Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

Asakusa: Temple, Shrine & Sky Tree

Asking some of the other residents here what kinds of things I should do yielded several great suggestions, the most frequent of which was Asakusa. I fell down on my research a little, because I was under the impression that the Buddhist Temple was really the main thing there, so when someone asked me if I was headed there to do shopping I was a little confused. I was planning to do some shopping, but over at the nearby landmark tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree since it was also on my list and was just one stop up the tracks from Asakusa. Hence, two hits in one day.

All Aboard

It takes about 90 minutes to get into Tokyo from where I live. It’s a little funny because that’s about the same time it took for me to get into Beijing when I was in Hebei, but for some reason the trek coming in from small town/rural areas to the big city was much more reasonable than my current commute which is all city as Yokohama and Tokyo pretty much blend directly into one another. The train system in the Tokyo area is fairly impressive, however. There are dozens of lines running all over and you can generally get anywhere if you can navigate the spiderweb of tracks and mind-boggling complexity of the transfer stations (more than one of which rank among the most crowded in the world).

The trip to Asakusa took the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya where it becomes the Honzomon line and runs all the way to the Sky Tree. From there it got a little tricky, because I had to take the Tobu-Skytree line backwards one stop then turn around for two stops to get to the Asakusa stop. Easy, right? I took the local instead of the Express because there are usually more open seats on the local and I really don’t want to stand on the train for 90min. When I got off the train, I followed the signs to the Shrine and found myself in a huge shopping tunnel.

The Shopping Street

20150823_141638It turns out that the reason my friend asked if I was going to Asakusa to shop is that it is the Silk Market of Tokyo. Unlike Beijing’s Silk Market, the Tokyo Bazaar is not contained in a single tall building, but spread out on narrow street after narrow street.  Each stand is selling some variant of the same tourist attractions: kimonos, festival lanterns, woodcuts, fans, jewelry and handbags. The food stands are selling all the famous Japanese street/fair foods, sweets and ice cream. Inside the first gate of the temple compound is Nakamise Shopping Street or Kaminarimon, but the shopping extends well beyond the gates outside too.

It’s more than a little insane, but I can see why people who are only in Japan a short time would spend a day there shopping, since you can find a souvenir or gift for everyone on your list there. Me personally, I’m not into a lot of the mass produced tourist souvenirs, but I have the luxury of time to find more meaningful mementos. Plus, I checked the price tag on a couple items and had to work to get my eyes back in my head. The prices were nuts. And unlike the Silk Market where haggling is expected, it’s really not accepted here.

What’s more, it created a strange sense of incongruity walking through streets dedicated to materialism while on my way to the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Senso-ji Temple

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The Senso-ji Temple was built in 645 and is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin in China or Avalokiteśvara before he left India and had a sex change) the Bodhisattva (sometimes translated as “Goddess” although not in the Western sense) of Mercy. The first gate is actually amid the shopping area and merely delineates those copycat shops from the “true” Nakamise area.

2015-08-23 20.45.19Off to one side stands the pagoda, creating a stunning backdrop to nearly everything, and off in another direction is the looming spire of the Tokyo Sky Tree, reminding us of the fact that this temple now rests in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth.

As we emerge from the shopping street another huge red gate looms over the crowd. I took a moment to explore the grounds around the gate before entering. There were several smaller statues and shrines tucked in around the main roadway. 20150823_143223Like so many tourist spots in Japan, taking only a step or two off the main path grants you near instant seclusion. Among the many side statues that I could not identify were two larger statues of Kannon and Seishi (mercy and wisdom respectively).

Passing through the next gate, we walk beneath a giant red and black “lantern”. When I passed beneath it, I looked up and saw the bottom of the lantern was a wooden carved 20150823_143530dragon with red painted highlights. Stalls selling tourist kitsch give way to stalls selling prayer scrolls, medallions, and beads for the supplicants of Kannon.

20150823_144155A huge incense burner squats in the middle of the road. People queued up to have a place nearby to contribute their own bundle of incense and wave the fragrant smoke over their heads for cleansing and blessing. Some did this with great reverence, and others (especially younger people) with a sort of good natured humor.

There is also a chozuya, or water purification area. It’s usually seen at Shinto Shrines, but because of the tremendous overlap in Japan between the religions, 20150823_144041it’s common to see them at Buddhist temples here. This one was quite different from the others I have seen in Japan, consisting of a statue of (what appeared to be) a historical figure. The dragon headed fountains/ faucets are pretty common, but these were quite detailed and beautiful.

