Blog: Japan, Round 2

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Japan, Round 2 - Thursday, March 28, 2024
For international travel, our regular cadence has been one trip every two years. Before last year's Japan trip, we hadn't done one since 2019 due to the pandemic (Priscilla doesn't count our 2020 cruise to Ensenada as international). Since she felt gypped, we agreed that we'd do another international trip in 2024. We settled on Japan again because prices are still cheap, the exchange rate is even better now (about 150 yen for $1), and because we enjoyed our time last year.

We departed last Sunday and the day was pretty grueling. We got to SJC a little after 9am and headed to The Club for breakfast. Brandon and Josephine from church were already there; they were on our flight but unlike us, they were going to visit different cities in Japan for a whole two weeks. Our trip was 10 days and we were only staying in the Greater Tokyo Area this time, since the JR pass is a lot more expensive now and it wasn't economical to get to cities like Kyoto.

The flight was around 11 hours and was pretty uneventful until the last half hour. Tokyo was getting 40mph winds that day and there was so much turbulence during our entire descent. The wind was so bad that we had to abort the first landing attempt and re-ascend and circle around. The plane was shaking so much right until it touched down on the runway. This was the worst turbulence I've ever experienced and my stomach was quite upset. Another minute of that and I probably would've thrown up. At least a couple other people did.

At Narita, there was a lot of waiting. Half an hour to get through customs. Half an hour to get the Pasmo transit card (preloaded with 1,500 yen with the 500 yen activation fee waived), which is similar to the Suica card but only available to foreigners. At least there was no wait to get food from the Lawson convenience store at the airport; we each got a couple things since we hadn't eaten much on the flight.

Odaiba and Tokyo:
Then we took a Keisei train and a Yurikamome train (2 more hours of travel) to get to our hotel at Tokyo Bay Ariake Washington Hotel. The room was pretty small, just a little bigger than the room at Ibis Styles in Kyoto last year. We got more food from another nearby Lawson for dinner, and then we were pretty tired so we turned in "early". We woke up in the middle of the night because of jetlag, but we were still able to get 6 cumulative hours of sleep.

The next morning, we had a buffet breakfast at the hotel. It was 2,200 yen per person and the food was pretty good, though the buffet we had at the Hilton Tokyo Bay last year (free because of our Hilton Gold membership) was better. There was a decent variety of western and Japanese food, fish, meat, vegetables and more. I liked the gyūdon and sauteed bean sprouts the most.

After breakfast, we walked over to Odaiba and did Joypolis. We did most of the attractions, but I had to skip a couple of them because I don't do well with spinning rides. I liked the Sonic Athletics game where I competed with 7 others in track and field events. I had the raw speed but I came in 3rd overall because I suck at timing my button presses (for the long jump and hurdles). :p

Joypolis was okay but it's more Priscilla's kind of place than mine. I liked our time afterwards a lot more - we walked around the area and saw the Statue of Liberty, Unicorn Gundam statue, Odaiba Kaihin Park, and Daiba Park.

We started Wednesday with breakfast buffet at the hotel again. They didn't have the items I liked from the first day, and the place was more crowded, so we decided that we wouldn't do the buffet again the next day. After breakfast, we walked to Odaiba and crossed the Rainbow Bridge (terrific views) and walked over to teamLab Borderless.

Borderless was amazing! A lot of the art moves between rooms and it changes periodically. Some of it even reacts when you touch the wall. Every room was masterfully done. The room we liked most was the one with a 360 degree projection of celestial bodies in space. It periodically transitions through different scenes and the one that has crows flying through space is really something else. The other rooms that were terrific were the one with the forest of LED light strips hanging from the ceiling, the one with lighted metal balls moving around a track, and the one with hundreds of spotlights choreographed to music.

We also liked the tea room (only 600 yen for most of the teas) where you sit in a dimly-lit room and a projection shines into your tea cup. The projection shows flowers growing in your tea and then the petals all scatter when you pick up the cup. You watch as the petals blow away and fade once last time when you pick up the cup to drink for the final time. I thought it was a poignant metaphor for the beauty and fleetingness of life.

Borderless was truly moving and inspirational. At first I didn't see what the big deal would be, but I'm really glad that we did this. Priscilla paid $78 for the Joypolis and Borderless package through Klook, so each was around $20 per person. I don't think it was worth it for Joypolis, but it definitely was for Borderless!

On Thursday, we took the Yurikamome and then a JR train to get to Odawara. We picked up the Hakone Freepass from the train station and walked around Odawara Castle Park and also got some produce from the grocery store at the train station. The tomatoes in particular were really good - they looked like regular tomatoes but were very flavorful, almost like heirloom. Way better than all the tomatoes we get at grocery stores back home. Compared to the US, produce in Japan seems to be more expensive but higher quality. Even the hard-boiled eggs we bought at the convenience stores had orange yolks; hens in Japan are apparently fed a more balanced diet, while hens in the US are fed mostly corn and soybean.

