Final stop on our 2018 limited tour of Japan (1, 2 [confusion.cc]): Tokyo. We arrived by train from Nagano [confusion.cc] at Tokyo Station. Our hotel was a ryokan in Asakusa so we loaded into two taxis with our luggage. Once we checked in we roamed around Asakusa and ended up in the Owl Cafe. It’s less of a cafe than what I thought it would be, I’ve seen photos of a cat cafe and a hedgehog cafe in Japan and they are a coffee shop with animals. In fact my daughters wanted to go to the hedgehog cafe but it was a bit far from anything else we were doing, the Owl Cafe was just something we stumbled upon so thought it would be a good substitute. The Owl Cafe was not really a cafe at all, it was an indoor petting zoo. It was odd but the kids really enjoyed petting and holding the animals —there were more then just owls, there were snakes, a sugar glider, even a giant capybara wondering around, you can’t really hold a full grown capybara.
After the Owl Cafe we found a Denny’s because my older daughter saw it an really wanted to go and have chocolate chip pancakes she remembered having at a Denny’s along the interstate on the way to my grandparents house when she was six years old… unfortunately Denny’s in Japan is not Denny’s in the US. No chocolate chip pancakes, not much for all day breakfast at all in fact. But all the kids did find food they liked and, sad to say, we made two or three more visits to Denny’s to fill their stomachs over the next few days.
Our first real adventure was the next morning, the Studio Ghibli Museum [ghibli-museum.jp]. Getting tickets to the museum is not straight forward, the tickets go on sale in Japan first and at some point you can buy them online via Lawson’s (yes, the convenience store). By the time they went on sale online everything was sold out. But there were lots of tour groups selling “tours” that included tickets to the Ghibli Museum. Tours in quotes because essentially you meet the guide at the nearest train station and walk in a group through the large park to the Ghibli Museum. Not much of a tour. I’m guessing that the tour companies go and buy up all the tickets when they are on sale in Japan and then they are basically scalping them, they cost three or four times the list price. I got the tickets but shame on Ghibli for such shitty customer experience, it’s fucked up. On the bright side, the museum was fun. It’s not real but but it’s got some fun stuff; a mock up of Miyazaki’s studio —complete with pencil nubs stapled end-to-end, which is apparently thing he does or did or whatever— various displays on how animation is made, from the drawing process, to cell painting techniques to multi-layer cameras used to give different layers different movement speed. And, of course, a museum shop where we spend way too much money (note to others we later found another Ghibli shop at the base of the Tokyo Skytree that had more than the shop at the Ghibli Museum, but not the unique things like actual animation cells and limited edition things. So if you are going to buy just the toys, puzzles, cloths and the like, you can skip the crazy crowd.). The other big thing at the Museum is the Saturn Theater which shows original short films. We were really hoping to see Boro the Caterpillar [wikipedia.org], Miyazaki’s first computer animation but, alas, we saw something else, unfortunately there is no other way to see Boro.
All-in-all the Ghibli Museum was worth it for someone who has watched and liked all of the Studio’s work, not sure a passing fan would be able to justify the cost. My only complaint is the ticketing process and the crowds, considering the issues with getting ahold of the limited tickets there were a lot of people, just barely short of fire hazard crowded in places. Even the walk from the train station was fun, we would have made it with or without the “tour” but the leaves on the Japanese maples were in full fiery red glory in the park and we found a shop my kids really enjoyed: B-Side Label [bside-label.com], makers of vinyl stickers. the girls enjoyed just browsing and each picked out a handful of pretty or silly designs to stick on waterbottles and such.
Our next adventure was teamLab Borderless [teamlab.art]. Which is an interactive image mapping and lighting exhibit. Projected waterfalls that flow around you. Animals you can color and scan and watch wonder around the rooms —and stomp on, causing them to splat on the floor. Rainbow whales swim along the walls, a gallery of color changing lamps in a mirrored room. We have been to the smaller teamLabs Future World at the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum in Singapore a few times. several of the exhibits at Borderless are larger versions of exhibits there.
Still, teamLab’s art is awesome and beautiful. We spent most of the day wandering around. The only drawback was how hot the building is, between the large crowd and the lighting equipment it was very hot. In one exhibit it’s so hot it’s like being in a sauna. But Borderless is well worth a visit. There are several other teamLab exhibits in And around Tokyo too, but we didn’t visit any of them.
To round out our time in Tokyo we did some research before we left Singapore. We watched shows on NHK and YouTube to find things to do. The the key show was on NHK, the Hands-on Fun in Asakusa [nhk.or.jp] episode of Tokyo Eye 2020. within easy walking distance of our Ryokan we found three great things to do: Asakusa Kingyo, Kawarawari kawarana, and Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku.
