A Saturday in Tokyo

Lotus flower in Ueno park

Having been expats in Tokyo for 3-1/2 years, we’ve settled into a kind of routine that happens when a place ceases to be so new and different, and becomes “home.” Here’s how we spent this typical summer Saturday in Tokyo.

After sleeping in a bit (trying to recover from back to back to back travel, which left me with a cold), we headed for the gym. Our “Anytime Fitness” is the same gym we use in the US – our membership is reciprocal in Japan – and is only a 2 minute walk from our apartment. The gym isn’t much different from the US, other than the rule that all tattoos must be covered when using the facilities.

Workout behind us, it was off to our favorite soba noodle place, HakoSoba, for lunch. This was one of the first restaurants we visited when we moved to Japan, and it’s become a weekly necessity. For less than 500 yen (about $4.50) we get a bowl of steaming hot, yummy noodles. I’m not sure what we’ll do without our soba place when we move back to the US.

Our plan today was to visit the Shitamachi Tanabata festival in Kappabashi, a part of Tokyo a short walk from Asakusa Station. Tanabata, otherwise known as the Star Festival, is a Japanese festival celebrating the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, representated by the stars Vega and Altar. Interesting story – Google it for more details.

The streets were decorated with lanterns, streamers, and bamboo branches. And lots, and lots of people. Street food, drinks, games, toys and a parade! School kids marching in bands (grade schoolers with their music memorized!), and preschool kids with pom poms, dancers, tricked-out Harley motorcycles – just a festive event with everyone having a good time.

This is one of the longer festival streets, probably a mile or so from Asakusa, through Kappabashi, and nearly to Ueno Park. So, while we were in the neighborhood, we took a stroll into Ueno Park.

At Ueno, there is nearly always some kind of festival. Today, there was a food and drink festival, street entertainers, and many people just enjoying their Saturday in the park. Any time we go to Ueno, we walk around the lake. This time, the lotus plants are just starting to bloom. Lots of people enjoying the paddle boat lake, feeding the birds, and sitting in the park enjoying their “backyard.” Those of us who came from suburbia are used to having space in our yards. For the city dwellers, parks like Ueno provide the green space and contact with nature that is relaxing and enjoyable.

Leaving Ueno, we walked through Ameyokocho, a busy and crowded shopping street. We seldom buy anything, but it’s fun just to walk through and watch the people. The street parallels the Yamanote train line, so we caught a train at Akihabara Station.

But walking builds up a great thirst, so we exited the train at Hamamatsucho Station and took a short walk to a local craft brewery, Devil Craft. Craft beer is really just getting started in Japan, and Devil Craft has a good selection. Nice place just to rest the feet for awhile.

By the time we finished at Devil Craft, it was time to think about dinner. Today, we visited another restaurant we found only a few days after we moved to Tokyo – Warayaki-ya Tamachi, an Izakaya restaurant near Tamachi Station. This restaurant’s signature dish is bonito – skipjack tuna, not quite raw but just barely seared over a straw fire. Yum.

With the evening winding down, it was time to walk back toward home. On the way is a small pharmacy (you find these all over Tokyo), for a stop to get medicine for the aforementioned cold. We found the cold medicine isle, and seemingly hundreds of boxes of medicine — all totally in Japanese. As we tried to make some sense of what we were looking at, fumbling with Google Translate, another customer approached us and pointed to one box. “Most effective,” he said, in not quite perfect but very understandable English. We’ve had this experience before – a random Japanese stranger offering help when we look lost and confused. Have to love this country.

Our final stop for the day… the grocery store. In the US, it was common just to drive to the store once a week, buy a week’s worth of groceries, load them in the car and be done. Here, it’s different. It’s a kilometer walk from the grocery store to home, and there is a definite limit to how much can be carried. So, trips to the store become almost a daily experience. Bottle of wine, milk, fruit, veggies…necessities for the next days.

That’s our typical Saturday in Tokyo. Maybe not exciting or glamorous, but a life we have come to love.

Oh… And the mileage for today… 7.5 miles!

Traveling… again.

We really enjoy our time here in Japan, but one of the perks of this job assignment has been the opportunity to travel to other countries as well. We recently returned from a trip to eastern Europe and we decided we would write about our impressions of the cities/countries we visited.

Vienna, Austria. We had been to Vienna very briefly before — just a one night stopover — but this time we had a few days to actually explore the city.

