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Fragmented travels in Tokyo

Back in October I flew directly from the Grace Hopper Celebration in Computing in Houston, Texas to Tokyo to begin a vacation with MJ. As I wrote about here a death in the family made it so we had to cut our trip short, but we were able to enjoy some of Tokyo.

The Tokyo side of travels began with a flight into Narita airport and a ride on the N’EX train to Shibuya station. Thankfully MJ had done research beforehand for me, so I was well-prepared for what tickets I needed to buy, train to take and station to arrive at. So far so good.

Leaving Shibuya station is where things got tricky. It was my first experience in a Tokyo station and Shibuya is a big one. I had a big backpack and suitcase and in the crowd of people I instantly got lost upon leaving the station and as I began looking for the hotel. After some false starts, I did eventually make it to Ceruleantower Tokyu Hotel. I ordered some room service (sushi!). I was later joined by MJ, whose flight came in about 6 hours after mine. We planned our flight back to the US for the funeral and spent not nearly enough time sleeping before we had to check out the next day.

Lunch before our flight was had at one of the several restaurants in the hotel, Kanetanaka So, where we had a wonderful, multi-course Japanese lunch.

My travels in Tokyo didn’t properly resume until after returning from the US and then going to Osaka and Kyoto (which I’ll write about later). So fast forward 6 days and we’re on the Shinkansen high speed train on our way back to Tokyo. MJ and I spent the evening with a trip to Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world as of completion in 2011. From it we’d at least get a 450 meter high view of the amazing city we had to cut from our travel plans.

A very popular, destination, the way tickets to Tokyo Skytree work is you go ahead of time and get a reservation to buy tickets for a time later in the day. So at 7PM we got our reservations for 8:30PM ticket window. In the meantime, we were kept entertained with a visit to the nearby Sumida Aquarium. They had penguins!

We then waited in a very long line to buy our tickets for Tokyo Skytree, including time spent waiting while the elevators were shut down during some strong winds. Fortunately we did finally make it up to the 350M level, and when there bought the additional ticket to go up another 100M to the top at 450M. The observation decks provided 360 degree views of the city, lights stretching for miles around us. And with a steady incline in the upper level, you slowly make your way to the peak of 450 meters before taking the elevator back down.

It was nearly 11PM by the time we completed our visit, which was too late for anything in the mall surrounding the tower to be open for dinner. Instead we took a train over to the Roppongi district and found some late night sushi. As the only customers in the sushi bar, we had a lovely time chatting with the manager and sushi chef who was preparing our fish in the perfect way, including adding the appropriate amount of soy sauce to each piece for us. I need to find some fatty tuna again, it was delicious!

The next day we met up with some of MJ’s colleagues for lunch back in Roppongi before I saw MJ off for his flight home. For me, the next 4 days were filled with the OpenStack Summit right there in Tokyo. I wrote about it and my evening activities in Tokyo each night here, here and here.

Come Saturday I was on my own. My flight wasn’t until the evening, so I spent the morning in beautiful Ueno Park and then at Ueno Zoo for a couple hours. I’ve been to zoos all over the world, and Ueno was a first class zoo. Their animal stars are the Giant Pandas, who I was delighted to see. I arrived at opening time, so the crowds weren’t too bad and the pandas were awake and eating their leafy breakfasts.

It was a pleasant walk around the zoo, enjoying key attractions like the lions, tigers, polar bears and sea lions, along with all the smaller ones. Time was running short when I hopped on their bright and colorful monorail that took me to the other side of the zoo where the penguins and a few other animals lived. I had to depart around noon.

Lots more photos from Ueno Zoo here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157660680854861

From there I took a train back to my hotel to pick up my luggage and take the N’EX train back to the airport. I took a lot of trains while in Japan, it seemed like the most reasonable way to get around. Frequent, clean and heavily used, it was fascinating to see how well they operated and with my phone (I had a data-only SIM for my phone) I had routes in my pocket so I could make sure I was getting on the right train, and if not that at least I wouldn’t get lost. Their excellent train system goes beyond just the capital city, we took trains in Osaka and Kyoto as well. San Francisco has pretty good public transportation for a US city, but I find myself now frequently pining for what we saw in Japan.

In spite of all the traveling I do, I’ll admit right away that I was a bit nervous about this trip. I was worried it would be too foreign and I’d get lost or simply be afraid of all the crowds and in-your-face pop culture. I was wrong. It certainly was crowded, but Tokyo was amazing, and everything was so cute. I bought a pile of cute animal note cards, stickers and post-its at the zoo because it so well fit what I loved. Seeing Nintendo characters around and being there during Halloween compounded it all, I grew up on and loved all these things! Instead of it all feeling foreign, I felt comfortable and so many things made me smile. There were also enough English speakers and signs in English where we went to make me feel like I usually knew what I was doing. I want to go back.

More photos from generally around Tokyo (including more trains!) here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157659829235239