Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair!

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Wedding party at the Meiji Jingu Shrine
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Wedding procession at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Our first week on Honshu, the main island of Japan, encompassed two Japanese holidays: Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox. The first holiday fell while we were in Tokyo and treated us to wandering groups of costumed people toting shrines through the streets of Shinjuku and chanting. A festive air reigned through the neighborhood with stalls of food being hawked by groups of smiling people dressed in costumes to match the shrine-bearers. An open stage blared live Japanese rock music, trucks trundled by broadcasting music sounding more military than anything else to our bemused ears. Inquiries resulted in answers that lost something in translation: “There’s a ghost in the box.” when we asked about the shrine bearers. Oh well, it was big fun anyway.

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Despite the variable weather, we visited the soon-to-be-moved Tsukiji fish market which was top on David’s list. Unfortunately, the big commercial market was closed for the Respect for the Aged holiday, but the food stalls overflowed with people.

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This guy was giving out free samples. David tried it, but couldn’t identify.

We wandered popular Shinjuku Park and explored its greenhouse, braved the rain to try an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) on the 40th floor of a Shinjuku building where we dined among the clouds. Wanting to see the relatively-new Park Hyatt, we got a birdseye view of the worsening weather which we were soon to discover was no minor storm.

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Hyatt Regency, using 1 free night apiece David and I had from our Hyatt Visa credit cards. At $95/ year, we find these cards to be no-brainers: With our travels, we’re bound to be somewhere–like Tokyo–where we can get a much more expensive hotel for the yearly fee on the card, plus the perks of the status the card gives us. In Tokyo, this saved us about $200/night. When we discovered that a typhoon was bearing down on Japan, threatening high winds and devastating flooding in the south on the day we were scheduled to depart on a bullet train to Kyoto, it was nice to have the super-helpful concierge staff at the Hyatt checking on the status of trains and providing detailed transfer information from the hotel to Tokyo Station.

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The massive chandeliers at the Hyatt Regency were only a week back from cleaning and more magnificent than ever

We’d planned to catch a taxi from our hotel near Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station where the bullet trains depart, but it turned out to be faster to simply catch the Oedo Line from Shinjuku to Tokyo. The price was also included in our bullet train ticket. [We did not purchase a JR Pass because the math just didn’t work out given the length of our trip and our proposed train travel. Also, David wanted to ride the fastest bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that train, the Nozomi, is not included in the JR Pass. The time difference is minimal between bullet trains, but it was something he wanted and, as I said, it made financial sense anyway.]

The ride itself was uneventful–and fast. I don’t think the weather caused any slow-down, although we were told that was a possibility in typhoons. We enjoyed our bento box lunches and the trip flew by.

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Inside the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto (2nd class, reserved seats)
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Bento box lunch bought at the station; beer bought on the train

We arrived in a rainy Kyoto. No surprise there, but not exactly the beautiful fall weather I’d envisioned. Oh well, such are the whims of the travel gods. After a short ride with a truly nasty-tempered cabbie (the only unfriendly person we encountered in Kyoto), we arrived at our AirBnB apartment. As billed, it sits just across the road from Nijo Castle and our balcony looks out on one of the watch towers. Beautiful, even in a typhoon!

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Nijo Castle in a typhoon; view from our balcony

One of the joys of lengthy travel is being able to slow down and try to get at least a little taste of living in a place. It’s a big reason why I like renting apartments rather than hotels, along with the extras like a washing machine and kitchen. Usually, apartments provide more space as well, but a typical apartment in Japan also means compact. I’d chose Kyoto for our longer apartment stay and, as always, ran it by David before booking. David’s 6’3″ and I knew some of the features of the apartment I’d chosen might be a little tricky for him. As usual, he was game.–It’s one of the things I love about him.