Karlskirche, and 18th century Habsburg domed cathedral

Our hotel was in the historic city center, so it was an easy walk to many of the popular sites, many restaurants and sidewalk cafes, and plenty of upscale shopping (if you are so-inclined.) We especially enjoyed the sidewalk cafes, and stopping for a late afternoon beer or aperitif.

Transportation to and from the airport or train station is easy and inexpensive, and there is an extensive subway and tram system to take you anywhere in the city. We bought CAT train tickets (City-Airport Train) and a three day city transportation pass while we were still at the airport. The CAT train takes 16 minutes to travel from the airport to the city center station at Landstrasse. From there it was two stops on the subway, and a short walk to our hotel.

Prague, Czech Republic. From Vienna, we got a train to Prague. Again, our hotel was near the historic city center, and easily accessible to most of the tourist sites.

Boats on the Vltava river in central Prague

We had some trouble finding a taxi from the train station, and I think we were overcharged. If we had known better beforehand, I think we would have tried to find other public transit options. Prague has many trams and buses, and daily transit passes are inexpensive. But there is much to see in the city center area, and it is all easily walkable.

View from Vysehrad Fortress

Food is relatively inexpensive if you go a block or two AWAY from the main shopping street through the city center, and there is a great variety of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Everything is much more expensive along the main shopping street, so explore a little farther off the “tourist track” if possible.

John Lennon wall in central Prague

Budapest, Hungary. Our third stop for this trip was Budapest. We took a train from Prague – about 5 hours – to this city on the Danube River. Our mistake was that we booked a hotel near the train station we were going to be leaving from, not realizing that our arriving train came in to another station about a mile away.

Parliament building along the Danube

It would have been easy to get a taxi, but the weather was nice, and we decided to drag our luggage and walk instead.

Lively area around the Danube River in central Budapest

We have been to Budapest before, and were familiar with most of the sites there. We have favorite places we like there, and visited them again. As with Vienna and Prague, public transit is plentiful, and inexpensive, but the city is also very walkable. We walk when we can, because we feel it is easier to get to know a city on foot.

So… which city did we like best? Which city would we recommend for a visit? That, of course, depends on personal preference, but here are some of our impressions. Some bullet points:

  • Vienna is a beautiful city: a city full of art and culture and music. But we felt that Prague had more sites of interest to us, as well as a rich and colorful history. The city itself is clean and beautiful and well-maintained.
  • Budapest is a bit more “edgy” in our opinion. Maybe not as clean and well-maintained as Prague, but a really interesting place — especially for night-life. Examples: the “Ruin Bars” in the old Jewish quarter. Buildings that were slated for demolition, but have been taken over by bars and restaurants, furnished eclectically with odds and ends from second-hand shops. Also… the beer gardens set up in the park not far from our hotel. Exceptionally good beer, and it was VERY inexpensive. We went there with a friend of ours who lives in Budapest. Not sure we would have found it otherwise, but it was a really enjoyable evening.
  • Not that I want to get into the political history of these three cities, but I think it is important to note that their histories flavor the cities they have become. Prague and Budapest, in particular, have gone through some very difficult times, and the scars of those times have influenced the character of the cities today.

As a conclusion, a few brief remarks on other European cities we have visited:

  • London and Paris: We love London and Paris, and have been to both cities many times. We know our way around these cities, have our favorite sites that we visit over and over, and we are comfortable getting around these cities. But… we feel that London and Paris are somewhat “tourist tired.” They are certainly worth a visit, but the burden of tourists over the years has taken a toll. Most especially, watch out for petty crime in Paris.
  • Bucharest, Romania: Some describe Bucharest as a “Paris Wanna-be”… that may be so, but we just didn’t see it. Though we enjoyed our visit to Bucharest, we were much happier taking the train to Constanta, on the Black Sea coast of Romania. It has almost a Mediterranean flavor, and makes us think of Greece and Turkey. Also, if you do go to Romania, a trip through Transyvania is a must!
  • St. Petersburg, Russia. Interesting history, beautiful city — if somewhat run-down and seedy in places… gritty. We visited in late winter, and there was still a lot of ice and snow. The city takes on a grimy, gray color. Still we enjoyed St. Petersburg, and even (once) walked across the frozen Neva river (NOT recommended by those in authority, because if you break through the ice, the current is so strong that you would be swept away before you could be rescued. But… a lot of the locals were walking across, so we did too.)

So, if you only have the opportunity to visit one of these cities? Which would it be…? I think the winner for us… would have to be… Prague.