From the train station, we took the free shuttle provided by our hotel, Hotel Indigo, to Hakone. This is a boutique hotel and they're very service oriented, which we're not accustomed to, though Priscilla didn't mind. This was by far the nicest hotel during our trip, and Priscilla redeemed all of the travel points in our respective Capital One accounts to book this. The room was quite large and had a lot of amenities, including a private onsen on the balcony and sliding wooden doors between the living area and the bathroom area that blocked out light. Since this day was mostly a travel day, we didn't do too much walking - we just walked 2.5 miles along the side of the Hayakawa River near the hotel.

Hakone is known for its hot springs, and every room at this hotel has an onsen. There was a 150 yen onsen fee (so just $1) per person per night, and we made good use of it since we used our onsen each of the three nights that we were there. The water is supposed to have healing and rejuvenating properties, and I did detect a slight sulfur smell one night, so it's probably the real deal.

The next day, we walked up some really steep steps to get to Gora Station, and from there took the Hakone Tozan Cable Car and then the Hakone Ropeway up the mountain. There are four consecutive ropeway lines, and once you crest the ridgetop of the Owakudani valley, you're treated to a gorgeous view of Mount Fuji in the distance and the sight and sulfur smell of the volcanic steam vents below. We stepped out at the lookout point to admire the landscape and peek at the gift shops. There were lots of shops selling black eggs, which this area is famous for and are said to add 7 years of life, but people say they just taste like regular eggs. Instead of eggs, we opted for black ice cream, which just tasted like vanilla. This place seemed like a tourist trap, but at least our ice cream was only 400 yen.

We took the ropeway down to Lake Ashinoko and did the pirate ship cruise to get to the southeast side of the lake. We went to the Heiwa no Torii, a famous torii (traditional Japanese gate) out on the water, but there were too many people in line waiting to get a picture, so we just took a picture from the side. After a quick lunch at Lawson, we found our way to the Kyu Kaido, a portion of the historic Tōkaidō road. The hike was very rugged due to the steep terrain and the large uneven cobblestones, and it was a little more difficult since we weren't wearing hiking shoes, but at least we did it in the eastward direction going downhill. Going the opposite way would've been quite challenging.

At the start of the hike, we were looking at the map on a sign and were met by a girl who looked to be in her early 30s. We ended up hiking together since we were all planning to visit the Amazake Chaya Tea House around the midpoint of the trail. We learned that she was from Perth, Australia and was on her second day of a 30-day backpacking trip through Japan. She gave us some travel recommendations for Australia and we chatted a bit when we settled down at the tea house. Priscilla and I had the amazake (sweet rice wine) and the sesame seed mochi. The tea house apparently has been operating for 400 years, and the recipe for the amazake is still the original. It's non-alcoholic and is sweet without sugar. After staying a bit, we exchanged well wishes and Priscilla and I continued on our hike while our friend waited for the bus.

We hiked to the eastern end of the trail in the town of Hatajuku, completing the approximately 3 mile length of the Kyu Kaido. East of the tea house, the trail gets more technical, including steep stairs with shallow steps, and occasionally crosses and even merges with the modern road. Finally, the old trail pretty much disappears once you get to the residential part of the town. We walked along the residential road for a short while, but it was a semi-busy road and the shoulder was narrow, so we decided to catch the Hakone Tozan Bus back. The bus took us to the Yumoto Station, and from there we took the Hakone Tozan Train, famous for its switchback railway, back to Gora Station. All the transportation that day was covered by the Hakone Freepass.

Saturday morning, we splurged and did the breakfast buffet at the hotel for 3,729 yen per person. Priscilla didn't mind doing this since she could get it credited on her Capital One Venture card. They had some fancier items that I didn't really care for, but I was still able to find some things that I liked that also agreed with my stomach. It was raining a good part of the day, so we stayed in the hotel and I caught up on work emails until the early evening, when the rain stopped and we hit up the Hayakawa River trail for a short walk again. Priscilla had originally planned for us to do more activities with the Freepass, but it was nice (for me at least) to have some downtime.

On Sunday, we used the Freepass once more to visit Hakone Gora Park. This wasn't the best time of year to visit since rose bushes and most trees weren't in bloom yet, but it was still nice to wander around the gardens and also see the plants in the greenhouses. Regular entry is 550 yen per person, and I don't think we saved money on all our activities by getting the Freepass, but convenience is worth something as well.

