Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Farewell Trip to Tokyo

Chris and I decided to take a short trip to Tokyo as our one last vacation before leaving Shanghai. We only had a long weekend, so we planned to go only to Tokyo and Tokyo Disneyland. While we've heard great things about Kyoto, Osaka and several other places, we only had four days, so we decided to stick to Tokyo.

We arrived on Thursday night and checked into our hotel, the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay hotel, one of the official hotels of Tokyo Disney. This is a great hotel and the best part is, we only had to walk to the end of the sidewalk in front of the hotel to get on the Monorail to both DisneyLand and DisneySea. 

On Friday, we visited DisneySea, which was blessedly not too crowded, at least, by Asia standards. DisneySea is unique to Tokyo Disney and we really enjoyed it. It reminded us a great deal of Epcot, in that there are seven uniquely themed areas or "ports of call." The entrance to the park is Mediterranean Harbor, which opens up to six more nautically themed ports: American Waterfront, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, and Mysterious Island. 

We were really impressed with the design of the park - it was visually stunning. I particularly liked the Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, and Mysterious Island.  The Arabian Coast had a beautiful courtyard, as well as Aladdin's magic carpet ride and a beautiful carousel.

 The dining options at DisneySea were also based on the theme of the area, so we had Mexican food for lunch in the Lost River Delta and had dinner at a New York Deli in the American Waterfront. We even had a stop mid-afternoon in the American Waterfront area for some very good clam chowder.

DisneySea has more rides than Epcot, although we weren't as focused on rides with just the two of us and lots of people. We did enjoy the Indiana Jones ride, although it was odd to see Harrison Ford speaking Japanese. Mysterious Island was really fascinating and well done. We rode the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which, even in Japanese, was better than the same ride at WDW. 

We waned to ride the Toy Story Mania ride, particularly Chris, but the lines were just too long.

Both DisneySea and DisneyLand were still celebrating Easter, with eggs of all the Disney characters faces all over the park. There was even some kind of Easter egg hunt, although I'm not sure how that worked.  

There was a very popular, and long, Easter parade at DisneySea. The Japanese tourists are very organized, and serious, about parades at the park.  They start lining up more than an hour before the parade, or even for shows, by sitting on the ground, on mats they bring along for the express purpose, waiting in very quiet order.

The Easter theme was evident also on the signs at the Monorail stations, the shopping bags, and on lots of clothes that people were wearing around the park.  The Japanese visitors really seem to go for the Disney clothing, backpacks, tote bags, lanyards, stuffed animals, etc. We saw people not only carrying stuffed animals and plastic character containers around the park, but even bringing them into the park at the beginning of the day. We couldn't imagine bringing a stuffed animal to the park from home to carry around all day, but it was pretty common.  

The only thing we couldn't buy at DisneySea was pins. Tokyo Disney does not allow pin trading and pins are not even for sale, with the exception of one location in DisneyLand. Also, we could not buy bags, clothes, pins, or anything really that said Tokyo Disneyland. Apparently, because Tokyo Disney is not owned by Disney at all, the licensing agreement doesn't allow the owners of Tokyo Disney to label things in that way. 

We saw a lot of characters at both parks - it seemed like more than at the other parks. The characters are very popular, with adults just as likely to stand in line as children to get a picture with any of the characters. Mr. Incredible sought out my Mr. Incredible, Chris, most likely because he was the only caucasian and certainly the only man as tall as Mr. Incredible, in our vicinity.

The other thing we saw at both parks was the popcorn carts. Popcorn is very popular at Tokyo Disney, so popular that people will wait in line for an hour at one of the carts just to get the type of popcorn at that location.  There are several different kinds of popcorn available, at one park or the other: Caramel, Black Pepper, Jalapeno and Cheese, Milk Tea, White Chocolate, Curry, Cappuccino, Honey, Strawberry, Soy Sauce and Butter, and regular old Salt.

On Saturday, we went to DisneyLand and saw the crowds that everyone had warned us about. We were told that Tokyo Disney was the definition of "Asian crowded," and on Saturday, we learned what that meant. We decided, given the crowds and line upwards of two hours in length, we wouldn't try to take in too many rides, but mostly walk around the park and see what it was like.

There are seven themed areas in DisneyLand: the World Bazaar; the four classic Disney lands: Adventureland, Westernland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland; and two mini-lands: Critter Country and Mickey's Toontown.  It is very much like the Magic Kingdom at WDW, although we had read that there were two rides that are unique to Tokyo DisneyLand: the Monsters, Inc. Ride and Go Seek in Tomorrowland, which is similar to Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blaster, and Pooh's Hunny Hunt; presented in a "trackless" format unique to Tokyo Disneyland.

The first thing we did when we arrived was to head to Adventureland, where we went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. After the ride, we entered the Pirate Treasure shop, the only place in Tokyo to buy pins. We found very few that were unique to Tokyo Disneyland, although we got some of the Monorail and Buses, which have Micky-shaped windows, exhaust pipes, and grills.

After Adventureland, we went to the Westernland Shootin' Gallery, where I beat Chris 7 to 3 on target practice, although neither of us got a good enough score to get rewarded with a sheriff's badge. We watched a wonderful high school band perform a number of Disney hits in a pavillion in Westernland before heading over to ride It's A Small World. We've now ridden that ride at each of the Disney parks in the world: WDW in Florida, Disneyland in California, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and now Tokyo Disneyland.

It was fun to watch the children at all the rides. The Japanese babies and children are so quiet, just like the Japanese adults. I never saw any tired children having fits or even crying, even at the end of the day.

