My spring vacation! Last year I went to Kyoto with Aunt Jan and this year I decided to take a long, 8-day holiday in Tokyo! Needless to say, I had one of the best weeks ever. I’m going to divide the trip into two parts, but these posts will still be pretty long. :)
Friday, April 5th
I was leaving that very day and I hadn’t really packed yet. I had only set a few things aside and had dragged out my carryon-size suitcase from the closet, but that was it.
So… As you can imagine, I was pretty busy after work. I went to the gym, ate dinner, packed, and still had about 45-60 minutes to kill before it was time to head to the bus stop. Even with luggage, it takes me less than 10 minutes to walk to the Willer Express bus stop in front of the Hirosaki Best Western Hotel.
I was not looking forward to the bus ride down to Tokyo, but it was the cheapest method of transportation. Round trip cost me around 10,000 yen (a little over $100). Compare that to a round trip shinkansen bullet train fare of about $330 or more. Can’t beat the price of the bus, really. And saving money on transportation meant that I could spend more on shopping in Tokyo (for my frugal conscience’s sake).
The more I thought about it, the more I was looking forward to getting a break from Aomori and seeing my Japanese host family and friends. And of course, warmer weather.
The bus ride was… Well… I’d rather not talk about it. I guess I‘ll call it a necessary evil. I bought a neck pillow, ear plugs, and an eye mask for the journey, but it didn’t seem to help much. I tried. I’m just not good with buses.
Saturday, April 6th
We arrived at least 30 minutes ahead of schedule at Shinjuku station. The weather was a little poor and spitting rain a bit. I had my trusty travel hoodie, so it was okay.
I took the Seibu-Shinjuku line from Shinjuku to Nogata, the closest station to my host family’s house. Koenji Station is also close, but Nogata is closer by about 5 minutes. Walking with my luggage, I got too hot along the way and had to peel off my layers. Two sweaters worth! Whew!
My host mom welcomed me with open arms and let me rest for a while. It was so nice to finally see her again after having been away for so long!
We (host mom, brother Shouta, and I) left by car to go to the Setagaya area of Tokyo, where they would be participating in an Awa-Odori event.
Awa-Odori is a traditional dance from Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. My friend Zandra actually lives there now. In the neighborhood of Koenji, Awa-odori dance was started in 1956 by migrants from Tokushima prefecture. My host family has been in this “ren” (dance group) for years and years, even when my host mom was a child. She didn’t dance, but played an instrument.
It says “Awa-Odori” on the lanterns.
So we went to the gathering area and I got to see all of the behind-the-scenes preparation that goes into an event. I love all the costumes for all of the different dance parts. SO cool.
When everyone had eaten lunch (someone brought McDonald’s burgers and onigiri (rice balls) for the dancers) and was ready, they went to a nearby park to practice. After a run-through, they proceeded down the street to the little cherry blossom festival that was going on. Yes, cherry blossom season in Tokyo had come (and was nearly gone)…when in Aomori, there was still snow on the ground!
As I watched, I realized that some of the dancers that I met back in 2005 had grown up, gotten married, and had children. The children were adorable in their costumes. Simply adorable.
I took several pictures during the event. I even participated in the dancing when they were teaching everyone how to dance awa-odori style. I’ll tell you what—The dancing looks simple, but was actually difficult for me (I have two left feet). I have no hand-foot coordination, so when I try to do something that requires my feet to move one way and my hands to move another way… The result is usually pretty disastrous. I tried to have fun and not be embarrassed. People were taking pictures of me because I was the only foreigner there.
When we were all done, packed up, changed, and ready to go, Shinji drove us home (as Miki has already gone home with the baby since he wasn’t feeling well). It started to pour when we were nearly home. The rain had held off long enough for the awa-odori event! It poured like a typhoon (strong winds too) for the rest of the day and into the night.
We all hung out at the house, watching TV and playing with baby Sosuke.
We had sushi for dinner, a semi-regular thing in my host family’s house. I ate fish for the first time in over a year, just because my host family likes to eat sushi. Plus, I loved sushi when I first came to visit back in 2005. I will admit, the salmon tasted darn good and I tried raw scallops for the first time that night. It was actually my second-favorite. The rest of the fish weren’t really my thing. I guess I lost my taste for it over the years of strict vegetarianism.
After our nice dinner, I took a shower. I always shower at my gym during winter (my shower is a tile ice box with sucky hot water pressure, so… that’s a no-go), so it was amazing to be able to shower comfortably at home. Really nice. No freezing my butt off required. And so, with the rain pouring and strong wind blowing, I crawled into my futon and went to sleep. It felt like home.
