If you ask me my favorite travel destination, I'll probably respond based on my immediate excitement with either my most recent trip or the next one I have planned. Or possibly both. But if some dictator imposed a law which would only me to travel to one non-US country for the rest of my life, I'd probably choose Japan. (well, after crawling into a fetal position and crying about the injustice of said dictator...)
I still remember how my fellow students looked at me funny in my freshman year at Columbia University when I told them that I was taking Japanese to fulfill my language requirement; after all, there were many easier languages to choose from. But I've always enjoyed learning foreign languages and the challenge of Japanese intrigued me. My instincts were correct and I immediately took to the language. Studying the language soon led me to take classes in Japanese civilization and literature. Learning about Japanese culture also opened my eyes to the world beyond Western/ European/ Judeo-Christian cultures. When I think back to the incredulous comments I got as a college freshman, I feel like I definitely got the last laugh. My order history on amazon.com would confirm that learning about Japan has become a lifelong interest. It's been years since I've formally studied Japanese but fortunately I've still managed to retain some rudimentary vocabulary and grammar, thanks to the fact that I often listen to musical theatre recordings in Japanese.
And then there's Japan itself- it has everything I enjoy in a vacation destination. Even Disneyland! I was lucky enough to travel there for a couple weeks after I graduated college, and I've been back 2 more times since then. The people and the spirit of the country make it an absolutely wonderful place to visit, despite occasionally feeling like I am illiterate since I can't read most street signs. I'd really encourage anyone who is thinking about travel to Japan to just do it, and not be afraid of the language or cultural barriers.
Early in 2012, my life took a sudden turn for the crazy with a car accident, apartment fire, and hospitalized kitten... all in the space of about 2 weeks! While going through various crises of anxiety, I couldn't think of a better way to try to right myself than to plan a trip to Japan. It's been way too long since I'd been there (not counting some transfers at Narita airport) and I was already tentatively hoping to return in 2012. Actually, the events of earlier this year made me feel more definite that life is too short to put off anything that I really want to do. I've been feeling a bit traveled out recently and I already had to miss a bunch of work for all the crazy things in my life, so I (somewhat reluctantly) decided to limit myself to about a week in Tokyo- no travels to other area of Japan this time, and no side trip to China or South Korea.
Once I had my dates set, it was easy to plan the details. I'm going to stick with my tried and true method of using Tokyo Disney to get over jet lag. In addition to possibly being the best run Disney theme parks on the planet, they currently have some seasonable spring/Easter events which I am eager to see. I'd been dreaming of staying at the relatively new Tokyo Disneyland Hotel since I read about its construction, so that's where I'll call home for the first half of my trip.
If it wasn't so expensive, I'd probably have stayed by Tokyo Disneyland for the whole trip since it's only 15 minutes from downtown Tokyo. But it actually makes sense to stay somewhere in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo for the 2nd half of my stay. In the process of researching several highly rated hotels on tripadvisor.com, I came across a well reviewed and super-convenient hotel that was having a sale of 50% off for stays of 3 days of longer- score! It was excellent timing because the sale ended just a couple days after I discovered it. That amazing deal really made my hotel decision a no brainer.
When I planned the trip, I knew that there'd be a figure skating competition in Tokyo during my stay: the World Team Trophy. However, I had no idea if I'd be able to get a ticket. When I really want something, I can be persistent... and eventually I found a way to get a ticket to the first day of the event. Some of my favorite skaters will be competing and I'm excited to see live skating for the first time in ages. I also have a ticket to see a Japanese baseball game; it will be odd not knowing anything about the players or having a vested interest in the outcome, but I always love seeing new stadiums... and this one will be new to me in so many ways.
Tokyo used to intimidate me, but I've grown to enjoy its energy. I couldn't be more excited for a return visit to one of my favorite countries in the world... Onward to the land of Mr. Donut and flavored Kit Kats! 日本 が 大好き！
I thought I'd add a little background information on the Tokyo Disney Resort (TDR) for those who may not have read my previous Japan travel blogs. This section may assume some familiarity with the US parks- any such information is readily available online, or feel free to ask me.
The keystones of TDR are the 2 theme parks. The first Disney park outside the US, Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) opened in 1983 and is very similar to Florida's Magic Kingdom and CA's Disneyland parks. The most unique feature of TDL is that its version of Main Street USA, called World Bazaar, is undercover. Its other lands are similar to the US parks except that its version of Fronteirland is called Westernland. If you're familiar with the US parks, you'll find many of your favorite attractions- although they may not be exactly where you'd expect them. There are a few attractions that are unique to TDL, some of which I will describe further in my blog: Pooh's Hunny Hunt in Fantasyland, Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek in Tomorrowland and the walk-through Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall in the castle.
Opened in 2001, Tokyo DisneySea (TDS) has been highly praised by Disney fans worldwide for its outstanding theming. Although there are a smattering of attractions with are similar to or nearly identical to ones in the US parks, TDS is unlike any other Disney park in the world. To enter TDS, you actually walk under one of the Disney hotels (the Mira Costa) and then emerge to see the waters of Mediterranean Harbor backed by the dramatic Mount Prometheus volcano. I would dare a newcomer not to be awed by the beauty of that sight, and it may shatter their preconceptions of what a theme park should look like. As you might guess from its name, Tokyo DisneySea has an aquatic theme. Each of its "lands" is more like a port, with themes ranging from the real world to the mythical. Walking around Mediterranean Harbor, you can almost feel like you are at various places in Italy. Another real world area is the American Waterfront which features areas reminiscent of NY and Cape Cod. 2 of the areas are themed closely to Disney movies: Mermaid Lagoon is a whimsical, mostly indoor area inspired by the Little Mermaid and Arabian Coast has a lot of Aladdin theming going on. There are another 2 areas which are a bit of a sci fi theme: Mysterious Island depicts the future as it looked to Jules Verne and Port Discovery is a little like a kickass version of Tomorrowland. Finally, there's the Lost River Delta which is a bit like an Adventureland set in the jungles of South America.
The Tokyo parks are noted for their elaborate shows and seasonal events. My trip coincided with "Disney's Easter Wonderland" at TDL and "Mickey & Duffy's Spring Voyage" at TDS. The quality of TDR shows and events is generally top notch. Recently opened attractions at TDR seem to have been designed on a grander (ie more expensive) scale than some of the US offerings.
TDR is home to 3 official Disney hotels. The first to open was Disney's Ambassador hotel. Next, was the Miracosta which serves as a backdrop to TDS Mediterranean Harbor; guests in certain rooms here can see the harbor shows right from their windows. Finally, there is the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel (TDH) which opened in 2008; it is located across the entrance from TDL. A corner of the TDR resort is home to 6 official (non-Disney) hotels which include a Hilton and a Sheraton.
Ikspiari is an entertainment and shopping complex which is in some ways analgous to the Downtown Disney areas of the US parks. Until recently, it housed a Cirque du Soleil show. Nearby is the large suitcase shaped Bon Voyage store which sells many of the same souvenirs as in the parks. Right by Ikspiari is the Maihama station which is a 15 minute train ride away from Tokyo Station.
You can get around the resort by using the monorail; unlike in the US parks, the monorail is real public transit and as such, it requires a paid ticket. Guests at the official Disney hotels receive complimentary passes for the moonrail for the length of their stay; guests at the Hilton and Sheraton used to receive complimentary passes, too, but I've heard that this benefit has been discontinued. The monorail makes 4 stops: Maihama station/ Ikspiari, TDL, Bayside Station (for the official non-Disney hotels), and TDS. There are also cute little shuttle buses from Bayside station to the nearby hotels.
There is a special magic that is singular to travel days. It's not the fact that I've reached climax of weeks (or sometimes months) of planning and excitement about my next destination; rather, it's the fact that somehow I can awaken at the mere suggestion of my alarm clock instead of taking forever to drag myself out of bed. As I blinked myself awake that Saturday morning, I saw my kitties snuggled together and thought "Wow, they're absolutely adorable at 5am." Later, after I took my suitcase from the closet into the living room, the kitties immediately jumped on it and started sniffing, as if to say that my luggage needed to pass furricane inspection before it could proceed through TSA inspection, customs, etc.
I am so lucky to have a friend who is willing to drive me to the airport- not just because I get a ride to the airport, but because I get to enjoy some fun conversation en route. I was completely surprised when he presented me with a going away present from my niece: a hand crocheted stuffed animal which came with the cutest note. Well, now I had
to have an amazing trip, because it was clearly blessed.
I arrived at EWR airport extremely early, which was ok with me. There were quite a few United check in counters that all seemed to perform the same function, but I was mysteriously directed away from the first queue I tried to enter. Alrighty, then. After managing to check in, I came across a scary looking secruity line which extended well beyond what appeared to be the prescribed length of its queue area. After bracing myself for a Disneyland-esque long wait, it is a mystery to me how it only took 15 minutes to clear security. But it's a pleasant mystery.
A less pleasant mystery is how any airport in the NYC area could not have anywhere where you could purchase a bagel with lox and cream cheese for breakfast. Reluctantly, I settled for a bagel with egg, bacon and cheese which was actually quite good. But while I was making my purchase, the lady in front of me in line was stressing so much about making her plane that she made me stress... even though I had loads of time to kill.
When a United employee at my gate started to announce boarding instructions for my flight in Japanese (after making the English language announcement), that was the moment when it really and truly hit me that I was going back to Japan! I might have sobbed like a baby if it hadn't been for the fact that I was busy answering last minute txts from several different friends and family.
I had reserved a window seat in a row with 3 seats between the aisle and the window; the longer the middle seat stayed vacant, the more I prayed it would continue that way. There was a close call when 2 women boarded exceedingly late and one was shoved into the row in front of mine. (and I do mean that she was pretty much shoved there- though I can't blame the stewardess for being annoyed at such latecomers.) But it stayed empty! Yay!
Because it was a long flight and because I wanted to be able to get a lot done on my arrival day, I tried to sleep as much as possible on the plane. Unfortunately, I kept waking up because my neck bothered me; that's never happened before so I'll just conclude that the United seats were not up to standard. Still, I must have gotten some sleep because I don't remember much of the flight or even hearing much beyond the first song of the Japanese musical CDs that I played on my iPad. (Jekyll and Hyde, Evita, BatB.. Though I did hear all of PotO) They gave us plenty of food, and the flight was blissfully uneventful. We even landed early: close to 1:30 instead of 1:50
As we taxied to the gate at Narita airport, I noticed a Hello Kitty decorated EVA airlines plane parked at the next gate. It was a shiny distraction to idly wonder how I could fly on such a plane. But I was mainly set on my mission of getting through customs and all as qucikly as possible. (although if I'd known then that the plane's Hello Kitty theme continued to the interior
, I may been more prone to distraction.) There was a long line for passport control but I ended up getting through there, baggage claim, and customs in less than an hr.
First order of business: get bus tickets. Next? Get cash! I was confident that the new ATM card my bank sent me after my old one hadn't worked in Australia would have no issues; I've never had any troubles getting cash in Japan, anyway. But... not so much. I hit up every ATM I could find. I tried my new card. I tried my old card (which had worked in 2005 and 2002). I tried selecting "Checking". I tried selecting "Savings". Nothing worked. Argh. After realizing that I didn't have my mom's credit card (which has a PIN), I checked online to see if I could get a PIN for any of the 3 credit cards I had with me, but 2 sites were down for maintenance and 1 required calling. So I ended up changing the $200 cash I'd brought with me.
I've always taken the train between the airport and Tokyo Disney Resort (Narita Express to Tokyo Station followed by the Keiyo line to Maihama), but that's partly because the bus times are much more limited and they never seemed convenient for my needs. However, the next bus departed at 3:10pm which gave me plenty of time to make it, without it feeling like I was wasting too much time waiting. Now that I've taken both, I will say that the bus is definitely easier and faster. In just 50 minutes, I caught sight of the Tokyo Disney Resort area from the bus window, and all my ATM related stress faded and was replaced by happiness! (I'm sure the ride takes longer if there is traffic) After 1 other stop, my bus pulled in front of the lavish driveway of the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, which was accented with a fountain themed to the Sorceror's Apprentice.