The crowd huddled closer and closer together as we mounted the steps into the main temple. Another giant hanging lantern adorned the entrance. 20150823_145128I could hear the clanking of coins long before I saw the donation box at the entrance. No fee is required to enter, yet most of the people who passed by tossed some coins into the huge box. There were bars across the top that the coins bounced around before dropping causing the constant sound of tinkling metal.
The interior of the main temple was huge and dimly lit. The ceiling was painted in beautiful murals of Kannon and there were beautiful decorations on the walls. 20150823_144653The main altar was behind protective glass because it was a delicate lacework of gold and precious jewels. There was another less giant donation box as well as places to light votive candles or attach prayer scrolls. There were hundreds of people waiting to enter, so I didn’t linger too long at the front. I managed to find a side area to really scope out the room from one side. Lavish does not begin to express.

The Temple Grounds

20150823_145223As I left the temple to one side, I emerged above ground level and got a great view of two more statues below: a large seated Buddah figure and a bronze pagoda. Then, coming down from the main hall, I entered a garden that was simply stuffed full of tiny shrines. Each one looked like a small house on stilts, complete with miniature steps and doors to let the kami in and out. 20150823_145945This style of shrine is unique to Japan, representing a blend of the native Shinto practices and imported Buddhism. I often saw small shrines in China, but none with this style of architecture.

The shrine gardens also included a small waterfall that lead into a koi pond, complete with moon bridges. 20150823_152810It was quiet and peaceful in the midst of the bustling tourist crowds. When I emerged from the garden, it was stunningly obvious that I was leaving the temple grounds, so I prepared to turn around and go back in when I spotted a veritable forest of red flags. I suppose it could have been another of the many shops advertising for something, but my curiosity won and I headed over to investigate.

20150823_151115It turned out to be a shrine to Jizo, who is a Bodhisattva that helps to lessen the suffering of people in hell (e.g. speed up their next rebirth out of hell). In a very practical way, the tourist sign advised that keeping some of the powder of the Jizo image in your purse could save you a great deal of money as divine favor. I love watching the evolotion of religious figures across cultures, and the Japanese are very practical about their religion, often less concerned about the next life than what a charm or prayer can bring them in this one. (test passing charms are very popular among students!)

The temple grounds continued, full of side temples that were nearly abandoned creating a real contrast from the pressing crowds of the Nakamise and Main Hall. 20150823_151409I walked into another empty shrine area, this one dedicated to Sukunahikonao-mikoto (yeah, the Japanese kami all have really loooong names). The sign informed me that he is a protector of women, and honored by women bringing used sewing needles and sticking them into tofu as an offering.
Another side garden held statues to famous historical figures including famous Haiku poets, a philanthropic orphan, and a tanka poet. And yet one more contained at temple to Benzai-ten (goddess of fortune) and the Senso-ji bell, 20150823_160943which historically was one of the main bells that marked the time for the citizens of Edo (old Tokyo). The other bell was at Ueno, and resulted in a famous Haiku by poet Matsuo Basho: “Sounding through clouds of flowers — it is the bell of Ueno or Asakusa?”

By this time, I had circled three quarters of the way around the main hall, and found yet another gate marking the separation of temple grounds from the secular world. When I paused to buy some takoyaki and stare a map of the grounds to see where I was, I realized that I hadn’t seen the Shinto Shrine that was listed on Google Maps as being right next to the Temple.

The Shinto Shrine: Sanja-sama

20150823_153225On the fourth side, hiding behind a copse of trees and nearly blotted out by one of the side gates was a plain wooden torii of pale sunbleached wood rather than the bright laquered red. The shrine is nicknamed Sanji-sama for the three diefied spirits it is dedicated to. Inside the Shrine grounds was a small garden complete with greenhouse and scarecrow, the wooden posts for hanging prayers from, a small shop selling charms, a washing area, the shrine itself, and … a monkey show.

To be honest, I have no idea why there is a monkey show, but I found it on the “official” website, so clearly it’s a part of the Shrine’s attractions and not just some random street performer. My best guess is that it’s an older art form preserved for an old-timey authentic feeling, much like the traditional dances that are performed.

20150823_154522I wandered around for a bit, washed my hands in the cleansing fountain, offered a prayer at the shrine and decided to buy a small charm. The monks(?) manning the shrine’s charm station didn’t speak English, so I ended up helping some other tourists navigate the process of adding a prayer to the pillars placed there for that purpose. Then, after reading over the translation page (cause, my Japanese isn’t that good) I selected a small white fox charm that was listed as granting wishes. It’s really adorable, sewn from a white brocade with gold thread whiskers and happy black eyes. There is also a small golden bell and medallion with the name of the Shrine: Hikan Inari.

