My 24th Birthday in Tokyo

The Ticket Saga

First, I had intended to go via Shinkansen and pony up the money to pay to “travel in style.” But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to pay 3-4 times more than the cost of the nightbus. For the nightbus, you leave around 9pm and arrive at your destination sometime in the early morning. I have taken the nightbus previously on two separate occasions with my friends when we were traveling across Japan back in 2008. Both experiences were… rough. Very rough. So I wanted to avoid it again on my birthday weekend. But the price was very attractive.

I waited too long to go to the bus ticket center and low and behold, they were sold out. 満席|まんせき is the word for full house or no seats available. I thought to myself: drat, maybe I won’t go after all and just spend the weekend at home. I resigned myself to that fact for a day, until my dad emailed me, saying that I should just get the shinkansen tickets because I needed to do something fun for my birthday. My dad is usually right about these things.

So on Thursday the 15th, my supervisor kindly took me to his travel agency in town and helped me book the tickets. Tokyo via shinkansen, here I come! I thought I was done dealing with tickets. I was set to leave my city at 5:39pm on Friday after work (arriving in Tokyo around 10:32pm), because I had thought we had a teaching demo/conference until 4:30pm.

But then on Friday morning, it was made known to me that not everyone had to stay at the teaching demo beyond 2:30pm. My other co-workers were giving me a ride back to the office soon afterwards. That meant I would be able to make the 4:43pm train, arriving in Tokyo at 9:08pm! Much better than 10:30pm. And, the travel agency had told me that I could change my tickets once for free. So then my dear supervisor called the travel agency back, changed the tickets, and picked them up for me before the teaching demo. I was finally set to go.

Shinkansen

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It takes about a 45 minute local train ride to get to the Shin-Aomori shinkansen station from my city. Not too bad, considering other locations in Aomori. I had one rolling carry-on size suitcase and my purse. I looked at my ticket and to my utter joy, my new ticket showed that I would ride the new Hayabusa E5 Series train (which launched in March). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayabusa_(train). There are only 2 Hayabusa trains per day, out of the 17 departing trains from Shin-Aomori. My original ticket had me leaving on the regular Hayate train, but by a stroke of luck I had changed to the beyond-awesome Hayabusa. This was a huge treat for me as I am a big fan of trains!

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Hayabusa stands for “Peregrine Falcon” and goes 300 km/h (190 mph) at max speed. It felt like a rocket ship inside and out, so much that it was like we were flying! I was a total train nerd and took pictures. I’m sure all of the Japanese were looking at me funny. But it was just such a great experience!

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True to the timetable’s word, we arrived at 9:08pm. I ran to the front so that I could take pictures of the impressive train. And then I ran to the Chuo Line to catch the express to Koenji, where my host family lives. My host mom there to meet me and we had a nice little reunion.

Friday

As soon as I arrived, we began to walk back to the station and she asked me what I wanted to eat. I assumed that she was talking about breakfast and snacking foods for me over the weekend, since I tend to eat a little differently from everyone else. She bought me some granola (not entirely gluten-free, but.. it looked good), fruit, some Japanese desserts, soy milk, and… Wait for it…

 

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SOY YOGURT. I have been searching for soy yogurt (100% made of soy) in Japan for years (since 2006) and there it was. They had three kinds: plain, blueberry, and aloe/lychee. Each cup was a little on the smaller size in comparison to American single-serving yogurts, but a fair price at 105 yen each. I wish they did not have gelatin in them, but they were worth a try. I have yet to find anything of the sort in Hirosaki.

Okay, anyways. Back to Friday night. I was really-really-really grateful for having taken the Hayabusa and getting in much earlier than planned. I needed the time to chill and catch up with my host mom. She had a present for me, but I told her that I wanted to wait until my actual birthday to open everything up. I went to bed between 11 and 12 in my host sisters’ old room, on a comfy futon with my own aircon. Mm.

