The Second Time Around
Very rarely can you top the experience of your very first time somewhere magical. Trust me, I’ve tried. Similar to a first kiss, the first time you watch that favorite movie, the first “anything” awesome, really. Chances are the repeat encounter(s) will never be as special as the first. To my absolute and very pleasant surprise, this 2023 second trip to Tokyo was not only better than my first visit, nearly eight years ago – but my stay this time was so good, that Japan earned an instant spot in my very sacred “Top Five Countries of All-Time” list, which I haven’t been able to finish, as of this writing. In case you’re wondering, I was easily able to name my top three after completing 193. Drum roll… Brasil, Philippines and Turkmenistan; but I’ve yet to round out the top five. This week Japan would secure a spot there!
During these amazing but very quick three days in Japan, I kept reflecting back to my first trip here, asking myself why I didn’t remember loving Tokyo this much on my first go-round. The best I can reckon was that on that first trip here, I was traveling too fast, was too tired and was too numb from the previous week’s events. It was back in 2016 and it was my very first trip to Asia. Japan was almost at the end of this five-country whirlwind tour that included three nights in North Korea. I was so wrapped up and mentally consumed with my North Korea visit (I was trying not to die), none of the other countries I saw on that trip really got their fair amount of attention. I remember really taking a liking to Tokyo, but I think my mental and physical exhaustion after North Korea and the other Asian countries stifled some of my senses at the time. It was my first time on the continent and I think I overdid it. But now that I’d completed 193, it was time to come back for the do-over this amazing city deserved.
The Plan, the Plan!
Last time Japan was part of five countries in one trip. This time, it would only share the itinerary with The Philippines – which, as I mentioned earlier, placed in my top three. And even after seeing every country in the world, I’ll admit I am still making my share of errors. The biggest blunder on this trip (there were a few), was trying to cram a second city into my three-night stay in Japan.
I figured I’d been to Tokyo already, so why not jump on one of those famous Japanese bullet trains and see another city – why would I need three whole nights in a city I’ve already been to? But I realized I’d made a mistake as soon as I arrived in Tokyo, but it was too late. Expensive hotels were already paid for, so I’d have to go through with the plan.
My arrival into the far-away Narita airport was familiar. I boarded the Narita Express (train) into town and jumped into an Uber at Tokyo Station. Soon I was checking in to The Sheraton Myako – the hotel I’d stayed at last time; and for a very good reason: Just a half-mile away was the best (and very hidden) sushi joint I’d ever experienced in my entire life. I’d been dreaming of a return here for nearly eight years. I’d bring a typed out (in Japanese) letter for the sushi master, expressing my love and passion for his special establishment. I was so elated to finally come back.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Book the Sheraton Myako HERE.
When I say hidden, it is an understatement. I could barely find it again this time, passing right by it before stopping into a nearby mini-market for help.
“I know this place,” chimed in a very helpful local after hearing me inquire with the cashier for directions. The stranger was kind enough to physically walk me over, and while I was happy to see the place again, my heart sank to see that it was closed. Perhaps it was because it was a weeknight? I hoped it wasn’t closed permanently. Maybe it didn’t survive the pandemic? Oh no. My only choice would be to try again on Saturday.
I settled for the only restaurant I could find nearby – an extremely casual and local joint, where I ordered a plate of stir-fried squid with white onions. Anywhere besides Sushi Takahashi would be a disappointment, but I didn’t have time to look for other options. I just needed fuel and then sleep – I had a crazy itinerary for my short time in Japan and I needed to re-charge my batteries or I’d die. (I was out drinking with the Filipinos in Manila the night before and I was toast).
Funny story: I ended up having to pull in a hotel staffer from the lobby to help me find my toilet. Everything is so high-tech in Japan, including their toilets, complete with LED glowing bowls, heated seats, and a million electronic buttons that do a million different things. This toilet came with its own wireless remote control…only I had no idea which button made the thing actually flush!
I clocked in a glorious and much-needed 10.5 hours of sleep that night, thanks to a special pill that I reserve for only dire circumstances. By 11AM, I was back at the train station and on the way to the mountain town of Hakuba. It took a good four hours to get there: The hotel to Tokyo Station, Tokyo Station to Nagano and then an hour-plus bus ride up into Hakuba. Don’t ask me how I picked Hakuba, because I don’t remember. All I know is that it was (relatively) close and seemed like the right thing to do in the winter. I’d save Kyoto for the spring.
It was at this time when I really realized I just should’ve stayed in Tokyo. I arrived too late for any excursions (snow-mobile tour looked fun) – and if I wanted to get back to Tokyo to explore the next day, I’d have to leave early the next morning. So I chalked up my error to a lesson learned and decided I’d just enjoy the beauty of the very fresh and powdery snow and a very delicious (albeit expensive) Wagyu steak dinner at the hotel. I would have been more frustrated with my poor planning had I not had my very own onzen inside my hotel room – this was a major surprise. Onzens are Japanese natural hot springs and I had my very own flowing through my room, making this place my favorite Courtyard by Marriott in the entire world! Yes, I’d miss the snow monkeys (I didn’t realize the park was three-plus hours away) and there would be no snow-mobiling, but to be able to soak in my very own, private, in-room hot spring? Well that made this out-of-way and unnecessary trip to Hakuba halfway worth it!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Book the Courtyard by Marriott Hakuba HERE!
