Day twenty-six – Meiji Jingu, the last day…

On our last day we slept late. Mostly because it’d been so hard to get to sleep on Friday night but also the bed was comfy and we needed it. We packed up and got out of the room, took our bags (all four suitcases!) to leave at the desk and went to Doutor for a final hot cocoa and cheese toast.

From there it was onto the old reliable, yamanote line, to get to Harajuku. But instead of hitting Takeshita St we went up the road and into Meiji Jingu shrine, a huge forest park with a big shrine complex inside it.

Meiji Jingu is a tribute shrine to the Emperor and Empress who died in 1912. Under their reign, Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world and consolidated their government structure. Lots of change, especially from learning about the Western World.

Last year, on Anna’s first visit to Japan, we came here first thing on our first day. Starting at Yoyogi Park to look at the cherry blossoms and then up to the shrine. It seemed quite fitting to visit it again at the end of this trip.

It turned out they were having an Autumn festival, so there were masses of chrysanthemums on display, which had been donated as tributes. Also bonsai and little bonsai scenes, which I particularly loved. There were lots of little kids in ceremonial kimonos, some of them taking it very seriously, some less so. One memorable little kid, maybe a four year old, was walking along in her kimono with a huge smile on her face and flapping the sleeves of it like wings.

Inside the main shrine was lined with tables of food and drink offerings to the shrine, and there were monks doing a ceremony in full ceremonial regalia. It was very festive, lots of people there to visit the shrine and see the sights. Although I say festive, it’s also very respectful. People were talking quietly, and the main sounds were the clapping and bell ringing of people praying.

It was a lovely way to spend an hour or so.

After this we went back to Shinjuku and visited another place we’d liked last visit: Alice in a Magical Land, a fantasy cafe styled after Alice in Wonderland.

Everyone who works there is dressed in a fancy outfit – there are some Alices, and some Hatters, but we were served by a girl in cat eyes and a striped dress like Cheshire Cat. She even made our bill adorable. The food’s pretty good, but it’s all about the decor. This little place is close to the Shinjuku train station West entrance, in the third basement level. The elevator doesn’t even go that low so you have to take stairs and go past some bar food places to get there.

We went to the hotel to pick up bags and both had an anxiety spiral. Here’s what happened. We had 15 minutes to pick up our bags from the front desk and go out the front of the hotel to catch the Friendly Airport Limousine bus. We had 3.15 tickets and as you know if you’ve been reading, you cannot be even a minute late.

We got into the line for the desk, and I was instantly anxious because there were about five people in front of us, and everyone at the desk was already busy with other people.  There was no one at the bag check side of the desk…

And for whatever reason, the people being checked in all had extra questions and time passed quickly and 3.15 got closer and closer. Anna went to lurk by the bag check and I stayed in line, and finally someone was free for us with two minutes to spare. We showed the staff member our tickets for the bus and she hurried to bring our bags out. I was sure we were going to miss the bus and be horribly messed up, have wasted the money we spent on the tickets and everything would be terrible. I don’t know exactly what this fear came from, we had a lot of time before the flight and there was also a train we could catch and in the worst case, a taxi, but I was freaked out.

When the first two cases came out I rushed them out to the bus, which was already there. Thinking I could delay things, I acted like I didn’t know what to do with the bus tags for the suitcases and the guys running the bus helped me out with them. In this time Anna came out with two more suitcases and a backpack, and the woman from the bus alongside her – she’d come looking for us. As we fussed with the bag tags another woman from the hotel came out with our other backpack and a large bag with our pokemon in it. So, even though we were panicked, running late and generally holding up the bus it went fine. They took our bags and put them on the bus, we got on the bus and sat up the front and the bus actually left right on time.

I did some breathing exercises but my heart still got a good work out.

The bus took some time to go through a couple of stops at the train station, which was like a nice little tour of our favourite area in Tokyo and then we were on the Expressway to Narita. We went right by the Disney Restort which hit me in the feels…

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We were at the airport around five, and our flight wasn’t until nine-thirty, so we tracked down the “repack station” which had a scales and a large low bench so you could sort out luggage.

Our first spare suitcase was just underweight, the new one was vastly underweight, mine and Anna’s were over, so we had some time to shift things around and get all bags under 23kg. It was quite fun, in a weird way.

We were too early to check in, so we took some time to sit and have some drinks, and I caught up a little on my physical travel journal. Once we’d checked our cases in we went around the Narita airport mall, which is a very, very good mall. They have a Uniqlo ❤ and we got some dinner as well. Sushi to say goodbye, I also got fried shrimps and fries. It was good. I also got emotional because leaving Japan sucks, but I also very much wanted to be home.

