We only have 2 places left on our travel destination bucket list – Japan and Iceland/Greenland. One can always get the best price for future cruises while onboard a cruise and while we were on Azamara in October of 2017 I saw an in-depth circumnavigation itinerary of Japan that looked interesting. Most cruises that we’ve looked at stopped in one, or two cities in Japan but never did an in-depth itinerary like this one. It was 2-1/2 years away and I was reluctant to put a deposit down on something so far in to the future. After we’d been home for a while I did some research on various options for Japan Travel including OAT, other land tours, and cruises. The cruise appeared to be the best way for us to see the most of Japan.
Ideally we like to have one big trip every year. So for 2018 we figured the Pacific Northwest Trip would be our one trip for the year. …until a deal you couldn’t refuse popped up on Celebrity Cruise lines at the end of September. We were able to reserve the 14 day itinerary in a balcony cabin at more than 1/2 the price of the Azamara itinerary in 2019. The only catch was that we’d be doing 2 big trips (21 and 30 days) in the same year. I needed to do lots of research and planning for Japan in a short amount of time.
We would fly in to Tokyo early and spend some time there and then board a ship. I managed to organize some wonderful sightseeing trips for the port stops. Some would be shore excursions organized by the ship and some would be independent plans. There was a lot of research involved for our time in Tokyo (5 days) as this would be totally on our own. Traveling in Japan was the polar opposite of our European travels.
• Japan is a very cash-based culture so planning access to Yen was critical. Credit cards, which are a huge convenience for international travelers weren’t generally accepted.
• Transportation was another challenge. Though the Tokyo subways and Japanese trains were the most used means of transportation, we were challenged by the language and lack of english signage.
• Though the articles I read indicated that Japan was making a major push in their cities for western/english language visitors because of the upcoming 2020 Olympics, what we actually experienced was a severe lack of english signage, and assistance. Thank heavens for our mobile phones with our data account, as google transport and google translate were both major aids in our experience.
We stayed at the Hilton Odaiba Hotel. It was a fantastic location. Our room had a view of the famous Rainbow Bridge which connects the island to central Tokyo.
Tokyo is a very modern city. August and September is typhoon season and we had been watching the weather intently as a record number of typhoons had already passed very close to Japan since early September. It appeared that we would have overcast and rain for a good portion of our trip as currently there was a cyclone that has veered north from Taiwan headed right over the top of Japan! Multiple typhoons would end up seriously impacting our entire trip.
Since Odaiba is an island we needed to take the autonomous monorail to central Tokyo. Our first stop was the Ghibli Clock outside the TV building.
As we walked to the Hamarikyuteien Gardens we were struck by how the beautifully pruned the trees were. Of course, we were in the land of bonsai trees and skilled gardeners! We saw one person in each tree along the sidewalk madly pruning. Man, would I love to have one of these guys come home to our house!
The Hamarikyuteien Gardens were built by a shogun as his hunting residence. The residence has been authentically restored and the grounds are simply spectacular. (see comments in each of the photos below). We read in one of the tour books that we should bring a small blank paged notebook as it is the custom in Japan for each site (garden, museum, or landmark) to have a commemorative stamp with the date on them. These stamps are works of art in themselves.
No Gerardin travel to any country is complete without a visit to an Apple store. There are three Apple stores in Tokyo alone. Our first visit was to the Ginza Apple Store. The Xs(es) were released the week prior and the 4 floors were packed with people. The line outside for the new iPhones was like anywhere else in the world. So fun to see.
After an intense duty-free shopping spree at Muji, one of our favorite stores we discovered while in Hong Kong last year, we headed back to the hotel.
Everyone had told us about ordering food with vending machines in Japan. We experienced it tonight for dinner! In one area of the shopping center next to our hotel there were 6 different little restaurants offering their variety of ramen. Outside each of the places were vending machines. There was no english here (and in most of the eating places in Japan). You study the photos, put the money in the vending machine and select what you want. A ticket spits out of the machine that you give the to the server and take a seat and voila your food arrives.
