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Ueno Zoo is a top-notch Tokyo destination great for families and couples alike. It’s easy to get to, it’s not expensive, and they have pandas! The Zoo is also in Ueno Park, which is home to many of Tokyo’s other cultural attractions (such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum).

But what if you’re new to Tokyo? You don’t speak the language, you’re afraid of getting lost, and you’re not even sure if you can get tickets once you get there? Well, that’s where we come in! My trusty camera-woman and I went to the zoo and filmed the entire process. All you have to do is watch the video, and there’s no way you’ll get lost!

 

GETTING THERE

Ueno Station is on the JR Yamanote Line. Once you arrive at Ueno, you will depart via the Ueno Park Exit. Once outside, you will cross the street to enter Ueno Park proper. From there, the Zoo is only a few minute’s walk, and you will see the entrance almost immediately after entering the park.

GETTING TICKETS

The very front of the zoo has a number of electronic ticket machines, similar to the ones at the train stations. Here, you can select English (or a number of other language options) and buy tickets. Adults (age 16+) are 600 yen, Students (age 13-15) are 200 yen, and children 12 and under are free! After that, you get your ticket stamped, go inside, and get your English-language map of the Zoo. And now you’re ready for your day!

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

…AND THE REST

Go and see the pandas right away. They are to the right of the Main Entrance Gate, and that line isn’t going to get any shorter. Beyond that, let your map and your interests be your guide. Don’t miss the Children’s Zoo–you may get the chance to pet some bunnies and guinea pigs!

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

As you can see on the Zoo Map, the Zoo itself is split into East and West Gardens, connected by a bridge. Ueno Zoo can be quite a hike, so be ready with your water bottles and snacks. If necessary, you can rent strollers (300 yen) or acquire a wheelchair (free) at any of the entrances. If your feet get too tired, you can take the monorail back and forth between the Gardens (150 yen for age 13+, 80 yen for age 12 and under).

There are no language barriers at the Ueno Zoo–every exhibit, sign, etc. is subtitled in English. Even if you are struggling with the local lingo, you’ll find no problems here. And if you are studying the language, let the zoo help you learn the names of the animals in Japanese!

Jackass Penguin Sign Ueno Zoo Tokyo

Even better, the Zoo can be your gateway to the other attractions at Ueno Park, which are just as English-friendly and easy to get to. So don’t just sit home on another long weekend! Plan your trip to the Ueno Zoo today!

Ueno Zoo Information

Ueno Zoo (English site)

5 minute walk from Ueno JR station (click on the map pin for directions via Google Maps)

 

Hours: 09:30-17:00, closed Mondays (or Tuesday if Monday is a public holiday). Last tickets sold at 16:00.

Ticket Prices: 600 yen for adults (age 16+), 300 yen for seniors (age 65+), 200 yen for students (age 13-15, free if living in or attending school in Tokyo), Free for all children age 12 and under. Does not include concessions or souvenirs.

“Why Go?”: It’s an inexpensive, easy outing for families and lone travelers. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Not to mention pandas, and penguins, and lemurs, and…

Rhino Ueno Zoo Tokyo

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

 

February 11, 2016 0 comment
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As with many long-lived fictional characters, Godzilla’s popularity has waxed and waned over the decades. He’s changed with the times, changed back, and became goofier or more hardcore as the zeitgeist dictated. But the Terror of Tokyo has always had legions of fans. And if you’re one of those fans, you can turn one of your days in Tokyo into a tour of the Godzilla sites!

The Shinagawa Station Tile

Our first subject is located on the #1 platform of the Yamanote Line at Shinagawa Station. Near the mid-point of the platform (underneath a pair of security monitors) is a floor tile, depicting a suspiciously dinosaur-like creature in a circle. The kanji on the tile tells us that this exact point is the 0 kilometer mark–that is, the spot from which all other distances on the line are measured.

But why a dinosaur? Well, that depends on who you ask. One popular story holds it that JR East (the rail company on the line) asked permission to use Godzilla’s likeness on an anniversary tile of some sort, due to his association with the area (see the Yatsuyama Bridge, below). This plan hit a snag when it ran up against an expensive licensing fee from Toho. So instead, the station decided to use a “dinosaur” as a symbol. Sort of like painting a triceratops costume green and calling him Blarney, the Lucky Irish Dinosaur.

There’s nothing official here, and no advertisement of the tile’s presence beyond a few blog posts here and there. But since you’re going to be at Shinagawa Station at some point during your trip, you should have a look!

First Godzilla Attack – the Yatsuyama Bridge

In the 1954 classic, this intersection is the spot where Godzilla first stepped in Tokyo to give the Shinagawa ward a serious monster beating. Well, it’s not exactly this spot–years after the film was made, railroad tracks were laid down, and a bridge was built over them. But it’s as close as you’re going to get without playing dodge-train.

Nice, but how do I know what you say is true? Well, do you remember that map board you passed outside of Kitashinagawa Station? Go take a look again. And there you’ll see it–a spot marked on the board with a cutesy giant lizard-monster. This is the closest approximation of where our hero first placed his three-toed foot on the city he loves to hate.

Yatsuyama Godzilla

But why are there no other markings at the intersection? The locals did want to mark it, but Toho’s licensing fees were far outside what the community could afford. So besides the map, there’s nothing to mark this piece of cinematic history.

You might also have another question. Godzilla was fifty meters tall in the original film. Where’s the water he came from? There is no water near the intersection that is deep enough to hide a towering radioactive lizard.