P.S. If you do decide to go to Prague, be sure to check out this YouTube video collection — The Honest Guide – Prague:


Friday of Golden Week…

Golden Week 2019 is a bit of an exception. This year, there are 10 consecutive days of holiday, due to the emperor’s transition.

The holidays have provided us with a chance to take time off and see some interesting things in Tokyo. It’s hard to visit other places in Japan, because EVERYONE is traveling. The hotels are booked, as are the flights and many of the trains. So, we just stay in Tokyo.

We’ve lived here three years. We are still discovering new places and sights, and also are enjoying visiting our favorite places.

Today, we started with a familiar run along the Takahama Canal. Actually, until a day or so ago, we just called it “the canal.” Then we took the time to translate one of the signs, and learned that its name is Takahama Canal.

Sign describing the Takahama Canal

Anyway, after our run and a delicious curry lunch at home, we decided to walk across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba Island to see Oktoberfest (even though it isn’t October), the start of beer garden season in Tokyo.

Rainbow Bridge is a landmark in Tokyo. Walking across offers outstanding views of Tokyo Bay, and areas of Tokyo. It’s an easy 2 kilometer walk, starting about a kilometer from our apartment.

It was a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, and many people took advantage of the day to enjoy Odaiba beach. We took a stroll along the beach, then moved on toward the Oktoberfest area. On the way, we found a Latin American festival. Surprising to see Spanish music and Mexican food booths in Tokyo.

Oktoberfest for us turned out to be a disappointment. There were a number of German beer booths, but costs were triple the normal cost of beer. Ambiance is good, but for us, not worth the extra cost.

So, it was back across the Rainbow Bridge for a brief stop at our apartment. Then on to our favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant for dinner.

For us, this was a highlight of Golden Week. We now can speak enough Japanese to actually converse with the wait staff and the sushi chef. The chef was anxious to practice his limited English, so we had an interesting, albeit simple, conversation.

There is also an older couple who we often see at this restaurant. He is Japanese, she is Western. Tonight, for the first time, we talked to these folks as we left the restaurant. A very nice older couple who have lived in Japan for many years. Nice to make the connection.

When we made the decision to come to Japan, it was for a two-year assignment. Seemed simple, and we never imagined it would be anything more than an interesting couple of years.

Now, after three years here, we’ve come to love Japan as our second home. We officially have one more year here. Often, though, we can imagine staying here permanently. That would be a huge additional change, and probably isn’t realistic. But even to consider the possibility is something we never expected would happen. Japan is certainly not a perfect place, but it is a wonderful country we have found comfortable in calling our home.

View at twilight from our Tokyo apartment

Golden Week 2019… and the Beginning of a New Era in Japan.

Japan has many officially recognized public holidays — 16 during most years — but 2019 is a special year, and there are an additional five holiday days on the calendar. Most are concentrated into three holiday periods during the year: The New Year, Golden Week, and Obon. New year is the most important family holiday in Japan (like Christmas in the west), and the official holiday is January 1st. Most businesses, however, are closed from the 1st to the 3rd. Obon is the Festival of Souls in Japan, honoring ancestors and the dead. It is celebrated in mid-August. But the longest span of holiday days in Japan occurs at the end of April, and into the first week of May. This is Golden Week.

This year — 2019 — the Golden week holidays started on April 29th with Showa Day… a day honoring the birthday of the former Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989 (the end of the Showa Era — Emperor Hirohito’s posthumous name is Emperor Showa). There are usually four holiday days during Golden week, but this year because of the ceremonies surrounding the abdication of Emperor Akihito, and the ascension of his son, Naruhito, to the throne, there are additional holiday days. May 1st has been officially declared Emperor Coronation Day, with the abdication of Emperor Akihito occurring on the evening of the 30th. But because the 30th is a weekday between two national holidays, according to Japanese law, it also becomes a holiday for this year.

Likewise, Friday May 3rd is officially Constitution Day, but because the 2nd lies between two national holidays, it becomes a holiday as well. Saturday, the 4th is Greenery Day — an official holiday celebrating the environment and nature — and Sunday the 5th is Children’s Day with the Boy’s Festival (Girl’s Festival was held March 3rd.) But because Children’s Day falls on a Sunday this year, Monday the 6th will also be a holiday.

