Enjoyed Narrated

Tokyo 2010: Tokyo DisneySea

Disney Balloons

New Year’s Day tends to be a fairly quiet holiday in Japan. With most of the focus being on spirituality and family, most businesses are closed. As a tourist, this could have made the day difficult.

But: amusement parks are still open. So at the suggestion of our friend Richard Whittaker, we hopped a train for Maihama Station and Tokyo DisneySea, the uniquest of the parks at Tokyo Disney. Sure, it may not be the truest experience of what Tokyo is like, but if this is where the Japanese go for a mini-vacation, it must be worth a shot.

A Sense Of Scale
Tower of Terror, Far
Ancient Ruins

Tokyo DisneySea is divided into seven distinct areas, ranging from the Arabian Coast (Aladdin themed) to Lost River Delta (the ruins, home of the Indiana Jones ride), from the American Waterfront to the Mediterranean Harbor. All have an immense sense of scale, and the architecture is meticulous. The Cape Cod area within the American Waterfront actually could be mistaken for Cape Cod were it not for the giant volcano looming in the background.

Delancey Catering

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some amusing juxtapositions, like the above hot dog truck, the Liberty Fish Market, and the fact that you can find it spelled as “Cape Codde” on a sign.

The rides are generally a lot of fun, and FastPass-ing is free as an alternative to standing in line. I recommend StormRider (a giant motion simulator that takes you into “the eye of the storm”), the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull (better than the movie!), and the Tower of Terror (which jerks you around a lot more than the one in Orlando).

Beyond the rides, there were a few cultural discoveries:

The Pause That Refreshes
Daisy Hats

First: the Japanese really love character hats. Lots of teenage couples (yes, the guys too) were sporting the sort of fuzzy hats you see here – normally with Mickey ears, but a lot of Stitch hats and a good number of Donald/Daisy ones as well. It all seemed perfectly normal, with no one pointing or laughing. There was a refreshing lack of irony the entire day.

Duffy Love
Line for Duffy Stuff

Second, and perhaps most confusing of all: Japan is in love with Duffy. Unfamiliar with Duffy? So was I.

The Bear of Happiness and Luck, Duffy is impossible to miss if you spend more than five minutes in DisneySea. Ultimately, he’s just a stuffed teddy bear, but there’s backstory of Minnie giving him to Mickey before he went on a long trip for good luck. The trend seems to be to buy the largest Duffy Bear you can manage, possibly buy an outfit for him, and carry him with you in the park (or stuff him into your coat).

The number of Duffy bears you will see carried around the park is astonishing. Some girls had upwards of eight in various sizes and locations on their outfits. People were routinely seen carrying three foot tall Duffy bears. The primary shop to buy Duffy outfits/accessories had a 15 minute line outside to get in (pictured above).

Public Sleepers

Third: Japan looks fairly kindly on public sleepers, and we saw over a hundred of them around the park. People passed out in restaurants, on benches, along the walls of the park – they all just sack out and eventually wake up. Coming from a city where falling asleep publicly usually leads to a lighter wallet, it was sweet (but disconcerting) to see.

Lastly: concessions in Japan destroy American theme park food. Just out of what I sampled/saw:

* Endless amounts of popcorn – strawberry, as well as caramel, chocolate, curry, and black pepper. Lots of people were carrying around souvenir refillable buckets, and nearly every popcorn cart had a line.
* Ice cream – sea salt ice cream, tiramisu flavored ice cream sandwiches, and gelato.
* Spicy smoked chicken legs
* Cheesecake chimichangas.
* Tacos made with fresh tortillas
* Churros in various flavors – chocolate and sesame
* Perhaps most amazing of all – gyoza sausage rolls. Pork sausage with peppers and onions, wrapped in gyoza dough and steamed. Like a traditional sausage roll, but lighter and more delicious. Someone needs to bring these to America, because (a) it was amazing and (b) I need another one.

It’s not just the quality, it’s also the price – most everything I just listed was available for $5 or less. I’m not sure $5 gets you much of anything at US theme parks these days. Normally at theme parks, I strive to avoid eating much of anything because of the inevitable cost – but this was a dream. (Hell, even admission was about $20 cheaper per person than Disneyworld in Orlando.)

It may seem silly to visit a theme park while on vacation – this wasn’t something we planned far in advance – but we had a great time, and can only recommend it for those looking to see a refreshing take on an experience you may generally think of as cliché.

Enjoyed Narrated

Tokyo 2009: Akihabara Revisited + Marunouchi


After getting visually overwhelmed earlier in the week, we made our first stop this morning a return to Akihabara. Overflowing with multi-story electronics superstores, anime/manga retailers, and nooks packed with games, it would be a nerd heaven even without an abundance of arcades, street food, and maid cafes.

Maid Cafe Crowd

There’s a definite advantage to trekking through the area during the daytime, as the neon glow from all of the stores combined with an abundance of people makes nighttime a bit challenging for those not native to the area. That said, there is something intangibly wonderful about the area after the sun sets.

IIDX Action

After flitting through a few stores, I settled back into the second and third floor of the Taito Station to get my mandatory music gaming out of the way. One round of Pop’n Music THE MOVIE, one round of DDR X, and one round of beatmania IIDX Sirius all passed by very quickly.