The flight home was similarly fancy to the flight over, but damn it’s hard to sleep on a plane, even in the fancy chairs. I got three hours of sleep and many episodes of Sharp Objects watched (more emotions, holy crap it’s a great show, just have one ep and ten minutes of the second to last episode to watch. Anna didn’t manage to sleep as much as me, and she watched all the Maze Runner movies.

 

Day twenty-two – Nara to Tokyo

This was another one of those transit days. I was at least comforted that it was our last time switching cities. Our last time on a shinkansen.

To get from Nara to Tokyo we took three local trains from Nara to Kyoto, because the shinkansen doesn’t go there, and we got on the local which requires a transfer, and then we got on a regular local line and after a few stops the conductor suggested we switch to a rapid. Once in Kyoto we secured reserved seats on the Mt Fuji side of the shinkansen to Shinagawa station, Tokyo.

I tried to use the 2.5 hour trip to catch up on my physical travel journal, which is somewhat neglected because of this one but I’m still keeping it all the same. But once again I got motion sickness… I think maybe I’m too old now to shinkansen and write? I’ve never had trouble before, and I was sitting right at the window, so I don’t know what else it could have been. Staring out the window helped, and I saw a collection of neat things out the window…

  • a dirt path up a low hill into the forest, with a stone Torii gate on it
  • a toddler and parent meeting school kids on the raised path in the middle of a field. The toddler was running towards a kid with a school bag, who had crouched and opened their arms
  • a daring soul who had extended their balcony washing line out over the street, past the railings of their balcony (no one does this)
  • a woman who had just got off the train doing the ‘oh god do I have my glasses?’ panic dance, patting pockets, head, sides, and then finding them in her bag
  • Mt Fuji playing peekaboo

 

By the time we got to Tokyo I was feeling pretty wretchedly tired and over it all. Too much dragging suitcases, too much trains, too much feeling grimy from travel, etc etc.

We got a taxi from the station to Ariake, and the driver got lost a couple of times and I had that ‘oh god is he scamming the gaijin?’ but when he dropped us off he apologised profusely and took a third off the price of the fare, so I think he just genuinely didn’t know the area. Tokyo is so huge, it must be easy to have places you’ve just never gone before, even as a taxi driver.

Our hotel in Ariake was gigantic, it had a convention centre in it, two different restaurants, a big konbini and a package sending service. We had dinner at one of the restaurants, and made use of the giant bath in the room.

I got to the ‘overtired and emotional’ stage when I couldn’t get to sleep instantly, but thankfully Headspace for sleep sorted me out eventually.

 

Day fifteen – Osaka to Hiroshima

To be fair, we weren’t allowed in our hotel room right away. We had to kill some time. And we killed that time by hitting the Hiroshima pokemon center.

This morning we got up, packed up our bags and headed from our hotel to the local metro and got on the train to Shin-Osaka. From Shin-Osaka we tried to get reserved seats on the shinkansen but it was too busy a day, so we went with the non-reserved tickets instead. What this means is the first three cars of the shinkansen are ‘just find a seat’. It’s a little nerve-wracking, I’d prefer to have a guaranteed seat, but it actually worked out fine. Although there were a number of people waiting for the train, each car has 24 ish rows of five seats so, three cars worth of that is a lot of space.

We got some good seats near the front, got our suitcases up on the racks and settled in for the ride to Hiroshima.

This shinkansen ride I didn’t get motion sick at all, and I was very happy about that. I got a little writing done on my laptop even! Up until the pocket wifi started having issues with the high speeds and the tunnels and I wasn’t able to connect anymore. But yay, fiction writing is still going well.

We navigated the streetcar system, dropped our bags off at the hotel in Hiroshima and went to Cafe Velloce which seems to be a not as good Doutor. Disappointing cocoa. Although they do a cocoa float which is iced cocoa with soft serve and quite good.

Hiroshima is a lot quieter than Osaka and Tokyo. Noticeably fewer people on the road, fewer cars, etc. It’s a relief, a little more like being at home.

After that we went to the local Tokyu Hands and I got some more postcards to send people, and then the Hiroshima Pokemon Centre which is one we’ve been to before. The Hiroshima baseball team is the Carps so there’s some amusing Magikarp baseball merchandise.

It was also raining properly, big heavy drops so we bought our first Japanese clear umbrellas.

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One weird phenomenon we’ve noticed is to do with certain light levels or sources. It happened in a seven eleven to Anna and to both of us in the laundry room at the Osaka hotel. Basically you go in there and get vertigo, or a sensation of the room spinning. Now, it’s fully possible this is just we’re tired and traveling a lot, but both of us felt better as soon as we were out of whichever light source had caused it. Weird.