So including the weekend days, 2019 Golden Week becomes an unprecedented 10-day holiday week in Japan. But… the really notable thing about this year’s Golden Week is the change in Era. Emperor Akihito has been on the throne since 1989. We have started into year 31 of the Heisei (Achieving Peace) Era, and now — tomorrow, with the coronation of Akihito’s son Naruhito — Japan will enter into Year One of the Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony) Era.

In a moving — but very brief — ceremony at the palace late this afternoon, the beloved Emperor Akihito stepped down. Tomorrow is a new day… and a New Era for Japan and its people.


Kanji for Reiwa — “Beautiful Harmony”

Meguro Madness

Each year around the first of April, Tokyo comes alive with color, as Sakura trees all over the city burst into full bloom.

The Japanese have an appreciation for the beauty of nature, and Sakura season brings out thousands to view the blossoms. There is even a term for it – hanami – meaning, roughly, flower viewing. In parks and gardens all around Tokyo, you’ll see hanami parties. Tarps on the ground, food, drink, and people just having a great time enjoying the spring weather and beautiful Sakura blooms.

One of the more popular hanami areas is the Meguro river. A stream running about eight kilometers through several wards of Tokyo, it is well known for the hundreds of Sakura trees lining its banks. Particularly in the area around Nakameguro, thousands of people come to stroll along the river, take in some street food, sip some Sakura-themed drinks and view the beautiful blossoms.

Getting to Meguro river is easy. Just take the JR Yamanote line to Meguro station. It’s a five-minute walk to the river. From there, just look at the beautiful trees and follow the crowds. It’s a walk you’re sure to enjoy.

Africa — Part 2 — Cape Town, SA

Back to the second part of the blog about our trip to Africa. I am sorry to say that I got a little distracted from it. It is spring in Tokyo, and the weather has started to warm up a bit. We had some friends from back home visiting/working in Tokyo, and I spent a couple of weeks sight-seeing with them around town. It is always interesting to show people around because it makes me see Tokyo — once again — through the eyes of people who don’t live here! After three years, for us, it feels more like “home” and less like a tourist destination. It is nice to feel the “newness” and wonder of it again.

Also… with warmer weather, the cherry blossoms (and lots of other flowers and trees) are beginning to “pop.” There are so many beautiful places to visit in Japan to see the sakura blossoms! “Hanami” (literally “flower viewing” in Japanese) is a really big deal here, with parties and gatherings under the beautiful trees. We spent last weekend wandering around some of our favorite “Hanami” locations — even though it was still a bit early, and the trees are not yet in full blooming glory.

But… back to our trip to Cape Town, South Africa. I will mostly just post photos, and descriptions.

Cape Town is a beautiful city at the southwestern tip of the African continent. It was originally settled in the mid-17th century as a stop-over for European ships on the way to trade in India. The Cape of Good Hope (originally named the Cape of Storms) is only a short drive south of the city. Capetown (and all of South Africa) has such a varied mix of people and cultures — and certainly has had a turbulent political past. So much history, and so many interesting sights.

This was the view from our hotel window in Cape Town. That is Table Mountain in the distance… with its typical “tablecloth” of clouds. Some days the clouds are so thick, and the winds so strong that the cable car to the top of the mountain has to be shut down.

Across from our hotel… St. George’s Cathedral — The Anglican Church of South Africa — is the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town, and is said to be the oldest Anglican congregation in South Africa. The existing building was built in 1901 to replace the original building that was built in 1834.

The inside of the cathedral was beautiful, and had many colorful stained glass windows.

Also inside was a sculpture of the “Black Madonna” by Leon Underwood (1939) that was given to the cathedral in 1987. And, in the inner courtyard, was a stone labyrinth — the path of the labyrinth is used as a form of walking meditation.

Near to our hotel was the 24-Hour Flower Market, filled with stall after stall of colorful fresh flowers.

Everywhere were paintings, sculptures, and images of Nelson Mandela.

In the shopping street next to our hotel, was this small section of the Berlin Wall…

And a plaza filled with street vendors selling all sorts of South African souvenirs.

This grape vine — brought to Cape Town from the Western Pyrenees of France — was planted in 1771, and is believed to be the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the Southern Hemisphere. It still produces fruit that is made into wine each year.

During the business meetings, the spouses had a bus tour along the coast south of Cape Town to The Cape of Good Hope. The views of the ocean from this cliff-side highway were amazing.