We got tired ourselves, so we headed back to our hotel, after a fried chicken lunch in Westernland, and took a mid-afternoon break (and maybe a nap).  We returned to the park in the evening, after dinner at the hotel. Unlike the food at DisneySea, the food at DisneyLand was primarily Japanese and/or Chinese, and very difficult for me to navigate, as the staff didn't speak much English and had no idea what was really in the food.

When we got back to DisneyLand, the lines were still long at Monsters, Inc., but we were able to get onto Buzz Lightyear, where I beat Chris again, nearly 3 to 1.  By the end of the night, we finally got to ride the Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek, which only needs a way to keep score to make it as fun as Buzz Lightyear. Unfortunately, both days that we were there, it was too windy for fireworks, so even though we could have seen them from our hotel room, we didn't get to watch them. But, after two days of walking around the parks, we really enjoyed ourselves and also got a lot of walking in.

On Sunday, we hired a private tour guide to show us a quick glimpse of Tokyo. For 8 hours, we walked 11 miles and saw a lot of wonderful sights.  Our guide, Kenji, met us at the hotel  and we took the monorail over to the train station to pick up the metro and traveled to the Imperial Palace. 

The Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. It is a large park-like area located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo and contains several buildings including the main palace, the private residences of the imperial family, an archive, museum and administrative offices.

It is built on the site of the old Edo Castle, built in 1457, which was previous occupied by the prime ministers or Shoguns. The Imperial Palace is right in the heart of the business district of Tokyo, so it was interesting to see the lush gardens and ancient stone walls juxtaposed against the high rises of the city.

We walked around the grounds and through the gardens. Although the cherry blossoms were coming to an end, we did see several trees still with their blossoms and were able to see the start of gorgeous azaleas and lots of rhododendron. 

I loved the gardens; the colors were amazing. There were several beautiful Japanese gardens built in the park as well, which Kenji told us where based on a miniature version of the world.

There were beautiful trees as well, including black pines, red maples and camphor trees, which are considered sacred.  The height of the cherry blossom season was a couple of weeks before we got there, but we still got to see some lovely colors.  According to Kenji, the trees do not produce any edible cherries - those they import from California.

Kenji told us that most tourists stop to have photos taken at the Seimon Ishibashi bridge, which leads to the main gate. The bridge is also nicknamed Megane-bashi, or “Spectacles Bridge,” because of its shape.  Even though the main gate is under construction, there were still a lot of people taking pictures at this beautiful spot, which is one of the most famous views of the Imperial Palace.

After leaving the Imperial Palace, Kenji took us back on the Tokyo metro to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, which is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.

The Emperors of Japan have always been, and still are to this day, Shinto, even though Buddhism is also a popular religion in Japan.  Kenji says Shinto is a religion that focuses on this world and Buddhism focuses on the future world. Meiji Shrine is located in a forest that covers about 175 acres, containing more than 120,000 trees of 365 different species, which were donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established.

We stopped for lunch first at the fast food restaurant at the Shrine, but they had no idea what was in their food. We next went to the sit down restaurant at the Shrine. While they listed the ingredients on their menu, there was nothing I could eat. I was disappointed that our guide didn't seem to remember my allergy issues, even though I described them in detail when I hired him. We hire a private guide, rather than explore on our own or go on the hop-on/hop-off tour bus exactly for the purpose of having someone who can find food I can eat and help navigate the language issues. It was frustrating for me that he hadn't prepared in advance, so we had to walk a long way to find a restaurant and didn't end up eating until after 2 p.m.  He finally took us to a nice little restaurant that specialized in pork cutlets.

After lunch, Kenji took us to the Shibuya area, which he says is for young people. The crowds were crazy and we enjoyed the "scramble" cross walks. Where 5-6 streets intersected, all cars were stopped at once and the pedestrians were allowed to go in whatever direction they wanted. It was a scramble.  After Shibuya, Kenji took us to the Ginza, which he says is the adult area. I remember hearing about it on M*A*S*H, being where the doctors went on R&R and got wasted. Now, it seems to be mostly very high-end shopping.

In one of the high-end department stores, Kenji took us to the basement food court, which was really interesting. Chris would have loved to go there for lunch, but of course, I couldn't eat anything. There was all kinds of Japanese, Chinese, and other ethnic foods at counters throughout the food court, as well as chocolate and dessert specialties. The Japanese seems to really like their sweets, especially red bean and strawberry.

Our last stop of the day was the ancient Senso-ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo's most significant temple. 

We were lucky enough to see two traditional Buddhist weddings while at the temple.  Unfortunately, it was raining, but it was still interesting. The entire procession was silent and many of the women attending wore kimonos.

A shopping street of over 200 meters, called Nakamise, leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate, the Hozomon. Alongside typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata and folding fans, various traditional local snacks from the Asakusa area are sold along the Nakamise. This shopping street was absolutely packed with people.
Kenji took this picture of Chris and I in front of the symbol of a lasting marriage.
By the time our tour was over and we were back at the Monorail station by our hotel, we were pretty tired and a little hungry. Our hotel had a nice executive lounge, where we were able to have a few snacks. We had a quick but fun trip and a small view of Japan and really enjoyed ourselves.  I found eating in Japan fairly challenging, not only because of my allergies but also because the smell of the seaweed wraps so common on sushi literally makes me gag. But, other than food, I had a nice trip and a welcomed break from the stress of packing and preparing to move back to the U.S.

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