The reason for this is simple modernization–the landing spot was much closer to water in 1954, but a reclamation project in the 60s and 70s diverted the water into a river in order to make land available for Tokyo’s expansion. Godzilla may be able to take on Ghidrah, but there’s no way he can defeat real estate development.

The Yatsuyama Bridge Information

Nearest Station: 3-minutes walk from Kita-Shinagawa Station (South exit) (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

Hibiya Chanter Square

Our third spot will be at the Hibiya Chanter Square. The Godzilla statue and faux-marble plinth it stands on is around two and a half meters tall. The ground nearby is covered in plaques, Hollywood-Walk-of-Fame style, with the metal-casted handprints of various Japanese celebrities. It’s a nice photo op in a small park.

Hibiya Chanter Square Information

You can visit Hibiya Chanter’s website here. Website (English). Follow it on social media at Facebook (English) and Instagram.

Nearest Station: 4-minutes walk from Hibiya Station (Southwest exit) (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

Toho Studios

It ‘s a long walk to reach this location. Movie studios need a lot of room for sound stages, and land is at a premium in Tokyo. Also, it does no one any good to have tourists tramping through when you’re ready for your close-up, right?

Walk under the sign towards the lot entrance. Do note that you cannot get onto the lot itself–there is a security guard posted. Moreover, you don’t want to be rude by interrupting someone’s next blockbuster, do you?  The best you can do is to see the mural outside, the gate, and perhaps snap a shot or two of the person-sized Godzilla statue out front. Security can be lax or strict, depending on who-knows-what. The best bet is to be polite, be quick about getting your pictures, and be gone.

Toho Studios Information

You can visit Toho Studios’ website here. Website (English). Follow it on social media at Facebook (English) and Instagram.

Nearest Station: 10-minutes walk from Seijogakuen-Mae Station (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

Hotel Gracery Shinjuku

Hotel Gracery Shinjuku has become a landmark due to the Godzilla’s head statue mounted on top of the hotel. The Godzilla Head roars and breathes non-radioactive steam nine times a day. The event starts at noon, and then repeats every hour until 8 p.m. The best video/camera footage for this event is on the street leading up to the hotel. the roar is much more colorful at night, so please plan accordingly.

The hotel lobby has a number of Godzilla movie posters, a small souvenir store, and a cafe. You give your Godzilla pass to the host, who then seats you (if you’re staying at the hotel, all you need is the room key, but you do have to show them something). And yes, they know you are coming–prices are kind of high, because the Gracery is a fancy sort of hotel. If you want to order a Godzilla cake set with coffee, which will cost you 1700 yen.

After that, it was time for the main event! Outside, you can get up close and personal with Shinjuku’s most famous resident. The statue itself is towering, and at the base you can see a few bas-reliefs and plaques of great moments in Godzilla history. The best angle for pictures is at the front corner.

Hotel Gracery Shinjuku Information

You can visit Hotel Gracery Shinjuku’s website here. Website (English). Follow it on social media at Facebook (English)Instagram, and YouTube.

Nearest Station: 10-minutes walk from Shinjuku Station (East station) (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

Tamagawa Sengen Shrine

Leaving Tokyo, our next stop is the Tamagawa Sengen Shrine. If you have seen the movie Shin Godzilla, you might remember the “Taba Strategy.” In the movie, the commander of the Japan Self-Defense Forces sets a defensive perimeter at the Tama River to prevent Godzilla from entering Tokyo. The Shrine was designated as the command center.

Yes, Godzilla stands exactly next to the bridge in the movie. But air forces and tanks cannot stop Godzilla!

Even if you are not a fan, you can still stand at the shrine and see the beautiful landscape of Tama River on the Marukobashi (Maruko Bridge), which is one of the most popular bridges in Japan. Many Japanese dramas have been filmed here.

Tamagawa Sengen Shrine Information

You can visit Tamagawa Sengen’s website here. Website (English). Follow it on social media at Facebook (Japanese) and Instagram.

Nearest Station: 2-minutes walk from Tamagawa Station (South exit) (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

Nishi-Rokugō Park

You only need to spend fifteen minutes on the Tōkyū Tamagawa Line train from Tamagawa to Kamata station. Go to the east gate and walk toward south. We will be nostalgic a little bit because we are going to the Nishi-Rokugo Park, which is a children playground.

Watch out, a sculpture of Godzilla made of rubber tires stands in the center of the park. Children (or children at heart) can climb on its back and step on its tail. If you want to defeat Godzilla, you should come here and join the other kids to finish that mission.

Nishi-Rokugō Park Information

You can visit the website in here. Website (English). Follow it on social media at Facebook (Japanese) and Instagram.

Nearest Station: 15-minutes from Kamata Station (click on the Google Map below for walking directions).

You can do Godzilla pilgrimage, go sightseeing, and learn about Japanese history through visiting these places. This is a “one stone three birds” trip.

January 2, 2016 0 comment
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Matsuri Featured Image, Tokyo, japan

If you’re in Japan for any length of time, you’ll see it. Period costumes. Beautiful ladies in equally-beautiful kimonos. Perhaps someone dressed as an oni, scaring children into behaving. Packs of drunk Japanese people in festival clothes yelling, bouncing, and carrying some huge object down the street. And streets lined with food booths. You’ve wandered into the middle of the big street fair/party known as a matsuri!

Everyone seems to be having a good time. But what about you? Finding yourself in the middle of all of this might be a bit awkward. Is there something you should be doing? Or maybe something you are supposed to be wearing? Are you supposed to help with carrying that huge object?