I received a number of useful things at the check-in desk. First of all, rooms at the official Tokyo Disney hotels come with complementary monorail passes: the monorail at Tokyo Disneyland is actual public transit and isn't free. I received a 2 day pass and a 3 day pass. (they don't have 5 day passes). Next, I received 4 small dated slips of paper that would each allow me to enter Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) 15 minutes early each day of my stay. Finally, I was presented with 2 packages I'd ordered: baseball tickets for the following Saturday night and an iPad mini sim card I'd rented. Having the iPad sim proved to be a god-send, particularly later on my trip when I was able to use Google maps to help navigate the sometimes confusing streets of Tokyo.
The most annoying part of the check-in process was that I had to wait for someone to guide me to my room. I just wanted to get there already! But finally, I was on my way and the nice bellman even pointed out cute Disney touches on the floor designs. The first thing I did when I got to my room was to squee at the view which included the castle (TDL), volcano and ToT (TDS) and more! I was smiling inside and out as I realized you could hear the theme park music from my room, especially if you opened the window a crack.
After settling in a little, I went back down to the lobby to buy theme park tickets- normally, tickets are restricted such that you can only visit a single park on the first 2 days and you can park hop on only the 3rd and 4th days. But for a little extra cost, guests at the Disney hotels can buy passports that allow you to park hop from the very first day of use. I was nervous because I'd read that you needed to pay cash for these tickets, and obviously I didn't have much cash after the ATM fiasco at the airport. So I was very relieved when given the option to charge to my room. While waiting to buy my tickets, a CM told me that 4/15 was the 29th anniversary of TDL. I was floored because the first night of my last trip had corresponded to the 4th anniversary of TDS. Neither were intentional. Neat stuff!
Tickets in hand, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk into TDL... just because it was there and I could. As expected, the park was hugely crowded as it is during the weekends, so I just wandered a bit and soaked up the Disney atmosphere before heading out to take the monorail to TDS. I was really excited to see my first cherry blossoms- there were about 2 trees still blooming at the hub in front of the castle, but 2 is better than 0. I wasn't feeling overly tired, somehow, which was good. Usually it's just sheer adrenaline that gets me through my first night in Tokyo, but I felt much better than usual for me.
After allowing myself some time to just enjoy being back at the gorgeously themed Mediterranean Harbor area at the entrance to TDS, my first stop was at Tower of Terror (ToT) which had been under construction on my last trip. Despite the fact that the website said there was a single rider line for this ride, there wasn't one. But the standby wait wasn't too long. The mechanics of ride itself are similar to the CA version meaning the ride itself isn't as cool as FL because the vehicles only move vertically and don't ever go forward. The only major physical difference is that the seatbelts go across your chest as well as your lap, like in the front seat of a car. However, the ride has a completely different theme than the US parks because Twilight Zone isn't known in Japan. The TDS ToT centers around a Mr. Hightower who returned from Africa with a cursed idol, the Shiriki Utundu, which appeared to be responsible for his mysterious disappearance. Also different is that there seemed to be a "pre" pre-show holding area before you got into the room with the actual pre-show, which featured the final phonograph recording of Mr Hightower and culminated in a fantastic special effect of having the Shiriki Utundu disappear right before your eyes from its place on his desk. During the actual ride, I liked how the Shiriki Utundu laughed at you in an evil, but not-too-evil, way. Also, when the elevator reached the top, you are treated to the most gorgeous view of all the ToT attractions I've experienced; the panorama of TDS was particularly attractive at twilight. All in all, I quite enjoyed the new theme and definitely wanted to ride again.
After the ride, I meandered to the buffeteria style Cafe Portofino for dinner, partly because of my fond memories of their Blood Orange Juice, which was still on the menu. For my main course, I had spaghetti with eggplant and ham- yummy! I totally didn't recognize the interior and wonder if it's been remodeled, although it's equally possible that my memory is fooling me. A nice touch was that someone carried my tray for me from the buffet line to the table. (although it made me feel a little pressure to select a table quickly)
Then it was time to stake out a spot to wait for the evening entertainment, Fantasmic, which premiered last year in TDS. I took advantage of my wait time to work on my travel notes. Having seen a video online awhile ago, I knew that the show was very different than the one in the US parks. But it had been so long since I'd seen the video that I had an open mind.
Visually, the TDS Fantasmic centered on a float in the middle of Mediterranean Harbor: at the start of the show, it resembled a huge Sorceror Mickey's hat on which was perched the Mouse himself. The conical part of the float was decorated in LED lights so it was able to display animated sequences; for example, at one point it showed the brooms from the Sorceror's Apprentice and another it showed Stitch. Another nice touch were the barges on which you could see tarp get blown up and transformed into spheres that resembled giant snowglobes, which also were home to projections of various animated scenes. The basic theme of the Tokyo Fantasmic was the same as in the US parks: good vs evil, and it also culiminated in Mickey magically "killing" a dragon audio-animatronic figure. There were pyrotechnics of course, and beautiful displays of water shooting off from the floats. Visually, it was quite stunning
I'm not sure that any Disney show can equal the Disneyland version of Fantasmic, which is extra magical in the way it transforms places and ships you've seen all day in the park (with which I'd been familiar with for years) into something totally new and special. But the only thing I really missed was some of my favorite music, although this soundtrack was good in its own right. (and it did contain some musical phrases from the US versions) Overall, I'm glad the TDS version of Fantasmic has its own identity; It totally got me into the Disney spirit.
After the show, I was still not overly tired, so I decided to wander around the park. Journey to the Center of the Earth is only a 30 minute standby wait? Why, yes, I want to ride! Located inside Mount Prometheus, this ride starts out like a bit of a wild, but heavily themed, dark ride. Then you encounter a lava monster animatronic (which is pretty awesome) and your vehicle starts speeding and spiraling through the dark, finally to emerge outside for just a hint of a drop. Another excellently themed ride, and good fun.
Since I passed the pork gyoza roll vendor afterwards and it didn't have a line, I figured I'd sample one. Yum! I ended up walking around most of the park, just soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the fact that I had returned to one of my favorite places. As always, I particularly enjoyed the colorful whimsy of Mermaid Lagoon (themed to Little Mermaid). The only other ride I experienced was Sindbad, which is a dark water ride in the Arabian Coast section of the park that obviously tells the tale of Sindbad's voyages. The ride was had been revamped since my last visit, and I really enjoyed it, especially the new theme music ("Compass of your Heart" by Alan Menken) and the adorable new tiger sidekick, Chandu.
After hearing a PA announcement that TDS was closed, I obviously had to leave. I toyed with the idea of getting off the monorail a stop early to shop at Ikspiari and Bon Voyage, but decided it was prudent to just go straight to my hotel. After buying an Aquarius sports drink from a vending machine by the monorail station, I walked through my hotel gift shops and marveled at the number of Stitch things... Band aids, tissues, juice bottles! My youngest niece would love it.
Back in the hotel room, I was awake enough to unpack and organize my things before going to sleep; this was an improvement over past trips when I think I've practically collapsed into bed fully clothed after returning from my first night at the parks. I also had a chance to look more closely at all the decorative touches in the room- I particularly liked how the TV cabinet seemed to resemble Mme de la Grande Bouche from Beauty and the Beast. As I finally snuggled into bed, I reflected on the excellent start to my trip and looked forward to spending more time at the parks the next day.
I'd set my alarm for 8 am in order to make it to the parks for their 9am opening. After waking up only once in the night, I jolted up with a start at 7am thinking "omg, I was wrong, the parks open at 8!". A quick check online confirmed that the 9 am opening had indeed been correct. But since I was already wide awake, I just took my time getting ready and enjoying my room and its amazing view.
I decided to head first to TDL, so I used one of the slips they'd given me at checkin to get into the park 15 minutes early. I thought the early entry just got you closer than the general public for the actual opening time, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could already ride the uber-popular Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek ride in Tomorrowland. This attraction a dark ride where each person has a flashlight they can shine to make monsters appear or do something. For a 10 minute wait, it was fantastic. However, it routinely boasts waits of over an hour and I can't possibly imagine that long for it. The ride exit led into a store with 3 walls of Stitch merchandise; my jaw dropped thinking of how much my nieces love Stitch.
Since I was right by Space Mountain and it had a short wait, it would have been a crime not to ride. This Space Mountain is old school: no soundtrack, no on-ride photos. But you know what? It was still way fun. I headed over to the popular Pooh's Hunny Hunt ride in Fantasyland but it already had a really long line, so I rode It's a Small World which didn't.
Feeling a desperate need for food, I headed to World Bazaar for my favorite TDL breakfast spot: The Great American Waffle Company, where I had a Mickey waffle with chocolate syrup and an orange juice. Totally hit the spot! As I was walking there, I spotted a woman who was wearing not only bunny ears (it is still the season for an Easter event here), but also a cotton tail on her butt. Interesting.
After mulling around the entrance plaza a bit to see which characters were hanging out, I took a monorail over to TDS, with the main goal of catching some of their live outdoor entertainment options such as the shows that were part of the "Mickey & Duffy's Spring Voyage" event. I started off by just soaking up the atmosphere of Mediterranean Harbor; I found corners that were so deserted that I could probably pass off my photos of those spots as being taken in Italy. I also enjoyed the antics of walkaround characters such as Geppetto and Pinocchio. Making my way through Mysterious Island, I grabbed a Fastpass to ride Journey to the Center of the Earth later in the afternoon.
Eventually, I made my way to Arabian Coast to see the "Springtime Surprise" show. There were already a lot of people waiting, but I managed to get a pretty good spot for taking photos so I was happy. The "Mickey & Duffy's Spring Voyage" event capitalizes on the popularity of 2 characters: Duffy, Mickey's teddy bear (who barely exists at the US parks; supposedly Minnie made the teddy bear for Mickey and put him in a duffle so that is why he is named Duffy) and Shellie May, Minnie's teddy bear (who doesn't exist at any parks outside Tokyo). I can't emphasize enough just how popular these characters are in Tokyo- it's rare to look in any direction in the Tokyo parks without seeing someone (typically a grown woman) carrying at least 1 Duffy or Shellie May of some size. Some people dress their full size bears in costumes that can be purchased at the TDS stores, while others make their own elaborate costumes: I recall seeing Snow White and Donald Duck costumes that were particularly well done. Anyway, the premise of the spring event is that Mickey and Duffy want to take Minnie and Shellie Mae to show them what spring is like around the world... I felt that was a bit of a sexist theme, but just let it be.
There is something about the walkaround Duffy and Shellie May that made them seem so wrong they were almost right. First of all, they were the same height as Mickey and Minnie. Secondly, they didn't wear any pants (I assume to show off the Mickey shaped birthmarks on their butts). And finally, they way they moved was sort of waddling around. I'm generally enamoured with brown teddy bears so I thought the merchandise was cute... but the walkarounds kinda bugged. Beyond that, I enjoyed the show even though it featured characters from the Magic Lamp Theater who I didn't remember from previous trips. There were songs, and magic, and all that good Disney stuff. After the show, I enjoyed seeing characters like Apu walking around the Arabian coast area; there were a lot of characters in TDR that you don't often see around Disney parks in the U.S.
In lieu of an actual lunch, I ended up snacking my way around the park. TDR is noted for its interesting flavors of popcorn which can be purchased in plastic souvenir buckets with various designs. (popcorn can also be purchased in bags, or as a refill for an existing bucket) I lament the fact that I only tried one flavor of popcorn on this trip- that was Strawberry. As with the other flavors I'd tried on past trips (the discontinued Capuccino and Cream Soda flavors), it was very tasty- not overly sweet or saccharine. My popcorn came in a bucket themed to the "Mickey & Duffy's Spring Voyage" event, and even came with a little bucket that was meant for your Duffy; I saw some people indeed had such buckets around the necks of their bears, while others gave them to their little children.
After walking some more, I found myself near Gondolier Snacks in Mediterranean Harbor- they sell gelato there, and it's a "must stop" for me each trip. While gazing at the various gelato flavors, I found myself tempted by a treat they concocted for the Spring Voyage event called a "Milk Tea Gelato Parfait". I'm not quite sure what all was in there, but it was good stuff!
After a little more shopping, I decided to wait by the main hub for the 2:30pm water show, "The Legend of Mythica". The description of this show on the official site reads:
Where is the key that unlocks a world of myth and magic, left behind by the legendary creatures of long ago? To solve this mystery, we must all work together. Come join this magical journey to open the long-shut door to a world filled with love! "The Legend of Mythica" has been sealed since antiquity and it is about to be opened today, through the magic of Disney!