 

Saturday

Much to my chagrin, I woke up at 5am. Cursing my body’s cruel wakeup time, I laid around, ate a bit, and checked emails on my phone. Finally at around 6:30am I deemed it bright enough to go outside for a run. And so I did. I actually went for a pretty darn long walk/run, wearing my favorite Adidas running shorts and Lululemon tank top. Compared to the other Japanese, I was a little minimally-dressed. But I just cannot understand the purpose of wearing an entire long-sleeved track suit jacket and pants to go running when it is super hot. I walked for the most of it, then ran the last bit to get my heart rate up. For some reason I have been a little uninspired to run around Hirosaki lately, but I explored some new parts of Tokyo and was inspired to run more. I easily stayed out for an hour and a half before returning home to shower.

I finished showering right when my host mom got up, so that was good timing. She saw that I was about to go change and mentioned that she had some clothing that she did not wear anymore. So she brought it down and had a little fashion show. We then had breakfast and watched some TV until it was time for me to meet Kanako at Kichijoji station. Kana was running a tad late, so I went shopping around Koenji for a little while. Koenji really is a cute little station and suburb. It has changed in the last six years! But it still feels familiar somehow…

Kichijoji was crowded, full of shoppers on their holiday weekend. Kana and I headed straight for Deva Deva Café, a veg*an café famous for its burgers and overall yummy food. Lots of good reviews and close to both our houses. Kana and I usually tend to hang out in west Tokyo (along the Chuo line).
The food was great!

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I ordered the Yogi Burger with a salad and Kana ordered the Yogi burger with potato fries. I was worried about the burger bun because it was all-wheat, but it just looked so good. Couldn’t resist! I’ve had a couple things with gluten in it since I went gluten-free in July 2009, but never an entire burger bun. I will say that it was weird eating actual bread again. For dessert I ordered a parfait consisting of soy ice cream, soy whipped cream, brown rice amazake, and sweet azuki beans. Such deliciousness had to be photographed!

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My lovely lunch date!

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We went shopping around Kichijoji and took some purikura pictures (a kind of Japanese photobooth). Taking purikura is one of my favorite things to do with friends in Japan. :D You’ll see what I mean.

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We were bumming around because we were waiting for the movie time. What movie? It was called Life. Kana wanted to see it, but I had actually only heard of that morning, having seen a commercial for it on TV. It was a Japanese joint project with BBC, about how different animals live their lives. Something you might see on the National Geographic channel or something, but incredibly filmed. I have never seen animals that close before. At the end of the movie, the narrator said something like all of us, living and hanging onto life, are just trying to make our ways in the world. In one way or the other, we are the same. Anyway, the movie made me remember how happy I am to be a herbivore.

After the movie we still had a little time before we needed to head home to Kana’s house, so we bummed around Kichijoji a little more. Saw many cute things, like this cup. Wouldn’t you want this guy to wish you hello with your tea in the morning?

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I stopped into several shoe stores, but was again reminded that normal shoe stores don’t carry my size. While we were walking around I could feel my stomach begin to cramp up, bloat, and churn… I thought, “Oh shoot, there goes the gluten reaction…” So I took some pepto bismol to try and hold it off.

Soon enough, Kana and I took the bus to her family’s house, very near to Kichijoji. They had graciously invited me over to dinner, something they used to do when I was a Waseda student back in ‘07/08. Her mom is an absolute whiz in the kitchen and she has always prepared a plethora of vegetable-based dishes whenever I have come over. I am stunned every time I go over there and fed an amazing meal… Before the meal, we all sing a hymn and pray together. I thanked God for bringing me back to that house where there is obviously so much love and faith in God. Being with her family is like a breath of fresh air!

Unfortunately it had to come to an end and I needed to return to my host mom. I didn’t want to be a rude guest and return too late. I said my goodbyes and told them I would be back! You can’t keep me away from Tokyo! On the train home, my stomach really started to rebel against me. Darn you, whole wheat hamburger bun. I was so painfully bloated. I didn’t regret it though, and I am glad I was at least able to enjoy Kana’s mom’s delicious cooking too.