Epic levels of tired started to hit, so we picked up snacks and drinks and checked into the hotel as soon as three pm rolled around. The beds in the Chisun are way more comfy than the ones at Nest Osaka so we were both very happy about that.

We nipped out for dinner at Nakau, but possibly the chain has gone downhill or possibly I was just remembering it better than it was. The menu’s changed so Anna couldn’t get the salmon bowl she was looking forward to and my katsu curry was good but not great. We were both just exhausted as well, which won’t have helped.

Early to bed and early to sleep.

Day twelve – Osaka, rest day

Today’s a rest day so aside from the laundry we got done most of the day was either reading, napping or writing (depending on if you’re Anna or Jamie) with out feet up in bed. In this hotel we’re in separate beds as one of the things I said to our travel agent was ‘if it’s not a proper Queen size bed or larger, we want a twin room’. This is because standard Japanese doubles are built for smaller people, and neither of us sleep well when we’re crammed in together in a hot room.

Anyway, I got lots of writing done. I did editing on my paranormal mystery and wrote a new chapter on my new thing. Anna got lots of reading done and we rested our bodies and took a break. It was pretty great.

Finally we left the room to check out Dotonbori, which is a full on red light district which is also a shopping mall and a brilliant source of delicious food. We hit a couple of shops and then tracked down the same okonomiyaki place we ate and loved last time: Chibo, it’s a eight floor oknomiyaki restaurant.

It was super delicious. We also got crispy gyoza for starters but we were both so excited to eat it we didn’t get a photo. It was really nice. Okonomiyaki is a batter and cabbage pancake pizza with various fillings, covered in delicious bbq-ish sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Ours have beef and seafood inside and was really, really freaking delicous. Also it had an egg on top.

After that another wander through Dotonbori, and hit up the Osaka Tokyu Hands before heading back to the hotel room.

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Day six – Shinjuku, Harajuku

It feels weird to stay in a hotel which is just a hotel. The walls here are plain beige, there’s no hidden Mickeys to spot. The room is nice enough but it’s not the ridiculous level of luxury we had in the Disneyland hotel. When we walk out of the lobby there’s no Disney music playing, and there aren’t copious amounts of staff wishing us a good morning or waving at us with Mickey gloves or Disney plushies.

It’s amazing what you can get used to.

We had a slow start to the day Sunday, because Anna woke up in pain and needing painkillers and to sleep it off. I used the time to catch up on blogging and have a nice birthday morning bath.

We went to Doutor for breakfast, which has been my favourite breakfast spot in Japan since 2012. It’s a chain coffee shop, which prides itself on imported coffee. I’m not a coffee or caffeine drinker but they do a delicious, rich and not too sweet hot cocoa which is the stuff of dreams. The food is Western/Italian inspired. Lots of baked goods, sandwiches and pastries. Anna and I both had filled rolls and split an order of cheese toast. The cheese toast is delicious and may be all I eat for breakfast from here on in.

After doubling back to the hotel to pick up our rail pass vouchers we located the ticket office. This was a roundabout trip because they’ve split off the JR rail pass ticket exchange from the main ticket counter, but we happen to be staying very close to the offices we needed so it wasn’t too much of a drama.

The JR pass allows us to ride a bunch of the shinkansen (bullet trains) for free and most local rail as well. It’s super convenient and only available for tourists, so we had to show our passports. The system is very streamlined though, you join the queue and a staff member checks your vouchers, then gives you a form on a clipboard to fill in while you queue. She then checked we’d filled it all out correctly, so by the time we reached the front of the line everything was in order and the desk staff just had to issue the passes proper. It seems so obvious to have this level of service, a staff member checking on you as you wait, but I can’t think of a single place it happens back home.

Newly minted rail passes in hand we went into the station for our first trip on our beloved Yamanote line. The Yamanote line is a big circle which travels through main suburbs of Tokyo and we caught it a lot last time.

We got off at Harajuku and headed to Takeshita St. There’s some construction happening so things looked a little different on the approach. It turns out that Sundays at Harajuku are very, very busy. We hit a couple of favourite spots: Paris Kids for cheap jewellery and accessories, Daiso, a sock shop and wandered up looking for our favourite sushi place, Sushi-nova. Unfortunately it has shut down permanently 😦

Then we looked at some fantastic shoes, just gorgeous things and all relatively cheap, just to realise that they don’t make them quite big enough for us. I could get my feet in the glorious shiny hidden wedge sneakers, but only just. As I put my foot down I could already feel the squeeze, there’s no way I could walk in them comfortably for any length of time. It’s very sad. Plus there’s all this gorgeous fashion, a lot of it which Anna would love to own but it’s all sized to tiny Japanese teenagers. It’s quite alienating in a way. You can look at all the beautiful things, you can buy them, but you can’t wear them.

