Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chidorigafuchi on Tuesday

My friend Julia shared some more photos...  (Click to view full shot)
To reach the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, one of Tokyo's most popular hanami spots, Julia took the metro to Kudanshita station, where she found men in white gloves ushering people through

She reports that viewers in front would take advantage of their photo op then move on graciously to give the next wave of people a chance

 There was "a real buzz in the air" she says

(Nice shot, Julia!)

Meanwhile, a graduation ceremony was going on at the Kitanomaru National Garden and Nippon Budoukan (lovely!)

Nakameguro right now...

Thanks for the pic, Julia!

Monday, March 25, 2013

with kids in mind

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:

Take a day trip from Tokyo to Kamakura, and doing the trail walk to the Big Buddha (Daibutsu).

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 watching.

If 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.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dear LeAnne,

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.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

'tis the season

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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

say no to spring showers

Terry is in Tokyo this week for work - so jealous! - but delighted to wake up this morning to this image in my inbox, of Tokyo Metro's public service advisory for March... 
When you cough, please cover your mouth

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

a video love letter to Tokyo

Check it out:
MY TOKYO,  shot and edited by Berengere Lefeuvre and shared on Vimeo.
It's just gorgeous.
Watch it now! It's only 2 min 31 sec long...