Don’t worry! I’ve been to more than a few matsuri, so I can help! So let us eat, drink, and be fat and drunk, because it’s time to get in on the block party to end all block parties! And if you’re lucky, you might even get press-ganged into carrying a mikoshi!

Portable Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

In this article, I’m going to use my local dual-matsuri as a guide. The Kita-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Shinagawa Shrine) and the Minami-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Ebara Shrine) combine yearly to form one giant sprawling matsuri (hereafter called the Shinagawa Matsuri) for everyone to enjoy!

 

What is a Matsuri?

Matsuri” is just the Japanese word for “festival.” As opposed to holidays, matsuri are not held on specific dates throughout Japan–each neighborhood schedules and holds their own matsuri. Matsuri are usually held anywhere from late spring to fall, and it is possible to attend several matsuri throughout the year.

There are many large and famous matsuri. The larger festivals are usually visitor-friendly, but you should go with a Japanese friend in order to get the full experience. But the smaller ones–that’s what we’re getting at. No big touristy stuff for you!

Matsuri Preparation

Not all matsuri are the same. Yes, there are common elements, but thinking that each one is a carbon-copy of the other is sort of like thinking that Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day are all celebrated the same way. Each neighborhood does their matsuri their own way–what may be a central element in one festival may be completely missing from another. Even for the smaller ones, having a Japanese friend (preferably a local) will help you navigate the peculiarities of a matsuri.

But even if you don’t have a Japanese friend, don’t worry! Matsuri is a fun time, and everyone is in a good partying mood. If nothing else, you can always come sample the food booths and people-watch. Just be friendly and not only will you have a good time, you’ll probably make new friends!

Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

The Mikoshi

Many matsuri are centered around neighborhood Shinto jinja, or shrines. During the Shinagawa Matsuri, mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines that look like miniature temples) are carried throughout the neighborhood. Shrines house the kami (gods or spirits) for the duration of the festival, and the locals celebrate matsuri by carrying the shrines through the streets, drumming and chanting and bouncing the whole way. In between bouts of eating and drinking, that is.

Portable shrine, Tokyo, Japan

And for the Shinagawa Matsuri, “portable” is used in the very loosest sense of the word. These shrines are huge and very heavy, and they require a dozen or more people to carry. And you could be one of those people!

 

Getting Dressed for the Occasion

If you’re just going to matsuri to people-watch or for the food booths, you don’t need to wear anything special. You can come just as you are! You’ll see plenty of adults and children (and more than a few pampered dogs) in festival clothes or kimonos, but it’s not required.

Kids in matsuri clothing, Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to help carry a mikoshi, you’ll have to get dressed for the part. Please note that you cannot just jump into the mikoshi-carrying mix–if you want to participate, let someone in festival clothes know (either through your own language skills, that of your Japanese friend, or the tried and true “point at my own chest and make the up-and-down shoulder-lifting motion”). If it’s okay, they will likely lend you a hanten (a light jacket) to wear.

If you are really lucky, you may be able to borrow a full set of festival clothes, called matsuri-issho. These clothes consist of a light jacket (known as a hanten), a pair of trousers, an undershirt, and a pair of tabi boots. The hanten is held in place with a sash, and there is a small man-purse (or just a purse, for the ladies) for your money. I live in Shinagawa, so I bought my own set of matsuri-issho (pictured). But if you’re just visiting, a borrowed hanten or matsuri-issho will be just fine.

Matsuri-issho, Festival clothing

Carrying the Mikoshi

Now that you are properly attired, get ready to get in there and lend your back to the cause! A few cultural notes–

  • Be sure to ask before joining a mikoshi carry in progress. Most matsuri are rather casual affairs, but some mikoshi have significant religious significance and are not to be touched by outsiders. In truth, there are very few mikoshi under that sort of restriction, but it pays to be sure.
  • In the past, women were strictly forbidden from touching certain mikoshi. This is not completely true today; some places are fine with it, some places are not, and other places allow women to touch some shrines but not others. As always, check with the locals before touching a mikoshi.
  • Other traditions may apply in different areas. My wife remembers a time when people were not allowed to look down at a mikoshi (“looking down on a god from above”) during the Shinagawa Matsuri. Windows over street level had to be closed and bridges over rivers were cleared when a mikoshi passed underneath on a boat. Other locales may have similar traditions, so please be observant and do as the locals do.

Once you get in, brace yourself! Mikoshi can be very heavy. Most people simply shoulder the load, but I always wuss out and use a towel to cushion the wooden beam. Also, you want to stand as straight as you possibly can and keep the wooden beam on your shoulder. Not only is this the easiest way to carry your part of the load, it also prevents back injuries. This may be easier said than done–I am 5’8″, which is about average Japanese size. If you’re one of those really tall people, make sure you get in next to people who are about your size.

A few other things might happen during your stint as a porter of the gods. At the Shinagawa Matsuri, people yell, “Washoi!” when carrying the shrine. The closest translation to English would be something like, “Heave ho!” and is used as encouragement to your fellow mikoshi carriers. Feel free to join the chant!

Another thing you may encounter is a difference in mikoshi-carrying styles. The Shinagawa Matsuri uses the Jōnan-style carry, in which mikoshi carriers lift from both the parallel and perpendicular beams that support the mikoshi palanquin. The mikoshi generally travels forward, but often stops and bounces, moves from side to side, and sometimes may go backwards. In other places, you might encounter the Edomae-style carry, in which the mikoshi carriers stay on the parallel beams and move forward at a measured, marching pace.