I made it home, crawled into bed, and finished arranging my plans for the next day via cell phone. I fell asleep after reading some early birthday messages. I love having a smartphone! It’s like carrying around a little tiny computer. Now that I have spoiled myself with one (with an unlimited data plan, uh-oh), I don’t think I can ever go back to a dumbphone…

 

Sunday

 

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September 18th! My birthday! To tell you the truth, I hadn’t really thought it would be that special this year. But by surrounding myself with awesome people and being in Tokyo, it ended up being really magical.

I woke up annoyingly early and decided to laze around in my futon for a bit, Facebooking and internet-ing, before heading out on a run. I have gotten to know the Koenji/Nakano/Nogata area pretty well over the past 6 years, so it is easy for me to run around there. I either go southeast on my runs, but this time… I decided to shake things up. I went west.

And whoops, I got lost. It is a little embarrassing to say, but  I will admit it. I got carried away and just ran further and further away from the areas I knew. I just kept looking at the sun and guesstimated which direction I needed to go. By then I had been gone for a while and I wanted to get back and eat breakfast with my host mom, so I was eager to find the way home. And then miracle of miracles, I found Waseda Road! I knew that road! I knew that it cross-sectioned with the road that took me home, so I was very close. But, rather than stumble around and possibly overshoot my destination, I decided to stop at a police box to look at a map. I was overjoyed to find that I was less than 10 minutes from home. The policeman was also very helpful! For those who are unfamiliar with police boxes, they are mini-police stations on the streets. It is pretty common to stop by and ask for directions or information.
I got home just as my host mom was waking up, so that was perfect timing. I showered and came downstairs with my birthday cards to open from my grandmother and aunt. My host mom showered me with more clothing that she did not wear anymore. Lots of cute shirts for me! She also gave me a really cute bag as a birthday present. She had the same bag in a different color, so we match now! I had a nice lazy morning before it was time to head out on the town!

I wore a nice outfit with shoes with a slight heel, just because I wanted to look nice. Unfortunately, it was blazing hot and I was sweating buckets.

Arriving at Harajuku station

I arrived in Harajuku a little earlier than Maiko, so I shopped around Takeshita Street a bit. Then she told me that Justin would also be joining us! Maiko was my roommate during my freshman year of college. She was an exchange student from Waseda University and only there for the year, but it was amazing rooming with her. We have kept in touch over the years and I still treasure her friendship today.

But it was Justin that I met first at Harajuku station. Justin was a friend on the swim team with me in college, one year my senior. He is half-Japanese and lives and works in Tokyo now, after working in Singapore for a while. I gave him a big hug and it felt like like old times! Maiko arrived shortly thereafter and we had a nice little reunion.

Justin treated us to lunch at Ootoya, one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo. It is a chain, so there are a bunch of them around. They are so affordable and convenient! I find myself getting the same thing most of the time, but it is always delicious! For my birthday lunch I had some 7-grain rice, a tofu salad, a spinach-black-bean salad with black sesame dressing, and a dessert of the bean paste variety. It would be an understatement to say that I loved catching up with my friends. (Even though it was blazing hot!)

 

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Justin and I

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Maiko and I

Justin had to leave after our long lunch, but Maiko was free to hang out with me some more. We didn’t really have any plans, so we just went to Meiji Shrine real quick and then walked to Shibuya. Walked and talked, walked and talked. I have said this before, but when you move around as much as I do, it is nice just being in the company of someone who has known you for a long time. We went to Tokyuu Hands for some awesome shopping. I ended up buying things… a lot of things. And most all of them turned out to be pink! I bought a plate, a tea/coffee tumbler, a new iPhone case, and a postcard.