The apartment is exactly as described: immaculate, small, but well-equipped and well-thought-out. We have a double bed*, a tiny kitchen, a washing machine/dryer combo (that doesn’t do much in the way of drying), air conditioning, free bikes at our disposal, wifi and a portable wifi hotspot. I love the odd, but practical, touches–like the toilet where you can wash your hands in the water that’s refilling the tank. (‘Makes sense: It’s clean water, you’re recycling…there’s just something about the idea that’s a little unsettling to the Western mind.) We’re in a good location and the building is very nice. It’s a big change from living at home, but it’s fun…and funny to listen to David banging around in the bathroom while he tries to bathe in the meter-long bathtub. He really is a great sport!

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We’ve got a large grocery store just a couple of blocks down the street and we’ve had fun shopping the often-mystifying items. Once again, Google Translate has been invaluable as we scan labels of products we’ve never heard of.

*A double bed may sound small to my American friends, but I’m going to do a separate short post on why it’s actually a very awesome thing. Hint: Beware the “semi-double!”

Off the ship: Tokyo and a favorite boat ride to Asakusa

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Nijubashi Bridge at the Imperial Palace

As David likes to describe it, after 15 days on a ship, we’re like a couple of baby birds kicked out of the nest when we land: What?! We have to figure out where to eat on our own?? Kind of pathetic. Despite the initial adjustment, we were more than ready for some time ashore on our own. Cruises are fun, but it was time to dig in a bit deeper.

We lucked into sunny skies our first day in Tokyo, the only real weather problem being a bit too much heat and a haze that made tower viewing of Mt. Fuji a nonstarter. We spent the first night onboard, so only baby steps required: taking a train from Shinagawa station (the station nearest the industrial port where the ship berthed the first night before moving to the nicer Yokohama cruise port). The ship shuttled us to Shinagawa, so all we had to do was catch a train to Tokyo Station. Easy, right?…Except for the total lack of English on the signage. Thankfully, helpful young ladies in uniform are stationed throughout area train stations and we were soon on our way.

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Equestrians at the Imperial Palace gardens

After wandering the gardens of the Imperial Palace, we walked to Hama-Rikyu Park, a place I remembered mostly for its old duck hunting blinds…and the water bus to Asakusa, the real reason to go for me. For around $6 apiece, we caught the water bus for a 40-minute ride along the river to the charming old Asakusa district with its temples and narrow, crowded roads. The water bus has both an air conditioned interior and an open, covered interior deck (with tinted transparent roof, so you can see up). There’s also an air conditioned toilet. An audio guide is broadcast in both Japanese and English as you glide under bridge after bridge, taking in the changing cityscape; it really is one of the best deals in Tokyo.

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Looking back at the water bus dock at Hama-Rikyu Park
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On the water bus

Asakusa is big fun. Lots of locals rent kimono to wander the old temples and vending stalls, adding much to the scenery themselves. I get a particular kick out of the young couples, out on a date in their traditional clothes, selfie-sticks at the ready and the family groups with everyone down to a toddler in the stroller decked out. We came upon two weddings: one bride in a gorgeous red kimono and the other in a traditional Shinto white kimono and headdress. David was shoulder-to-shoulder with the official photographer, but no one seemed to mind.

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David’s fantastic photo of the happy couple

We joined a line for a small restaurant with no idea what they served. David confirmed the presence of air conditioning inside and it smelled good, so we went for it. We ended up with overpriced–an Asakusa hazard–tempura prawns with a large tempura bay shrimp patty in a bowl of rice with cold beer. The tempura suffered from a lid placed on top so that steam robbed it of crispness. Not great, but a pretty darned enjoyable break after much walking in the heat.

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Lining up for lunch in Asakusa
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Tempura lunch

After the technology and skyscrapers of modern Tokyo, Asakusa provides a wonderful contrast of Old Tokyo: temples and shrines, the smell of incense and street food, the flash of kimonos among the throngs, shaven-headed monks and rickshaw drivers running with amazing stamina. I wouldn’t miss it!

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016