There are other styles, but these are the two most commonly seen in Tokyo. I am looking forward to one day seeing a Kenka Matsuri, such as the one in Nada. Kenka means “fight” or “conflict”, and in a Kenka Matsuri, mikoshi shrines “fight” by crashing into each other. Exactly how this honors the gods is somewhat mysterious, but it appears that even spiritual beings enjoy a good demolition derby. You may want to stay away from these; people get injured and even killed while participating in a Kenka Matsuri.

Another thing that might occur is something I call the “bouncing challenge.” In the bouncing challenge, the person on the other end of your beam will bounce his end up and down, which will cause your beam to smash up and down into your shoulder. This is painful! The only thing you can really do is hold on tight and keep your shoulder to the beam to lessen the impact. Once they stop, you can respond in kind, but you may want to consider that you might not know that other person, nor how they will take a dose of their own medicine. Best to just leave well enough alone.

Finally, you do not need to carry the mikoshi for the full duration of its travel. You can take breaks, rotating responsibility for the load with other participants. Just be sure to give nearby revelers an indication that you intend to bail–it’s considered bad form to just leave your part of the carry without warning, suddenly shifting the weight to someone else’s shoulders. Once you’re out, you can rub your sore shoulders, walk along for awhile and then rejoin, or move on and do something else. If you borrowed a hanten, be sure to return it before you leave

 

…and the Rest of It

Even if you don’t get the chance to carry a mikoshi, there is still plenty to do at a matsuri. There are lots of people to see, kimonos to admire, and many kinds of carnival-style games for children and adults. Street entertainers perform at some matsuri–I have seen trained monkeys, taiko drum players, Vegas-style street magicians, and even a karaoke contest. Stick around and watch, and have some coins ready for when the hat gets passed around.

And then there is the food. There are so many good things to eat during matsuri, and you’ll want to try them all. You can choose cultural favorites like chilled cucumbers or grilled squid on a stick, old standbys like karage (fried chicken) and shaved ice, or even chow down on imported ideas such as pizza pockets and cotton candy. My personal favorite is the yakkitori-style meats, such as steak and salted pork. And you can wash it all down with one of the many nearby beer stands.

Matsuri food stalls octopus, Tokyo, Japan

Octopus, Matsuri food stall, Tokyo, Japan

Meat on a stick, Matsuri Food stall, Tokyo, Japan

So there you have it–a basic how-to guide for enjoying a mikoshi matsuri in Japan! There may be regional or neighborhood differences for each matsuri, or maybe even a restriction or two. But matsuri time is supposed to be a good time, for both the locals and for visitors. So get your pocket money and your camera ready, get out there, and have a great time!

Shrine during a matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

 

August 28, 2015 0 comment
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Odaiba Onsen Featured Images, Odaiba, Tokyo

Onsens in Japan date back thousands of years. Thousands of these hot springs can be found throughout the country, but the cultural barriers to entry can seem high to outsiders. Where do you go? What do you do? Do you really have to get naked around a bunch of strangers?

Never fear! I have been to several onsens throughout the country, and in this article I’ll show you the do’s and don’ts of the onsen experience. For this article, I use the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo. Not only is it a great onsen, it is easy to get to from any number of local train stations and hotels.

And should you decide to visit the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Voyagin can help you out with a discount!

A Note on Tattoos

Japanese people have an aversion to body art due to its long association with criminal elements. Some onsens outside of Tokyo allow them, and others will allow you to enter if you have some way of covering them up (usually with a flesh-toned bandage).

The Oodeo Onsen Monogatari does not allow tattoos at all. Yes, they are aware that not everyone who has a tattoo is a criminal. Your tattoos may very well be innocuous (your kid’s names, etc) or have some deep, personal meaning. But sorry, you will not be admitted. Please do not be the ugly foreigner who shows up and makes a scene by arguing with the staff.

NOTE: I have heard that some people have gotten around this rule by covering up with a t-shirt or leggings, but you will still not be able to get into the baths. And if you can’t go to the baths, why bother going at all? Also, I don’t know what happens to you if you get caught, but I’m sure it will cause quite a bit of embarrassment.

 

Money Matters

Onsen trips can be expensive. The Oedo Onsen Monogatari has a reasonable price of entry (2500-2900 yen per adult, 1000 yen for children ages 4-12, under 4 is free), which includes the bath, the yukata robe (more on that below), towels, and facility usage. But that’s not all–there are plenty of good things to eat and drink, games for the kids to play, and wonderfully relaxing massages.

You do not carry money at Oedo Onsen Monogatari–they have a computerized system that keeps track of your purchases via a barcoded bracelet that you will receive once you go inside. Therein lies the danger. Since money isn’t changing hands, you may have no idea how much you have spent until you get to the checkout counter. For your estimation purposes, my last trip with my wife and son cost 12,000 yen (baths, food and drink, etc). Make sure you have enough to cover your trip!

 

Other Things To Consider

Medical conditions and pregnancy. If you have high blood pressure, are pregnant, or are otherwise susceptible to high temperatures, complications could arise from using the baths. Please check with your doctor before you leave home if you are thinking of going to an onsen.

Bring a change of clothes. You will want clean underwear after you leave the baths, and clean clothes to change back into once you leave the onsen.

Know your height in centimeters, so you can get an appropriately-sized yukata (below).

 

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari Experience

Once you enter the onsen, you have to take off your shoes and place them in one of the lockers to the left of the entrance. You can wear socks if you want, but make sure they are clean and not-holey ones. Keep the key, so you can get your shoes back at the end of your visit.