Taking place on both the land and waters of Mediterranean Harbor, this impressive show tells the fantastic tale of friendship between humans and legendary creatures. What is the secret to unlocking the door to this mythical world?
Mythica featured breathtaking colorful floats sailing through the waters of Mediterranean Harbor, as well as acrobatics/dancing and percussion performances at various points on the shore line. The first set of floats to come out were each a different bright color and they each eventually revealed classic Disney characters; a later set was even more elaborate with each float featuring aa large, moving depiction of a mythical creature such as a unicorn. Meanwhile, there were also little speedboats chopping around at various points, and of course there were some pyrotechnics. In the middle of it all was a white float which ultimately revealed Mickey Mouse. From my vantage point, I had an amazing view of the land based performances (Goofy was the character who debarked in my area)... but not quite so much of the water portions. Like most Disney shows at TDR, the soundtrack was also great- so much so that I was thrilled to eventually find a CD to bring home; I think it may become a favorite of mine. Overall, an outstanding production- and one that only grows on me the more I think about it. I hadn't read much about the show before my trip, and now that I've researched it, I realize that I didn't always comprehend the specifics of the storyline; however, I was able to feel
the meaning- if that makes sense.
After the show, I got my photo taken with Jiminy Cricket and Geppetto and then I headed to Mysterious Island where I used my fastpass for Journey to the Center of the Earth. I looked across the way and saw that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a total walk-on, so I entered its spiraling queue. The Tokyo version of 20K is completely different from the US versions- for one thing, instead of being in a large submarine, you are in individual vehicles which each have 3 benches that seat about 2 people each. I had an entire vehicle to myself, that's how empty the ride was. I was slightly claustrophobic being shut inside the vehicle, but it wasn't too bad.
Time for more munchies- this time, I got gyoza dumplings and a cherry water drink at the Nautilus Galley. This was turning into quite a yummy day!
There were 3 shows that were part of the Spring Voyage event, but the way they were timed, it was only practical to see 2 of them on a weekday: for my 2nd show of the day, I chose to see the 4:40pm "Lido Isle Welcome to Spring". This was another show with Mickey, Minnie, and the pant-less bears: this time, they were going to an Italian port. I didn't get there in time to sit very close, but I felt like I had a good view looking down onto the action; the only not-so-good thing was that I had to stand up the entire time.
After the show, I headed out toward TDL to catch the evening parade. It was getting annoying to carry my popcorn bucket, so I stopped at my conveniently located hotel to drop it off.
First stop in TDL...? More munchies! I tried the Snow Crab and Mozzarella pizza at the Pan Galactic pizza port in Tomorrowland. This actually qualified as a legitimate meal, and it was quite tasty.
The standby line for Pooh's Hunny Hunt was listed as 30 minutes, which seemed reasonable, so I got in line. This ride bears absolutely no resemblance to the wretched Pooh ride in CA or the mediocre one in FL. It's much more elaborate than the typical old school dark ride, and it's a lot of fun. It's neat how the ride vehicles do not follow a track on the floor, and a highlight is the room where you bounce with Tigger as well as the crazy heffalump room. Even the queue itself is pretty cool because it's designed to feel like you are walking right into a book.
At this point, it was time to stake a spot for the 7:30pm "Electrical Parade Dreamlights". I decided to get a spot near the origin at Haunted Mansion. The Dreamlights parade, which has been running in TDL since 2001, features some of the classic Electrical Parade floats from the US versions of the parade as well as some new ones designed for Tokyo. In fact, there were some very new floats that had just been installed in the past year. One of these was the Genie from Aladdin- I found it pretty incredible how the lights on the Genie were able to switch between many different patterns including Cheshire Cat and Donald Duck. Glittery, colorful lights + the classic Baroque Howdown soundtrack= cool stuff.
And that was quite enough sitting (or standing) around waiting for shows or parades to begin for one day! Since I've experienced weather related cancellations on past trips, I'd really wanted to be sure to try to get as much in as possible while the weather was good.
After stretching my legs a bit, I headed over to Splash Mountain, which fortunately didn't have much of a line. I am a bit nostalgic for the Tokyo version of Splash since the first time I ever rode it was on my 1993 trip to TDL. I didn't quite like the fact that our log was stuck at the top of the lift just before the final drop for a minute or 2; it seemed like forever to my acrophobic self. But still, the ride was terrific fun. It's always one of my favorites- I love how it combines amazing theming and cute animals with a bit of a thrill factor. Then I headed to Big Thunder Mountain Railway for more fun thrills.
At this point it was about an hour or so before the park's 10pm close time and I headed back to ride Pooh again. It was closed for the night. WTF?!?! Maybe it had a breakdown and they just decided to close it early, but it still seemed a little odd. Oh, well. I was satisfied with my full day so, after some more window shopping, I left before the park closed. I was pleasantly surprised to see a little towel animal holding my toothbrush in the hotel room- too cute!
When I woke up once again at 7am, an hour before my 8am alarm, I decided it must be because that's when the park music starts playing outside my window. It wasn't really very loud and of course it was cheerful. Not only did I not mind, but I sorta wished that my apartment complex would institute a policy of playing theme park music at 7am each day to gently lull me out of slumber.
Once again, I used my "Get into TDL Early" paper to enter the park 15 minutes ahead of the general public. My plan was to head directly to Pooh's Hunny Hunt, but I was thwarted when I reached the main hub and could not proceed further. After enjoying seeing some more obscure walkaround characters, I decided that since Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek was the only ride open early, I should ride it. And then I went back to the hub and had my photo taken with Robin Hood and Friar Tuck walkaround characters; after being mocked online for not doing a Japanese peace sign in a photo I'd posted earlier, I made sure to do one here. And then I finally was able to ride Pooh's Hunny Hunt, with just a 20 minute wait.
On my previous trip, the attractions in Fantasyland included The Mickey Mouse Revue show and the Cinderella Castle Mystery tour; this morning, I experienced their replacements. First off was Mickey's Philharmagic, a 3D movie and music extravaganza that replaced the Mickey Mouse Revue audio animatronic show. Philharmagic wasn't new to me, since I've seen it in both HKDL and WDW. I miss the uniqueness of the Mickey Mouse Revue, but it was seeming a little dated so I'm ok with the replacement.
However, I mourn the loss of the Cinderella Castle Mystery tour. Even though it was completely in Japanese which meant I only had the vaguest idea of what was going on (it was a good vs. evil theme), the walking tour through the castle led by a Japanese guide was always one of the highlights of my visits. It was one of those experiences that transcended the language. In its place now is Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall, where you can view various displays and dioramas that tell the story of Cinderella. It might be pleasant enough on its own merits, but it is not anywhere near the level of the attraction it replaced.
The next attraction I wanted to see was The Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents "Aloha E Komo Mai!"; basically a Stitch themed Enchanted Tiki Room. This ride had been re-themed since my last visit, but I have little affinity for the Tiki attraction and I'm not even sure I'd visited the Japanese version before. The main reason I really wanted to see it was because my nieces and I have developed a "thing" for Stitch in our Disney travels. However, I apparently just missed a show. The CM at the entrance also let me know it was a "song show"- or some other awkward English phrase that she'd clearly memorized. Not wanting to wait 15 minutes, I figured this would be a good time to head to Guest Services to pick up a couple extra English language park maps that I could bring home for my nieces. Meanwhile, I looked at the characters who were hanging around the park entrance and decided to get my photo with the Fairy Godmother because the Japanese version of the character wears a mask and is not a face character like in the US.
Somewhere between 10:45 and 11am, I decided to stake out a spot for the 11:30am Easter Wonderland parade. This may seem early, but there are people who seriously were staking out spots from the moment the park opened. A lot of guests carry rectangular plastic mats that they unfold and spread out on the ground to sit on with their families (and their Duffy/Shellie May/other Disney plush); some even take off their shoes. (it should go without saying that these mats typically have cute designs such as Disney or Hello Kitty) Meh, I just sit right on the ground; I'd bet that the ground at TDR is cleaner than many chairs in which I've sat in other cities. Again, I decided to sit near the parade's origin- the earlier I could be done watching the parade, the sooner I'd be able to eat some lunch.
Before the start of the parade, I passed the time by going on my iPad and by people watching. It was rather adorable to see that toddler with the family next to me kept running off, to be retrieved by his mom. As the parade time approached, CM's wearing bunny ears taught the audience the hand movements for the interactive portion of the parade. Finally, I caught sight of a colorfully dressed, Mad Hatter type hat wearing Mickey Mouse who was running down the street to start the parade. What followed was a quick blur of colorful, elaborate floats punctuated by marching/dancing CM's wearing a variety of bunny ears.
And... the final float passed by. That's it?! Non! The parade merely paused and switched into performance mode, with all the marching CM's dancing and rotating around between the floats. If I'd known better, I would have sat somewhere at least a tad bit further down the parade route so I'd have a better view of the floats than just the ass of the last one. But it was still fun. At the very end, Mickey climbed into the last float and joined Minnie- I did have an excellent view for that. I'm sure the music was catchy, but it wasn't extremely memorable. For a daytime parade, I thought it was very well done as is typical for the Tokyo parks. And this was only a temporary parade that would run for 3 months (although the components may be re-used for other year's Easter events)
I had made a 12pm reservation for Restaurant Hokusai, a Japanese sit down restaurant on the 2nd floor of World Bazaar, where I've dined during every trip I've taken to TDR. I made the reservation just because I could make online reservations a month in advance by virtue of the fact that I was staying on site. However, it wasn't crowded and I never even gave my reservation information. As usual, I quite enjoyed my meal. I ordered the Seafood Don, which the menu described as "Seafood on sushi rice served with steamed savory custard and miso soup." I still don't know exactly what was in the custard, but it was something cooked and possibly included fish; at any rate, it was yummy and that's really all that mattered. During my meal, I took out my iPad to follow the Phillies on Espn Gameday.
After my meal, I mingled with characters by the park entrance and then headed back to the Stitch themed Tiki room. Turns out I just missed a show again. Argh. But I just stuck around Adventureland this time. I thought this version of the Tiki room stacked up favorably against the versions of the Tiki room show that I can remember. If you aren't a fan of Stitch, you might disagree, but there really wasn't much Stitch overload. And, as far as Stitch attractions go, it's better than that thing in Florida's Tomorrowland. I also appreciated that they had hand-held English language translators available. (they had other languages as well).
After a couple more photos with characters that I don't typically see in the US (and some lamenting of the fact that, despite his popularity, I still hadn't seen a walkaround Stitch anywhere), I decided to take a little break from the parks and walked over to Bon Voyage- a large theme park merchandise store- and then finally to the Ikspiari shopping complex. Ikspiari had some international ATM's so I tried to test my ATM card again because the bank told my mom that it should work now. Except... errrr... not so much. :P On a brighter note, I found some really cute things at the Disney store in Ikspiari. I bought enough so that it warranted a trip back to my hotel (via monorail) to drop them off. While in my hotel room, I tried to call one of my Visa card companies to see about getting a PIN for the card so I could use it to get a cash advance. They said it would take a week but I should be able to take the card with my passport to a bank. Spoiler alert: that didn't end up working for me, either... but we'll get to that later.
After relaxing in my room for a few minutes and spying on the characters at the TDL entrance plaza via my zoom lens, I headed out to TDS. When I arrived at about 4pm, a light drizzle started to fall. After spending a few minutes taking photos of ordinary characters in interesting costumes, I did it. I became assimilated to one of them. I bought my very own Shellie May stuffed bear. And I don't regret it! (but no, I did not take photos of my bear posed on any of the places they have set up to take photos of your bear)
After a return visit to the Tower of Terror and the Shiriki Utundu, I contemplated watching the 5:10pm "Springtime in NY" show which was the only one of the Spring Voyage shows I still hadn't seen. However, I was a bit concerned that it might rain and I was frankly feeling a bit "showed out" after seeing so many live performances over the last couple days. So I decided to forego it until the next day; I could live with possibly not getting a chance to see it.
Instead, I decided to just enjoy some of the TDS attractions and I headed in the direction of Port Discovery. Aquatopia had no line, so I figured I might as well ride it. Nearby was Storm Rider which is a motion simulation ride in which you are in a large auditorium (large compared to, say, Star Tours) and you are traveling into the middle of a storm... and of course something goes terribly wrong. I hadn't liked it enough in 2002 to even bother with it in 2005, but I figured it was time to give it another shot. Besides, the TDR website told me it had English translation available so maybe I could at least get more understanding of what's going on. HA! English translation... what English translation?!? There are translations running across a screen in the pre-show room but still nothing in the attraction itself. I guess it might not be practical to hold a translator when the room is jerking all around... but please don't list an attraction as being available in English when it kinda isn't. All in all, I'd be good with not riding this again for another 10 years.