After some post travel translation and research, I discovered that the Hikan Inari Shrine is apparently right behind the Senji-sama shrine… and is covered in fox guardian spirits, which makes more sense as to why their charms were foxes, but less sense as to how the heck I missed a shrine covered in cute kitsune statues! I seriously thought I explored every inch of that place, I found statues and shrines tucked into side corners and entirely ignored by the other tourists/pilgrims, and yet I missed this.

*sigh.

Tokyo Skytree & Studio Ghibli

20150823_164232By this time I’d spent several hours on my feet wandering around the nooks and crannies of Asakusa and (thinking I’d seen everything) was ready to head to my next destination: The Sky Tree. I wended my way back through the obstacle course of shopping and hopped back on the train for a much more straightforward single stop ride to the second tallest structure in the world (next to the Burj Khalifa which I visited in Dubai last year).

The Skytree falls short of the Burj Khalifa by nearly 200m, but it’s still impressive. Plus there is a huge shopping district at the base of the Skytree with many handmade Japanese goods and local specialties (like the TV character store), as well as my own shopping target: Donguri Kyowakoku, a store entirely dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki (and since I couldn’t get tickets to the Miyazake museum, the next best thing to walking inside the classic animations).

When I arrived at the Skytree, I got instantly lost in the mass of stores that the train stations dump travelers into. I was pretty overwhelmed and significantly more impressed by these shops than I had been at Asakusa, so pro-tip, take the train one stop over and do your souvenier shopping here if you are doing a day trip in this part of Tokyo.

I found my way to the base of the Skytree, which is actually four floors up, and also found the line for tickets to ascend the tower. It can be tricky to get tickets in advance without paying a travel agent 400% or being fluent in Japanese, and I had also read that the trip up the tower wasn’t all that great unless you went on a very clear day. As you can probably tell from my other photos, the day I went was quite cloudy and I learned a little lesson from the Burj Khalifa that standing in huge long lines to ride up an elevator is lame. The line for tickets was estimated at 30-45 minutes, it was cloudy and it was crowded. So, I opted to forgo the skyward trip in favor of more ground exploring.

I found the Skytree beer garden, which had a pretty resplendent set menu, a bar (of course) and even some special seats that were built to allow the couples seated within them to recline in comfort and view the tower looming above them. Oh, and also enjoy a bottle of champagne. 20150823_164248All around the outdoor patio were places that vented a cooling mist onto visitors to help combat the summer heat, and some that attracted scores of little kids who played in the wet fog blasting out of giant fans.

After too many photos, I set off to try to find my target shop and ended up having to ask directions because the sheer volume of stores in the area made it impossible for the map directories to do anything other than list things by category. This is just one of the many reasons why I really like to know at least a little of the language in my country of choice. Even if I sound like a toddler, I can still get my point across and roughly understand the answers.

20150823_171542When I rounded the correct corner there was no doubt in my mind. The window of the shop was dominated by a giant Totoro under an even larger tree. Tourists paused to take their pictures in front of the favorite neighbor before entering the shop. I had first discovered this chain on a totally practical shopping trip to Lalaport in Yokohama, and subsequently recieved a flood of requests for Ghibli-shwag from my friends in Seattle.  When I read that there was one at the Skytree, I was sure it had to be larger and more impressive and hence decided to do my shopping there instead of returning to Lalaport.

I was not disappointed. This shop was easily twice the size of the one at Lalaport, and although it had fewer statues on offer, those were generally too expensive and too heavy for me to be interested in bringing back. Instead, I had a massive selection of bounty to choose from including plushies, stationary, towels, dishes, keychains, hair bobbles, jewelry and prop/character replicas. Totoro featured the most heavily, followed by Kiki’s cat Jiji, but there was something from nearly ever film Miyazaki ever made.

20150823_181137One part of the store was dedicated to books and dvds, dominated by a giant catbus head and arms over the bookshelves and separated from the rest of the store by a large tree, inside of which slept Totoro with a little Mei on his belly. When onlookers pushed a button, the scene lit up and Totoro began to snore gently, his tummy going up and down with his breath. Stupidly adorable.

20150823_184651It took me a good long while to find the perfect match for everyone on my list and it was dark by the time I left the shop. This meant that the Skytree was dressed in it’s nighttime lights and I was able to get some more cool photos. I took my time wandering back toward the train station. I was on the opposite side of the whole district so I had to walk back through everything anyway.