Next, you will check in at the service desk. Here you will give your credit card number and you will receive a barcoded bracelet that doubles as locker key and wallet. The barcode bracelet is used to pay for food, drinks, and other extras inside the onsen area.

The third step is to get a yukata from the counter. A yukata is a thin robe, worn with a sash, which you will wear for the duration of your trip to the onsen. As it is with the case of tattoos, this is not negotiable–this is what is worn inside the onsen area. Go to the counter and choose your size (in centimeters), a pattern, and one of the sashes. Oh, and make sure you get one that is the correct size. Too long and you are wearing a wedding gown that trails everywhere. Too small, and everyone will wonder where the flood is.

 

Wearing Your Yukata

At Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are separate changing rooms for men (blue curtain) and women (red curtain). The changing room is essentially a locker room. Find the locker that matches your key, and you will be ready to change into your yukata.

Wearing a yukata is just like wearing a bathrobe. When you put it on, you will cross the left side of the robe over the right. Ladies have additional strings on the inside of their yukata in order to prevent “wardrobe malfunctions.”

Why is it left over right? Well, the explanation I got was that swordsmen drew their katana with their right hand from their left hip, and having your yukata on right-over-left could possibly entangle your sword hand, which would likely get you killed.

“But I don’t have a sword,” I said. “Also, I’m left-handed. If I did get into a quick-draw-and-slash contest, I would be just as screwed.”

“Shut up and put it on right,” was my wife’s answer.

There is another reason. Wearing the yukata right-over-left is reserved for the dead at their funeral. No one will actually think that you are dead, but it is a social faux pas. On the other hand, you now know how to identify Japanese zombies should the dead rise during your vacation. If you forget which side goes over which, there are plenty of signs in the changing area to remind you.

Traditionally, people wore nothing at all under their yukata, but modernity has allowed for some modifications. First, you will wear underwear beneath your robe. Ladies, a bra is also appropriate. If you like, you can also wear a t-shirt and socks with your yukata. If you intend to go to the baths immediately, put on your fresh gear. You don’t want to take a bath only to put your dirty underwear back on.

Also, there is a small pocket on the inside to keep your cell phone or camera. You can take a camera inside the onsen, just be mindful of where you are taking pictures. In the common areas, it’s ok, but (for obvious reasons) no pictures are allowed in the locker rooms or bath areas.

 

To the Baths!

First, please refrain from taking a bath when you are dead drunk (see sign).

Thank you for not embarrassing the rest of the visitors. Now lets get to it.

Once you leave the locker room, you enter the common area, where all of the food booths, games, etc are located. Oedo Onsen Monogatari is built like a miniature hot springs town–in other onsens, all of these food stands, bars, games, etc. aren’t this close together. To get to the baths, go left and follow the signs.

Older onsens were mixed-sex bathing, but those have fallen out of fashion. Oedo Onsen Monogatari splits the baths into men’s and women’s sides. For this portion, please realize that I am a guy, so I only know what’s in the men’s baths. (My wife assures me that it is essentially the same over on their side, but you never know…)

After entering the bath area, you will first enter another locker room. Right inside the door you will receive two towels–one small, one large. With these, choose a locker and strip down. Everything goes into this locker–your yukata, underwear, socks, cell phone, and even your bar code bracelet. You cannot wear any clothing at all in the onsen–no shorts, no swim trunks, whatever. Naked as the day you were born, as the saying goes. The locker has a key on a plastic band. This goes around your wrist, and is the only exception to the “total nudity” rule.

The larger towel you got at the entrance also goes into the locker, because it is for drying yourself off after you get out of the bath. The smaller one (a washcloth, for Americans) is what you take into the onsen with you. If you are modest, you can use it to block the view of your junk, which no one cares about anyway. If you want to go like a native, you’ll use it to wash your face and dry your sweat in the baths. Please do not dip this cloth into the bath water–it is considered unsanitary to do so. While in the water, you can put it to the side or fold it up and put it on your head, just like in the cartoons.

 

Once Inside the Baths…

The first thing you do in the actual bath section is to take a shower. It may sound odd, but the purpose of the onsen is to relax, not bathe. You are going to soak here, and hopefully not in a bath of oily scum left by previous bathers. Inside the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are two options. Once you enter, there is a traditional “bowl bath”, in which you simply douse yourself in water. If you look behind you, there is a Western-style shower. Either way works.

If you are especially grimy, please use one of the shower stations that are on the left side of the indoor section of the baths. The stations all come with a stool, body soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a bowl and shower head combo. Get your pretty man on! Just make sure you get all of the soap off of your body before going to the baths. That’s another faux pas to avoid.

After that, there are several pools to choose from. They vary in temperature, as per a nearby thermometer. There are baths, and there is even is a whirlpool. Not bad, right? Be aware of the temperature and don’t force yourself to get into a bath if it is too hot.

And once you are there, relax. Nice, isn’t it? Some people bathe alone, and others gather in groups and chit-chat. If come by yourself, you will probably stay that way. One time during one of my earlier trips, some guy sat next to me to practice his naked English, which was rather awkward. But that was just that one time, out of dozens of trips.

 

Nude in the Great Outdoors

After your initial stride into the waters of a Broader Mindset, see if you can go outside. Yes, there are bathing pools outside, along with benches and other spots where you can lie down and flap about in the breeze. The high wall surrounding the area protects your privacy, and will protect the general public from your bad jokes (Q. Why did the bald man go outside at the onsen? A. He wanted to feel the wind in his hair). You can soak in the outside pool or take a nap if you like. Beware of sunburn on your sensitive bits.