At 5:30, I stopped at the Horizon Bay buffeteria for dinner- I had the Pork Cutlet Cordon Bleu which was quite good. The restaurant was dead empty. After eating, I rode the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull. It's pretty close to the version in CA. It seemed slightly better to me, but I'm not sure if that's due to my "Everything in Tokyo is better" bias or not. There is typically a single rider line for this attraction, but there was a sign that it was closed; the regular queue was short enough that it wasn't needed.
While it had been dripping earlier, it was downright wet when I got off Indy! Time to go somewhere indoors- so I went to the Magic Lamp theater in the Arabian Coast area. This show uses live performers and 3D video to tell the story of a young boy, Asim (err, played by an adult woman) who saves the Genie after he is locked up by Asim's jealous master, a magician named Shaban. The plot gave me some background on the live show I'd seen a day earlier, which used the same characters- guess I did things a little backwards. I'd seen this attraction back when the park opened but I hadn't been sure what was going on; however, now they had hand-held translation devices which definitely made it more enjoyable. It was still raining when I got out, and I decided to take a whirl on the nearby double-decker Caravan Carousel; I chose to ride on a purple Genie on the 2nd level. There were barely anyone riding, and it was fun to feel like a kid.
For some more indoor activity, I headed to the Mermaid Lagoon Theater, which also has new hand-held translation device available (although it really doesn't need them). This show is a bit of an enigma to me- the performance values and puppetry are top notch, as obviously is the music. Just why oh why did they have to present a mutant version of the Little Mermaid story in which Ariel decides not to become human at all because she loves her place under the sea?!? For a theme park that generally gets everything right, this storyline decision really bothers me. After the show, I lingered a bit in Mermaid Lagoon and took a whirl on the kiddie ride, Blowfish Balloon Race. There aren't a lot of attractions that appeal to me at Mermaid Lagoon but I love it there because everything is so colorful and whimsical.
After taking an encore voyage with Sindbad and his adorable tiger sidekick, Chandu, I headed to Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was floored that there was no line, and immediately thought that this might mean I should take multiple rides. I ended up riding 3 consecutive times (re-queuing in between). The first time, it was pretty neat how I could see a blur of Fantasmic! as our vehicle emerged from the volcano. So much fun!
After buying the 10th anniversary TDS DVD set that I'd been coveting, I decided to head back over to TDL. Did I want to ride something special? No. I wanted to buy one of those Mickey shaped chocolate brownies I'd seen at the Sweetheart Cafe in World Bazaar. I also ended up getting a very cute looking "Easter treat" and a Kirin Lemon soda. And then I immediately left the park and headed across the way to my hotel. Shortest visit to TDL ever! After taking a shower and getting comfortable, I savored my snacks- the brownie was terrific, but the "Easter treat" was even better. It's hard to describe what it tasted like because it doesn't easily resemble anything comparable, but it was chewy with a slightly different texture inside and it had just a hint of sweetness. Perfect end to a wonderful day.
Waking up at around 6am, my first thought was, "What I am doing up at 6am?!?" My second, equally incredulous thought may have been "How is it my last day at Tokyo Disney already?!?" While lingering in bed using my iPad, I was able to confirm that yes, Virginia, the theme park music outside is indeed turned on at 7am.
My first activities closely mimiced those of the previous 2 mornings. I arrived at TDL in advance of the 8:45 opening for TDL hotel guests, and headed to the hub to scope out which characters were there. I'd hoped to get a photo with Mickey since he'd been around the previous day but, having no such luck, I headed for my daily walk-on ride on Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek after which I took another ride though space on Space Mountain. I thought about riding Buzz Lightyear's Astroblasters, but it wasn't open for some reason. So instead I wandered around into Toontown and searched in vain for the Cream Cheese Pretzel I'd read about in other trip reports; perhaps it was sold at one of the stands which were not yet open. On my way out of the park, I checked if there were any characters I needed to see- no, no one interesting. And still no Stitch.
After taking the monorail to TDS, my first stop was Zambini Brothers Ristorante. I was craving some spaghetti bolognese and was happy the kitchen was serving it already. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating spaghetti at 10:30am; after all, it was 9:30pm at home! After my leakfast, I poked around the shops and became further assimilated in the TDR culture after purchasing a little keychain of Shellie May bear in her Spring Voyage outfit. Kawaii! I think that if I lived in Japan, I might go bankrupt from buying cute stuff.
When I saw the crowds that had already for the noon Easter in New York show an hour in advance, I slightly regretted my decision not to see it the previous day when the park was empty. The CM told me there were only places a few rows back in the standing area and asked if that was ok; well, it would have to be ok. Fortunately, when the show started, there was space for me to move up so that I was only 1 row back. I didn't feel that I had the best angle for photos, but then again, it wasn't a clearly designated performance area so I am not sure there was a perfect view to be found. The show featured a bit of a marching band, and performers with various styles of elaborate hats (well, I'm sure they were meant to be Easter bonnets)- in addition to Mickey, Minnie, the pant-less bears and various other Disney characters. Did it make me feel like I was back in NY? Not so much. Was it fun and energetic? Yes, very much so.
The show took place in the American Waterfont area, near the big SS Columbia faux ship. I decided to rectify the fact that I'd never once been on the SS Columbia, so I hopped aboard, wandered around a bit, and enjoyed the views of the park. .Then I continued my random wandering through the park, with a stop when I was tempted by a Cream Cheese Brownie (which was good, but not exceptional). I found Price Eric outside Mermaid Lagoon, unfortunately without his dog. I felt a little awkward talking to face characters in general, and wondered if they were excited at being able to speak to a fluent English speaker; but in this case, I had fun with his questions about my long voyage and said something about taking a flying ship. Then I decided it was time to wander through Arabian Coast en route see the 1:45pm show of Mystic Rhythms.
I saw a long line in the Arabian Coast area and wondered what it was for; it didn't lead to an attraction. So I followed it, and... STITCH! It was a line for photos with Arabian Stitch! I've mentioned before that my nieces and I have a special thing for Stitch (please refer to those trip reports for details) so it was absolutely imperative that I wait and abort my attempt at seeing Mystic Rhythms. The line only took about 15 minutes, so it wasn't bad. It was cute how the toddler with the family in front of my kept turning his head away from the cameras no matter how many CM's made noises and motions to get him to look the right way. And then it was my turn! I'd told the handler in Japanese how much I love Stitch (or, at least I think I did) and I may have jumped up and down when I actually got to greet him. I'm thrilled with how that photo turned out, and- as silly as it may be- it just really made me smile to have had a Stitch encounter of the Tokyo Disney kind.
I figured I might as well ride Raging Spirits since there wasn't much of a line, even though I'd had a bad experience last trip of having the safety bar pulled down so tightly it bruised my legs. So I got in the single rider line and was on before I knew it- no bruises this time! Raging Spirits is a very basic roller coaster with a single loop, which is decorated somewhat elaborately as if to pretend it actually has a theme. Fun enough if there is no wait (and the safety bar isn't too tight), but really not worth going out of your way.
It was almost time for The Legend of Mythica so I decided on the spur of the moment to sieze the chance at a repeat viewing; this time, I chose a spot on the opposite side of Mediterranean Harbor. I ended up next to 2 cute Japanese young women who thanked me for moving enough to give them both space, and who "oohed" and "aahed" through the show. (ok, so they may have "kawaii"ed moreso than "ooh"ed) This time, I couldn't really see the land performers, but I had a much better view of the water and the elaborate floats. I loved this show and am so grateful I had a chance to see it for a 2nd time and to see it from multiple perspectives.
Next I headed to the 3:40pm performance of Mystic Rhythms, aka the show I attempted to see what I was distracted by Stitch. Mystic Rhythms is the only current full length show that has been a part of TDS since the park's 2002 opening, and it's always been one of my favorites. The style of the show is a bit like Cirque de Soliel, and the theme is about jungle spirits in the earth, water and fire; like Mythica, there is an appealing percussion element to the soundrack. There's not a single Disney character in sight, and it's really a fine show. I feel like it would fit in well at AK in Florida, but I don't know if it would be popular with US audiences.
I already had a 5pm reservation at Restaurant Sakura, but decided to head there early so I could try to see the 5:30pm show of Big Band Beat. The restaurant was empty at 4:15pm so I once again didn't need to mention my reservation. I hadn't eaten here before but I'd always been curious to try it since it is the only Japanese sit down in the park. The restaurant itself proved to be a bit of an enigma to me since, despite the cuisine, it had a very distinct American theme- right down to playing songs like "Meet Me in St. Louis" in the background. I chose to eat something similar to my restaurant Hokusai meal: "Seafood-topped Chirashi-Zushi served with seasonal delicacies and miso soup". My meal was a delicious sampling of sushi-grade fish served over rice; there were no leftovers .
My timing was perfect; as soon as I was done eating, I was able to get in line for Big Band Beat (though I may have made a stop to purchase a plush Duffy... perhaps there is some hidden assimilation ingredient in the food). When we were let into the auditorium, I was searching around for a seat when a Japanese woman came and asked me if I was alone and then pointed me to a single empty seat exactly in the center of the 4th row. Excellent. Big Band Beat plays in the Broadway Music Theatre, which really resembles a 1500 seat Broadway type theater. The show itself has a smattering of Disney characters (Mickey- who plays the drums and dances, Minnie, Marie from the Aristocats, and Daisy) and a whole lot of Big Band energy including numbers like "Sing sing sing" (yes, that made me feel right at home like I was at a skating competition). Because the featured performers were not Japanese, all the banter was in English which was obviously nice for me.
After the show, I headed to the nearby Tower of Terror for 2 consecutive encounters with the evilly laughing Shiriki Utundu. And then I decided to catch the TDS version of Fantasmic once more, from a different angle; this time, by Lido Isle. I thought it would give me a good view but then, curses! The center barge moved so that there was a light post directly obstructing my view- not enough to really impair my live enjoyment, but enough to ruin the chance of taking really good photos of the central area.
After watching the 8:30pm Magic in the Sky Fireworks (which are visible from both parks and which are nothing compared to the US fireworks shows) and doing a bit more shopping, I decided it was time to head back to TDL so I could buy another yummy Easter Treat. There were no "must do" attractions left for me in either park; I hadn't spent much time in TDL this trip but I'd been to both WDW and DL in the past 6 months so I really wanted to focus on things that didn't exist at all in the US parks.
It's hard for me to put into words how much I enjoyed my time at TDR. Sure, I can try to describe what I did each day... but there is something intangible beyond all those activities that fills my heart with wonder. Sometimes, it's discovering a new detail in the richly themed TDS or even in my hotel. Other times, it's seeing another happy Japanese guest loaded up with plush Duffies and Shellie Mays. Tokyo Disney feels just like the US Disney parks and completely unlike them at the same time. And I was very happy to finally have a chance to return and spend a few days just taking it all in.
Back in my hotel room, I snacked on my new treat and finished my Strawberry popcorn and then started the sad task of packing my things... and praying that my suitcase would close! I'm usually sad to leave Disney, but I was excited that I would be embarking on some new adventures in Tokyo.
It was another early morning at the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel as I awoke at 6:45am. But this day, I wouldn't be lining up for early entry or even entering the theme parks at all; it was time to leave the comfort of Disney and head into Tokyo. And I was ok with that because I'd had an amazing time at the parks, and done virtually everything I'd wanted to do. As I contemplated the task of packing, I thought that I'd also bought virtually everything I could buy. It was a relief to be able to actually zip my suitcase closed.
Before I journeyed on to Tokyo proper, I wanted to spend a little time exploring areas of my hotel that I hadn't seen. Camera in hand, I went out the front entrance for the first time since I had arrived at the hotel so I could photograph the arrival area. I also walked down to Alice's Garden which was a delightful little area off to the side of the main entrance. I'd wanted to visit the Sherwood Garden on the TDL side of the hotel earlier, but I'd been discouraged when I saw the gate was closed; subsequently, I read that the gates open with your room key. So I headed there next; it was quite peaceful as most people around the resort were probably either at the parks or making their way there. The beautiful landscaping at the hotel was really quite impressive.