The third floor of Taito station is interesting as it seems to be mostly populated not by native Japanese, but by tourists from around the world. I suppose that after 10 years of DDR floating around the world, foreigners are most comfortable with these games, and are expecting some sort of show. (Fighting games are a floor higher; the “girly” music games like Pop’n and Taiko no Tatsujin are a floor below.)

A little bit more store browsing later, and we were on our way out of the area to head to Tokyo Station.

Under The Tokyo Station

Underneath Tokyo Station lies a maze of shops and restaurants, in addition to at least eight more train lines. It is frantically busy, especially on a day like today where much of the country seems to be traveling.

While wandering here, we found Katsugen in the “Kitchen Street” restaurant area, and we were ready to check another food off the list. I opted for the *Katsuzen* set lunch – red clam miso soup, rice, pickles, the mandatory pile of shredded cabbage with citrus yuzu dressing, and a healthy sized portion of katsu – and a mug of draft beer; Katie went for a different set that she had hoped contained crab croquettes but instead had katsu-fried oysters. (She did not complain.) It would be hard to call this anything other than my ideal Japanese meal.


The day then turned a bit sour, as our planned shopping destination – the Pokemon Center – was not to be found where our guidebook indicated it would be. We beat up and down the back streets in the hopes that we just weren’t finding the entrance, but to no avail. After a while, the wind began to pick up, a headache began to set in, and we fled the area. (Later, research would prove that the store at that location closed in 2007; the new location is a few stations away. Will try again on Saturday.)

A little wandering around in Shinagawa allowed us to procure desserts and sweets for later tonight. Naps followed, as did a quiet sushi dinner at the proper hotel restaurant.
While it may be fun to traipse to Roppongi to hole up in a bar and ring in the new year, or to push through the cold towards a temple for the midnight bell ringing, we are taking the remainder of New Year’s Eve in our hotel room, quietly enjoying the TV. Happy new years!

Enjoyed Narrated

Tokyo 2009: Harajuku + Ikebukuro

Climbing The Shinagawa Stairs

Shinagawa Station

One of the things I am really enjoying about Tokyo is how intricate and lively the stations are. American mass transit systems tend to allow only for a newsstand at the major stations; London is slightly better with vending machines near the tracks. But Tokyo has shopping malls surrounding and inside the transit system. The Shinagawa station alone has bookstores, CD/DVD stores, and a whole dessert-focused food court (among other dining options) beyond the turnstiles.


A 20 minute train ride later brought us to Harajuku. While a Wednesday trip doesn’t provide the opportunity to gawk at dressed up teenagers (they tend to come out on Sunday), it did let us explore an area that seems to be a cross between (in NYC terms) Fifth Avenue and the East Village.
The two main shopping streets run parallel to each other and both start at the station. Omotesando is the Fifth Avenue side – lots of international stores like Ralph Lauren, Gap, and Chanel.
Kiddy Land 5F

Omotesando is also where you can find KIDDYLAND, a six store toy store that has been serving happiness since 1946. It’s a worthwhile stop, if for nothing else to see how much floor space various franchises take up. (Pokemon gets about 30 square feet on B1, while Peanuts/”Snoopy Town” gets an entire floor.)
Katie Orders Hello Kitty Pastries

Outside of KIDDYLAND, a bakery turns out fresh baked Hello Kitty pastries with various fillings. A bag of 10 is about $4.
Takeshita Dori

A few blocks north from Omotesando is Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian only shopping mecca. This is the Harajuku you may expect, with ridiculous clothes and accessories and throngs of people. There’s a number of restaurants as well, but most people seemed to be queued up for one of the many crepe stands that all smelled delicious.

Our last major stop for the day was in Ikebukuro, a fairly commercial district where the train station is sandwiched in between two department stores: Seibu (apparently meaning “west area railway line”, located on the east side of the station) and Tobu (apparently meaning “east area railway line”, and naturally located on the west side of the station).

(A quick aside: there are ads practically everywhere for Seibu’s WE LOVE BARGAIN sale, and the TV commercial has aired so much I may start impulsively buying Kumi Koda’s music. The ad is damn cute.)

We took lunch at a Korean buffet on the 3F of Tobu Spice2, which required a lot of gesturing and *sumimasen*-ing. On the other hand, it was cheap and tasty. If nothing else, I am appreciative for the patience of the Japanese for those of us who know next to no Japanese.
Sunshine 60 Dori

We then crossed back through the train station to the east side, and made our way to Sunshine 60 Dori – another pedestrian mall shopping strip. We unfortunately didn’t find anything terribly unusual, so we beat our way back to the train and returned to Shinagawa.

For dinner, we opted for the set menu Mizu no Uta, a few blocks from the hotel. Sitting at the counter, we were treated to some of the best tuna I’ve ever tasted – perhaps too much of it. We started to run out of steam around the time we were grilling our own thin strips of tuna, and when a fried rice course came out immediately after, it became a struggle. Still – great food, and I can now cross the “sushi/sashimi” off my Tokyo food checklist. Now I just need to find a proper bowl of ramen and some tonkatsu.