Tokyo on our own

Our plan today was to see the two places from Yulia’s tour yesterday that we weren’t able to visit because of our late start: the Nezu Museum and Gardens and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. Spoiler alert: we succeeded, but not without some bonus adventures.

We started by scouting out the elevators at the Daimon Station to see if we could get our luggage down to the track level when we leave on Thursday and take trains to Narita instead of the Limousine Bus – it looks hopeful. Then we headed through the fare gates and got on the train – easy peasy. But neither of us could get through the gate at Aoyama-itchome Station! Apparently our taps hadn’t registered properly at our origin station. It must happen frequently, because an English-speaking employee appeared within seconds, asked us where we’d boarded the train, and charged us for the segment we’d just traveled.

The Nezu Museum is an outgrown of its founder’s collection of pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art; it’s housed on the property that had been his family residence. They hold seven National Treasures in their collection; right now, they have a special exhibition of Japanese Art and Design centered on one of them, the Irises Screens by Ogata Kōrin, which took up two of the six galleries. The screens and other art on exhibit were wonderful…but they don’t allow photography in the galleries, just in the entrance hall and the gardens. The entrance hall features a collection of Buddha statues, like this one from the 6th Century from the Northern Qi Dynasty in China.

And the gardens were wonderful to walk around. There were lakes, shrines, tea houses, and irises which were in full bloom, just in time for the special exhibition.

It was a wonderfully clear day – so clear that I thought we might go somewhere to see Mt. Fuji. The obvious choice was one of the skyscraper observation decks, but I had found an article on Live Japan which suggested a spot that might be less crowded. It even gave directions in perfectly clear English:

If you walk north towards Ebisu Station from Meguro Station, go towards Ebisu Garden Place and descend westward from Fujimisaka (between Meguro-ku Meguro 1-Chome and Shinagawa-ku Kamiōsaki 2-chome). There, you’ll see Mount Fuji right in front of you.

It was easy to get to Meguro Station, and easy to find Ebisu Garden Place on the map, so we set forth. And got thoroughly lost; I couldn’t find any of the other things in the description on the map, and trying to translate random street signs wasn’t any help either. Eventually, we gave up and started looking for a restaurant – that was much easier, especially with Yelp’s help. Local India Ebisu looked plausible and wasn’t hard to get to, so we gave them a try. They were a great choice – English menus, a waiter who was happy to speak English with us, great food (with some differences from what we’d have at an Indian place at home, like including spicy French fries), and good beer. It was just what we needed.

We gave up on Mt. Fuji and got back on the train to go to Shinjuku and the gardens. We had to stand; it’s a good thing we were holding the straps securely because we were suddenly thrown forward and nearly fell. A few seconds later, the PA came on: “The emergency brake has been applied”. Gee, thanks.

The gardens were worth the effort of getting there. They’re huge, and although there were many many people out enjoying them, they didn’t feel crowded. We visited the Traditional Japanese Garden, the Taiwan Pavillion (donated by the people of Taiwan in the 1920s in honor of Crown Prince Hirohito’s wedding – Taiwan was a Japanese colony at the time), and the Formal Garden with its roses. Even the huge NTT Docomo building just outside the gardens added to the scenery.

It was getting dark, but we had one more stop to make: the Shinjuku branch of Takashimaya Department Store, in search of a yukata for Diane. They have beautiful yukatas in silk, for use in proper social circles and priced accordingly; luckily, they also have “souvenir” yukatas in cotton at much more reasonable prices for tourists. :-)

I would have liked to see more of the store, especially the food halls in the basement, but we were hot and tired, so we found our way to the proper subway line and headed back to the hotel.

Lost in Shinkansen

Our day started early so that we could get off the ship and make our way to Shin-Osaka Station in time to catch the 9:24am Shinkansen to Tokyo. The ride was pleasant, even if we couldn’t get much of a view of Mt. Fuji.

The train, including the bathrooms, was immaculate, and the toilets leave Amtrak in the dust (as does the train, which reached 275 km/h (170 mph) for much of the way).

We arrived at Tokyo Station without incident and met Yulia, our guide for the day. We headed down to street level to take a taxi to the Mesm Hotel where we’d be staying…and I suddenly realized that I’d left my belt pack on the train. She suggested we go to the hotel, drop the luggage, and come back to Tokyo Station to check the lost and found office.

So we did (and discovered that the Shinkansen has a different lost and found office than the rest of the JR trains); I filled out a short form, and two minutes later, I was reunited with my belt pack and all its contents. Magic!

We walked over to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace and enjoyed their beauty.

We were back on Yulia’s planned tour route now; the next stop was a quick one to see the statue of Kusunoki Masashige, who fought on the Imperial side to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate (this was in the 14th Century, not to be confused with the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in favor of the Meiji Emperor in the 19th Century).

A short subway ride later, we enjoyed the views of the Nijubashi Bridge on the Palace grounds.

Onward we went, this time to Meiji Jingu, dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

I’m used to seeing consecrated saki barrels at Shinto shrines, but this was the first time I’d ever seen consecrated barrels of Burgundy wine!

We continued walking along to the shrine itself.

The Meoto Kusu (Husband and Wife) Trees are a symbol of happy marriages.