For my final Tokyo Disneyland Hotel activity, I decided to splurge on the buffet breakfast at the Sherwood Gardens restaurant, where I had a view of the very garden I'd just wandered. The buffet offered both Western and Eastern selections. The Eastern selections were more appealing to me; I particularly enjoyed the cold soba noodles which I topped with sesame seeds and scallions. I wasn't very hungry, but I also wasn't sure when I'd have the opportunity to eat later so I figured I should have a sensible breakfast; this turned out to be a very good idea indeed.
After a brief visit to the front desk to checkout, I took one last ride on the monorail. When I arrived at the platform of Maihama station, I realized I'd just missed a train- actually, I could have made it but I needed a couple seconds to pause to be sure I was pointed in the right direction to head into Tokyo. It's fun to wait at Maihama train station because they play Disney tunes like Zip-a-dee-doo-dah when a train arrives. Pretty soon I was at Tokyo station, where I had to walk through the maze of the station to transfer to another train line. I was happy to note that in Japan, people stood on the left side of the escalators and walked on the right. This is more natural to me, since I pull my suitcase with my right hand; in London, I once caused an escalator to stop when I tried to conform to the standard of holding on to the escalator with my right hand. I'm sure those people were not very happy with me.
When I finally reached the platform for the JR Chuo line, I was pretty sure the train I saw would stop at Shinjuku. But just in case, I asked a middle aged lady. Not only did she confirm it, but she also wanted to make sure I knew it would be the 4th stop. I wanted to thank her when I got off, but I wasn't able to make eye contact. Shinjuku is another huge station, but it turned out that I had taken one of the train lines where I could easily find the most convenient exit for my hotel. So, after just a short walk along a paved terrace overpass past a Starbucks and a Krispy Kreme, I found my hotel, the Hotel Century Southern Tower.
I knew that the hotel was located at the top of a very tall building, with the lobby being on the 20th floor; what I hadn't realized was that the elevator to take you there was one of those glass elevators where you can see exactly how high you are. You couldn't even avoid the outside view by looking away because it was reflected on the other side of the elevator. I was rather apprehensive on my first ride, but by the end of my stay, I wasn't phased at all. It was too early to check in, but I expected to be able to fill out my paper work. Non! However, I could still leave my luggage. Without asking for any of my information, someone gave me a green numbered disc while attaching a similar one to my luggage. After oohing and aahing a bit over the panoramic views from the lobby, I took the glass elevator right back downstairs.
At this point it was 11am; I didn't have any plans until the 2:30pm skating competition. So I decided to wander a bit around Shinjuku and visit a cat cafe. This is when my decision to rent an iPad mini-sim card really started to pay off because I was easily able to find the correct route from my Google maps app. While walking, I basked in everything that was different than the US and every colorful sign that seemed amusing. When I found a CitiBank ATM, I tried my ATM card again and of course it didn't work. Grr.
When reading a Tokyo Disney trip report on one of the Disney messageboards I frequent, I discovered that Japan has places called "cat cafes". Cat cafes are places where you can hang out with cats, and maybe have a drink or snack. I've read that they are popular in Japan because many people live in places that don't allow pets. Immediately upon reading about them, I decided that visiting a cat cafe was an absolute "must do". So I did some research and found the Calico Cat Cafe which was located not far from my hotel; coincidentally, I later saw this very cafe featured on a Japan themed episode of Animal Planet's "You must love cats" TV show.
I'd scoped out the location of Calico Cate Cafe prior to my trip on the street view of Google maps so it was easy to find; it helped that I could read Hiragana because the most visible sign from across the street was not in Roman characters. I took a small elevator up to the 6th floor lobby, where someone showed me a laminated sheet of paper with the rules. They also gave me a tag to wear with my entrance time since you are charged when you leave based on how long you stay. I was directed to go in the next room, put my shoes in a (free) locker, and then wash my hands. Then I could go see the cats! On the 6th floor where I entered, there were (free) lockers to store most of my belongings. The cats were in that room as well as in a brighter room on the 5th floor. Cats, cats everywhere! You could also order a beverage but due to my lack of cash flow and the fact that they didn't take credit cards, I didn't make any purchases.
None of the cats had as huge personalities as my Furricanes but perhaps it was just their quiet time. Obviously there were some amusing antics- such as the cat who was hiding under an upside down basket lid; every now and then, the lid would dart a few inches on the ground. Or the cat that jumped on the back of a worker. Only one cat really came over to me- a long haired calico named Hinata. (at least that's the one on their website who seems to match up) Hinata was a trip- first she made herself at home sniffing my hair, which reminded me a bit of my poor Sisi kitten (RIP). Then later on, when I was following the Phillies game on my iPad, she decided it needed a fluffy cover. (the Phillies were playing on the West Coast so the games generally started at 11am Tokyo time)
Mostly, I just chilled and enjoyed being surrounded by a slew of adorable felines; at 11:30am on a weekday, there were only a couple of other guests. All too soon, I realized my initial hour was up so I went upstairs to pay. They really thought of everything there- just as I was lamenting the fact that my jeans were covered in fur, I noticed the lint brushes by the sink. One of them was designed to resemble Chandu, the adorable tiger from the Sindbad ride at TDS. After I paid, they gave me a coupon for a free drink on my next visit as well as a little 8.5x11 notebook with pictures of their cats.
I'd noticed a Mr. Donut a couple blocks away, so I headed there for a bit of a snack. I'd decided on a previous trip to Japan that Mr. Donut is my friend, so I would have been quite disappointed not to visit one during my stay. While looking over all the varieties of donuts, I decided to opt for the cute and ordered a donut which looked like a bear face.
Google maps told me that the rink was about a 45 minute walk away so I decided to save the train fare and make my way on foot; it was 12:45, so that would put me in an excellent position to arrive early but not too early. Once again, I was grateful for my iPad mini-sim because it made it so easy to be sure I was on the right track- or, if I'd accidentally deviated, to get back to where I needed to be. The journey took me through Yoyogi park, where I was able to make a brief detour to see the Meiji Jingu shrine. Walking through the quiet, tree lined path was a stark contrast to being surrounded by the modern skyscrapers of Shinjuku near my hotel. Somewhere along the way, I realized I lost the FitBit I'd been using to calculate my walking distances. I was annoyed at myself, but it had been free with my XBox so it wasn't like I'd wasted my money. (note: after I got home, I was able to get a free replacement from the company)
As I got closer to Yoyogi stadium, my excitement grew. I hadn't been to a live skating event in way too long, and I couldn't wait to see my 2 favorite male skaters, Jeremy Abbott and Daisuke Takahashi. Finally, I climbed onto a pedestrian overpass that led to a stadium and... holy line of people outside! Seriously, the line looped back onto itself. There was little done to accomodate international spectators, of which there seemed to be very few. I heard an announcement in Japanese about cameras; I wasn't sure what exactly it said, but I knew that photography was forbidden. There was no way I could be out and about in Tokyo without a camera, but I hoped I'd be ok if I kept it in my pocket or bag. (I was.) I was surprised that it didn't really take long to get inside, despite the scary line.
The first order of business at any live skating event is to get a print out of the start order. I saw people carrying them, so I knew they existed. Usually they are right by the entrance so I tried to peer through the crowds at the tables by the door. When I couldn't find them, I decided to venture further inside- and then they were right in front of me. My next order of business was to find the restrooms; I had no problems following the signs downstairs. After successfully finding my seat, I felt like I'd accomplished quite a bit. I knew it wasn't the greatest location, but I was just excited to be there. The only way I'd managed to obtain a ticket was to secure the services of a site that could bid on my behalf on Yahoo auctions; the auction itself was for a bit less than face value but of course there were some service fees and shipping. I'd been impressed with the website and the whole process had been a bit of fun- well, except for the time that the USPS website had shown that my ticket package was unable to be delivered due to not being addressed properly. (there was nothing wrong with the address and I was able to sort it out)
A relatively new type of event, The World Team Trophy (WTT) is a rather unique type of figure skating competition. Instead of skaters competing as individuals, the top 6 countries were invited to send teams to compete as a group. Each team featured 2 male singles skaters, 2 female singles skaters, a pair team and an ice dance team. Skaters competed in their individual events and then countries received points based on how their skaters placed relative to the overall field (ie the skater in first was awarded 12 points for their country, the skater in 2nd was awarded 11, etc); the team with the highest point total won. The competition lasted for 3 days but because of the ticket price and time commitment, I only wanted to go for one day. I chose the first day of competition which included the opening ceremony, ice dance short dance, men's short program and ladies' short program.
A unique feature of the WTT is how each team had its own box behind the official Kiss and Cry area where they could cheer on their teammates. It was a lot of fun seeing how spirited most teams were. France and Italy were quite boistrous and loud; their skaters were clearly having a lot of fun. USA was no slouch and even held up a banner thanking Japan in Japanese. Only Canada... did not seem to be joining in the fun. When I realized early on that there were an abundance of Japan flags in the audience but few others, I wished I'd brought a flag with me. What to do... what to do.... I had my iPad so I found an American flag graphic online and held it up at appropriate times. High tech fandom FTW! The Japanese lady next to me seemed to think it was cute.
The intro video shown during the opening ceremony made it seem that the event was Japan vs. the World. The Japanese fans who packed the stands definitely cheered their home skaters. However, I found them to be very enthusiastic about all the skaters- often clapping along to the music. During the opening ceremony, the teams from Italy and France accidentally started leaving the ice too early- before the national anthem and greeting. Ooops. After the opening ceremony, it was Zamboni time. But this was Japan and everything is cuter there so they had 5 little zambonis on the ice instead of two big ones.
The first event was the ice dance. To be blunt, I have not yet been convinced of the merits of "short dance" as an event. I much prefered when we had compulsory dances and original dances- the short dance, which was introduced last season, is an odd hybrid of the 2. But I enjoyed the event and was glad that Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated very well and landed in first place.
Next up was men's short- the main event for me. I was so nervous as it drew closer and closer for Jeremy Abbott's turn to take the ice. Abbott is one of the most gorgeous artists on ice; when he hits the jumps, it's amazing. But he often makes mistakes- which typically don't mar the overall effect of his skating, but which are heartbreaking for his fans. During his 6 minute warm up, he popped 2 triple axels- his hardest jump- and only made 1.5 revolutions instead of 3.5. When he set up for the triple axel in his program, I held my breath... could barely watch... and he HIT IT! The whole performance flew by as the attentive audience clapped along to his rousing swing program. Jeremy got huge scores; more importantly, I could breathe again.
2 skaters after him came Daisuke Takahashi who is another one of my absolute favorites- and not just because he shares the same birthday as me, although that's cool too. I first saw Takahashi skate an exhibition 10 years ago at 2002 Worlds in Nagano after he'd just won the world junior championship. Something about his skating caught my attention right away- and I'm not just saying that now, you can see it in my blog from that trip. Now a World Champion (in 2010), Daisuke skates with such passion when he is on, and his jumps are gorgeous. That night was one of those nights where everything came together for him in front of his home crowd.
My 2 favorite skaters gave performances for the ages. I was overjoyed to be able to witness that in person; it was like winning the lottery of skating fandom. Takahashi came in first above the seemingly unbeatable Patrick Chan, and Jeremy Abbott wasn't too far behind in 3rd. Those 2 performances alone were well worth the price of my ticket.
During the break after the mens event, I headed down to the bathroom area... and came face to face with a truly scary line that was looping back and forth across the room. It was like Shibuya crossing down there, only more organized! So I gave up that idea, and idly thought that they should have Fastpasses for the restrooms. Seriously, I've seen my share of scary bathroom lines but this one was epic. There was also a line for food and I figured they only took cash so I didn't bother with that, either. I was getting really hungry, but figured I could last. I decided I couldn't afford a program that I'd probably just stick on a shelf anyway so I bought a little keychain with the event mascot just to have a souvenir.
The final event of the evening was the ladies short program. One of the big stories of this event was that it included the senior debut of USA's Gracie Gold, who was the reigning silver medalist at Jr Worlds. Because USA women skaters have had relatively mediocre results on the senior world stage post-Michelle Kwan with a particularly devastating performance at 2012 Worlds by Alissa Czisny, a lot of people have been looking at Gracie Gold with interest. I was glad when she was listed for WTT because it would give her a chance to appear on the big stage with a relatively low risk if things didn't go well for her. Gracie's short program was quite credible and it will be interesting to see how she does next season.
