Dry (Nick’s favorite Japanese beer).

IMG_2732

We then headed to a nearby monjayaki shop to have an early dinner while Nick filled out his paperwork.  Monjayaki is delicious, but it’s one of the many “cook your own” styles of Japanese food (along with okonomiyaki, nabe, shabushabu, yakiniku… the list goes on).  This is great fun, but it can also be a bit intimidating, and your food might not turn out quite the way the staff who prepared the ingredients intended.  Good thing that Shindo-san is not only an excellent real-estate agent, but also a skilled monjayaki chef!

IMG_2735 IMG_2736

After dinner, we parted ways with Shindo-san and Nick, Evan B and myself decided to walk from Tsukishima back into downtown.  What I thought was going to be a quick jaunt turned into quite the epic hike.  You can check out our route here if you’re interested.

We made a stop along the way back at Toranomon Hills, which is one of the tallest skyscrapers in this part of Tokyo, and certainly the tallest one where you can have a drink on the top floor.  So we rode the elevator up to the 52nd floor for some after dinner drinks. The views of the cityscape at night were truly stunning, and I know the pictures don’t do it justice.

IMG_2749 IMG_2753

After seeing Tokyo Tower from afar, we decided to walk over and get a different perspective from up-close:

IMG_2760

After Tokyo Tower, we made our way to Roppongi where we decided to call it a night. All in all quite a productive day!