Sunday, April 7
I awoke to sunshine. Unexpected, glorious sunshine.
It was around 6am, the perfect time for a Sunday morning run. I wore short sleeves and shorts outside for the first time since last year. My run was about a 5k. I showered, got cleaned up, ate breakfast, and left around 10am to head out to the trendy Jiyugaoka neighborhood. The weather was perfect.
Lunch with Asako
I sat outside on a bench near Jiyugaoka station, looking out for Asako. I thought to myself, “Remember, you are looking for an exceptionally small Japanese girl…” It’s true, though. Even for a Japanese person, Asako is quite small. The difference between our heights is 20 centimeters, which makes her 4’11”.
And then, there she was! The last time I had seen her, she had past-the-shoulder-length black hair. This time, she had long brown hair! It suited her very well!
It was so-so-so good to see her again! It was refreshing to see such a familiar face, especially that of one of my former roommates. We spent a nice few hours, eating lunch and catching up on each other’s lives. She had been living and working in Singapore for the last couple years with her company. They transferred her back to Japan last year. I was pretty jealous of that, actually. I would love to live and work in Singapore! The funny thing was that I could detect a hint of Singlish (Singaporean English) in her English. Especially in her intonation and word choices. Oh, and the way she said infinitive –ing words like “shopping”. It was cute.
As for lunch, we ate at a new (to me) place called T’s Restaurant. All vegan! I had the delicious doria (Italian baked dish with rice, white sauce, and “cheese”) and a chocolate parfait to go with. The meal was amazing, really. Exactly what I had wanted.
After eating, we walked around Jiyugaoka for a bit. Asako had to leave around 2pm because she had a sweets-making class at 3pm. So we just walked around, shopped, and talked.
We had only a short time together, but I still enjoyed every moment. I still remembered when she, at the end of my year at Waseda, came to Narita airport to see me off. My flight had been in the afternoon, so we went to the airport around lunchtime. We ate lunch at the airport, hung out for a bit, and then said goodbye. I still remember the rush of emotions suddenly overwhelming me when I started to cry. Leaving friends is never easy, but I usually am not one for teary goodbyes.
The goodbye on this day in April was not teary, thank goodness. I was happy.
After seeing her off, I took myself shopping. First, to Uniqlo to buy myself a couple pairs of skinny jeans. At $40 a pair, they are pretty much a steal. I bought one pair in bright pink and another in sky blue. I skipped over the orange. Gotta have bright colors for spring, you know?
Then I was off to Shibuya. I successfully found Doughnut Plant NYC, a doughnut chain with a few vegan doughnut offerings. However, there was only one that I was interested in: the green tea soymilk. I bought one for later.
I spent the next couple hours wandering around Shibuya. I hit up ZARA, H&M, Forever 21, ABC Mart, and Shibuya 109. None of the clothes stores had anything that struck me. But I came away from the shoe store with a new pair of Vans sneakers. And speaking of shoes… My feet were so incredibly sore by the end of that day.
Instead of eating dinner in Shibuya, I opted to try a new vegan restaurant near my home station of Koenji. The restaurant Meu Nota was easily found. The food was delicious, the portion sizes were small for the price (I thought). Plus I was a little lonely eating out by myself, so I didn’t stay long.
I ate my green tea soymilk doughnut while walking home from the restaurant.
It unfortunately looked better than it tasted. I wondered to myself, “Am I just not a doughnut person?” (Yes, these are the “deep thoughts” I have while eating doughnuts.) Granted, it had been 4 years since my last doughnut… But I made up my mind not to give up. Surely there would be a vegan doughnut out there for me somewhere.
I returned to a quiet house (Miki, Shinji, and Sosuke had returned to their home in Saitama) and watched TV with my host mom until bedtime. In case you hadn’t guessed, Japanese families tend to watch a lot of TV.
Monday, April 8th
Monday was the day that I didn’t have any concrete plans with anyone. So it was just Tokyo and I.
My run that morning was a little longer at 6.78 km and the weather was much warmer. In fact, I think Monday was the hottest day that week.
I, dressed in my crazy spring colors, left the house around 10am and took the Seibu Shinjuku line to Takadanobaba. It’s really convenient from Nogata, since I don’t have to transfer trains at all (I would if I was leaving from Koenji station).
What a perfect day for a walk. I actually started to get hot and take off my sweater when I arrived at Waseda’s main campus. The place was full of nostalgia for me.