One of the most exciting ladies skates was Japan's own Akiko Suzuki. She's so cute when she's happy. Skaters from all the countries stood to cheer her on. Well, except for Canada. But Canada was apparently trying to beat the record for all time low in team spirit.
After the event was over, it seemed to take forever to get out of Yoyogi Stadium; I think only 2 doors were open. I decided that we'd all be doomed in the event of fire or earthquake. Even after exiting the building, there was a huge mass of people headed to the relatively narrow stairway to the overpass that led to the subway station. I was starting to get so cranky that I later told people that even if I'd seen Jeremy Abbott and Daisuke Takahashi doing triple axels on the street, it wouldn't have lifted my spirits. But it was understandable. I hadn't eaten anything since having a donut about 7.5 hours earlier and I still hadn't even gotten into hotel room. Also, I'd been making plans to meet up with someone from Jeremy's Japanese fans and she never responded my tweets and messages; I am sure she didn't mean to hurt me, but it really stung. When you're all by yourself in a foreign country, it can be exciting to have a chance to meet someone local. I'd kept checking online for a response even though my iPad battery was dying.
Once I finally got to Harjuku train station, I was relieved to be free of the clausrophobic crowds and it was a very quick ride back to Shinjuku Station. After checking in and going up to my hotel room, several thoughts occurred to me all at once: 1. It's a relief to be settled in a hotel room. 2. Wow, I'm on the 30th floor, this is an awesome view. (there was even a map on the desk which identified various places of interest that could be seen from the window) 3. I need food. The latter thought very quickly overwhelemed the first 2 and became my chief concern. I didn't really have the energy to go out looking for a restaurant that took credit cards and I didn't see any room service options, so I went down to look at the hotel restaurants and ended up at one called Tribeks which was on the 20th floor.
At that point, what I ate was almost irrelevant; it was just imperative that I get something in my tummy. There was some confusion when the waitress initially handed me a drink menu which seriously almost led me to have a breakdown. But eventually I was able to communicate that I wanted food. (curiously, I was more understandable when I switched to English) I ended up ordering some French Onion soup and "Today's Pasta". I was told that "Today's Pasta" was spaghetti with shrimp and bacon, but it had other stuff, too. No matter. I don't usually like shrimp that much, but I think that might be because the quality of shrimp at many restaurants in the US is rather mediocre. The shrimp on my pasta seemed much fresher than I'm used to- and I don't think it's just because I was so hungry it wouldn't have mattered if it had tasted like wood. It took forever for my food to come out, which really tested my patience because I was literally on the verge of losing it.
As I ate (and waited for food), I gazed out the 20th floor windows at the seemingly infinite panoramic view of Tokyo at night. I was particularly mesmerized by the lights, more numerous than stars, especially all the little blinking red lights atop the buildings. They obviously blinked at staggered intervals, and the effect was almost hyptnotic and oddly soothing. My day definitely had its down moments, but once I had some dinner and could regain my perspective, I was grateful to be in Japan and for all the amazing experiences I'd had so far (as well as the ones I was sure would come in the next 3 days).
After getting up early every day thus far, I was due to sleep in a bit. After taking my time and admiring the daytime view from my 30th floor room, I finally left at about 10am to embark on some sightseeing.
Earlier in the week, my credit card company had told me that I'd be able to get a cash advance at a bank with a credit card and passport. It was time to test that theory. Although I calculated that I defintely had enough cash to last if I was frugal (plus US$15 more if I got desperate), it would definitely be nice to feel more free to spend at cash only establishments. So I headed into CitiBank, the most international bank I knew of, and asked it they could help. No. Not even with my CitiBank Mastercard. I went to another bank, and was a little melodramatic for effect. They found someone who spoke English and there were 3 of us going from bank to bank. No luck. Finally they gave up and suggested I contact the embassy. *sigh* It was very nice of them to try so hard to help me, but it was pointless. So I'd just have to make due with the yen I still had from the airport. (note: by the time I posted this report, I'd already opened an account with a new bank)
So I continued walking to Seibu Shinjuku station, which was just a bit further than the regular Shinjuku station. I bought a ticket to take the train to Kawagoe, a small city that is about a 45 minute ride from Shinjuku station. Kawagoe doesn't really have much in the way of significant historic sites, but sounded like it would be an ideal place for me: a photogenic little town where I could just wander and enjoy. After arriving at noon, I stopped at a convenience store across from the station and was pleased to see that they had Green Tea Kit Kats- they were the chunky kind, not the normal bars. Perfect breakfast!
I ended up loosely following a walking tour from my Tokyo Step by Step guide book, though I mixed up the order. Once again, Google maps on my iPad was an invaluable resource in keeping me (generally) on track. My first stop was Kita-in, a Buddhist temple which includes remnants of Edo castle. I was excited to see some cherry blossoms on the grounds; I wasn't sure if I'd see any on my trip at all. When I saw that there was a small cash entrance fee, I decided that I was content to just admire it from the outside. However, I really wanted to see the Gohyaku Rakan, and I surmised that they both required the same ticket. The temple was definitely interesting, but I could have lived without seeing it. On the other hand, I really enjoyed walking through Gohyaku Rakan, an outdoor square with rows and rows different stone statues of Buddha, 540 in all. I mean, you don't exactly see 540 Buddha statues in a small area every day, even in Asia.
Nearby was another temple, Naritasan Betsu-in, whose stand-out feature to me was the abundance of turtles in a pond on its grounds; this was a minor temple and just a quick detour. Wandering on, I soon came across Taisho-Roman-Dori (Taisho Romance Street), a charming walking street- over which were hanging row after row of colorful fish shaped streamers. Researching online after my return, I discovered that these decorations are called Koinobori, and they are typically displayed in April and May in honor of Children's Day (May 5). I also walked through Ichiban-gai (Main Town) which had its own flavor of architecture. I would never have guessed that I'd find a bagel store amidst the traditional shops, so you can imagine my surprise to see one! When I entered later, I was very interested to see that they offered quite unusual flavors- the one I bought was "Sweet Potato & Pumpkin". This seemed to be yet another example of Japan borrowing something from Western culture and then making it their own.
One of my main goals was to find Kashi-ya Yokocho (Confectioners' Row), a small alley filled with stores selling candy and souvenirs. It's such a small lane, in fact, that I completed missed it at first. While I definitely enjoyed seeing all sorts of adorable looking candies, I had one burning question: Where oh where was the purple sweet potato ice cream that my guidebook had mentioned? I am all about purple and quite fond of sweet potatoes, so this was an important quest. I remembered seeing some shops that sold ice cream on my way so I backtracked and found one with a display showing purple ice cream. Just to be sure, I took out my trusty iPad and looked up the Japanese word for "sweet potato". When I ordered, the lady actually told me in English that it was "sweet potato" so I didn't exactly need the translation after all. Soon, my hand was wrapped around a cone of soft serve purple ice cream delight. I can't really describe how it tasted, but it was good stuff indeed. My main mission accomplished, I went to look at the famous Toki-no-kane (Bell Tower) which I'd somehow missed earlier.
I debated with myself whether to walk to the remains of Kawagoe Castle but decided against it. In addition to wanting to get back to my hotel relatively early so I didn't wear myself out, my guidebook said there was a charge. I'd already felt extravagant buying a couple of snacks with my limited cash and I needed to conserve my remaining yen. I was in good shape, but trying to be cautious. So I walked back to the train station, stopping along the way at Kumano-jinja shrine; next to it was a building where you could sneak a view inside to see of one of the floats from Kawagoe's famous October festival.
It is said that Kawagoe resembles Tokyo of old; it definitely has a very different feel than modern Tokyo- the obvious differences were the architecture and the number of people riding bikes, but it also struck me that there was much more space; it was not as tightly packed with people as modern day Tokyo. Kawagoe ended up being exactly what I expected, and I was glad I'd made the trip. I probably wouldn't recommend a visit to Kawagoe to anyone who hasn't been to Japan before because there are so many more important places to visit. But it's a gem of a place to spend some time if you're searching for something new to see around Tokyo.
At about 3 pm, I boarded a train that was headed to Seibu Shinjuku station. While onboard, I was busy using my iPad to go online. We were stopped at a station for awhile and the conductor said a lot of things in Japanese, none of which I understood. Most people left the train, but it seemed like a few stayed, so I didn't think much of it. When the train started to move again, it had reversed direction. I quickly pulled up my station map online and when we stopped again at a station that was indeed on the route back to Kawagoe, I got off to switch to another train headed to Shinjuku. Soon one came, and I felt relieved. But after only taking it one stop, its conductor spoke a ton of Japanese and everyone exited. This time, I caught a few words that conveyed something to the effect that this was the end of the line. I'd wised up since my last experience and got the heck off and joined the ever increasing masses waiting to head into Tokyo. (I may have missed a train in the time it took to reverse and get back). Fortunately, I wasn't in a hurry so it didn't matter that my 45 minute trip ended up taking twice that time. I just wish I knew what was going on, because it was really weird.
After debarking at Seibu Shinjuku station, I decided that I wanted to find the Shinjuku Hello Kitty store. After following various maps... I realized it was right across the street from the Mr. Donut where I'd eaten a day earlier! D'oh! In my defense, it was in the basement of a building and it wouldn't be easy to stumble across it; even when I was specifically looking for it, it hadn't been easy to spot. I stepped inside and was immediately in awe of being surrounded by so much kawaii. I was also dumbfounded to see Hello Kitty pens with the Tokyo Sky Tree; the Sky Tree hadn't even opened yet! This wouldn't be the last time I saw Sky Tree souvenirs
After I had my fill of Hello Kitty, I started wandering around Shinjuku searching for a restaurant where I could eat dinner. My criteria were few: it was essential that it take credit cards, and I'd prefer if it served Japanese food and had an English language menu. I'm notoriously picky at finding places to eat, often talking myself out of options that would be perfectly fine. This time was no different. However, I was happy to stumble across a small supermarket that accepted credit cards so I bought some drinks and rice crackers for later, as well as some crispy M&M's for a friend.
Eventually I had the bright idea of entering the Takashimaya Times Square department store that was across from my hotel. Sure enough, it had 3 floors of restaurants. I took an elevator up to the 13th floor and wandered around until I found a small place that looked intriguing. They didn't have an English menu, but they had food displays in the window and I could tell that one was a kastu dish that I'd like. After ensuring that they took credit cards, I sat down and eventually pointed in the menu to the dish I'd seen in the window. The waitress asked me if it was ok that it was pork. Yes, yes it was. Soon she brought me a tray with a large bowl of pork cutlet and egg over rice, and a small bowl of miso soup. Delicious.
I'd planned to head straight back to my hotel after dinner- it was 6:15 and I knew there would be skating on TV at 7. However, Takashimaya distracted me with its cute boutiques. First I stumbled upon a Uniqlo store and treated myself to a couple of T-shirts that I really didn't need. Then I found a Disney store, and a Sanrio store. For some reason, a security guard told me not to take photos of the Sanrio area... so I didn't.
Once I weaved my way through floors of temptation, I left Takashimaya and walked across the overpass back to my hotel. There was a live feed online of the World Team Trophy day 2, but it was geo-blocked from Japan and Korea so I logged into my work VPN from my netbook to watch. I got it hooked up just in time to catch Jeremy Abbott's skate. Unfortunately, he didn't skate as well as the previous night. But his long program, which he choregraphed himself to Muse, was still a thing of beauty.
Being a hard core skating fan, I also turned on the TV to see the delayed broadcast while watching the end of the live feed online. But when Daisuke Takahashi took the ice after Patrick Chan had made some mistakes, my eyes were glued to the netbook. As he took his opening pose to Blues for Klook, I wondered: could he repeat the success of the previous night? Yes, yes, a resounding YES!!! He was freaking amazing and earned cheers from all the other athletes (well, except perhaps Canada...). And I was able to watch it again when it was repeated on TV; it was just as thrilling the second time.
One of the things that amused me about the Japan TV broadcast was that they had bobbleheads of skaters from each country; actually, the heads didn't bobble. I was able to see Yoyogi Stadium from my hotel room and part of me wished I'd been there to see Daisuke Takahashi's amazing free skate since I was so close. But I was glad that I'd gone the previous day when Jeremy Abbott had also skated his best. All in all, it was nice to get in early and kick back a little.
