We started the day with a 15-minute walk to a nearby station to catch the express to Mitaka. I got a glimpse of the darker side of rush hour when we witnessed a minor cat fight break out on the platform. Apparently you don’t mess with people when they’re in a hurry. That was exciting.
Mitaka was quaint, with small alleys lined with shops and beautiful paths wending through a large park. We took one such path along the recreational lake in Inokashira Park to the Ghibli Museum. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside, but I took plenty of the ivy-covered exterior and the Miyazaki film-inspired stained glass windows, including Totoro in the ticket booth and the giant Laputa robot guarding the rooftop garden.
Inside, exhibits featured figurines animated by rotation and strobe lights, a room mimicking Miyazaki’s studio (with walls covered in watercolor paintings and cells from the movies), and complex 3D models depicting pivotal scenes. There was even a giant, fuzzy Catbus for the kids to crawl through (I was a bit sad to be over the height limit for that one). We concluded our visit with a viewing of Kujiratori (“Whale Hunt”) in their miniature theater. It was entirely in Japanese (without subtitles), so we were only able to mostly guess at the dialogue, but it was pretty visual, depicting kids pretending to go out to sea and capture a laughing whale.
After we had explored all Ghibli had to offer and spent all our money in the gift shop, we wandered back out into the park in search of lunch. We saw several groups of elementary kids in matching yellow hats and a host of high school girls wielding selfie-sticks as they laughed down the path.
I found it interesting passing a field and noting the sign prohibiting sporting activities like soccer and baseball. I had to wonder what they usually use fields for if not these activities, as we would commonly see in America. As it was, most were running around the track or laying down on the grass, soaking in the sunshine.
After a brief detour into another shop, we found ourselves at our first real ramen restaurant – an item on our musts list. It was everything I expected – hot and flavorful, not too salty, no flavor overpowering. Even though our server didn’t speak any English, we had no trouble pointing at the menu to get our hands on the giant bowls of deliciousness.
Our time in Mitaka completed, we hopped a train to Shinjuku. We strolled over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, featured in many anime. We were directed to go downstairs to catch the elevator to the north tower, and it was moderately crowded on the lookout deck, the best view reserved for the restaurant. We felt the south tower would offer better views, but we didn’t find out until we rode the elevator back down that it was closed.
We felt a bit silly having our bags checked once more to ascend the 45 stories, but we arrived in time for sunset. The sky was primarily haze, and I didn’t think it would offer much in the way of spectacular sunset pictures, so I opted out of the mob at the southwest window and focused on the reflections on the buildings at the southeast window near the elevators. Curious, I returned to the other window to see everyone frantically shooting the sunset. I ultimately saw the allure: Mt. Fuji was beautifully silhouetted. I managed to sneak in a shot or two, myself, but I would have been better off staking a claim earlier. Oh well. I rounded out my elevated excursion with some city lights, and we moved on.
Ready for a bit of food, we attempted to find a spot known for good dango. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate it, and the gentleman we asked couldn’t make sense of the information we pulled from Google Maps. It might have helped to understand Japanese addressing.
We headed toward our next agenda item, and I was delighted to discover some kittens down the alley we chose. Camera at the ready, I took a picture. The proprietor of the small shop said something I didn’t understand from his seat. I got the inkling that he was speaking to me, and it was confirmed when I raised my camera to frame a better picture. He immediately stood from his chair and repeated his admonition in louder tones, walking angrily toward me. I understood only “kudasai,” but I got the hint and quietly slinked away.
The lights of Shinjuku illuminated the streets in bright colors, and I soon found out what next was in store: the Robot Restaurant. We were instructed to hang out in the Vegas-like lounge decked in neon colors and mirrored ceilings on one of the upper floors while we waiting for the show. We were serenaded by a couple of people in robot costumes – a preview of coming attractions – and we sat in crazy chairs upholstered in fabric you might find in your grandmother’s basement (the kind even the cat finds too garish to scratch).
We were quickly ushered downstairs, each flight greeting us with giant lizards or butterflies or WWII airplanes. We filed to our small tables in the 200-seat room and sipped on a Moscow mule from a can.
The show, itself, was wild, but we were glad for the unique experience. It was a bit over-the-top, and it was clearly geared toward tourists with the English script. The giant wi-fi-powered floats somehow fit into the tight space, extending right over patrons’ heads. Trust the Japanese to make the most of tiny spaces!
