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Philippines & Japan 2023, Part Seven: Tokyo

Concluding my trip recap:

Arrival #

Our flight from Manila was uneventful. We packed into two Grab cars and flew ANA to Narita. The kids (who love their Nintendo Switch) were very pleased to be greeted by Mario and Yoshi and all I can say is, well played, Nintendo.

Characters from Nintendo’s Super Mario video game series hold up signs welcoming travelers to Japan.
A father and daughter wearing masks pose for a selfie while riding an escalator. On the wall in the background are ghost characters from Nintendo’s Super Mario video games.

We elected to take the JR Express from the airport. My kingdom for a first-class rail system in the United States, I don’t know if Americans are aware of how terribly our systems compare to other major cities!

View from inside a JR Express train car.
JR Express into Tokyo (no audio). Full version on Flickr.
A vending machine on a rail platform. Across the top of the machine is the message, “Feel and Taste Japan Through Vending Machines”
You can tell a lot about a country by its…vending machines?

Our Airbnb was located in Shinjuku, not too far from the Shin-Ōkubo JR station. It was accessed via a narrow alleyway, which held some surprises:

Once we got settled we tried to figure out dinner plans, which was a challenge with 9 people.1 Instead of trying to find a restaurant that could accomodate a large party we headed to one of the local grocery stores and assembled a meal from some of the packaged sushi/dumplings/etc.

A dining table filled with packaged sushi, dumplings, and edamame.
Supermarket dinner. Photo © Joseph Llobrera.

We crammed into the tiny dining room and had a decent meal, then passed out in anticipation of the next day.

Day One #

Asakusa/Sensōji #

It had been 18 years since my last visit to Japan, and I had forgotten that the train system is a mix of Tokyo subway and JR-operated lines, so that made for some confusion—especially since we didn’t opt to get Suica or Pasmo transit cards for such a short trip.2 As efficient as the Tokyo transit system is, the UX of its vending machines could really use an update.

A row of vending machines under a map of the Tokyo rail system.
Dad and me trying to figure out child/adult tickets to get to Asakusa. Photo © Joseph Llobrera.
Tourists in colorful kimonos in front of Hōzōmon temple.
Hypnotic (no audio). Full version on Flickr.
Women in ornate kimonos queue up in front of a shop along Nakamise Shopping Street.
Beautiful kimonos everywhere

For lunch we found a small udon shop off Nakamise Shopping Street.

Closeup of a bowl of udon with tofu skin and shaved vegetable garnish.

While some of us decided to go back to the shops my brother, my dad, and I went to the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, which has an observation deck a few stories high.

A man and a woman in a rickshaw chat with their driver.

Imperial Palace #

After lunch we boarded a hop-on/hop-off bus route bound for the Imperial Palace.

Seimon Ishibashi bridge in front of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.
Seimon Ishibashi bridge

On the way back from the palace we happened upon a couple taking some wedding photos. At one point the photographer instructed the man to carry his bride and I was afraid he was going to drop her and ruin her dress.

A man and a woman in wedding attire take photos on the street near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. The photographer is arranging the woman’s dress.

The palace area was also great for fun signs:

Shibuya #

Waiting for the next bus headed to Shibuya we took refuge at a the Have a Nice Tokyo! visitor center in the Mitsubishi Building. I liked the walls a lot:

A large room with a patterned wooden wall. Small wooden stools are arranged in rows in the foreground, while in the background a woman seated at a small table speaks on her cellphone.

Outside the center we encountered a security bot:

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) (no audio). Full version on Flickr.

Some sights from the bus:

A steady stream of airplanes crossing over Tokyo (no audio). Full version on Flickr.

The girls had a lot of fun bouncing off the padded decorative exterior of the Moncler store:

Exterior of a Moncler winter apparel store, with silver puffy sections mimicking a puffer jacket.
The Moncler store’s puffer walls (no audio). Video © Kristen Llobrera.

Our primary destination was the Nintendo store at the Shibuya PARCO shopping mall.

A giant figure of Super Mario in his classic jumping pose.
A giant figure of Link from the Legend of Zelda.

The Capcom store was just across from the Nintendo store:

A giant figure of Ryu from the Street Fighter series. He is preparing to launch a fireball from his hands.

Dinner brought a new experience for the kids: conveyor belt sushi! The sushi was heavy on mayo-based styles, perhaps to offset cheaper cuts of seafood?

A chef preps sushi, surrounded by a conveyor belt of platters.
Conveyor belt sushi (no audio). Full version on Flickr.

