I had 8 days to tour Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan, 8 days to check out as many department store basement groceries as I could, 8 days to walk around the metropolis taking pictures of their solemn temple areas and tranquil gardens, 8 days to gorge myself on the 40+ restaurants I researched about, 8 days to explore all their famous food markets- make that 7 days if you count the flights back and forth-7 days to be a mom, wife, super tourist, shopper and eater. How can you pack an itinerary like this in 7 days? Go amazing race, of course, while trying to smell the flowers in between.
March 10 was the date of our scheduled 4-hour flight to Narita from Hongkong. I was awake at 4am, busy with last-minute packing, checking of passports and other details only a mom would bother about. We were at the airport just in time, and before long we were flying in clear blue skies to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Our arrival in Japan was hassle-free, despite warnings by friends that Immigration lines would be long. Perhaps we were lucky enough to miss the throng of arriving tourists. They spoke enough English at the airport so we were able to ride the correct airport limousine (a huge coaster-like bus with a toilet at the back) for the 1 1/2 hour trip to Shinjuku ( a crowded, shop-lined area famous for several tourist spots, skycrapers and entertainment options). We were met by my sister-in-law (SIL), a fashion student in Japan who, after a year of mastering the language, was to be our official guide.
Settling down at the 15-floor inn (a cross between a hotel and service apartment) in the heart of Shinjuku, right across SIL's impressive fashion school, was a breeze because of SIL's fluency. The room was tiny, but very modern. The bathroom was so compact it reminded me of an airplane toilet- but bigger. Everything was prepaid either at the reception or through the numerous prepaid machines around the inn. (Japan is the master of automation and vendo machines, after all), including phone calls, laundry, laundry detergent!, cigarettes, drinks (no mini bar in the rooms). There was no bellboy. We saved a lot by staying at this ultra modern place because what they save on labor reflects on their rates. For those who desire swankier, newer and bigger digs, Oakwood Apartments will do as well. Their rates are just slightly higher than where we stayed, although I suspect the rooms are roughly the same size.
Since it was close to dinnertime and we were famished, SIL brought us to her favorite izakaya, a dark place with private booths serving "pica-pica" and various kinds of beer and sake - a Japanese bar, in other words. We were early and had the place to ourselves, which was a good thing. The cigarette smoke from alcohol-guzzling salarymen would have made little boy cough. We ordered several plates to share. One was a grilled chicken platter composed of skewered chicken balls, wings, skin and breast meat. A crispy tuna dish arrived, coated in sesame seeds and deep-fried. Hmmmm, crunchy morsels! We throughly enjoyed the sizzlling teppanyaki beef with corn, whose buttery soy sauce tickled our tastebuds. There was grilled thinly-sliced pork neck, and an onion and lettuce salad served as an appetizer. We didn't try any sake though. We needed to keep our wits about us for the coming days...
After our merienda-cum-dinner we sought out the local McDonald's. Hubby misses his comfort food whenever we travel. I personally dislike eating at McDonald's wherever I may be, but they had an ebi burger and flakey chocolate pie that seemed interesting. I fell for the ebi burger simply because it was crisp on the outside, with whole, crunchy shrimp on the inside. THe texture was firm yet sticky and creamy at the same time. It wasn't fishy at all (unlike Fillet O' Fish in other countries). THe chocolate dessert reminded me of pop tarts. THe pie was very flaky and croissant-like, and from the middle oozed chocolate sauce. Not the Rolls-Royce of desserts, but it will satisfy anyone's sweet tooth. I ate ebi burger 2 more times before leaving, a record considering I can go a whole year without eating at McDonald's, amused as I was with its freshness and texture, and knowing it was only avalable in Japan.
The rest of the night was spent walking around the NSEW (North, South, East, West) exits of the Shinjuku train station. I will not even attempt to explain the craziness that is the Japan railway system. There are 20-plus exits to choose from, as many lines to decide on taking, and very, very little English to help one get by! Thank God for my SIL!
We strolled around the Takashimaya Times Square area, where the lines for Krispy Kreme snaked around the block despite the biting cold (I really don't get the obsession with this sugary donut, but that's just me). I spent a good hour in Kinokoniya, a seven or eight-floor bookstore which devotes half of the seventh floor to English titles. During the first few weeks of April, they put all the English books, both paperback and hardcover, as well as coffeetable books, on sale. And when I say sale, I mean SALE! I have given SIL several titles to purchase for me. Of course despite the normal prices I had to buy a few books, which I did on DAY 7 of the race... er trip. Little boy bought a CARS read-aloud book.
I remember we entered the huge GAP store at Lumine EST department store, and the items were all overpriced. Uniqlo (Japan's trendier Bench, Giordano or Old Navy) was our next stop. We also went to camera shops. The have an amazing array of cameras and cellphones in all possible price ranges! Some cameras are made for the Japan market only and will never see the light of day in other countries, unless a tourist buys one, in this case, me! More about the camera on DAY 5. Before heading back to the inn SIL and I bought a stick each of fresh, huge, Fukuoka strawberries, so red and juice and fake-looking in their smooth-skinned perfection! It was JPY200 for each stick (that's approximately PHP80 or HKD 13).
Walking around the many bars, restos and pachinko establishments under bright neon signs, we felt we were really in Tokyo. Below our hotel/inn is aconvenience store and we bought gyoza, cold soba and a chicken teriyaki bento box to eat as a midnight snack. We slept soundly that night, getting ourselves ready for the onslaught of activities SIL and I had planned.