RAMBLIN TIP: Hakuba was an absolutely gorgeous ski-town – just not ideal for such a quick stop. A minimum of three nights is recommended, so you’re able to take in some excursions, see the snow monkeys, ski, snow-mobile, etc. It was silly for me to try and get all the way there and back to just sleep.
Return to Tokyo
I was up at 5AM and on the way back to Happo Bus Station to catch the 6:30AM coach back to Nagano. It would be my last full day in Japan and I wouldn’t waste a second. The highlight of the journey back was when my taxi driver (from the hotel to the bus station) spun out while turning the corner – almost a complete 360 on the ice, so rad! We both had a good laugh and thankfully he didn’t get stuck. Hakuba was really an idyllic winter wonderland, but Tokyo was calling me. A taxi, a bus, three trains and a ten-minute walk later and I was checking in to my final hotel in the Sumida City area of Tokyo. I was so ready for a big day in Tokyo!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Here’s the hotel I paid the least for in Japan.
Searching for Sonic
First order of business: get to a hedgehog café. And yes, this is exactly what it sounds like: a café with hedgehogs. I couldn’t find the first place I’d pinned on my GPS, but soon found another. Apparently, these “animal” cafés are pretty common in Tokyo. There was not a hedgehog in sight (bummer!) but I did pet and feed some pretty cute (and very soft) rabbits. I’m bound and determined to see hedgehogs next time!
Next, it was back to a familiar place: Senso-Ji (aka Asakusa Kannon Temple), one of Tokyo’s most popular temples. My favorite part of this area is all the bakeries and yummy treats surrounding this very busy section of Tokyo. One of my most memorable treats on this trip was a custard filled fish made of dough. It was almost as much fun watching these being made as eating them. We should talk about the treats in Tokyo…that’s next.
Stax of Snax
I don’t think I realized Tokyo’s “snack potential” that first trip. I definitely appreciated it this time around. I had a co-worker back at the radio station who’d been to Tokyo at least five times in the last ten years. Between watching his Instastories and hearing his “in-person” tales about all the amazing snacks in Tokyo, I arrived ready to snack. There seemed to be a 7-11 on every other block. The other popular mini-mart chains were Lawson and FamilyMart. All of them featured such an extensive assortment of snack and drinks – I was most drawn the candy section.
Man About Town
Next, it was over to to the complete other side of town to check out Tokyo Tower. I’d seen Tokyo’s tallest, Skytree, last time, so this time it was over to the broadcast tower, which was built in 1958. I purchased a ticket and explored the main deck – there was a waiting list of 90 minutes to see the very top, so I skipped that option. There was a small Christmas market below, featuring mostly food and drink. I was happy to find gløgg – the Scandinavian version of mulled wine or glühwein – although it wasn’t as good as the one I tried in Sweden.
Let’s talk about the public transportation system in Tokyo. I used the trains and subways. The good part: The massive system is extremely extensive and useful and can take you anywhere, in our or out of town. The stations and trains are very clean and safe and come frequently. You would never need a car in Tokyo, visiting or living there. The bad part: Out of all 193 countries, Tokyo’s metro stations have to be the most confusing of any! I’ve never made so many mistakes or been so confused and frustrated using any other subway system in the entire world. It really is ultra confusing a complicated.
Even though the ticket machines have an “English” option, there are different machines, lines, brands and so many options. Multiple times I’d bought tickets to a particular destination, only to find out I bought the wrong ticket upon exiting the station and having to pay the deficit. There was one time, for some unknown reason, I needed two tickets to exit, which I could just not understand. I realized it was a me problem, so this is less of a complaint and more of an fyi. Next time I visit Japan, I will spend a few hours reading and/or watching YouTube videos to learn how to properly use the train network in Tokyo. The benefits far outweigh the complications, just know the system is not simple. Luckily, there was always staff on hand to assist, and while many of them didn’t know English, they were quick to hop on their iPad and use a translator.
Reunited and it Feels so Good
Saturday night back in Tokyo meant I’d attempt to visit my favorite sushi joint again, which meant another trek clear across town. This was one pilgrimage I was delighted to make, although I almost didn’t make it in.]
While I was elated to see the lights were on and the door was open, when I arrived at about 5PM, I was devastated when the lady informed me they were full that night. It literally almost broke me. I’d handed her my Japanese love letter written to the restaurant, but it didn’t seem to impress her. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. We talked back and forth via Google translate and my pleas were simply not getting through. It was a fine line between being flattering and pushy, but this was my one chance: My flight home was the next morning and I’d waited nearly eight years for this. I gave it one more try before she finally agreed to seat me at 6PM. Yessssss!!! Sweet victory. See you at six!