Afterwards, we took the hotel shuttle back to Odawara Station and checked into our new hotel at Toyoko Inn. We'd wanted to walk around Odawara Castle Park again but didn't on account of the rain. So we just chilled at the hotel and then went to Yoshinoya for dinner - our first time eating at a restaurant this trip. We were able to order more adeptly compared to last year. Yoshinoya in Japan is way better than Yoshinoya in the US. You get dine-in service, they give you complimentary tea and free refills on rice, food is made to order, and they don't have silly American desserts like cheesecake. And dinner here was only 1,453 yen - less than $5 per person!

After stuffing ourselves from the free breakfast at Toyoko Inn (not bad selection for free) on Monday, we took a JR train from Odawara to Yokohama. We visited the Cup Noodles Museum and learned the story of the founder, Momofuku Ando, who invented instant noodles after a string of failures. It was neat to learn how he came up with the idea of flash flying noodles to dehydrate them after watching his wife fry up some tempura. We also hit up Chinatown for Priscilla to get some light bites. On the way back, we stumbled upon a fresh squeezed orange juice vending machine and had to try it out of curiosity. For 350 yen, the machine squeezed 4 oranges to make a cup of juice. The oranges rolled down a track and were loaded one by one onto a gear-like wheel, getting pressed between two wheels as they rotated towards each other. This was probably the coolest vending machine I've ever seen.

Tuesday saw us stuffing our faces for breakfast yet again. Priscilla got the breakfast option when booking our Yokohama hotel, The Square, for two nights. All the eating helped us not be hungry until dinnertime. It was raining fairly hard, but we walked over to Animal Touch Minatomira at the World Porters mall to go feed and pet animals. We liked the room with the capybaras, toucans, lemurs, and a sloth the most. At 1,800 yen per person plus 1,000 yen for 6 feeding vouchers, this was the most expensive activity we did.

Afterwards, we rode the giant Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris wheel, which Priscilla had booked for $4.26 per person. The ride lasted 15 minutes and gave us a nice view of Yokohama, though sadly we couldn't see far in the distance because of the rain and fog. But the coolest thing is that the Ferris wheel lights up at night with LEDs on every spoke. Its regular mode of operation is counting up the seconds of each minute, but every 15 minutes there's a 5-minute light show with different colors and patterns. Really a sight to behold. And our hotel room on the 15th floor had the perfect view of it! This was my favorite thing in Yokohama.

There's an OK Store a stone's throw from the hotel, so we went there for groceries and to the Hama Sushi restaurant there for dinner. This restaurant is really cool - you check in at a kiosk and it tells you what table to sit at, then you order individual items using a tablet and they are whisked to your table on a conveyor belt. The tablet plays a little jingle when your item arrives. It was really cool to see how everything was so coordinated and just worked seamlessly. Utensils, sauces, and a tap for hot tea are provided at the table, so there are no waiters. If the cashier was replaced with a self-pay option, you'd really not have to talk to anyone! We spent 1,804 yen here and got mostly full, and we had a second dinner from stuff we bought at the grocery store. I felt like the sushi was a splurge, but it still came out to only around $6 per person! What!

Wednesday, our final day, we stuffed ourselves at the hotel buffet one last time before taking JR trains to get to Narita. Learning a lesson from last year, we hit up the duty free shops first to get Tokyo Bananas (for my coworkers) before they ran out. We were able to use the remaining balance on our Pasmo cards and the rest of our cash here. We then got some light bites at the IASS NOA lounge. They had miso soup and some dehydrated seaweed and tofu that puff back up when added to soup; I wondered if those had been dehydrated through the flash frying method! The flight back was thankfully uneventful, though I wasn't able to sleep much and I developed a massive sore throat shortly after getting home. Looks like I'm catching a cold, but at least I got sick on the last day of travel, not the first day.

Overall, I'm glad that we went on this trip, though like last year, I was getting city fatigue and travel fatigue a few days in. Having some downtime definitely helped, even though some of it was because of staying at the hotel due to rain. I guess we didn't do as much this year, and that includes going to convenience stores even more this year. We got to see some cherry blossoms this time around; most of the trees were still bare, but some had started blooming.

Priscilla once again did a fantastic job with planning all aspects of our trip, including knowing the exact fare we would need for each train ride (mainly just to know how much we needed to load on our Pasmo cards), and getting some of our hotel stays, breakfasts, and some activities credited from her Capital One card. The total cost of the trip was around $2,250 and after credits, we spent around $1,775. Not too shabby given that the flights alone were $1,026.

Japan does so many things better than the US and there are a lot of things I will miss, but for now I'm glad to be home and I'm looking forward to catching up on rest.