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4 Best Things to Do in Tokyo

21 Feb

Have you ever wondered what locals do when visiting a new place? My hometown is Tokyo, and I’m often asked that question. Today I’ll share with you the four best things to do in Tokyo.

1. Harmonica yokocho(ハーモニカ横丁)

Kichijouji (吉祥寺) is my home, and Harmonica Yokocho lies at the heart of it. It was originally built as a black market called yamiichi(闇市) after WWII when there was a shortage of food supply. Today about 100 restaurants, bars, and stores line up in small alleys. It’s popular among locals and tourists alike.

My favorite place in Harmonica Yokocho is a Chinese restaurant called Minmin. They have the best gyoza (餃子) in the city!

Harmonica Yokocho

Minmin (みんみん)

2. Tocho: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁)

Sometimes I feel the urge to see the city from above. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a perfect place to do that. It’s in Shinjuku, the city center, and easy to get there from the station. You can go to the observation deck and see great views of Tokyo for free.

Views from the observation deck

3. Hiking in Mount Mitake (御岳山)

You may be surprised to learn that there are many mountains in Tokyo. After being in a crowded and busy city, it’s nice to get away and do some hiking.  A few weeks ago I went to Mount Mitake that is less than 2 hours from the city center. While hiking the mountain, I saw a Musasabi (ムササビ), a Japanese giant flying squirrel! It’s rare to see them, especially because they’re nocturnal animals.

View from the top of Mt. Mitake

Musasabi

4. Onsen in Ome City (青梅市)

Take a Chuo Line from the city center and you’ll arrive in Ome in about an hour and a half. You’ll find an onsen, an old Japanese style home, and museums. As I strolled down the Tamagawa river, I happened to see an old house built at the end of Edo period. A man was tending the fire and showing the house to visitors. He explained the history of the house and how people used to live. After that I went to an onsen and saw a beautiful sunset.

Sunset in Ome, Tokyo

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9 Things You didn’t Know about Shinkansen

1 Jun
Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

The Shinkansen (新幹線 new trunk line), also known as the “bullet trains” is a network of high speed railway lines in Japan. The shinkansen network consists of multiple lines, connecting most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with construction of a link to the northern island of Hokkaido underway.

Traveling by the shinkansen can be pricey, but it’s an incredibly pleasant and comfortable experience.  It’s by far my favorite way of traveling the country.

Here are 9 interesting facts about the shinkansen:

1. How reliable is it?

According to the report in 2012, the Shinkansen’s average delay from schedule per train was 36 seconds, including delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters.

2.  Is it safe?

The Shinkansen has an impressive safety record.  Over the Shinkansen’s 49 year history, carrying nearly 10 billion passengers, there have been no passenger fatalities despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons.

3. How fast is it?

The maximum operating speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record 581 km/h (361 mph) in 2003.

4. How many Shinkansen do they run per day?

About 800 trains per day, although the number of tarins depends on the day.

5. What is “Shinkansen Theater”?

It refers to the cleanup crew who clean the entire train in 7 minutes.  I don’t know how they do it, but the shinkansen is always clean.  You’ll have to see it to believe it.  Check out this video.

6. Who invented Shinkansen?

The shinkansen was invented by Japan’s chief railway engineer, Hideo Shima (島 秀雄).  He wanted to design the trains to “feel like an airplane” which he succeeded in creating.  After retiring from the railway career, he became the head of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), where he pushed the development of hydrogen engines to power rockets.

7. Can you bring food and eat at Shinkansen?

Yes, you can.   It is typically not okay to eat in most other trains in Japan, but it is fine to do so at Shinkansen.  Most people bring foods and beverages and enjoy them on the train.  For this reason you’ll always find stores selling bento box (lunch box) at Shinkansen stations.

8.  Are there discount tickets for Shinkansen?

Yes, check out Japan Rail Pass .  Note that this is available only for foreign tourists, and it has to be purchased before arriving to Japan.

9.  Can you see Mt. Fuji from Shinkansen?

Yes. When you are traveling on the Shinkansen around Shizuoka prefecture, you can enjoy viewing Mt. Fuji if the weather is good enough.

Learn More:

– Shinkansen! Inside the Japanese Bullet Train Network

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen
Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

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Tokyo Walks: Asakusa, Sumida River & Skytree

24 Feb
Sumida river (640x390)

Sunset in Sumida River

If you ever come to Tokyo, expect a lot of walking.  Even though public transportation is available at every corner of the city, walking is the best way to see Tokyo.

For those of us who live in Tokyo or call it hometown walking around the city is a way of spending time.  We walk to get to the destinations, of course, but we also walk simply to see the scenery, discover interesting places, talk to friends, or exercise.  When I’m with my girlfriends, for instance, someone usually asks the typical question. “What are we going to do now?” This query is inevitably met with the answer, “Let’s walk a little.”

When I was visiting my family in Tokyo over the New Year break, I stopped by Asakusa, known for Sensōji, the oldest temple in Tokyo.  On that day Sensōji was very crowded with people who came for hatsumōde (初詣), the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year.  I wasn’t interested in standing in line for hours among hundreds of people, so I snapped a few photos of the famous pagoda and walked toward Sumida River a few blocks away.

 Sensōji in Asakusa

Sensōji in Asakusa

Sumida River is where the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō lived alongside the famous banana tree (Japanese: bashō) from which he took his pen name.  By the time I reached the river the sun was beginning to set.  The boat carrying tourists for sightseeing was departing, and on the other side of the river I could see Tokyo Skytree.  Taking in the scenery, I was struck by the mixture of old and new – ancient temples and new buildings, traditional Japanese shops and trendy stores for imported goods, women and men in kimono and young couples holding their hands.

Since I didn’t have any particular plan in mind, I kept walking toward Skytree.  After about 20 minutes walk I finally arrived at the tallest structure in Japan built in 2010.  That night it was lit up in purple (on some nights it is blue).

sky tree (360x640)

Tokyo Skytree

There were so many tourists of all ages and nationalities who were shopping at stores, having meals at restaurants, waiting to go up to the observatory, or busy taking pictures.  I didn’t intend to go up to the observatory, but I asked a man behind the counter how much it was to do that.  He said it was 2500 yen (approximately $25) and there was 3 hour-wait, which was enough for me to turn around and head home.

Luckily there was a train station right by there, so I didn’t have to walk back to Asakusa to take the train.  Here is the beauty of walking around Tokyo.  Wherever you end up,  you can always use public transportation to go home.

Spontaneous walks like this are what I missed the most while living in the U.S.  It’s nice to have sidewalks and feel safe walking the streets in the evening.  There is no particular purpose for such strolls except to observe and explore.  I now appreciate them much more than before.

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