I checked out a few more interesting shops on the way including the TV Character Store which was filled with all the famous animated characters that are aired on Japanese TV. The Skytree’s primary purpose is television broadcasting, so the stations have a strong association with the landmark. Aside from the dozens of iconic characters regular merchandise, there were special Skytree souvenirs that depicted the characters visiting or interacting with the tower.

20150823_194445When I walked through a section of food shops there were Skytree shaped treats everywhere. Bottles of soda or wine shaped like it, chocolates molded to look like it, loaves of bread braided and decorated to mimic the texture and shape, and even some fresh waffles on a stick. Seriously, the only other place I’ve seen so many different things on single theme is Disney Land, where you can buy Mickey shaped everything.

Part of the reason for this is the gift giving culture of Japan. Souvenirs aren’t purchased by the Japanese for themselves, but as omiyage which is the name for souvenir gifts. Any time a Japanese person takes a trip, they must bring back small gifts from wherever they went to the friends, family or even co-workers that they left behind. So each place has shops selling very local goods distinctive to the region or attraction for this purpose.

Continuing the endless walk of shops, I passed one making one of my favorite Japanese snacks – onigiri. These are the triangular rice “balls” often containing a nugget of fish or vegetables in the middle for flavor. My personal favorite is the salmon roe, and nothing beats freshly made, so I picked one up and headed outside to find a seat to enjoy my treat.

20150823_200510Just as I walked outside, I caught a small fountain light show. One of the ground fountains was playing away with some matching music with flashing colored lights adorning the jets of water. Small children danced and splashed in the hot night air, enjoying the freedom of the cool water and fun. In addition, the Skytree had joined in the show and put on a new multicolored light show that lasted only a few minutes longer than the fountain itself.

20150823_204753Feeling full and satisfied, it was far enough past the evening rush that I felt like it was safe to get on the train. Luckily since I got on at the end of one line and rode it all the way to the end of a second, I got a seat the whole way, and was hardly ever too crowded.
Quite often I notice Japanese people asleep on the long commutes, which is not a skill I have mastered yet. Maybe if I lived here longer or took the same routes often enough for them to feel familiar I could, but in the mean time, I occupy myself with people watching.

Wrap it Up

All in all, it was a long day, more than 10 hours away from home, 3 of it on the train and the rest spent 95% on my feet. I’m grateful to be in Japan and to have the opportunity to see these amazing things (heck even the everyday things), but wow next time I’m coming here in spring or fall and getting better shoe inserts for all the walking!

Japan is a magnificent country. It’s tiny islands are immensely dense in population, yet they are still socially conscious enough to keep things clean and whole, and to appreciate the value of efficient public transportation and public entertainment like parks, shrines, museums and gardens even in the very heart of the biggest cities. They work hard, and yet still find time to enjoy these pleasures with their friends and family. I’m sad that I have to leave so soon and know I will make an effort to return here again. Between times, I will try to carry some of their lessons with me wherever else my travels take me.


Thanks for reading, liking, sharing and/or following! As always, having an audience keeps me on task writing about my travels. If you want to see all the pictures from this day out, check out the facebook page! 🙂

A Day Trip to Mt. Fuji

Because I’m in Japan, I decided that I really had to at least go by and say hello to the mountain. I really do want to add it to my list of cool mountain climbs, but since climbing above the 5th station requires special equipment, I was really not prepared to do so this visit. Alas, next time. Instead, I decided to go see what I could see of the mountain and it’s beautiful surroundings.

This can be a bit of a challenge, since there are about a million awesome things at the base of Mt. Fuji including the five lakes, the hot springs, the suicide forest, the ice caves, the waterfalls and two other national parks. I also looked at several options for getting myself out there and exploring alone, but I quickly realized I would probably spend more money on public transportation and taxis trying to get around, plus I really had no idea where to go. So I decided to book a bus tour to get out there and see the basics.

An Aside on Climbing Mt. Fuji to the Top

Previously, I have enjoyed a variety of mountainous hiking. I’ve done a bunch of National Parks in the US and two sacred peaks in China, but not once have I ever actually tried to climb anything that came with an altitude sickness warning. So when I learned about the warning on Mt. Fuji, I needed to learn more about it. It turns out that above 2400m, the air gets crazy thin and there isn’t enough oxygen. Like many of you, I knew that climbers in the Himalayas needed to bring oxygen with them, but I didn’t realize how many other peaks require similar precautions. There are also a few medications that can help prevent altitude sickness. And finally, it is recommended that ascent is not to rapid to allow the body time to acclimate. So people who want to climb all the way to the peak and back in a short period are especially at risk. Being in great shape doesn’t protect you from altitude sickness, either.