It was getting dark, so we left Meiji Jingu and took the train to Shibuya Square. We made a brief stop to admire the statue of the world’s most loyal dog, Hachiko, who waited for his master for nine years.

We braved the scramble, which is supposed to be the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing.

Yulia helped us with some emergency shopping at Bic Camera, and then we had dinner at Neo on the 12th floor of the Shibuya Scramble Square building. They specialize in yakitori, with innovative flavors – it was delicious.

And then onward to Shinjuku; it’s very popular with young people and the odd monster.

We walked down Omoide Yokocho which is an elaboration of the open-air markets of the immediate postwar period. It was crowded. :-)

And that was it, except for yet another train ride back across town to our hotel. We’d walked 15km with Yulia; it was a great start to our Tokyo adventure.

Kurashki, an Onsen, and an imminent departure

We docked in Uno early this morning and took a tour to Kurashiki, specifically the Bihan District, which is the old merchant quarter. There are still many merchants there, but there were also temples, shrines, museums, and a chance to relax and decompress.

In the afternoon, we visited an onsen (hot springs) near the ship, along with about 20 others from the ship. It was a very pleasant and relaxing experience; I could have used another hour there! No photos from inside, of course, but here’s the exterior.

The islands and bays on this trip have been nothing short of wonderful; we took a couple of minutes to enjoy them this afternoon.

Time for our farewell dinner, and then it’s time to pack. Onward!

Fugu very much

I’m the current president of the Silicon Valley Storytellers Toastmasters club. Most of our members are local, but the pandemic gave us the opportunity for people who can’t conveniently attend our meetings in person to join the club; today, I got to meet one of those members, Chiharu, who is a tour guide in Japan. She came to meet our ship in Moji today and gave Diane and me a great tour of the area.

We started with a boat ride to Shimoneski on the other side of the harbor.

We took a taxi to the Chofu area; our first stop was the Kozanji Temple, a 14th Century Zen Buddhist Temple.

It was very peaceful; we were the only tourists there, unlike the temples we’d seen so far on our travels.

We left Kozanji and walked over to Chofu Moritei, which was built in 1903 for the 14th head of the Chofu Mohri family, Mototoshi Mohri. The Meiji Emperor was hosted there, and his room is still marked by a red carpet.

We had had to take our shoes off to enter the house, of course. I wanted to wash my hands before having tea, so I was happy to see that they’d provided slippers for their guests to wear in the restroom.

The tea came with a sweet, and Chiharu explained the protocol – eat the sweet, then turn the bowl around two times before drinking the tea. After finishing the tea, turn the bowl so the design is at 3 o’clock and put it back on the table.

The drainage ditches here are a lot nicer to look at than the ones at home!

We took a taxi to the Karato Fish Market for lunch at Kaiten Karibo Ichiba Sushi above the main market floor.

Chiharu suggested we try the area speciality – pufferfish, aka blowfish, aka fugu. It’s got fins and scales, so it’s kosher, and it’s perfectly safe if prepared by a licensed sushi chef. It’s also quite tasty! We had it three ways: sushi, sushi with roe, and deep-fried; I’d skip the deep-fried next time.

We had lots of other sushi, too – salmon, sea bream, tuna, and more pufferfish. We chose not to try the whale, though.

Chiharu didn’t want us to miss anything we would have seen if we’d taken the regular tour with our group, so she took us to the Akama Shrine for a short visit. It was beautiful and fairly uncrowded; we didn’t have long enough to explore, though.

We got back to the dock 15 minutes before “All Aboard”; the town had set up booths to welcome the ship, and we had just enough time to take a calligraphy lesson and make a couple of fans (Diane’s says “Peace” and mine says “Happiness”) before sailaway.

We found out that we did miss one stop on the ship’s tour – they had enough time to visit the Toto Toilet Museum, and people really enjoyed it. I guess we’ll have to come back and see you again, Chiharu!

Gyeongju, South Korea

We awoke this morning in a new country, South Korea. We docked in Busan, cleared immigration, and got onto buses for the 90-minute drive to Gyeongju and a whirlwind tour of Korean culture. Our first stop was the Gyeongju National Museum, which is mostly devoted to relics of the Silla kingdom, which controlled southern Korea between 57 BCE and 935 CE.

Sacred Bell of Great King Seongdeok
Neolithic Clay Pottery
Korean Bronze Daggers
Sacred Duck
Silla Gold Crown (5th Century)
Gold Crown and Belt Ornaments
More Gold
Vajarpani (Guardian Deity)

We only had an hour at the museum before we had to leave for a very important appointment: lunch at the Commodore Hotel, complete with a performance of Korean music and dance.

Fan Dancers

Our next stop was the Bulguksa Temple Museum. Once more, our visit was too brief.

Decorated for Buddha’s Birthday
Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise, in Geungnakjeon Hall

We finished the day by going to the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, a series of mounds covering royal tombs of the Silla kingdom’s rulers. We took a quick walk through the Heavenly Horse Tomb, which had been where the Gold Crown we saw at the museum was buried for many centuries.

All of our hurrying paid off – we beat the traffic and got back to Busan and our ship in just over an hour.

We barely scratched the surface of Gyeongju; the rest of Korea remains a mystery.