It was a fun experience, but not something we’d do again. Prior to our arrival in Japan we were so excited about the food that we were going to be eating as we absolutely adore ramen and yakitori. Even with the plastic models of food in the windows, we didn’t realize the importance of being able to read what was in each dish. One time we thought this food display looked really good and then when we sat down to eat they handed us an english menu (hoorah!) and it was tripe!
We started our day in northern Tokyo at Mukojima-Hyakkaen Gardens: The only eco-era flower garden remaining in Tokyo. Hyakkaen – meaning “a garden of a hundred flowers that is in bloom throughout the four seasons”. Most notable being a beautiful, 100-ft tunnel of bush clover (Hagi) that bursts into a riot of purple-rose flowers in September. Since this garden was further from central Tokyo there were less people. There were stones and wooden panels with classic Chinese and Japanese poetry carved on them spaced throughout the garden. A peaceful serene refuge well worth the trip.
Sensoji is one of the most visited temples in Tokyo. Even the rain didn’t deter the masses of visitors. Many women dress in their finest kimonos for their visit to Sensoji.
At the front of the steps of the temple is a huge bronze incense burner. The custom is to “bathe” in the smoke — an observance believed to bestow a year’s worth of good health.
The side booths are for purchasing your fortune. You shake the canister of sticks and take one out that has a number on it for a drawer where you take your paper fortune (only in japanese).
Shrine vs Temple: Shrines are always Shinto, while temples are Buddhist. The suffixes -jinja, -jingy and -gu indicate a shrine, whereas -tera, -dera and -ji are used to designate temples.
By this time our dogs had logged about 6 miles and refreshments were in order in the form of Asahi beer. The gold flame on the top of the building is endearingly called the golden turd. It is supposed to be a flame that is used in the brewing process. The building to the left in gold with the glass at the top is supposed to be a glass of beer with the head. Instead of paying a fortune to to the top of the Skytree (the needle tower to the left in the first photo) and see nothing but clouds we confidently walked in to the Ashai office building and took the elevator to the 22nd floor where they sell their beer with incredible views at no extra charge! It finally stopped raining and we had some blue sky and bit of brightness on the way back to the hotel.
Sunset from our hotel room after logging 8.75 miles…
Now all we had to worry about was the typhoon headed directly for Japan. Our cruise departure was definitely going to be effected. We were at first advised that the ship would depart 1-1/2 hours earlier so as to get passengers onboard and hopefully at sea to avoid the path of the typhoon. The cruise company continued to send us texts and emails updating us on the changes on our boarding and departure.
Friday dawned sunny and bright. Ironically, it was our first day without rain.
Typhoon Trami has curved up from Taiwan to move directly over the island of Japan. 😕 Our hotel is on an island in Tokyo bay called Odaiba. Since this was the clearest day we would probably have while in Tokyo and the best opportunity to attempt a view of Mt. Fuji. Again, since chances were slim we’d have a full view because clouds tend to surround the mountain on most days, we went up to the free observation tower of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It was a spectacular view but the top of Mt. Fuji was partially obstructed by clouds.
We then made our way over to Skinjuku Gyoen National Garden which was the Imperial Household Garden from 1906. It opened to the public in 1949. This vast area contains a formal French garden, an English landscape garden and a traditional Japanese garden.
Asian foodie friends gave us sushi lessons prior to our departure. We’ve never been really that crazy about sushi but after their “lesson” we were more comfortable about the cuisine.
But the best part of our sushi lesson was dessert at a place that served Taiwanese shaved ice. Never had we tasted anything like this! Ice cream, move over. They take fresh fruit juice and add water and a little condensed milk and freeze it in to a round block. Once frozen it’s put in to a shaving machine that spits out ribbons of this frozen delight. Snowflake in Pleasanton tops their Tropic Mango shaved ice with litchi coco, fresh mango, litchi bobas and mango sauce. It’s absolutely to die for.
Photos from Snowflake:
You’re all probably thinking “so what’s she telling us about something she did in Pleasanton when they’re in Japan?” Well, I’ll tell you… The original shaved ice store, called Ice Monster, was in Taipei, Taiwan. Ice Monster opened stores in Japan in the beginning of 2018 and there was one in the Omotesando area of Tokyo. There’s always a line outside to get in and then a long wait to get your shaved ice but we had to get one so we could compare it to Snowflake. The portion was even more massive than Snowflake’s and they served it with their housemade mango ice cream. It was good, but in our book, Snowflake was better.