In addition to this, because the last 5 stations of Mt. Fuji are above the timberline, the climb is all on volcanic rock, meaning you need sturdy supporting hiking boots, and gaiters to keep the rocks from entering said shoes. You also need climbing sticks, gloves and clothes that can be used in hot, freezing, dry and wet weather meaning lots of gear and lots of layers, and a big honkin’ waterproof backpack (being in great shape definitely helps with that). There are places to rent all of these around Mt. Fuji, but it will definitely cost you a couple hundred to rent the whole kit. That’s on top of the cost of transportation, food, accommodation, water… Tour guides packages start around 400$ generally include transportation from Tokyo, 7th station inn, and a couple of meals leaving you on your own for the rest.

Basically, I think climbing Mt. Fuji is a great goal, but you either have to plan that ahead or be willing to drop a serious dime to do it spontaneously. For me, I’m going to have to put a pin in it and try again next time I’m in Japan.

The Tour Begins

I chose the Fuji and Hakone tour with Viator / Sunrise Tours because it was a pretty reasonable price for a lot of sightseeing (e.g. less than I would have paid to arrange my own transportation). Every single place we stopped at was amazing and worth it, but we did spend 6 hours on the bus that day and only 4 hours on foot (45 minutes of which was lunch). I don’t think they’re a bad tour agency, just that there is so much to see over such a huge area that it’s hard to have a day trip with less than half the time in the vehicle.

I started out leaving my apartment in Aobadai at about 7:15 am, and loaded up some snacks on the way to the train station where I experienced the joy of the crowded morning commute into Tokyo. It took me two trains and more than an hour to get to Shinjuku where I was to meet the tour bus, and I nearly missed them because the directions they gave us on how to find the meeting place from the train station were entirely vague. I left myself an extra half an hour and wound up being only about 3 minutes “early”.

We left Shinjuku at 9:05 and the tour guide was already upset we were late. To be fair, Japanese culture considers 10 minutes early to be “late”, but it was still something a lot of travelers didn’t understand since they too had a hard time finding the meeting point. We stopped at a rest station because someone forgot to pee before leaving, and then we were “so far behind schedule” that we had to skip our 20 minute stop at the Mt. Fuji visitors center.

The Fifth Station & Shinto Shrine

We pulled up to the 5th Station at around 11:30 and had about 30 minutes to explore. I can promise you this is like the barest minimum that one could use to see this place. The 5th Station is the farthest rest stop that can be driven to. Private vehicles aren’t allowed, so everyone has to take a tour bus. It’s 2,305m above sea level. Fuji has 10 stations total, the last one is at the very peak and is 3,775m high.

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It was a rainy cloudy day, and the air at the 5th Station was blissfully cool. There was a really beautiful effect of the clouds wreathing through the lower peaks around us, and the peak of20150820_112418 Fuji itself was obscured by more clouds. I could see that we were close to the timber line because the bare part of the mountain was just a little bit higher than we were. I looked it up and found that for Mt. Fuji, the timberline is between 2400-2500m. It was strange to see the dense lush green forest below and all around us with the barren black lava crusted surface extending above us.

20150820_112506I was initially a little disappointed because it looked like one giant tourist trap. Fuji can only be climbed for about 3 months in the summer, so everyone comes during that time, plus August is vacation time for the Japanese, so the 5th Station was thronged with people, and lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. I spotted the bright red torii gate that led toward the Shinto shrine and headed that way. It was small but pretty. There was a purification area, several beautiful decorations and of course a place to buy prayer strips and other luck charms. There was even a little coin-op machine that showed a puppet demon doing a traditional dance performance. The view from the top was pretty, and probably would have been astonishing with a few less clouds.

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20150820_114146_Richtone(HDR)Then, as I came back down the steps, I noticed a small path leading behind the shrine that no one was taking. Of course I followed it. Just a few steps was all it took and the noise of the crowds faded to almost nothing. The green trees, black earth and red torii gates stood out brilliantly in the wet and cloudy air. The smell was amazing, fresh and alive, and I could really understand then why this spot had been chosen for the sacred shrine. Instead of a concrete platform with a railing and a coin operated binocular set, the dark soil led out to a steep decline where I could look into the valley below. Small pine cones adorned the gnarled evergreens, sparkling with raindrops. It felt like my own private Mt. Fuji.

With a few minutes left before the bus left, I ducked into the souvenir shop’s post office to buy a couple post cards for my collecting friends. The shop itself was kinda lame, but it was fun to get the Fuji postal stamp as well as all the ink stamps on the postcards.