We capped the night off by observing the famous Shibuya scramble, incredibly busy even on a weeknight:

Lit-up skyscrapers ring the famous Shibuya Crossing.
Streams of pedestrians in the center of the Shibuya Crossing.
Inside the Shibuya scramble
Shibuya Scramble (no audio). Full version on Flickr.
A billboard advertising the Shibuya Mark City store. Two illustrated silhouettes of dogs. Under the first dog it says “I’m Mark.”, under the other, “I’m City.”.
I’m Mark, my job is City.

Day Two #

Shin-Yokohama by Shinkansen #

The anchor of our second day was a visit to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. We elected to take the Shinkansen so the kids could say they experienced it, even though Shin-Yokohama is only about twenty miles away and the Shinkansen wouldn’t reach anywhere close to its top speed.

Elongated nose of a Shinkansen train pulling into the station.
Shinkansen passing through (no audio). Full version on Flickr.
A man and his daughter sitting inside a Shinkansen rail car.
S and me

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum #

Ramen is magic (no audio). Full version on Flickr.

The museum occupies two main areas—the first floor has an exhibition on the history of ramen, covering its earliest iterations and its explosion in popularity in the 1990s. There was also the Ra-haku Sugomen Lab where you could assemble your own customized bowl of instant ramen, delivered to you in a shrinkwrapped container for later consumption.

A woman assembles a bowl of instant ramen from a set of ingredients before her.
Ramen Lab. Photo © Kristen Llobrera.

The basement housed a two-story area filled with recreations of ramen stalls from various eras of Japan’s history. Each stall served a different variety of ramen tied to that era. It’s all very reminiscent of a Disney theme park but despite the kitsch I really enjoyed the experience.

A series of ramen shops whose facades recreate different historical eras of Japan.

We had an option to take one of the regular regional trains back to Tokyo, but the kids really wanted to ride the Shinkansen back. If we come back I’d love to take the kids to Kyoto or Osaka on the Shinkansen so they could really experience high-speed rail.

Splitting Up #

We made it back to Tokyo station in the early afternoon, and it quickly became evident that we wanted to do different things for the remainder of our last day in Tokyo: my parents wanted to get back on the hop-on/hop-off bus to see other areas of the city, my brother and his family wanted to go to Harajuku, and I wanted to check out the observation tower at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office. I knew I did not want to get on a open-decked bus in the middle of a Tokyo summer. This led to one of our party throwing a tantrum of embarrassing proportions.3 Let this be a lesson to build in separate activities when you are traveling with family!

So: my brother and his family went with my parents, and my family and I set off for the observation deck in Shinjuku. It was a bit confusing once we got there due to ongoing construction, but eventually we made our way to the correct tower. There’s a dedicated elevator that takes you straight to the observatory. In the center there’s a nice shop with books, clothing, and souvenirs, and the outer windows give you a 360º view of the city.

The twin towers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office

The views are really something. We could juuuust barely make out Mount Fuji in the distance:

Mt Fuji, covered with cloud.
Mt. Fuji is there, under the clouds

After we left the observation deck we walked back through Shinjuku, where I popped into a Yodobashi Camera. They unfortunately did not have any of the Fujifilm items I wanted in stock, which is no surprise given that brand’s well-documented production issues.

A camera shop display with multiple camera bodies and lenses densely arranged around a table.
Yodobashi Camera

While I was geeking out over cameras my kids stopped at one of the vending machines outside:

Two girls in front of a row of vending machines.

Then it was back to Shin-Okubo to regroup with our family and grab dinner.

Departure #

The next morning we packed up. We were flying out of Haneda so we grabbed a quick breakfast in the neighborhood and then made our way back to Shinjuku to catch one of the airport buses from Shinjuku Express Bus Terminal.

Reflecting #

That’s a wrap on this two-country travelogue! It was a whirlwind summer and I’m glad my whole family got to make the trip—it was deeply meaningful to have my kids see the places where I grew up, so the Philippines can be more than an abstraction for them. But beyond that it was so much fun to see places in the Philippines that I never got to visit in the decade I spent living there. I hope it won’t be another 25 years before my next trip back.

The trip definitely packed in a very aggressive itinerary, and we all agreed that next time would probably focus on just a couple of places, now that everyone has gotten the overview of the country.

As for Japan: Tokyo remains one of my favorite cities, and I think we could have used a solid week there to give us time to visit other areas in Japan. I think it was good for my kids to go from one country where English was so widely spoken, to another where they could feel the language barrier. To be fair, Google Translate made communicating so much easier than my last trip 18 years ago.

More photos on Flickr.

  1. My brother had asked our Airbnb host for local restaurant picks, and they replied that since the neighborhood was actually more Korean than Japanese they could not recommend any restaurants. Anti-Korean xenophobia in Japan is still very much alive, folks. ↩︎

  2. Our youngest didn’t have their own phone at the time of the trip, I imagine if we were to do this again we would just use the Suica mobile app. ↩︎

  3. Me. It was me. ↩︎