And then… The Cape of Good Hope. Previously believed to be the southern-most point of the African continent, and the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it is now known that Cape Agulhas — 90 miles to the southeast — holds that distinction. Still… the Cape of Good Hope marks the point where the sailing ships turned more eastward in their travels to India and the east. This photo was taken from the lighthouse at Cape Point. Another lighthouse had to be built lower down the cliff-side because this one was often shrouded in clouds and not visible to the sailing ships that depended on it for guidance around the cape.

Further around on the eastern side of the cape, is Simon’s Town, and Boulders Beach. Simon’s Town is a quaint British-style town that has been, first, the home of a British naval base, and now a South African naval base. It is also the home of Boulders African Penguin Colony! This colony of African penguins is fairly new… and got its start when a couple of penguin pairs showed up at the beach in the 1980’s. Now estimated to number between 2000 and 3000 penguins, the beach has become a popular tourist site.

The day we were there, was late in the breeding season, and we were able to see adults, juveniles, and even some penguins with eggs in nests built in the sand.

After the penguin beach, we went for lunch at a local winery. South Africa has many vineyards, and some amazing wines.

The last day of our stay in Cape Town, after the meetings were done, my husband and I took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain.

Table Mountain is a flat-topped plateau overlooking the city of Cape Town. Approximately 2 miles side to side, it is over 3500 feet in height. Beautiful views of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula can be seen from the top.

Unique flora and fauna inhabit the scrubby, rocky mountaintop…

Including this brazen Redwing Starling… looking for a handout…

Various flowers and lizards…

…And the Rock Hyrax — commonly known in South Africa as the “dassie” — a badger-sized mammal native to Africa and the Middle East. Having been fed (against the rules) by visiting tourists, these little cuties showed little fear, and wandered around the top of the mountain… especially near the food vendors and restaurant areas.

South Africa is an amazing and starkly beautiful country, with so many things to see and learn about. It is a place I would happily return to, to visit again — despite the arduous 24+ hour travel time to get there from our home in Tokyo.

Buying theater tickets

We recently found a theater in Tokyo that has a long-running production of Cats, one of our favorite shows. So, in celebration of our 40th anniversary, I set out to buy two tickets for the theater.

How to buy tickets? Go to the website for the theater, of course. Sure enough, type “Cats Play in Tokyo” into a browser, and the first item in the search list is “CATS|SHIKI THEATER COMPANY.” Ok, we’re in business.

Clicking on to the website, I find a lot of information about Cats, much of it in English. Scroll down a bit, and here’s a handy tab – “Performance Schedule.” Click, and I’m on a calendar page…mostly in Japanese. I can read enough to tell how to select a month, so I go to July 7, our desired date. Click, and I find a nice theater map showing available seats. Again in Japanese, but not too hard to figure out.

Now it is getting trickier. I click on the seats we want, no problem. But going on to make the purchase is getting complicated. Everything is in Japanese, with a lot of Kanji, making it impossible for me to read. Click on the “Translate” button…but nothing doing. Still all in Japanese.

So, pull out the Google translate app on the iPhone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it works well enough to get me to the purchase screen. Enter the name, address, credit card information. With Google Translate’s help, seems to be working. There are a couple of extra pink boxes in the name field, but that probably isn’t important, right?

Wrong. Click on “Submit,” and there is an error message. You guessed it – I need to fill in the pink boxes. After a little thought, I found a dropdown menu, and got Google’s help to translate — “enter name in full-width Katakana.” Katakana is one of the three character systems used in Japanese, the one used mostly for foreign words imported into the language (like English names). I know how to write my name in Katakana… but my computer doesn’t. It doesn’t have a Japanese keyboard installed.

So at this point, I’m not really sure if the purchase was done or not. But since I didn’t receive a confirmation in email…doesn’t appear that I have any tickets.

Fast-forward to the next day, and I search the website for a phone number to call for help. Sure enough, there is a handy number for the theater. Dial it up, and a friendly voice answers…in Japanese, of course.

“Eigo ga, hanasemasu ka?”–Do you speak English, I ask, hoping I don’t have to try to discuss this in my very limited Japanese. “Oh – shou-shou omachi, kudasai,” is the reply — please wait a minute. After a short wait, another friendly voice comes on the line — this time, speaking very good English.

A few minutes later, the nice lady secured my seats, and kindly explained how I can go to the theater to pick them up (cash only please – a common requirement in Japan).

So come July 7, we will be seeing Cats in Japan (in Japanese?) Like many things here, it sometime takes a little extra effort to get the result you want when you don’t speak the language very well. But invariably, there is someone who is always friendly, and willing to help.