A Meal Dreams are Made of
I was so enthralled to be seated right in front of sushi master Ktsuro Takahashi – I felt like I was next to The Pope or The President. I tried to maintain my cool and take big, deep breathes, but holy crap, I was back! Words could not express my emotions.
Over the next two hours I looked on, as Mr. Takahashi hand prepared each piece of sushi, sashimi and nigiri, one by one. I paid careful attention and studied his every move – not because I thought I could ever do this at home, but I wanted to be as in-the-moment as I could and really take everything in. From scooping out just the right amount of rice from his basket, slicing the raw filets of fish and even tucking tiny morsels of wasabi in between the layers, I watched on in astonishment as the master executed his glorious symphony of sushi. The excitement built as he’d lean over and place each newly constructed piece of art on my plate. And then, I’d place it in my mouth, waiting a few seconds before chewing, letting the combinations of conflicting flavors dance against my tongue and cheeks. I don’t know what kind of sorcery was happening in front of my very own eyes, but I stand by my word that this is the best sushi I have ever had, in the world, in my entire life…and you will agree if you ever have the opportunity to make it here. So far, three of my friends have and they wholeheartedly agreed. Your life will be better should you ever experience a night here. (How they even found this place, even with my help, I am unsure.)
Please learn from my last trip and the meal that almost didn’t happen, and make reservations. Try reaching out via their Facebook page HERE. The address: Chiba Building, 1F 1-21-3 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo. I’ll warn you that my Google maps and Maps.Me GPS would not locate this address, so you may need help from a local. Just get yourself to the Minato-ku neighborhood and over to Takanawa (street) and you’ll eventually find it.
The Night is Young
It was my last (and only night) in Tokyo. (I didn’t count night number one, which consisted of an 8PM bedtime.) How could I not head over to see the lights and chaos of Shinjuku, which was, once again, completely on the other end of the city! With all the energy I could muster (the full belly did not help), I trucked it (err, trained it) across town to join in on the action. I’d love to tell you I partied for hours in Shinjuku, belted out a few rounds of karaoke, sipped sake and danced with locals, but the truth is, I only took a few strolls through a couple of the lighted streets before heading back. Action was abound, with crowds and lights in every direction. So many restaurants, bars and adult-only clubs; the random Nigerian approaching me to ask if I “needed anything” (à la drugs or hookers.) It was just like a remembered.
By the time I arrived back at the hotel – again, in a completely opposite part of town – I’d clocked in over 27,000 steps. I fell into bed. Hard. This was one of my biggest days ever and I was spent. It was worth the exhaustion though. I definitely got my money’s worth.
Although my flight home wasn’t until 8PM, I’d take it easy my final day. First stop: breakfast at Komeda’s Coffee. This location was on the second floor of the Kinshicho Mauri shopping mall and offered the smallest breakfast menu I’d ever seen: You can order bread…or bread. It made the choice easy. The bread came with choice of toppings (jelly or butter) and a tiny bowl of egg salad. There was no way I’d fill up on this alone, so I took the liberty of ordering some kind of magnificent desert pancake that was served with ice cream and a cherry. A wise move.
I spent the rest of the afternoon packing and getting ready for the long voyage home. I stopped by 7-11 and filled up an entire suitcase full of Japanese candy. Although my flight didn’t leave until 8PM, considering the Narita train alone would take more than an hour, I’d leave my hotel by 3:30PM. That would give me time to enjoy the JAL business lounge before my final goodbye.
Part of me was afraid that after finishing “193,” and “seeing it all,” I might not experience the same level joy and excitement coming back to countries I’ve already been to. This was certainly not the case with Japan. In some ways, I felt like this was my first trip here.
Beyond all the tasty snacks, bright lights, techie-touches and just plain “neat-o” things, there was one thing that stood out the most to me in Japan, and that is the people and the general and very common air of respect that was noticeable just about everywhere. Imagine a town of 14 million people and not seeing even one piece of litter on the ground! (And the crazy thing, no trashcans in sight – where do you even put the trash???) I might have heard a car horn once of twice. People actually looked “presentable” out on the street. They held open doors and said “excuse me.” When I asked directions from a shopkeeper once, instead of pointing, he left his store to escort me to the metro entrance I was looking for. There are dozens of other examples of old fashioned respect and courtesy. I felt it constantly, all around. Here is a society with the everyday values and mannerisms that sadly left the USA decades ago. Simply put, I loved the way being in Japan made me feel. I could absolutely live here, at least for a little while. And just when I thought I couldn’t love Japan anymore, it was the sendoff that really warmed my heart. When the plane was ready to pull onto the main runway, the ground staff on the tarmac stood all together and lovingly waved goodbye to the Airbus and all its passengers. I waved back with all the excitement and innocence of a six-year-old waving back to a fireman in his truck. Suddenly, all four of the crew bowed. If I was just toying with the idea of a return to Japan soon, this moment would solidify the decision.
View this post on Instagram
>>>RELATED: See my First Trip to Japan HERE.Asia