Back on the Bus: Black Mt. Fuji

Do not let my time estimations lull you into thinking our guide was in any way casual about time. Our bus dropped us off at the drop point, but then had to go park in the tour bus parking lot, with no designated space number. Our guide said she would be waiting outside the bus to help us find it, but that lot was rather large. Our departure times were given to us before we left, and we were told that if we were more than 15 minutes late, we would be left behind. It turned out the bus was all the way at the very other end of the lot, so I barely made it by the departure time, and once again, several other people were late. Honestly, I have trouble blaming the tourists, since they were foreign and not familiar with the locations, but by the end of the day, I seriously wanted to whisper to the tour guide to start giving fake departure times.

We had not been able to see the peak of Fuji from the 5th Station due to the cloud cover, but as we began driving down, the clouds cleared up and the guide stopped the bus and let us out for a quick photo op. 20150820_121028I was really surprised to see that the peak was plain black. I mean, in every picture ever of Mt. Fuji, it is a snow-capped cone with intense contrasts between the dark base and white peak. When I lived in Japan as a kid, we missed the summer altogether, so I never saw it in the hot weather. And in Seattle, our own Mt. Rainier is at it’s most visible in summer, and is always crowned with white. So what the heck was going on with this lump of volcanic black looming over our heads?

A Brief Explanation of Timberlines and Snowlines

After this trip, I did some research about mountain elevations, timberlines and snowlines. I now know more about all these things than I ever thought I would. Timberlines are the elevation at which trees stop growing due to temperature and/or oxygen availability, but are generally between 2100-2500m above sea level. Snowlines on the other hand vary by latitude, and can be drastically different from equator to pole. Thus, Mt. Rainier (which is 4,292m high) and Fuji (which is 3,775m) both exceed the timberline by quite a bit and have totally barren tops. They aren’t hugely different in altitude, but they are in latitude. Rainier has a snowline between 2900-3200m. So if Fuji were as far north as Rainier, it too would have a permanent snow cap, but since it is much farther south, the snowline is more than 5400m, meaning that all the snow melts in the summer heat. Hence, black Mt. Fuji.

Lunch by the Lake

20150820_125653We had another long drive back down the mountain and over to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. Our tour included a local food lunch, but it took us about 40 minutes of driving to get there. While our guide was chatting to us about the history of the Shogunate in the area, the mountain made another appearance from behind the clouds, but since by this time we were on the ground, we could see more of the iconic conical shape. When she pointed it out, the whole bus full of people spun around in our seats to catch a glimpse and let out a spontaneous and involuntary synchronized “ooooh” as we all saw the mountain for the first time.

20150820_125849We pulled up next to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. We were offered a very generous meal that sampled many different dishes including tempura, teriyaki chicken, rice, tofu, pickled veggies and a local speciality of noodles in miso broth with a slice of fresh watermelon for dessert. The food was delicious and there was a great view of the lake from the second floor window where we sat. Then suddenly, one of the large camera enthusiasts came in and declared that he had found a great view of Fuji around the side of the building. Not willing to risk the clouds coming back around, I paused at lunch and scampered downstairs for a quick glimpse and photo op. 20150820_131930It was really astonishing to see the giant volcano looming over the village houses. There was a cloud parting around the flat cap creating a halo above the peak. After a few dozen pictures, I tore myself away to finish lunch, then returned to the lakeside to soak in the greenery before we got back in the bus for the next long drive.

Why Are We Driving So Much?

This is a great question. I have no good answer. We drove for 2.5 hours to spend 30 minutes on Fuji. We drove 45 more minutes to have lunch and didn’t even get to walk around the lake. And now we were driving another 90 minutes to get to our next stop. See, Lake Kawaguchi is on the north side of Mt. Fuji while Lake Ashi is on the south side, so we have to drive all the way around the mountain to see both. I think if I had known this I would have booked a different tour with less driving time, but it didn’t really occur to me to Google map every stop on the itinerary. Live and learn.

The poor little tour guide did her best to entertain us on all the long drives, filling us with lots of mini lectures about Japanese culture and history, factoids about the mountains and lakes, accompanied by photos and hand drawn infographics. At one point she even sang us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji. Interestingly, the road up to the 5th Station has been graded in such a 20150820_135509_Richtone(HDR)way that the hum produced by the tires of vehicles plays that song… I heard it, it was a pretty cool piece of engineering. On this particular stretch of drive, she handed out origami squares and taught us all how to make a very simple snow-capped paper Fuji.

