Wednesday, June 20, 2012

island getaway

I highly recommend taking a ferry trip to Niijima, one of the Izu islands known for its surfing beaches and big stone heads. We had limited time, so only stayed about 36 hours, but it was the perfect time-out, a nice break from the craziness of these past few weeks, as we prepare to move back to the U.S.

Our little island getaway almost didn't happen. As we were exchanging our reservation slip for real tickets at the Takeshiba pier - not far from Hinode pier where you can catch a ride to Odaiba - we were advised that the boat would be departing on a "conditional voyage." Meaning, that we would go, but that rough waters might prevent us from docking, in which case we'd just turn around and go back to Tokyo (and get a full refund). Well that would suck, we thought. Oh well. All aboard!

As it turned out, we did dock, after stopping at two other islands, including Oshima, the largest of the Izu islands (it's closer to the mainland, has an active volcano and is more popular with tourists). About a 3-hour journey all told. Not unpleasant.

The nice lady from the Niijima Grand Hotel, where we had booked a one-night stay, met us at the pier with her minivan.  She seemed to run the place with her husband (the cook?) and son (porter/maintenance?).

We would've walked right past if she hadn't been looking straight at us and smiling, holding her hand painted sign. It was a 10 minute drive across the island, through a very long tunnel, to the place we would be staying.
Our 4-person tatami room, with surprisingly comfortable futons, small sitting area and deck with a nice view
The hotel lady seemed happy to drive us any place we wanted to go; in fact, we seemed to be the only guests (June is still the off season). But we rented bikes from her instead, since everything we wanted to see was close by.

We picked up this path not far from the hotel and it leads straight to Habushiura beach, on the east side of the island. Handily, it also runs right past a surf shop/restaurant where we ate lunch both days (the menu had plenty to choose from, including fried chicken, hotdogs, miso soup, rice, edamame and beer)

Down at the beach, there was a big white building that looked brand new. A lifeguard station maybe? Nobody was there.

Boys don't need much to entertain themselves, just a sandy slope to scale
Saturday evening before dinner we checked out the Yunohama Onsen, on the west coast, south of Maehama beach. It's co-ed, swimsuits required.
It was a shame the highest bath was closed the day we were there...

...but there are plenty of other ways to take in the waterfront view

At the Grand hotel, dinner was included in the room rate (charged per person, per usual in Japan) and it was quite a feast. Unfortunately, it was heavy on the seafood, much of which my kids wouldn't touch.

On Monday morning (June 18) we cycled into the village - there's Terry, a mini pickup passing him on the right - and then up and down the west side, where we saw stone heads. Lots of 'em.

We cycled on the path overlooking Maehama beach

Before midday we had made our way back through town and over to the east side for lunch at the surf shop and then another dip in the ocean. Back at Habushiura we spotted the young guy who works at our hotel sitting on a rock, taking in the view:

Apparently international surfing competitions are held here

 The boys wore wetsuits, not because the water was too cold, but to avoid getting scraped by rocks

Looking north

Facing south
Cliffs to climb!
 Outside the hotel, which needs an upgrade (new carpets for sure).

Mid Monday afternoon the hotel lady gave us a lift to the pier where we would catch the ferry back to Tokyo (we arrived on one side of the island, departed from the other)

Time to board
Fun facts:
-During the Edo period, Niijima was a place of exile for convicts.
-The heads are carved out from kogaseki, a.k.a. rhyolite, a silica-based pumice-like stone that is indigenous to the island. The only other place on earth where it is mined is Lipari, Italy.
-The people of Niijima gave Tokyo the 2-sided stone head that is now parked outside the Shibuya train station, next to the West bus terminal.
The Takeshiba pier in Tokyo is a relatively short walk from the Hamamatsucho JR station; I went to the ticket counter in person to look at the schedule and reserve seats. There appeared to be one jet foil departure a day, in the morning, with the earliest return the following afternoon.  Passengers are advised to call the pier's hotline at 6 a.m. on the morning of their scheduled trip to find out if all systems are go, which we did, and they were (we think, after listening the Japanese recording a few times) but we weren't aware of this We'll-go-and-then-we'll-see option.

I could see how the uncertainty could be a deal breaker for some, but you do get your money back, and canceling hotel reservations in Japan is never a big deal. For more info about how to get to Niijima and other islands, visit The jet foil is just one way; you can also fly there, from Chofu airport, and Tokai Kisen operates an overnight ferry, the cheapest option. Other ferries leave from Shimoda, in Shizuhoka prefecture.

Niijima Grand Hotel is located at 371 Niijimamura, Niijima-mura, Tokyo Prefecture 100-0400. (We had a native Japanese speaker call for us to book.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

and why not

I had heard about the banana vending machine, and today, I finally saw one for myself, outside the Tokyu Hands department store in Shibuya...
You can buy a whole bunch (390 yen), or just one (130 yen)!

Monday, June 18, 2012

good eatin'

We've had many "one last time" moments this spring as we prepare to leave Tokyo after 4.5 years, including a final meal at Ippudo, with its amazing tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen. It was a rainy Saturday, around 5pm, and we were the only customers.
When we first moved to Tokyo Dylan would eat only white rice and maybe a sheet or two of nori, but a couple years ago he graduated to full bowls of the classic version, with slices of fatty pork, diced green onion and of course the noodles, made 'normal', as opposed to soft or firm. He rarely finishes it though. Below, that's his bowl on the right; on the left, the remains of my order, a spicy version topped with minced pork and red miso.

When it came time to pay the bill the boys were always offered a Chupa Chup lollie from the metal pail kept by the cash register. 
 Apparently Ippudo has two ramen shops in New York now. I wonder if it will taste the same.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

tiny dog party

Walking past Dexee Diner in Ebisu Prime Square one fine Sunday morning, this is what I saw:

I am really going to miss this place.