After all that shopping, we were getting pretty hungry. I had an idea to go to a vegan restaurant that I had stumbled upon in previous years but had never eaten at. However, when we arrived we discovered that the building was closed for renovation. So after some googling and some awesome smartphone gps-ing, we found another vegetarian restaurant in Shibuya called Sofa. I daresay that, just from looking at the menu, Sofa was a better restaurant than the one I had originally want to go to. Everything vegan was clearly labeled, something I had never seen on a Japanese menu before. I even read the word “vegan” in katakana on there! Score!

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“For vegetarians: V= Vegan”
Look! It says VEGAN!

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My curry with brown rice and soy protein bitesIMG_0379

Maiko with our chips appetizer and her risotto

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Our desserts (Me= pumpkin pudding with soy cream, Maiko= cacao cake with soy cream)

Anyways, everything was delish. Beyond delicious. It was Maiko’s first time at a vegetarian restaurant and she was in no way disappointed. Neither was I! They even gave me a free drink because it was my birthday. I ordered a hot chocolate.

By the time we were finished, we had talked for a long time and Maiko even gave me a birthday gift! It was also time for me to return home. We rode the Yamanote to Shinjuku together, and said our farewells there.

I rode the Chuo line to Koenji station and walked back to my host family’s house. After a day of wearing heels and walking around Tokyo, my dogs were barking! I was so happy to get home and take those babies off. When I arrived home, I was greeted by my host mom, host sister, and my host sister’s husband! (I attended their wedding back in 2009.) I had not seen them yet this trip, so it was nice to meet at last. My host sister is pregnant with their first child and the due date is sometime around the end of the year. I am going to be an aunt! I think I will be staying with them around New Year’s too, so I will hopefully see the baby then.

That night I fell asleep in my futon with the aircon, fan, and lights on. Big mistake. I woke up around 2:45am and noticed that my throat hurt. I went to the bathroom, turned everything off, and went back to sleep. I didn’t feel so hot.

 

Monday

Monday morning wasn’t much better. I had intended to go for a run, but thought better of it because of my sore throat and feelings of run-down-ness. So I just lazed around and had some breakfast instead.

It was around 9am that I decided to get out of the house and go to Takadanobaba. The Seibu-Shinjuku line station (Nogata) was really close to the house anyway and would take me right there without any transfers. So I put on some of the new clothes my host mom and given me and headed out.

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Going back to Takadanobaba/Waseda was fun. I always try to visit when I am in town. Some things were different, some were the same. My favorite natural/organic foods grocery store had unfortunately closed down, so there went my plans for finding some rice milk and other fun groceries. I then walked from “Baba” (Takadanobaba) station to Waseda campus.

It was a national holiday, but one of my favorite sweet shops was open. I wasn’t quite in the mood for a sweet, so I was ready to pass up on those. However, they were selling seki-han onigiri (rice ball), my favorite type of onigiri in the world.

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Seki-han (赤飯) is basically “red rice” (literally translated). It is made with rice and red azuki beans, mostly for holidays or auspicious occasions. But I like to have it any old time because as many of you know, beans and rice are my “bread and butter.”

Before you cook the azuki beans, you soak them as you do most beans. So the bean soaking liquid becomes red. You then use that liquid to cook the rice, which turns the rice a nice reddish color. The rice is mixed with a bit of the beans and black sesame-salt is sprinkled on the top for garnish/flavor. If I had it my way, there would be an equal amount of beans and rice. The more azuki beans, the better. I have made it myself only once, so I should remedy this.

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The onigiri at this shop looked too good to resist. And it was. Nom nom nom.

I ate and continued walking. It was stupidly hot. Too hot to be walking around, that’s for sure. I had on minimal clothing and was fanning myself (with my fan) as I was trekking back to Takadanobaba station. Still I was sweating bullets. I decided to duck into a regular grocery store to check if there were any cool things I could take back with me. And find them I did! Even regular grocery stores in Tokyo tend to get a few more international imports than in other, more rural places (like where I live). I picked up some awesome sodium-free canned beans and this organic banana soymilk from Europe. Score!