After waking up at around 7:45 (without an alarm), I lazed around the hotel room until around 9:45am. For breakfast, I ate the Sweet Potato and Pumpkin bagel that I'd purchased in Kawagoe. It was... interesting. I liked it, but don't know if I'd actually buy it again.
My first destination of the day was Shinjuku Gyoen, a park not far from my hotel. While I'd missed the main cherry blossom season by about a week, I'd read that Shinjuku Gyoen had some late blooming varieties and I was able to confirm this by spotting patches of pink from the 20th floor hotel lobby. On the way to the park, I passed people lined up in advance of Takashimaya's 10am opening. I'd read that department store openings are elaborate in Japan so I hung around for a couple minutes until it opened. But I was disappointed as I didn't see anything special, though admittedly I didn't actually go inside.
There was an admission fee of 200 Yen to enter Shinjuku Gyoen- I was surprised that they had automated machines for purchasing tickets like they do for the subways. Once I walked through the automated turnstiles, I saw a sign on the container of maps that one should ask at the gate for an English language one. I think they were surprised when I asked in Japanese. Map in hand, I was free to enjoy a sea of little pink flowers. I'd long wanted to see Cherry Blossoms in Japan, so it was like a dream come true. I just wandered around with my camera- my favorite activity- and tried to soak it all in. I was particularly delighted to see various colors of cherry blossoms, especially when they were right next to each other- or when a couple reddish blooms peaked out from amid flowers of a more muted color.
When I reached the exit on the other side of the park, I realized I still hadn't seen the English Gardens that were listed on the map. But I figured I hadn't come all the way to Japan to see English Gardens. I was satisfied with having spent well over an hour getting in my fill of cherry blossoms, so I decided to move on and took the subway to a place that was colorful in a very different way: Harajuku.
Harjuku has a reputation as a haven for the young and trendy to hang out. The heart of the area is the narrow shopping street, Takeshita dori, which happened to be right across from the subway exit I took. I loved looking around at all the shops, though it really wasn't my style. Takeshita dori led to Meiji Street which I took to Ometesando St, a big shopping street with a lot of high end shops. At the corner of Meiji and Ometesando, I saw a large crowd waiting in one of those zig zag queue lines that you often see in theme parks. I looked up to see what they were waiting for, and it turned out to be a large American Eagle store. While it seemed quite odd to me at the time (especially since we have American Eagle stores at every US mall), I learned later than the store had opened only a couple days earlier and was the first American Eagle store in Tokyo. But I still wouldn't wait in a queue to go shopping unless the store was giving away something very special!
I turned down Ometesando St to find the Oriental Bazaar store, where you can find a lot of Japanese souvenirs. I have a vivid recollection of running into the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders when I visited the store in 1992 but I don't remember it being on a major shopping street. (the Eagles had been playing an exhibition game in Japan) Funny how your memory can deceive you. After browsing through all 3 floors, I ended up buying cotton happi coats for my nieces; I got them both the adult "one size fits all" figuring that the 11 year old would grow into it. (Japanese women's "one size fits all" are much friendlier to petite women than US sizing)
Walking down Ometasando, I came upon the location of the famous Kiddy Land toy store which has been under renovation; on its wall were directions to the temporary location on Cat Street. I pondered whether I should check it out- Google maps told me it would be on my way to walk to Shibuya so I figured I might as well. Cat Street was another little pedestrain street, much less crowded than Takeshita. I wandered into a little store where women were making the cutest little colorful candies, and was able to enjoy a couple little free samples of these handmade goodies. Then I came to Kiddy Land, a crowded store where I wandered and lingered. My nieces would have loved the Stitch section on the first floor and the Star Wars stuff upstairs; if they used chopsticks, I would have been tempted to buy them ones shaped like light sabers. I delighted in cute characters who must be Japanese in origin, as well as ones that were more familiar to me. It was worth stopping there.
As I walked out the store and headed back on my way, I saw some people who stuck out to me. Walking down streets in Japan, it often strikes me when I see a Caucasian face because of the overwhleming majority of Asian faces. But this was different. This wasn't just another Caucasian face. With absolutely no tact or subtlety whatsoever, I looked the man in the face and joyfully announced, "You're Jeremy Abbott!" With Jeremy was Adam Rippon, another favorite of mine, and their coach, the amazing former world champion Yuka Sato.
I don't typically try to talk to famous skaters, but I have been such a huge fan of Jeremy ever since he broke out on the US senior scene in 2007. I also think he's a really neat person, based on his interviews and tweets. Plus, I'm friends with his mom on Facebook- she's one of the most awesome, supportive, and funny people I know. So I couldn't help but make an exception. As I tried to converse with skaters I've watched so many times both live and online or on TV, I couldn't stop my left leg from shaking. It surprised me to be so nervous, but I must have been in awe of being face-to-face with so much talent and beauty.
I'm sure I sounded ridiculous as I could barely form a coherent thought, what with my brain spiraling out of control wondering if this was really happening. I remember asking them about their time in Japan, telling them a little about my trip and how I didn't want to spend it all in an ice rink (which elicited some nods of approval), telling Adam that I'd met him at an adult skating camp a number of years ago, and trying to find words that could come close to telling Jeremy how amazing it was to watch him skate the other night. Because I somehow wanted to prove that I am the hugest dork in the world, I also told Jeremy I'd responded to one of his tweets the night earlier. I said something about how it was fun to see all the teams at WTT supporting each other and added, "well... except Canada". They... didn't disagree with me on that point.
Of course I needed a photo for my blog! At first everyone but Jeremy was getting out of the way... but then I got Adam to come over... and then insisted on Yuka joining us as well. Fortunately there was a Random Woman walking with the 3 of them so she was able to snap the photo to prove that this historic event Actually Happened.
After finally freeing them from my blabbering, I immediately uploaded the photo to Facebook and posted on my skating site. I may or may not have done this right away if I'd had to make a conscious choice, but the skaters were headed in the same direction as I was so I was forced to stop for a few minutes because I didn't want them to think I was stalking them. Once I finally got on my way, my heart was full of joy and wonder: cherry blossoms and meeting my favorite skater in the same day! And it was still only 1:30pm, so there was just bound to be even more fun in store. If there was ever a doubt that travel could lead to the most fantastic of wonders when you least expect them, it was erased during my brush with some of figure skating's most awesome talents on Tokyo's Cat Street.
I practically floated my way to Shibuya, where I was able to photograph one of the busiest street crossings in the world. I also braved walking through a crowded designated smoking area in order to see the famous Hachiko statue in front of the station. I wandered around Shibuya, and of course stopped at the Disney store which had a castle shaped entrance. I was surprised to see a Tower Records store since mega record stores seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs in most of the world; I went in to see if they possibly had any Japanese musical CD's or TDR DVD's that might interest me, but they didn't.
I was starting to get hungry and wandered down some stairs to an Italian restaurant that seemed to have some good offerings on the menu; however, it seemed deserted so I moved on. A lot of the restaurants in Tokyo are either above or below ground level, which makes them a bit intimidating for me because you can't just sneak a look inside while you are just passing by; you have to really go out of your way to get to them.
So I wandered on and ended up near Yoyogi Stadium, where the final day of the WTT was taking place at that very moment. There seemed to be something interesting going on at Yoyogi Park so I went to take a closer look; it turned out that it was an Earth Day 2012 event which featured various booths on both sides of a crowded walkway. I was enticed by the sound of drums, but couldn't really get a good look at the performers. However, I did get an awesome view of a giant walkaround Radish which is not something you see every day. I found the event itself very intriguing, but it was hard for me to cope with the crowds especially since I was getting hungry. After getting up close and personal with Yoyogi Stadium, I decided to walk in the direction of the baseball stadium with the hopes of finding food along the way.
I saw pictures of abused animals along the street near the arena, and felt right at home because in the US, there are often commercials for helping abused animals on TV during figure skating events. The walk to the baseball stadium took me once again through Harajuku. I got in line for a counter service pasta restaurant, which was very crowded on a Saturday afternoon even though it was outside peak dining hours. (it was 3:30pm). Ultimately, I got out of line because I wasn't sure if I'd find a place to sit, particularly in the non-smoking area.
After breaking away from the most crowded areas, I looked at the menu outside a small, hip looking restaurant called "Justin". I was going to walk away when someone actually came up to me. Feeling welcome, I confirmed that they accepted credit cards and took a seat in the non-smoking room in the back. They had lunch menus with a set course under various categories: I chose the "meat sauce and pasta penne" from the Gratin category. Along with my main couse, I ordered a salad, the Tiramisu dessert and something called "Lemon Squash" to drink which turned out to be a lemon soda. Everything was delicious and it felt great to sit down and enjoy some lunch. As I left, I walked through the main room and noticed that it had photos of topless women in it and laughed to myself; there were plenty of couples and the place didn't have a sleazy vibe at all. You just wouldn't see that kind of decoration in a respectable US restaurant.
Somehow, the timing worked out perfectly for me to arrive at Meiji Jingu stadium about an hour before game time. There were tons of people walking there so I didn't feel that I was too early. The first thing I noticed is that there were official souvenirs for sale in kiosks outside the actual stadium. There were some really cool Yakult Swallows souvenirs, including some with Hello Kitty. Unfortunately, it was cash only so I settled for buying a small keychain for my mom.
I was easily able to locate the numbered door that corresponded to my ticket, and I entered to find myself across from concessions that included Ramen noodles. While attempting to circumnavigate the stadium, I also saw a Baskin Robbins and popcorn in buckets that reminded me of the ones at TDR. I wasn't able to fully walk around inside as the area was blocked off on each side; there was only so far you could walk. My eyes lit up when I saw some Stitch merchandise, which would have been the most awesome of souvenirs except for one thing- it was for the opposing team, the Yomiuri Giants, who also play in Tokyo. Because the geographic barriers aren't as strong as in the US, Japanese baseball games seem to have more fans of the opposing team- the outfield bleachers seem to be the headquarters for fans of each side with the home team's fans in right field and the away team's fans in left.
I wasn't exactly sure what all the #'s meant on my ticket, but as soon as an usher pointed the way, I realized that one was the row # and one was a seat #; there wasn't a section # per se. I had to walk up a lot of steps to row 44 and figured I'd try to stay seated throughout the game lest I have to repeat the task. I've never been to a US minor league baseball game, but the Yakult Swallows stadium had a bit of a minor league feel to me- less slick than US major league stadiums that I've seen. It was neat to see the skyscrapers of Shinjuku in the background.
One of the first things I noticed on the field was that there were 3 Swallows mascots. They were cute- and even shot T-shirts into the stands- but all 3 together could not equal the awesomeness of the Phillie Phanatic in my completely biased opinion. Another unique feature of the game I saw was that there were a trouple of cheerleaders (called "Passion") who came out before the game and a couple times between innings.
The biggest difference I found between American baseball and Japanese baseball was the experience of being in the stands. And I'm not just talking about the difference between smelling Ramen noodles and french fries. As mentioned earlier, the outfield seats are the home to the most zealous of fans for each team. The fans in these sections often waved flags and recited chants or songs. There was someone by home plate waving a Swallows flag between innings- and each time the Swallows came to bat, the P.A. system would lead a chant of "Go, go swallows!" Even the actual experience of cheering was slightly different as fans were apt to have 2 large sticks to clap together to show their enthusiasm. But by far the most distinctive activity I saw was that when the Swallows scored, fans would open mini umbrellas and wave them up and down. Like Mummers.
I figured the best way to convey the experience of attending the Swallows game would be to share a few short videos I took with my camera:
The fans definitely seemed knowledgeable and attentive to the game. There were cheers for every strike by a Swallows' pitcher, and awws for every ball. Whenever a foul ball left the field of play, a recording would be played which I assumed said to be careful about watching for balls that leave the playing field. Of course, by the time it played, it was really too late. There were also interesting graphics that displayed on the scoreboard for strikeouts and good plays.
The game itself was an awesome pitchers duel. In the bottom of the first inning, 2 men were on base with 2 outs when a Swallows player got a clutch 2 RBI triple. And that was all the scoring for the night! During the top of the 9th inning, there were graphics displayed counting down the last 3 outs. There was some excitement in the 9th when a Giant got a double and made it to third base, but the Swallows' pitcher ended up with a complete game shutout, resulting in more umbrella waving and a player being interviewed on the field.