Students were all about, going to and from their morning classes. it was the first week of the spring semester for them, so the campus was all hustle and bustle. There were even upperclassmen volunteer guides to direct the freshmen to their class buildings in case they were lost. They had not done such a thing for freshmen when I was a student there. But really, is it that hard to find your classes on a small, inner-city campus? And surely it couldn’t be that hard to print out a map from the internet or save it to your phone. Well, in either case, I’m sure the freshmen appreciated the help.
I went to the co-op, bought a souvenir, but then ended up returning it in favor of something else, a SILS (School of International Liberal Studies, the school I was a part of) keychain. SILS represent!
Oh, and I musn’t fail to mention once more that the weather was perfect. I left Waseda and began to trek towards Gunrindou, my favorite Japanese sweet shop in Tokyo. The walk took nearly an hour, but a good part of it included walking along the Edogawa river with blooming sakura (cherry blossom) trees. I loved every minute.
When I arrived, there was, as always, a line. If there is always a line of locals no matter what time of day… It’s gotta be good.
As I waited, I wished that I could see what was going on behind the counter, in the back room. I’ve always wondered what makes this particular shop’s sweets so special (especially the daifuku) and who makes them. When it was my turn to order, I bought 3 mame-daifuku (豆大福): one to eat and 2 to freeze and take back to Aomori.
Totally worth the walk.
But by then it was definitely lunch time. I had decided to eat at Tsubu-Tsubu Café, a macrobiotic restaurant near Waseda subway station. By the time I arrived, I was pretty starving. The place came recommended by my friend in Aomori, Kiyomi. She goes down there often to train in macrobiotic cooking and to take seminars from the people who own/run the restaurant. When I mentioned her name and my reason for coming to a staff member, the staff recognized the name. I guess she was surprised that I had come all the way from Aomori.
The lunch set was pretty expensive, but I figured that I didn’t come all that way just to skip out. Plus, expensive and macrobiotic are pretty much par for the course. I was really just craving a burger, so I ordered it. It was really delicious and fresh. It didn’t try to mimic meat, but it was still a believable burger patty. The only things that made me sad were that there was no ketchup and it was not really enough to fill my very very hungry stomach.
So I went to the one place that I knew had cheap eats: The Waseda student cafeteria.
I used to eat there all the time because the prices are simply unbeatable. Where else can you get a bowl of hot soba noodles for ￥100-200 yen? I chose the salad bar, which I always used to get. I noticed that now all of the menu items had English under the Japanese labels. And there were allergen labels too! Pretty cool.
I sat there for a while, eating my salad bar and mame-daifuku dessert. My feet needed a rest. There was nostalgia in spades.
The next stop on my path was Shinjuku. One thing I often did as student was walk to Shin-Okubo or Shinjuku from my dorm in Waseda. The walk to Shinjuku takes from 30-45 minutes, I believe. I encountered something funny on the way there. When I was nearly in downtown Shinjuku, I looked up and noticed a strange-but-cool building. It looked like a Jenga tower or some postmodern futuristic structure with the way the glass windows were fixed.
Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was the Square Enix building. It all made sense, then. Square Enix is one of the most famous video game companies in the world. I started to walk on by, then noticed a couple foreigners walk past me. They were wearing Blizzard (another famous video game company) t-shirts. I thought, “I have found gamer mecca!”
For old time’s sake, I went into Takashimaya. I found myself wishing my parents were with me. I have distinct memories of going to the Takashimaya, Isetan, and Sogo (famous Japanese department stores) branches of Singapore. It was in Isetan that I picked out a glass/crystal sculpture of a Hong Kong junk boat as a Christmas gift for my father. It was in Takashimaya that my mother was “kidnapped” by Rita Repulsa and her Putties, and then “saved” by the Power Rangers at a promotional show. And in Sogo I remember this long red carpet and the bakery in basement floor where my mother or father would buy me a doughnut. Fond memories. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned Takashimaya, Isetan, and Sogo were originally Japanese stores.
I debated what to do for dinner. At that point, I think I just wanted to be home and resting. I had been walking/on my feet pretty much from 10am to 6pm with a lunch break in-between. What’s the point of a vacation if you’re always running yourself ragged and have no time to relax?
J.S. Burgers Café turned out to be right next to Takashimaya, so… I couldn’t pass that up. Two veggie burgers in one day? No problem. I got it to-go and headed to the station so I could eat dinner at home. I was nearly to the station when I got distracted by a natural and organic food market/shop. I bought some more yummy things, and THEN, finally, went home.