Once you are done soaking, take another shower at one of the shower stations before exiting the bath area. You’ll leave the onsen feeling fresh, relaxed, and very clean. Time to see what else is here!

 

The Foot Baths

The foot baths at Oedo Onsen Monogatari are outside, in the Japanese gardens. Here, there is a long, winding walking pool. If you are feeling bold, hike up your yukata and wade right in!

I have to admit, this is not my favorite thing to do. The water is nice, but the walking path (both in the water and on the dry parts of the path) are studded with rocks. The rocks are supposed to “massage” your soles, for increased blood circulation or some other ancient Eastern medicine reason. I think that the larger rocks are ok for this, but walking on the smaller rocks is like finding missing Lego while going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Painful! Overall, I’d rather just sit on one of the benches that line either side of the pool and dangle my feet in the water.

There is another peculiar pool in this area, full of tiny fish. For a fee, you can soak your feet in this pool, and the fish will eat the dead skin off of whatever they can reach. The very idea sorta grosses me out, but some people seem to like it.

The Rest of Your Onsen Experience

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a great place to go for your first onsen experience. It is foreigner-friendly and easy to get around. All the signs are duplicated in English, and most of the staff can help you in areas related to their expertise.

There are lots of things to eat and drink. Just about every Japanese dish is represented here at one food stand or another, along with desserts (I liked the strawberry ice topped with condensed milk). We went with a group and had lunch with them (pictured), but you don’t have to do that. Just find what you like, point at the menu, and use your barcode bracelet to pay. Easy!

And there are other things to do. Near the bathing area is the spa, where you can get everything from a massage to skin exfoliation to a reflexology treatment. There are plenty of carnival-style games for the kids (and me, because I like throwing ninja stars). There is even a reclining chair area for you to take a nap, in case all of that relaxing wears you out.

And don’t forget to go to the gift shop before you leave!

In Short…

Going to an onsen is one of those “very Japanese” things to do, and will make for a great story when you return home. I used the Oedo Onsen Monogatari as a template for onsen trips–if you go somewhere else, the particulars may vary, but probably not by much. Also, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is inside Tokyo and is easy to get to through any number of methods (see below). If you are staying at a hotel, they can likely arrange a trip for you. Highly recommended!

Still not sure if you want to go to Oedo Onsen Monogatari? Maybe Voyagin’s discount can help you decide!

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen Monogatari Location Information

Website (English) | Facebook (customer reviews and photos)

Access: There are multiple ways to get to Oedo Onsen Monogatari, best explained at http://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/#access

Hours of Operation: Open 7 days a week, 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m (next day), last entry: 7 a.m.

“Why Go?”: For a relaxing soak, good food, and an unforgettable experience!

Click on one of the tags below to find other experiences in Tokyo–

July 17, 2015 0 comment
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Bar Zingaro, Tokyo Japan Featured Image

The Dario Hernandez blend from Guatemala is strong. Delightful, with a hint of…tomato?

Nope. The package says tangerine, orangina, and melons. Odd, for coffee.

This doesn’t appear to be unusual for Bar Zingaro’s coffee selections. The Fulgen Expresso nearby lists ingredients like dark chocolate, red apple, citrus, and almond along with the coffee beans. I sampled the Karatu blend next. It’s from Kenya, from the Gitwe Co-operative. Blackberry, gooseberry, currants, and watermelon are mixed with the coffee. It is still strong, but smoother. Good coffee, and it had better be for ¥530 a cup.

Bar Zingaro is located on the second floor of the Nakano Broadway building. It’s only been open a year, according to the barista/bartender, Eo. “Like ‘Captain Eo,'” he says. He is young and skinny and has a number 3 tattooed on his left hand in the web between his thumb and forefinger. Not a hiragana “ro”, as I originally thought. He doesn’t explain what it means, and I don’t ask.

Bar Zingaro's bartender, Nakano, Tokyo

Instead, we converse in that odd Japlish mishmash language that evolves in Japanese establishments frequented by foreigners. The bar/coffee shop/art gallery is a collaboration between artist Takashi Murakami and Fuglen, a small chain of coffee shops and cocktail bars in Oslo, Norway. Bar Zingaro features a laid-back aesthetic of comfy couches, wooden tables, and intimate spaces with which to enjoy a cup of java (or something stronger) with friends. Art is also a strong presence in the space, a comfortable addition that does not overwhelm the viewer nor disturb the cozy atmosphere.

Seating and artwork at Bar Zingaro, Nakano, Tokyo

Comfy seating and Takashi Murakami’s artwork at Bar Zingarod

Despite our relative language difficulties, Eo makes good conversation. We talk a bit about the coffee and other drinks on the menu. The coffee is from all over the world, by way of the roasteries of Oslo. The tea likewise has exotic origins, primarily from China, but also India and elsewhere. I’m not sure what makes cola “organic,” but they have it. And if the coffee is any way to judge the quality of Bar Zingaro’s offerings, it has to be good.

There is also a decent selection of beer, sake, and wine. Not everything above the bar appeared to be on the menu, so you’ll have to ask if you want a snootful. I amused Eo with a tale of my first encounter with the Denki Bran brandy, which went down smooth but returned with a mighty technicolor yawn one foggy New Year’s Eve. Similar tales might have been spun, but business began to pick up–Bar Zingaro appears to be a popular place. And with coffee that good, I’d say that popularity is well-earned.

