My fearless street photographer friend Kathleen Paulsson snapped these fine pics last week in and around Yoyogi, Omotesando and Harajuku -areas she aptly calls the city's fashion trifecta. Many of her shots were taken at the intersection of Omotesando dori and Meiji dori, a.k.a. "Omohara," site of the shiny new Tokyu mall with the rooftop Starbucks and arguably one of the best corners for people watching in all of Tokyo. Thanks for sharing Kathleen! And keep 'em coming.
Click to enlarge...
A friend planning a trip to Japan had asked me how she might best entertain her children, 2 girls in middle school, while in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. (Osaka was also on her list, but I've never been.) She's on my mind today because she is probably in Japan right now... Here were my recommendations, in no particular order:
If you like aquariums, visit the Tokyo Sea Life Park in Kasai Rinkai Koen (don't know the one in Osaka);
Spend a day at Tokyo DisneySea. Nobody does Disney like the Japanese. The Tokyo
Disney Resort has two big parks: Disneyland and DisneySea. Go to Sea.
Less crowded, just as good, if not better. Do not try to go on a weekend
though. Resort is in Urayasu, Chiba, just outside Tokyo - an easy day
trip. Take the train to Maihama, then ride the Disney monorail to the
DisneySea park. (A helpful map can be found here.) Don't miss the Indiana Jones ride. Enjoy the people
you're a fan of Miyazaki films (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke,
etc.) you'll love the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, next to Inokashira
park in Kichijoji, a suburb west of Tokyo, I think it's 20 min west of
Shibuya station on Inokashira line. You'll have to get tickets to Ghibli
ahead of time, and choose an arrival time on a specific day; maybe ask
your friend to get the tickets for you, at a kiosk inside any Lawson's
convenient store in Tokyo. Sounds complicated but it's really not!
While in Tokyo you could do a spa day with the girls in Odaiba, at
Oedo Onsen Monogatari, an indoor/outdoor hot springs spa, featuring "doctor fish" for your feet. You can have lunch there and load up on
kitschy souvenirs in between spa treatments. Campy, fun. Also in Odaiba: the Sony ExploraScience Museum
Do you and your girls like cats? Go to a neko cafe! There are quite a few, but I enjoyed two in particular, JaLaLa in Akihabara and Cha Ma Mo cat room on Meiji-dori near Omotesando-dori.
Also in Tokyo: KidZania. It's, um, different. Shy uncertain kids
will be overwhelmed. Lots going on. Not a lot of English being spoken.
But kids who are motivated and adventurous seem to get a lot of out it.
You, however, might get a headache.
Showa Kinen park - a great big amazing place just outside Tokyo,
west of Shinjuku. Enter at Nishi Tachikawa gate for easier access to the
best parts: Rainbow Hammocks, Bouncing domes, Dragon Dunes, Misty
Forest, Bonsai garden. Grab an English map when you get there. This one
doesn't point out everything.
Need a zoo? the Ueno park zoo has pandas again, but Japanese zoos in general are depressing - big animals in tiny spaces, etc. The Tama zoo west of the city is an exception, I think. If you go, be sure to ride the Lion Bus.
While in Kyoto, don't miss the Fushimi Inari shrine, on Mt. Inari,
just outside the city. A nice trek through some 10,000 torii gates, lots
of statues of foxes (representing Inari, a fox deity, Shinto god of
rice, I think). One of the local train lines takes you right to it. View this slideshow of pics or read the rave reviews posted on Tripadvisor.
Also from Kyoto, you could spend a day in Arashiyama (bamboo forest,
monkey park) and/or a day in Nara, where at the famous temple Toda-ji,
the kids can crawl through Buddha's nose for enlightenment.
While in Hiroshima, take a commuter ferry out to Miyajima island, if the weather is good. There's a famous big red torii - try to be there to see it during both high and low tide.
Almost forgot - the Hakone Open-Air Museum! It's terrific. One big
sprawling sculpture garden. Climbing ropes for the kids inside the
"castle of nets." A foot bath at the end, to soak your tired feet. This is a day or overnight trip from Tokyo. A few other things to do in Hakone (there's lots) mentioned in the Tokyo city guide side trips piece I wrote awhile back.
Some time ago you asked me for my advice: what were my "best tips" for a family with young children relocating to Tokyo? My boys were 5 and 7, around the same ages as yours, when we arrived at the tail end of 2007. So here's what I suggest:
1. Don't drive everywhere. Take advantage of Tokyo's superior mass transit system. Not just the Metro and JR trains, but the buses too. They're clean, safe, and reliable, and will take you virtually anywhere you want to go. Study the maps and play around with Hyperdia.com to figure out the different lines. (Apparently there is a Hyperdia by voice app now, and Hyperdia Lite for Android phones.)
The system is extensive, to be sure - you will be amazed at how many suggested routes Hyperdia will give you between the same two points - but in time you will learn the best ways to get yourself from here to there. Most importantly, you will feel more connected to your new city, and you'll gain a deeper appreciation for the local culture. There's nothing quite like emerging from Shibuya station on a glorious sunny day and crossing that big intersection, immersed in the colorful-yet-always courteous crowd, squeezing your kids' hands tight. It's a rush. You may think ohmigod what if I lose them in the crush but you won't because if you do get separated all they have to do is shout "MOM?!" and you will hear them, because here's the thing about Tokyo: the streets and sidewalks may be jam packed with people - the sardine can metaphor is appropriate above ground too - but they are also almost supernaturally quiet. Like somebody hit the mute button.