I didn’t want to eat alone, so I waited for my host mom and brother to come home. Nice for the three of us to eat together. Since I don’t eat out much here, its always great to have company for a meal.
Tuesday, April 9
My run Tuesday morning was even longer at 7.54 km. I found this awesome Nakano Central Park complex with lots of huge new buildings and a walking lane around it. It was the perfect place to do a few loops.
I showered, ate a big breakfast, and got ready for the day. I left the house around 10:30am and hopped on a train to Shinjuku. From Shinjuku, I caught the Shonan-Shinjuku line headed for Zushi. It was perfect, because my destination that day, Kamakura, was only a couple stops from Zushi. I managed to grab a seat and enjoy the ride down south. I saw a lot of foreign tourists on the same train and figured they had the same idea as me.
Kamakura is one of my favorite places in Japan, next to Kyoto and Tokyo. The great thing is that it is within an hour of Tokyo, so it makes a perfect day trip. Also, there is a ton to see and do, all packed into one area. You can visit the ocean, see the huge Buddha, visit many temples and shrines, enjoy the cute shops, and of course, get some good eats. Enoshima island isn’t far away either. It’s a way to get out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo if you are needing a reprieve. Have I sold you on Kamakura yet? :)
I ate omiyage (souvenir) samples for lunch. Whoops, but it was sort of intended. I bought all my omiyage (for office and friends) there, since I figured Kamakura omiyage would be a nice change from the usual Tokyo stuff.
I only had a few hours, so my only sightseeing stop on my must-see list that day was the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine.
It’s free to walk around and take in the sights. I’ve been there so many times! With my mom, with my dad, with my sister, with Yukiko, with Zandra, with Sam, with other friends… Too many times to count.
At the entrance, I bumped into a group of 3 girls about my age (or older). I noticed they were taking group pictures and offered to take a picture of the three of them. I always am appreciative when people offer to take photos for me, so I like to “pay it forward”. They were happy to take one for me too, and wanted a picture WITH me.
I killed time around the area, walking around and poking my head into many of the little shops. I resisted buying many things!
Next was meeting Yukiko! I was so happy that she could make time for me, seeing as she had gone back to work full-time about 4 years ago. She is now a 5th and 6th grade home economics teacher at her local elementary school.
For those of you who don’t know about Yukiko: She is one of my grandmother’s (my mom’s mother) dearest and closest friends. I believe she is in her mid/late-sixties now. My grandfather, who worked for Boeing back in the day, was contracted to come to Japan to teach JAL and ANA airline pilots how to fly Boeing planes in the 90’s. Pretty cool, huh? My grandmother went with him and had a lot of free time when my grandfather was at work. She happened to meet Yukiko one day. Yukiko’s husband Shigenori (who sadly passed away some years ago) became my grandfather’s best friend. Yukiko tells me that Shigenori could have traveled anywhere in the world, but the only place he wanted to go was to Seattle to see my grandfather. Yukiko still talks about the greatest present she has ever received: The key to my grandparents’ house. I have heard so many stories of their adventures together in Japan and the US. I think their cross-cultural friendship is a treasure to/in my family. I should really write down their stories someday.
After hearing about this lady for so long, I finally met her in 2005 when I studied abroad in Tokyo for the first time. She let me stay at her house for a week and we became instant friends. I guess I can say that she is my Japanese grandmother! In the summer of 2006, I stayed at her house for several weeks. We’ve had a lot of good times together. Her daughter Satoko and son Toyonobu are also amazingly nice people. It was a shame that I could not met them this time.
So as you can probably tell, I was very much looking forward to seeing her again. She picked me up at Tsujido station at 3;30pm. When I first arrived, I wondered where the heck I was! Last I remembered, Tsujido was a tiny station with only one exit. But this place had two exits and one had a huge shopping mall attached. I almost couldn’t believe I was in the same place. What a difference five years makes! After getting my bearings, I found the old bus stop where Yukiko used to pick me up.
She drove me back to her house near the ocean and we had a long conversation. I updated her on the comings and goings of my family and she updated me on hers. I enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal and lots of yummy tea.
I also set her up with her own Skype account since she got a new webcam. Hopefully we can Skype when I move back to the states.
She drove me back to the station around 8pm. It was back to Tokyo.
I caught the Chuo line rapid train from Tokyo to Koenji, which was super-nice. It only takes about 20 minutes and I even got a seat!
And then my neighbor decided to sleep on me.
Oh hello, Mr. Salaryman, I have no idea who you are…