Bar Zingaro menu, Nakano, Tokyo

Bar Zingaro drink menu

Coffee and drinks at Bar Zingaro, Nakano, Tokyo

Coffee and drinks at Bar Zingaro

Interior of Bar Zingaro, Nakano, Tokyo

Seating options in Bar Zingaro

Dario Hernandez Blend, Bar Zingaro, Nakano, Tokyo

Dario Hernandez blend

LOCATION: Nakano Broadway 2nd floor, access through the Sunmall at Nakano train station.
Open Sunday-Thursday 1100-2100, Friday-Saturday and holidays 1100-2300.
For more information, visit either the translated website or their Facebook page.

February 13, 2015 0 comment
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When I first started looking around for used bookstores in Tokyo, a number of people told me about Caravan Books in Ikebukuro. But alas, by the time I got around to visiting, it had closed. The owner had moved his business online.

When I received this assignment, I went looking for Caravan’s online store, now known as Infinity Books. A Google search turned up–a bookstore in Tokyo? One I hadn’t been to or even knew about? What madness is this?

At Shinagawa station I transferred from the JR lines to the Keikyu Main Line Rapid Limited Express, heading towards Nishi-Magome. At the next stop (Sengakuji), I switched to the Toei Asakusa line (light red circle) going towards Oshiage (Skytree). I got off at Honjo-Azumbashi station and departed from the A1 exit.

At the A1 exit, a person can turn around and look directly at the Skytree itself. I am not that person. Putting the Skytree to my back, I walked along the sidewalk, passing under a light blue walking bridge that spanned the road. Looking right as I walked, I spotted the gigantic golden turd with which someone decided to mar Asakusa’s skyline. I continued walking until I found the small black sign announcing the presence of Infinity Books and Cafè.

Infinity Books is roomy and cozy, if a little on the dark side. The books are only split between fiction and non-fiction–you’ll find sci-fi novels right next to historical romances and murder mysteries. It sounds like a strange way to organize, but I liked it. You may not find the exact book you want, but you’ll find something. And when you find that something, take it to the back of the shop. There are a few tables that are better lit, as well as…a bar?

Yes indeed. Nick Ward, the owner and proprietor, ran a bar (The Fiddler, in Takadanobaba) prior to opening Infinity Books. He keeps Yebisu on tap, the perfect complement for the thinking drinker’s new book. He also ran Caravan Books back in the days before he moved his operation online. “The costs were enormous. The problem was that I was doing the same thing I’m doing now–six days a week, watching a computer screen, waiting for an order to come in. Only there was no one to talk to, no new people coming around. My wife finally told me to get all of the books out of the house, so I opened this place.” As of this writing, Infinity Books has been open for nine months.

Like Good Day, Infinity can’t survive by on-site bookselling alone. Nick gives English lessons and frequently holds events (such as the acoustic jams every second Saturday of the month). He also maintains Infinity’s online presence through Amazon and the store’s web page. Infinity Books takes trades, depending on whether or not Nick wants them; shelf space is limited. If he likes what you bring, Nick offers store credit (around 35% of the resale value) or cash (around 15%).

Inifinity has a rotating cast of characters, most of whom have followed the Yorkshireman from Caravan Books and The Fiddler. In my short time there, I met a pair of Canadian acoustic musicians, a Korean woman who sings classical Japanese songs, and an Irishman who teaches at a nearby university. However, I didn’t meet the ghost. Nick swears that she (it’s a woman, according to the people who have seen her) stomps around the store at night and throws things. Occasionally, she goes upstairs to the apartment building above the shop. “People there have seen her,” he says. He keeps a glass of beer over the bar for her, in case she gets thirsty. So far, she hasn’t drunk it. Maybe she doesn’t like Yebisu.

Nick and I chatted for a few hours about everything under the sun. Don’t be afraid to visit; he likes meeting and talking to new people. Even weirdos, which was a good thing for me.

“So Nick,” I started in on him. “Do you think Hitler had to fight a lot of time travelers?”

“What?”

“You know. You read books about people inventing time travel, and the first thing they think about doing is going back and killing Hitler. Deadpool just did a whole thing on it. It was in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. It even has a TV Tropes page dedicated to the idea. What do you think?”

“I think that Harry Turtledove’s stuff is over in the fiction area.” He nodded at my pint glass. “How many of those have you had?”

WHAT I BOUGHT: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; I’m constantly giving this book away. I also bought W.E.B. Griffin’s The Hunters, which looked to be something along the lines of Clancy’s Rainbow Six, which I enjoyed. Also, a few beers (800 yen/pint).

WEBSITE: http://www.infinitybooksjapan.com, or keep up with them at their Facebook page.
Open Tuesday-Saturday 1100-2300, Sundays 1100-1800. Closed Mondays.

February 11, 2015 0 comment
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Don’t do what I did. I left Tokyo station at the North exit, crossed the street, and started walking around. It took me an hour to find Maruzen in this fashion. It was at this point that I began thinking that Google Maps wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Do this instead. Inside Tokyo station, go towards the North exit. Instead of leaving the station at the exit, instead turn as if you are going to the Subway Tozai Line (blue circle). Walk until you see Mr. Minit; it should be on your right.

Across from Mr. Minit is a sketchy-looking exit. It is unmarked; there is no indication as to where it might lead. Strange for orderly Japan, right? Well, if you go up through this exit, it puts you right at the front door of Maruzen. As soon as you leave the station, crane your neck and look straight up. You will see the big M logo.

maruzen tokyo

Maruzen is a big box store, though their English section is smaller than Kinokuniya’s in Shinjuku. The fourth floor is where the foreign books are located (in addition to English, there are a number of German and French books). The escalator puts you right in front of that eternal bookstore fixture, the cafè. Turn right to get to the good stuff.