Asakusa Kingyo [crayonsite.net] is located in an arcade just next to Sensōji [wikipedia.org]. Kingyo means goldfish in Japanese and Asakusa Kingyo is filled with paper goldfish, ceramic goldfish, stuffed goldfish and the like. but the main attaction is a large pool in the middle of the shop where you can sit and try to catch actual goldfish with little paper paddles and a wooden box. The kids caught dozens of goldfish over two or three visits. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them home, we got a ceramic goldfish to commemorate the visit.
Kawarawari Kawarana [kawarana.jp] is for distressing, you get to break Japanese roof tiles like some karate master. The roof tiles are about one centimeter think and the basic package is breaking five tiles. It’s a fun experience, you can dress up in one of the yukata provided and a Karate Kid headband to have the full experience. Totally worth it.
Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku [guraku.jp] is a do it yourself Taiyaki cafe. Taiyaki are the traditionally japanese fish shapped pancakes filled with adzuku (sweet red bean paste), cheese or custard. At Guraku not only do you get to make the taiyaki yourself, you can bring anything you want to fill them. We were not so adventurous, we took ham and cheese, and made a lot of custard too. In fact we made a ton of taiyaki. We really went for the kids to make but that meant booking for all seven of us. I think we got 24 taiyaki out of it. We had hot fresh taiyaki, and warm taiyaki later and cold taiyaki for breakfast and… and then we tossed a few into the trash.
From YouTube we watched a few videos but the ones that we really used were those about food. We watched a YouTuber named Paolo [tokyozebra.com] and in particular his videos on Asakusa [youtube.com] and snacks in Harajuku [youtube.com]. Of all the foods that were tried there are two worth mentioning.
The first is the giant rainbow cotton candy from Totti Candy Factory (which does not seem to have a website, but funny enough they opened a shop in Yishun Singapore near my house). The size of the cotton candy is way over the top. It’s four flavors like some kind of fat sombrero. My youngest devoured one on her own. But Harajuku is too much for my family, too crowded. We made it halfway down the road, pretty much as far as Totti before they were all “get us out of here”. We took one wrong turn trying to go out a side street that ended up being a dead end (thanks Google Maps). But in the end had to wade back through the sea of humanity down the main road.
The second food adventure was back in Asakusa: Benizuru (another one with no website). Benizuru makes one thing, this is Japanese “specialization leads to perfection” at its yummiest. Benizuru makes über-fluffy rice flour pancakes. Each pancake is about six centimeters think when they take it off the griddle, before it sinks a little. They are not so much fluffy (though that’s how everyone describes them) as jiggly. In addition to rice flour the chef folds in fresh whipped egg whites just before cooking. Getting a seat is, let’s say, “an adventure” (looking at it any other way will just irritate you.) they don’t take reservations over the phone, and they don’t take reservations for the future only for the same day. They open at eight AM to start taking reservations and are apparently fully booked dry quickly. My sister and I went at six AM the day after all of this was explained to us (we knew about the same day reservations but not what time they started taking them) and we were not the first people in line, there was a couple from Canada in front of us. By the time they started taking reservations the line was 30 people, or more, long. In any case we did get seats for ten AM and the pancakes were totally worth it. I had the basic, just three pancakes with butter and honey. All orders are three pancakes but there are a variety of toppings; in addition to butter and honey they have different (daily) fruits and even eggs and bacon. The whole reservation system makes more sense when you sit inside; there are 12 seats I think, and 6 griddle plates to cook the pancakes. So they can cook two orders at a time. If you’re going to go plan ahead and get up early, the people in front of us and at least those right behind us were, like us, returning after not being able to score a reservation on their first day.
Our last adventure was the Tokyo Sea Life Park [tokyo-zoo.net]. It was our last day and rainy but we took the train and made the most of it. I think though that the biggest hit was the French fries and hotdogs at the food truck in front of the aquarium.
I almost forgot, at some point we took a trip to the Tokyo Skytree [tokyo-skytree.jp], it was a nighttime visit to see the endless sea of lights that is Tokyo. I had a chance to visit the older Tokyo Tower [tokyotower.com] last year and I think it was better designed for the night view, and better positioned, closer to some of the clusters of tall buildings. Maybe the skytree would be better during the day, but the angle of the windows and the reflection on them of the interior lights spoilt the view for me.
And with that our 2018 tour of Japan came to an end.
See my whole Tokyo, Japan, December 2018 photoset on Flickr.