It was a rather chilly night and I hadn't been sure if I'd want to stay for the whole game. But I really enjoyed it. Well, except for the fact that the guy next to me, who was huddled under blankets with his girlfriend or wife, was leaning into my personal space for the early part of the game. I'd love to see another Japanese baseball game sometime- preferably when I have cash to buy souvenirs.
There was a crush of humanity leaving the stadium and walking toward the subway, but it didn't seem to be as horrible as at the skating event. At the subway, I located my destination on the map and paid the appropriate fee. When I transfered lines, I had to insert my ticket into an automated turnstile. It wouldn't let me through, and the station attendant said I needed to pay another 100 yen. There had been a few possible routes to Shinjuku station and I guess I'd chosen one that changed companies or something. For the rest of the trip, I was cautious whenever I had to transfer, expecting to pay extra, although I never again did.
The subway that I took let me off at an exit with which I wasn't familiar, but my trusty iPad helped me find my way to my hotel. En route, I stopped at a convenience store where I purchased some local beverages (Calpis and Pocari Sweat) as well as a rolled sushi type thing. What a day full of diverse experiences! I couldn't believe that I only had 24 hours before I started heading back home, but in a way I was ready; I'd been running around all week and I felt like I needed a break.
After waking up at 8:45 am, my morning was consumed with one thought: How the hell will I fit everything in my luggage?!? All I can say is thank goodness for expandable suitcases. My flight woudln't depart until midnight so after I checked out, I had them store my luggage at the hotel. This time, they gave me a red numbered disc; I guess green is for luggage held for check-ins and red is for check-outs.
At Shinjuku station, I stumbled upon a bagel store. This time, I bought one that was Soy Milk and Edamame. I was headed to Asakusa, an area of Tokyo that sharply contrasts with the modern skyscrapers of Shinjuku. I'd been there on my first trip to Japan, but I only had a vague memory and felt it would be worth another visit. I headed first to the famous Senso-ji temple, along with masses of other people. To reach the temple, you have to walk through a narrow lane with shops on each side.
To the side of the main path was a covered pedestrian street with more shops; this street totally reminded me of World Bazaar at TDL. Behind the temple, there was a show featuring a monkey on stilts. It was only after I took a few photos that I noticed a sign prohibiting photography. At this point I walked away because I didn't want the monkey to steal my memory card or help with the revenge of the towel monkey. (<-obscure references to prior trip reports).
As I turned left to leave the temple grounds, I noticed a vendor selling something that loosely resembled marshmallows on a stick that were being warmed by an open fire. The sign said that they were "Miso-dango (Bean paste dumplings)". Intrigued, I decided to buy one. The vendor coated it with something that looked like soy sauce and then handed it to me. Oh. My. Lord. That treat was ridiculously yummy.
I loosely followed a walking tour posted in my guidebook that took me past a little amusement park. If it hadn't had a cover charge, I would have wandered around to take some photos. I also walked down Kappabashi-dori, a street full of shops that sell the food models that are displayed outside of restaurants. Finally, I walked toward the Sumida river, across which I could see the unique architecture of the Asahi building as well as the Tokyo Sky Tree which was due to open in May. I could only imagine how magical the path along the Sumida river must have looked a week or 2 earlier when it had been lined with cherry blossoms in full bloom.
The final area of Tokyo on my agenda was Ginza, which is an upscale shopping neighborhood. The Sanrio site recommended 2 shops in the Nishi Ginza Department Store and I was eventually able to find my way there from the subway. From the moment I saw Hello Kitty shaped floral arragements outside, my head exploded at all the cuteness. Oh, the damage I could have done if I hadn't had to worry about limited luggage space; if I owned cute Hello Kitty pots and pans, it might even inspire me to actually cook something every now and then. I spent a good 45 minutes admiring all the lovely things in both shops. One of my favorite displays featured a plethora of items in a rich purple floral Japanese design accented with Hello Kitty faces- the plush Hello Kitty in a kimono was clearly too large to fit anywhere and I struggled to figure out how I might be able to actually use any of the other items. Then I remembered that I was using a boring black case to hold my sunglasses; so I happily claimed the purple Hello Kitty glasses case.
While walking down one of the streets that was closed to vehicle traffic, I noticed a circle of people. Curious to learn what held their interest, I moved in closer and realized there were 2 adorable little kitties in the middle of the street. They were wearing sparkly kerchiefs loosely tied around their necks, so they clearly belonged to someone. A few Japanese children were particularly delighted with the little felines. After a few minutes, a man picked up one of the kitties and placed him in front of a big dog, apparently to see what would happen. The dog barked, the kitty got a little scared... and pretty soon the man scooped up the 2 kitties and walked away as if he'd never been there at all.
I walked around a little more and then realized that I was feeling tired. I'd seen everything that had been on my list of ideas for the trip, so I decided to head back to Shinjuku and hang out near my hotel. Before leaving Shinjuku station, I checked to see how much the ticket would cost to go to the airport. As I did so, a Japanese man came over to ask if he could help and he confirmed the price for me. I had to explain that I was just checking for later when he seemed surprised that I wasn't buying a ticket.
I was randomly walking around when I lucked into finally finding some interesting flavored Kit Kats in a convenience store. That was good for later, but I really needed to eat something a bit more substantial. So I wandered, figuring my feet would take me somewhere that fit the bill. I saw a little place where you placed your order by punching a number in a vending machine; there were display models of food in the window with corresponding numbers on them. I saw a meal set with pork katsu and udon which seemed very affordable. But I waffled, slightly intimidated by the whole ordering process. After walking another block, I turned around and decided that I would eat at the vending machine place after all, walked confidently to the machine, pressed #44, inserted my coins, took the slip of paper it spit out and sat down feeling triumphant at my prowess at the strange ordering process. It was a good 5 minutes later when a nice older gentlemen motioned to me in a way that explained that I had to actually hand the slip of paper to the chef in order for someone to fill my order. Ooops. Sufficiently humbled, I presented my slip at the counter and pointed to the hot udon when he showed me a paper with options for the side dish. Once I got the protocol out of the way, I quite enjoyed sitting at the little counter and eating a nice, wholesome meal at a real, non-touristy Japanese restaurant.
I walked around a little more after dinner, until I reached a point where it was rainy, my feet hurt, and I was frankly ready to go home (or at least to rest for awhile). If the cat cafe hadn't already closed for the day, this would have been the perfect time for another visit. Instead, I went back to my hotel at around 6pm and just sat in the lobby. It was nice to be somewhere dry and not to move a muscle. About an hour later, I decided to head over the airport early so I retrieved my bags and headed once again to Shinjuku station. I had to transfer at Shinagawa station; when I reached the track, I looked overhead at the electronic signs to be sure of which train I needed. I'd already figured it out when a man asked me if he could help and he confirmed that the 2nd train would be going to Haneda. The same man went out of his way to come over to me on the train to tell me when the Haneda international stop was approaching.
I arrived at the airport at around 8 pm, 4 hours before my flight. After checking in behind some skateboarders, I made sure to package my Japanese mini-Sim card and insert it into the pre-posted envelope to mail back to the company from which I'd rented it. Naturally, I headed to the shopping area with an eye to finding the Hello Kitty Japan shop. I was lucky I'd arrived early because it didn't stay open very late. And oh my gosh, they had the cutest Japanese Hello Kitty T-shirt that I hadn't seen anywhere! And they had some more flavored kit kats. I bought the T-shirt and 2 boxes of kit kats and, when considering my carry on bags, decreed the law of last minute shopping: everything fits because I say it fits! It would have been easy to buy even more if space was not a consideration. At another store, I found a couple of Stitch pens that depicted the not-yet-open Tokyo Sky Tree. For a site that hasn't yet opened, they sure were selling a lot of souvenirs for it already! I tried to find some things for other friends, but ultimately didn't see anything I thought they'd like.
Arriving at the gate, I wondered who designed the airport such that all the outlets were along a raised table, with no way to sit by them. I needed to charge my iPad so I just sat on the floor, under the table. I unwrapped the Soy Milk and Edamame bagel I'd bought earlier and was disappointed that it tasted pretty much like a regular bagel. I mean, it tasted like a good bagel. But I'd been hoping for a distinctive flavor.
I was taking an ANA plane to LAX, and I'd expected it to somehow be better than US airliners but it wasn't, really, other than the fact that the seats didn't seem uncomfortable to my neck. Also, the flight path screens on the personal seat backs seemed to stop somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's always good when a flight is uneventful, and this one was. I lucked into an empty seat next to me again, watched last week's episode of Amazing Race on my iPad, and got some rest.
When I arrived at LAX, it was still Sunday afternoon there. Nothing good ever happens for me at LAX so I'd been a bit leery of transfering there, but the flights had made the most sense. I have to say that the process for transfering flights was one of the most confusing and annoying that I'd seen. I'm used to changing at DFW where, after rechecking your bags, you could go up an escalator to a special security line just for international transfers. From there, you could walk or take a train to your terminal. At LAX, you needed to 1- figure out that you needed to walk outside to take a bus to your new terminal, 2- Find the bus stop, 3- Watch 3 buses go by for "Parking Lot C" and wonder if the transfers bus is just a mythical promise. Once at the new terminal, you need to go through the regular security line. I'd been feeling a little ill at baggage claim so I really just wanted to get to my new gate and sit down and I wasn't amused when people started cutting in front of me at security. When a couple smiled and told me they were with the other lady who'd already cut in front of me, I may have snarked, "well, then y'all cut in front of me" But I let them be. And also the guy who was in a hurry to make his plane. I had 4 hours to kill, afterall.
And they were probably 4 of the longest hours of my life because my new gate was situated in The Most Boring Terminal Wing Ever. All it had was a Hudson Books and a stupid restaurant. After calling home, I finally figured out how to watch "NYC 22" on my iPad, which I only wanted to see because the episode starred Erin Dilly. Once that was over... I just wanted to get going. But no, I had hours to go. And then the aircraft was delayed. *sigh* But finally I got on my 2nd consecutive red-eye flight for the final leg of my journey home.
My trip to Japan began with my niece, J, making me a going away present. So it was only fitting that it ended with my other niece, M, deciding to join her dad to pick me up at the airport. It really made me smile that she wanted to come and see me. It was as close as I could come to feeling like there is no place like home.
Unlike other trips, I came back from Japan with an immediate desire to return as soon as possible. Preferably with a working ATM card. And at least 2 backup options.
Obviously, the biggest problem on my trip was the lack of ability to get cash. But I was frugal enough to come home with extra Yen, so it wasn't a dire problem. (well, if you can call it "frugal" when I feel like I bought half of TDR on my credit card) Other than that glitch, things worked out pretty well.
Both of my hotels were terrific. I absolutely loved the convenience and atmosphere of the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel; I'm not sure if I'd stay there again only because it's so expensive that it's hard to justify. The Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku was practically a steal at the rate I paid and it was super convenient to everywhere I wanted to go.
Until the very last night, I was pretty lucky with the weather. I would have liked for it to have been sunnier (so as to get better photos), but it was a comfortable temperature and mostly dry so I can't complain too much. It was awesome to actually be in Japan to catch the end of the cherry blossom season!
This was definitely a great time to visit Tokyo Disney; It helped that I was there during the week. (weekends are more crowded) Lines were never too long, and the spring events were a lot of fun.
I'm really glad that I got out of my comfort zone a little and was able to eat more Japanese food and less spaghetti. I love Japanese food, but I've felt intimidated in the past from taking a chance on something different. My only food related regret is that I didn't try more flavors of popcorn at TDR!
Getting a mini Sim card for my iPad was perhaps the best money I've ever spent on a vacation. It was a total game changer since it enabled me to decide at the last minute that I wanted to walk somewhere, and I knew I wouldn't get lost. It was also convenient to have internet access 24/7- great for activities ranging from following Phillies games to making live posts about running into figure skaters!
All in all, there is something about Japan that keeps drawing me in. Perhaps part of it is that it's nice to be somewhere where I'm not supposed to fit in, since I often feel out of place back home. But there's definitely something special about Japan and its people that make it a wonderful destination- a place that is very different from home but yet also comfortable at the same time. I hope it doesn't take me 7 more years to return; there are still plenty of places I haven't seen (Hokkaido, for one region; I also haven't been to Osaka...) and there are plenty of places I'd love to visit again and again.