The new releases are right up front, and a fiction section was behind that. Both had a good selection. Going in deeper, I found an extensive children’s section, including a number of Golden Books that I knew from when I was just a ‘lil reader. I pulled one off the shelf–Lightning McQueen is having an adventure of some sort. So much for the classics. Still, they had The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, which certainly counts in their favor.

Of special interest to English teachers and the parents of young children will be the large section with Oxford Graded Readers and Penguin Active Reading books, to help your kid/student with their vocabulary and reading skills. Another thing that caught my eye was the large collection of Oxford Very Short Intros. These books (currently around 400 different volumes are in print) take topics such as Descartes, AIDS, American History, Fractals, etc. and distill the topic to around 150 pages of easy-to-understand reading. If you want to learn something new but don’t know where to start, these books are great entry points.

After an extensive nonfiction section, the rest of the fourth floor of the Maruzen is taken up with various frip-frappery with only vague connections to books. I could understand the stationery and the pens (even the 10,000 yen pens), but purses? Ties? It just threw off my groove.

WHAT I BOUGHT: The Oxford Very Short Intro to Prehistory.

WEBSITE: http://www.marunouchi.com/e/shop/detail/2015.
Open daily 0900-2100.

Can’t get enough of bookstores? Visit Derek’s comprehensive review of Tokyo’s best bookstores, both big and small.

February 7, 2015 0 comment
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G-CLUB GUITAR SHOP

G-Club Guitar Shibuya Tokyo Japan

Are you ready to rock? If so, then get on over to G’ Club Shibuya and pick up your next guitar! With great organization and a vast selection of bass, acoustic, and electric guitars, G’ Club will get you ready to busk it, burn it down, or break out a Barry White croon for that special someone.

G’ Club only sells top-notch guitars, and the prices ensure that only a dedicated strummer will come out of the shop with a new axe in hand. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and conversant enough in English to answer your guitar-related questions. So come on by, check out the array of professionally-signed guitars (some of which you can buy), and test out a guitar or two! And who knows? Maybe the next guitar on the wall will be your own.

G-Club Guitar Shibuya Tokyo Japan

G’ CLUB SHIBUYA STORE INFORMATION

Website (via Google Translate)

Nearest Station: 5-minute walk from Shibuya Station Hachiko exit.

 

Hours of Operation: 11:30 am to 8:30 pm daily.

“Why Go?”: Didn’t you say you were ready to rock?

October 20, 2014 0 comment
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Japan Travel Apps

Japan can be a complicated place to see. But if you’re on the lookout for one of the free tour guides in Osaka, check out the people we found!

Free Tour Guides in Osaka : Foreigner Guides Net Osaka

“We will help you enjoy your tour to scenic view point, historical sites and/or hi-tech factories, institutions, folk-art workshops etc. in Kansai area.”
Foreigner Guides Net Osaka offers free tours in English, Chinese and other languages throughout Osaka and other areas in Kansai. Foreigner Guides Net Osaka is registered as a Systemized Goodwill Guide of Japan’s National Tourism Organization. In addition, the volunteers might be able to help you to get access to a specific industry or a company. Be sure to make reservations at least 2 weeks before your tour date.

Website: http://fgnosa.sakura.ne.jp/

Visit Kansai

Visit Kansai offers not only free tour guides in Osaka, but other areas at Kansai as well. There’s more than just historical sites and shrines to see there. You can easily choose the tour guide that suits your needs best since all the tour guides’ profiles and availability are listed on their website. In addition check out their website for some tips and advices to help you travel. Feel free to reviews written by tourists that visited Kansai and used their free service guide. Here are their recommended sightseeing and to do/eat locations to help you plan your tour. Don’t forget to check out the seasonal events and add those to your trip when you’re there!

Website: http://www.visitkansai.com/

Osaka Systemized Good-will Guides Club (OSGG)

“More than just enjoyable, we are most impressed by your careful planning of our day so that we optimized our time.”

“Your warmth and cheerful personality really made a positive difference in our trip.”

Founded in 1982, OSGG  was one of the very first good-will guides club in the world.  Their free tour guide services are generally in English. Furthermore there are a few volunteers can speak Spanish, French and German and sometimes they can offer tours for these languages. You should make reservations at least 2 weeks before your desired tour date.

Website: http://osakasgg.org/eng/index.html

Osaka Tenma Yomiuri SGG Club

Osaka Tenma Yomiuri SGG Club provides free tour guide in Osaka. They also offer translation services in the Kansai area. There are volunteer guides than can speak French, Chinese and Korean. Their services are available up until 6pm everyday. You can make reservations online, by phone or fax.

Website: http://www.geocities.jp/goodwilltenma/index.html

 

Osaka Free Guide

“Meet local, experience local.”

Established in 2013, volunteers from the Osaka Free Guide are happy to accompany you during your trip. The volunteers are Osaka locals. Knowing Osaka well, they are more than welcome to guide you for free around the city. You can make bookings here. Discover more about their tours and Osaka itself on their Facebook page.

Website: http://www.osakafreeguide.com/

 

Extra tip: if you’re going to Osaka on a short break from Tokyo and you’re looking to save as much money as possible, take Willer Express. They started of as a highway bus company that has English language services but are now offering hotel and flight reservations. You can get cheaper fares, especially if booked in advance.

Planning on traveling around? More free tour guides are available in both Kyoto and Tokyo!

 

April 18, 2014 0 comment
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