The Omotesando area of Shibuya is like Rodeo Drive. High end shops run from one end of the street to the next. People were out in droves spending their money (and I mean by the thousands…) As you would expect, the 3rd Apple Store on Joe’s quest was in this high end area. Anyone doubt he would visit all three? Nope not me.
Hang in with me. There’s one more stop in our day…
Shibuya Crossing is rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan). Shibuya Crossing, is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every 45 second light change. Perhaps nowhere else says “welcome to Tokyo” better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times said to be over 1,000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once yet still managing to dodge each other with a practiced, nonchalant agility.
We’d read that the best view is from the window of the 2nd floor of the Starbucks on the square, but our view from the upper floor of the subway station was better as we were a little set back from the edge of the crossing.
We finished the long day on the terrace of the executive lounge. It was a beautiful evening and we found it hard to believe that a typhoon was headed in our direction. An odd phenomenon occurs every evening in front of the hotel… small boats that are cocktail lounges come in to the bay and anchor for a couple of hours and then leave. At its peak it look like a bunch of centipedes.
Today was supposed to be our last day in Tokyo prior to boarding our ship in Yokohama. It was pretty much a rainy day because typhoon Trami’s projected course was directly of the island of Japan. We were still very much on hold with our boarding and departure details for tomorrows cruise.
We decided to explore the island of Odaiba where our hotel was located. There are lots of museums (mostly science and tech based) plus loads of shopping malls. One in particular has decor like an Italian village with the ceilings painted with clouds to make you feel like you were outdoors.
The island has so much open space filled with walkways, tree lined paths, and space for special events. Today there were 3 large festivals on the island … Octoberfest, Extreme Sports Festival and a World Travel Expo.
Toyota has a massive complex in Odaiba including a 2-story showroom of all their cars both currently in production and their future projects. They have a test drive track, mock VR models, and their history garage. The History Garage is a really well done exhibition where they’ve recreated Tokyo in the 60s with videos, home scenes, and memorabilia surrounding the historical cars.
We did, as it seemed half of the population of Odaiba did, and had lunch at one of the food courts. On our last day in Tokyo having struggled to choose what to eat at the restaurants we discovered a clever little item that really helped us choose and order our food. There were iPads installed in a corner of the food court that listed all of the food booths in the food court and translated their menus in multiple languages. You can scroll through each of the booths offerings and when you found something you wanted you tapped on the item and it printed out a slip in English (for you) and in Japanese for you to hand in to the food shop for your order.
That evening we saw a wonderful fireworks display over the bay from our balcony.
Day 5 – our last day in Tokyo… or so we thought…
As we sat down to an early cup of coffee before heading to the pier in Yokohama we got a text message from the cruise line advising us that the port of Yokohama would close and not allow the ship to stay at the pier tonight when typhoon Trami was forecast to pass through. We were told to stay put, reserve another night at our hotels and the cruise line would reimburse us for the extra nights hotel cost and pay for a taxi to the pier when we were advised of our new boarding time for the following day. The taxi reimbursement ended up being a real boon, as we were planning on taking the subway/train/light rail to the cruise terminal. Taxis in Japan are expensive. It cost $125 US for the taxi to the pier! The ship with only the crew onboard (through passengers were put up in a Yokohama hotel) anchored in the anchorage for the night.
We were informed in preparation for the typhoon, that all stores, restaurants and public transportation would close late this afternoon. We went out for a walk on Odaiba. It was hot and humid and so still. When the sun came through the overcast it was scorching. Hardly anyone was out. Loud speakers in the street outside were making announcements to the public and evidently they were heeded as there wasn’t a person or car on the street by early evening.
Thank heavens for the Executive Lounge as there was no where to go for food that was open. The lounge was so mobbed with people using the service for their dinner that they had a waiting list and sent us back to our room with a bottle of wine to wait until we were called.
We were awakened at a little past midnight to the sound of howling wind. We looked at the satellite weather forecast and the typhoon had lessened force and passed to our west but we still experienced pretty heavy winds (51mph with gusts of 76mph) and heavy sideways rain.
Continued on next post: Boarding day!