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Train ticket

I walked around a little more before it was time to head back to Koenji/Nogata to meet my host mom for lunch at a soba noodle restaurant.

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I can’t seem to remember the name of the restaurant now, but we’ve been there once before and it was amazing. The little restaurant is quite popular, so there was a line when I got there. We waited a little bit to get seated, but it took a while to get our food because there were a few large parties and they had just ordered before us. They were also short-staffed in the kitchen, but… it was so worth it. The soba noodles are all handmade in-house.

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I ordered the tempura soba set, which was so delicious. I know, tempura is fried and all that, but this was SO darn fresh and tasty. I still wasn’t feeling so hot, but I made like a trooper and tried to ignore my aching throat. I think the hot soba tea after lunch helped a bit.

After we returned home, I gathered my super-stuffed suitcase and the miscellaneous items I had acquired over the weekend. I had quite a bunch of stuff!! My host mom and I walked to Koenji station, where we were to part ways. We hugged and I promised to return soon.

I boarded the Chuo line after picking up some onigiri and veggies from the supermarket underneath the station. I transferred to the Yamanote line at Shinjuku and rode on to Shinagawa station.

Shinagawa station is also a huge hub for Shinkansen trains, so the station is pretty darn big. Actually, Asako and I took the Shinkansen to Kyoto from there back in 2008. I still had a bunch of time to kill before my 6:28pm train. Usually you have to exit the station gates in order to do some shopping, but that is not ideal if you are not yet at your final destination. Awesome Shinagawa has a little two-story shopping center INSIDE the station. So I killed some time there, didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, and headed on to Tokyo station.

I had intended to buy some souvenirs there, because Tokyo station is ginormous. There were so. many. people. It was so crowded and really overwhelming. Plus by that time it was getting late and my energy was dwindling (from being sick and all). The crowds just sucked the life out of me.

I made it up to the platform and saw one of my managers standing in line to get in the car. The same car as me! What are the chances? I was row 12 and he was row 7. He told me that he had come to take his eldest daughter for interviews with some animation companies in Tokyo. She passed the interview and will be moving to Tokyo permanently soon! How cool is that? He told me which company it was, but I seem to have forgotten the name.

 

Hayate Shinkansen leaving from Tokyo station… Not Hayabusa. :(

 

I had my dinner on the train, and then leaned back to close my eyes. I chatted a bit with my seat neighbors too. Unfortunately, I only felt worse and worse as the train ride went on… My two neighbors got off on earlier stations, so I was allowed to have the whole row to myself to lie down. I had the chills and just generally felt miserable.

We arrived at Shin-Aomori, and we still had to take another train to Hirosaki. But the worst thing was that the temperature in Aomori was drastically lower than in Tokyo. I only had a thin shirt and thin wrap-sweater on, so I shivered all the way there. And then once we got back to Hirosaki station, I had to walk home in the rain. Cold. Wet. Shivering. Chills. Pulling a suitcase.

Not the best end to an awesome long weekend, but… I am so glad that I bit the bullet and paid for the bullet train. If I had taken the nightbus, I would have been even more miserable.

I arrived home to find a present at my doorstep. It was a pair of Tsugaru-style laquerware chopsticks from a fancy department store here in town. I wasn’t feeling so hot, so I couldn’t take a good enough picture of them at night. But they look like the red ones here:

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(Source)

The chopsticks were accompanied by a cute-cute birthday card from my supervisor, wishing me a happy birthday and thanking me for all my hard work so far. He is so sweet.

And so concludes my birthday post… What a doozy!

But hey, I’m 24 and living it up!

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2 Comments to “My 24th Birthday in Tokyo”

  1. Woo, long post! I always love hearing about your adventures and this was a particularly epic adventure! ^_^ I’m glad to hear you had such a happy birthday.

  2. One of these days we need to hang out in Tokyo again. Reading your post made me feel so natsukashiI! I’m glad you had a good weekend and got to spend your birthday with so many close friends!

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