We found the shiba cafe I’d read about, but the return time on it was hours away. We found the gigantic rainbow candy floss place, and it had a huge line out the door. Plus the street, which is always pretty busy, was packed and mostly with tourists who weren’t picking up on the etiquette. The flow towards the train station/up the street is on the left and the flow down the street/away from the station is on the right. If you try and battle against the flow it doesn’t work. If you stop in a group and spread several metres into the flow to work out what you’re doing next, it messes the flow up. It was all very annoying.

Around the time we realised we couldn’t get into the shiba cafe right away I just kind of broke. Combination of PMS, exhaustion, disappointment and a little child me inside saying ‘but it’s my birthday!’ all welled up and I just started weeping. I’m sure part of this is also missing Disney, and being sad that Harajuku wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be, and being away from home on my birthday. This is pretty embarrassing to write about, but the fact is that it happened, and I like to be honest about this stuff. I just started crying and Anna took us to a cat cafe where I calmed down some.

The Mocha cat cafe is one floor up at the top of the street, and the street slopes up so you can see quite a lot of the crowd from inside, and you can see the fluffy cat butts from the street.

It’s a really, really nice place. The rooms are spacious and quiet and vaguely Alice in Wonderland themed without using any of the trademarked material. The walls are dotted with cat platforms at various heights and little cubbies the cats can go to when they don’t want interaction. There were water fountains around the room, and lots of chilled out cats. They limit how many people can go in at a time, so when people come out someone new can go in. They also offer unlimited drinks from two huge vending machines. It had been a cold morning but it really warmed up while we were in Harajuku so I had two green melon fantas and an orange soda and still felt a little thirsty.

The cats were all exceptionally fluffy and very relaxed. They were playful, some of them very happy to chase the teaser toys provided, or nudge up against you or as one cat did to Anna, spend a while sniffing your feet. They had a few different breeds as well and we made friends with a squash nosed munchkin ginger. It was a nice place to chill out.

We headed back to Shinjuku on the train and it happened again, I was weeping. It just leaked out of me and I couldn’t stop it. Back in the hotel room I just let it happen and Anna reassured me that it actually made sense. I hadn’t thought of it in these terms but it was the first day we’d had in months where we didn’t have to do something. There wasn’t a schedule, I didn’t have to pack up or organise or be somewhere, we were just doing things as they happened. My mind was given a chance to relax, and all the stress and the emotions were coming out.

I felt a lot better after that, and decided to treat the rest of the day as a sick day. We sat in bed, drank sodas and juices and ate snacks and watched Brooklyn 99 which has apparently become comfort TV for me. After a couple hours of that I felt much, much better. We got laundry done and then I realised what I really wanted to do: visit Tokyu Hands and UniQlo

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Conveniently, we’re staying about five minutes from a huge up market department store called Takashimaya Times Square, which includes a Tokyu Hands and a Uni Qlo.

What is Tokyu Hands? It’s a huge home and craft themed department stores. There’s a floor for kitchen including bento supplies, waffle makers, chopsticks and baking ware. There’s a floor for leather working and tools, there’s a floor for cards and gifts (we picked up some delightful Studio Ghibli mini jigsaws) and a whole entire floor of diaries, pens, stickers, washi tape and other stationary. That last floor was what got us. We spent quite a lot there. It was so much fun. They had all the 2019 diaries out, so there weren’t so many notebooks as there were last time, but we picked up … enough things. We found a wedding album designed to take instax sized photos, which is perfect because we had all our guests take photos of themselves with my instax, so we have a stack of pictures to store. They had a whole bullet journal section and Anna’s eyeing up a new one for next year, I’m considering trying it out, because with all the stickers etc it actually seems feasible for me.

We headed to UniQlo which is a clothing store which I adore. This one wasn’t a huge one, and I need a huge one, but it still had some gorgeous things. I tried on a rather fancy blazer which I’m thinking about. There were some very cute baby things and wool sweaters. They always have a Disney range as well, and usually some art and artist t shirts. This store didn’t seem to have them, so we’ll have to check out another one. Or maybe I’ll just wait until Osaka when we’re staying by the giant one … we didn’t buy anything there as we didn’t have our passports and you can get tax write off as a foreigner, but I’m keen to go back and check out some things.

After that it was a stroll back to the hotel, sort out hanging the still slightly damp laundry and another relaxing netflix and snacks evening.

Overall it wasn’t my best birthday ever, but it ended just fine. We’re here for a long time so that we can have restful days, I tried to fight it a bit, but I did need the rest.