Another day done, we went back to Akihabara and popped into a restaurant for some light dinner. It was then that I realized a horrible truth: we no longer had our Ghibli souvenir bag with us. Immediately, we deduced the last place we had it: the ramen restaurant. It was too late to return to Mitaka that evening, and our following day was entirely booked, so we resolved to try the next evening and hope it was still there. From what we had heard about the Japanese integrity, we had high hopes, but we still went to bed that night a bit uneasy and somewhat frustrated with ourselves.
- There are separate switches for the lights in the room! We can charge our electronics AND turn off the lights.
- There’s a light under the bed! This is so the monsters residing there can’t catch you unawares.
- Hot water dispensers: just push the big red button. If it doesn’t dispense, there’s another button just below it that you need to press first.
- Practice makes perfect when it comes to eating mackerel off of its scales.
- The Japanese LOVE Christmas… even more fervently than Americans. All the shops and restaurants play Christmas music (and bird tweeting) and display Christmas trees as soon as November 1 hits.
- Stay to the left. Stay to the left. Stay to the left. This is especially true for crowded walks and station steps on a workday.
- Lines form to either side of train doors prior to its arrival. This allows for easy exit and subsequent filing in of new passengers. Follow the lines on the ground and the example of others. This really should be adopted for American trains and light rail.
- Don’t get in the way of someone when they’re hurrying during rush hour. The cute, pleasant, sweet women can get nasty FAST.
- Some public restrooms have multi-functional reading material.
- Occasionally, you’ll see monks standing on a street or near a station collecting alms. Upon researching to understand the image I had captured, I was sad to learn there’s a rampant scam against tourists. I’m very glad we missed that particular experience, but it’s good to be aware of it. Basically: real monks never approach you for money; they stand quietly and wait for the generosity of passersby, as this one did.
- Many restaurants provide baskets or bins within which to set your belongings while you eat. Don’t leave anything in these when you depart.
- How to eat ramen: use chopsticks to pick up a small bite of noodles, pulling upward until they’re all free of the broth. Place your bite into the spoon, and add a few bits of toppings. Lastly, dip the spoon just enough to get a sip of broth, then eat what’s in the spoon. Feel free to slurp! (It’s actually a sign that you like it, and it aerates the broth, which supposedly makes it taste better.) Repeat.
- Yellow signs in the stations mean exits. Green means JR. Men’s rooms are blue; women’s are red. Colors are your friend.
- The Metropolitan Government Building’s north observation deck is great for pictures of the city with one of the towers for foreground. Snatch a spot in the southwest window early (it crowds up fast) to catch sunset over Mt. Fuji (depending on the time of year), then go to the window next to the elevators for city lights.
- Several tourist attractions offer visitor stamps. Bring a book or paper to stamp if you’d like to collect these.
- There are designated areas for smoking, both indoors (where permitted) and out. It is considered disrespectful to smoke on street corners or while walking to your destination. This fortunately makes it easy for nonsmokers to avoid it.
- Addresses are nowhere to be found, and google maps really doesn’t work well for directing you when amongst tall buildings.
- Don’t take whatever folks on the street are handing you – no matter how insistent they are. You’re very unlikely to want whatever they’re passing out; it’s primarily advertisements, some to some sketchy establishments.
- Hot damp towels are handed to you upon sitting down at many restaurants. These are “oshibori,” and they’re used to clean your hands before the meal (as public restrooms don’t generally have soap). Some restaurants will give you individually wrapped wipes instead – same purpose.
- If you do the Robot Restaurant, use your drink tickets right away. You’ll have opportunities both in the lounge and at breaks during the show (and you can bring your drink from the lounge down to the showroom). However, the latter has fewer options, the breaks are fast, and it’s extremely difficult to get out of your seat. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to hit the bathroom before the show.
- Tie bags together, especially if you acquire new ones you’re used to not carrying. At the very least, count your individual items both going into an establishment and coming out. Make sure those numbers match.
Baka gaijin moment of the day: if a Japanese proprietor starts talking as soon as you take a picture of his kittens, he’s probably telling you to not take pictures. Being yelled at in Japanese isn’t much fun.