Bottom line is, time in the car is like time in a bubble. Which brings me to my next tip:
2. Don't dwell in the expat bubble! It's a trap many expats fall into, sometimes by default but often by choice. It's a missed opportunity. Don't make the Tokyo American Club your second home. Go to coffee morning - a great opportunity to pick the brains of those who've come before you - but don't lose whole mornings at Starbucks. Be adventurous. Leave the comfort zone. Make Japanese friends! Find one or two other curious, open-minded, ballsy people whose kids are also in school all day and plan day trips with them.
3. Try to learn Japanese. Even a few words are better than nothing (Hello, How are you?, See you later, etc.). Learn how to give directions to a taxi driver. (Turn right/left please, go straight, you can drop me off here, how much? Thanks). Learn how to order coffee and beer, and how to say Do you have an English menu? You may never be able to carry on a real conversation, but it's nice to be able to exchange a few pleasantries with folks.
I've seen my share of latte foam designs but this one blows all previous away. Thank you, my friend Nikki, formerly of Tokyo and now of Singapore, for sharing. (I still hate you for having just spent two weeks in Tokyo at the height of hanami season ;)
Nikki tells me she found Kenji, coffee purveyor/artiste responsible for the absurdly adorable design featured above, in Nakameguro - a prime spot for vendors this time of year due to the spectacular display of cherry blossoms along the canal and the pedestrian-friendliness of the neighborhood.
Facebook friend's post yesterday:"Rare
excitement on the bus here in Tokyo. Skateboarder tried to cut the bus
off, barely realized his mistake, bus slams breaks, old people fall
over and luckily the skateboarder fell back avoiding being sucked under
the front wheel, unlike his skateboard. The miracle of Japan is not one
cuss word was spoken, no lawsuits, no police, no fights, the
skateboarder embarrassingly smiled, waved to the driver "my bad", picked
up his pulverized board and we continued on 30 seconds later. Love this
country. — at 渋谷駅 Shibuya Station.
And we're back, with more of Top 10 things I miss the most. Coming in at number six...
I don't mean to whine, but I reeaaally miss the fish. I miss the generous cuts, at moderate prices, that melt in your mouth. Sushi, even good quality stuff, is no big thing in Japan. It's neither precious nor pretentious (though it can be, at the sorts of expensive restaurants I don't go to). It's not haute cuisine. It's basic, and in Tokyo it was everywhere. My favorite place to eat it was at the jam-packed lunch counter at Midori sushi in the Mark City mall in Shibuya. I'd get take-out from the little sushi shop on the Hiroo shopping street. I'd grab minced tuna-and-scallion rolls from a supermarket cold case - the label on the plastic box would note the exact time the roll was made (that morning) and a "best before" time (later that day). I was not picky, because I didn't have to be. You don't have to spend a lot of money on sushi in Tokyo to be happy. (If anybody reading this knows a decent sushi restaurant in New York's Westchester County that won't break the bank, please post a comment below!)
Snapper. Salmon. Mackeral. With pickled ginger.
Salmon, cucumber and crab topped with avocado, mayo and roe; Midori's idea of a California roll
supermarket sushi platters, priced around $12 each
unagi and a raw veggie salad riding the sushi train at a kaiten joint on Omotesando
a food show vendor's plastic sampleslook good enough to eat
frozen tuna in a warehouse, around 6 a.m., Tsukiji fish market
Brrrrrr. It's cold in New York today, and I've got cherry blossoms on the brain. Next up on my list of Top 10 Tokyo people/places/things I miss the most....
For about two weeks every year, Tokyo's concrete jungle transforms, even the ugliest architecture made pretty by so many pink petals. There are celebrations in the parks, people eating and drinking under the trees 24/7, blue tarps spread out beneath blacktop and patchy grass. Ueno Park in particular draws massive crowds, even on weekdays; sakura season may be the only time of year Japanese salarymen and office ladies feel they can play hooky from work. Other hanami (literally "flower viewing") hotspots: the Nakameguro canal (a stunning display), Yoyogi park (a younger and rowdier scene), and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (but don't even think about bringing a Frisbee - the fun police keep the lawns strictly ball-and-kite free). Even our little Octopus playground park gets busy. Here are some of my favorite pics taken during prime time (late March - early April):
Blossoming cherry trees along Meiji dori near Shibuyabashi, April 5, 2012
Claire in Yoyogi park, March 27, 2009
Terry snapped this by the Nakameguro canal on April 9, 2011 (the boys and I were in New York). With the country still reeling from the 3/11 disaster, official hanami events in Tokyo were canceled and there were fewer people about.
Conor, 8 1/2, and Dylan, nearly 7, at Koishikawa Korakuen, a walled garden near the Tokyo Dome and one of the best places for viewing cherry blossoms, April 6, 2009
Meiji-dori in Ebisu, across from our bus stop and near our old apartment
Meiji-dori in Ebisu, facing southeast. That's Ippudo (ramen!) on the left beyond the vending machines
At the 06 Toei bus stop, looking toward Shibuyabashi, March 27, 2008
The boys' first close encounter: Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, March 28, 2008
A Jingumae side street we would walk down to get to school when the kids were smaller, near the Children's Hall in Shibuya
When the blossoms fall away, they are replaced with lush green - this canal is such a gorgeous place, despite the surrounding architecture
Conor on Meiji-dori with Edmund Buddles, April 4, 2009
Edmund and Conor on Shibuyabashi pedestrian bridge, heading for Ebisu station
Nature lover with big lens in Koishikawa Korakuen
Hanami in Yoyogi park, March 29, 2009
Terry and Ichiro, friend from NYU biz school now living in Tokyo; Ichiro's family showed us how it's done
Boys were welcomed into a random ball game. Best thing about Yoyogi park: anybody can join in