Ascending Mt. Komagatake

20150820_151223We parked at the sky gondola that would take us up the next mountain with only a few minutes to get on board. The gondolas only run every 20 minutes, so we scurried up to the landing area for the 3:10 ride and piled into the (supposedly) 100 person capacity gondola. Although, to be honest, I’m pretty sure that 100 people would involve the level of crowding normally associated with the Tokyo train at rush hour and that only about 25 people could reasonably be expected to enjoy a view from the gondola.

20150820_152422The day was very cloudy, so as we rode upwards we entered the cloud layer. It was pretty cool to watch the cables vanish into the thick white fog and then to follow it. I had hoped we might emerge above the clouds, but no such luck. I believe the mountain top would be quite beautiful in the sun, and even as it was there was a kind of quiet eerie beauty to the viewing platform. We could choose to descend at 3:30 or 3:50 in order to catch the boat. As nice as the top was, we all sort of decided there was only so much looking at the inside of a cloud we could do, so we piled in with an Italian tour group for the earlier gondola so we could check out the area around the lake.

20150820_153402On our way down, feeling a little disconsolate for the lack of view from the top, our spirits were lifted when suddenly the clouds to our right broke and Mt. Fuji came into view. According to our tour guide, it’s very rare to see Fuji from the Hakone area in the summer, because the summer is the cloudiest time of year in Japan. The mountain burst though a low layer of clouds which in turn were lit golden by the afternoon sunlight. The swirl of dark gray rain clouds and golden fluffy clouds danced around the black silhouette of the bare mountain. It really was a delightful and blessed feeling.

Shopping at Hakone

We spent some time exploring the shops while waiting for the boat. Pretty typical touristy stuff, but there was one shop that specialized in a local handicraft: Hakone puzzle boxes. These beautiful wooden boxes are made with intricate geometric patters comprised of the wood of different trees to create the different colors. The boxes require a series of secret movements, adjusting the side panels in a specific order. There is no metal or plastic, but the boxes are locked tight until the correct combination is performed.

20150820_154259In addition to the boxes, which were demonstrated by the shopkeeper, they had many other gifts made with the beautiful wood in the puzzle box patterns. I’m totally out of luggage space, but it was nice to see some local handicrafts promoted among the plastic ninja swords and plush Mt. Fuji dolls.

A Boat on Lake Ashi

20150820_163431Our boat picked us up at the pier next to the gondola station and we set off across the lake at 4:15. It was a really relaxing ride with great views. The valley was clear, the sun was beginning to peek out from the clouds, and we were able to watch Mt. Fuji receding in the distance as we sailed away. There were little towns at various ports around the lake. 20150820_162850There were more torii gates along the waterline. And there was even a boat tour that went in a 3 masted old-fashioned pirate ship, which was an adorable contrast to the Japanese countryside.

In contrast to the cities, the weather on the lake was cool and pleasant, so I really enjoyed the ride on the upper deck, basking in the sun, wind and amazing views. I also met a lovely family from L.A. (because no outing is complete without meeting new people!) and spent most of the trip chatting with their college-age daughter about the benefits of living overseas. I think I sold her on it.

It was really crazy how many people with giant expensive cameras were there. Mind you, all I had was my phone, which stands me pretty good in most cases. I’m pretty sure it didn’t even come close to doing the lake justice: brilliant golden sunlight reflecting from the small waves caused by the wake of many boats, deep green rolling foothills on every side, brilliant red torii gates dotting the landscape and over it all the black, symetrical cone of Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was a perfect way to end the day.

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Wrap-Up

We left just before 5pm and spent a little over 90 minutes returning to Tokyo. Since it was rush hour(s), I hung out in one of the famous Shinjuku department stores. These things are huge. Floors and floors of beautiful clothing, home decor and accessories. Unlike normal Japanese shopping, which is tall and narrow, the Shinjuku department stores are both tall and wide. I was just killing time, but I was astonished at the variety of fashion available. If I ever have a ridiculous amount of money to devote to my wardrobe, I’m pretty sure Shinjuku wins out over Dubai for shopping destination.

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I managed to stick it out until after rush hour so that I could actually get a seat on the long train ride back to Aobadai. The day was long, and really really full of uncomfortable transportation, but despite the lack of sleep, the aching feet and the hours of bus riding, I have to say that the whole Fuji-Hakone-Izu National parks area is amazing.

Now that I know a bit more about the area, what there is to see and how its laid out, I can say that my preferred future method would almost certainly be to go in the off season, rent a car and spend several days circling the base going from little lake town to little lake town. The only thing you can’t drive yourself to is up the mountains themselves, but there are local buses going up Fuji itself, and some of the other mountains have gondolas like the one we took. Sometimes it feels like the first time I visit someplace is just recon for the second time, but then again, I guess that’s why I want to live abroad instead of just taking short vacations. And even though things didn’t work out in Japan this time around, I have no doubt that I’ll come back here again someday.


Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and as always, please check out all the photos on my facebook page 🙂

An Hour with the Owls: Visiting Tokyo’s Owl Cafe

Some of you may be aware of the Japanese fascination with animal themed cafes. This originated as a way for people who lived in tiny apartments or share houses where pets were not allowed to enjoy spending time with affectionate furry friends like cats, dogs, and bunnies. But as the animal cafe trend continued, a new more exotic pet came into focus: owls.

20150816_181230After a little bit of help from Google, I found the Akiba Fukurou Owl Cafe. They named for the neighborhood (Akihabara) and the Japanese word for owl “fukuro” which is also a homophone for the Japanese word for good luck (or at least protection from hardship) “fukurou”. Their website has an English language option that helps you to navigate the reservation process and learn about the cafe, the owls and what to expect for your visit.

My email request for a reservation was promptly and courteously answered, and even when I wanted to add another person, the cafe was very helpful in our last minute adjustment. Their emails are also full of adorable little stars and hearts. The nice thing about having a reservation is that your time with the owls is guaranteed and you don’t have to worry about the place being booked when you show up.

The Akiba Fukurou isn’t a cafe in the sense of serving coffee or snacks, it only inherits the name from the pet cafe phenomenon. Instead, it’s much more like an “owl experience”. Although complimentary bottled water is provided, the main purpose of the visit is definitely the birds. The hour is only 1,500 yen (about $12 US) and so totally worth it!

20150816_181234_editThere are 24 owls living at the cafe of many different sizes and species. All the owls are born in captivity and raised as pets, so they are used to people and well cared for. In Japan, it is legal to keep owls as pets only if they are bred for this purpose, so the cafe also seeks to educate visitors about the responsibilities of owning a pet owl.

While we were standing outside waiting for our reservation time, one of the staffers came out with little booklets that outlined the owl touching policies and house rules, but more than half the book was filled with owl facts. For example, pet owls adapt to a day-time schedule like their owners and sleep normally at night. Also, pet owls often eat raw chicken instead of small rodents. Owls don’t really bond with their owners the way some parrots do, but more accurately tolerate co-existence with humans (not unlike some cats I’ve met). And, no, they can’t be potty trained. There were lots of other owl facts, but mostly the same stuff you find at zoos or in nature documentaries.

20150816_180413As we entered the dimly lit space, we were asked to make use of the hand sanitzer and to choose a brand of bottled water on the way to our seats. We passed by the owl perches on the way, but were asked to wait just a little longer before starting to take pictures. We were seated at little white tables and the staff gave us a run down of the house rules. The first speech was in Japanese, but after the Japanese patrons got up to start petting the owls, they grouped all the English speakers together for the English version.

20150816_181521_editAll the owls had little green tags above their perch that showed their name in both English and Japanese. Some owls also had a pink tag, which was an indication that the bird was to be left alone. The staff was very attentive to the birds’ needs and moods, and would put up a pink tag on any owl that was getting grumpy or had been handled too much. One (very large) owl had a blue tag which I was told indicated that he was still in training, so he could be petted, but not removed from his perch.

11911618_10155998920590473_2055993660_n_editWe were told to only touch the owls on the head with a single finger, and not to stroke them like cats. Also we were warned about the owl’s tendency to shrink when scared and asked to keep our voices soft and our movements slow. It is also important to hold on to the bird’s tether so that the larger birds can’t fly off and attack the smaller ones. And finally, while we could pet any (non-pink tagged) bird on our own, if we wanted to hold one, we had to ask for staff assistance.

20150816_182449_editThe rules explained, we were set free to explore the owls. I took some time to visit all the perches, take pictures and pet everyone I was allowed to. I was astonished by the variety of sizes, colors, shapes and textures of the owls. All of them were soft, but some feathers felt like firm silk and others felt like soft powder while a few felt like fine fur. When the staff set up their camera for the complimentary photo op, I chose a particularly soft medium sized bird named Zebra (for his black and white stripes).

Zebra was amicable, but loved to bob his head all around. At first I was worried that he’d end up scaring himself by running into my hand too hard when I was petting him, but after he bumped into me a couple of times with no sign of trauma, I decided he must be ok with it, and settled down to enjoy the softness. His bobbing made the photos a little awkward, but he was fun.

20150816_183132I was happy to have been able to bring a friend on this adventure because owl selfies are hard, and honestly a bit distracting (at least one owl tried to chew on my phone trinket). Since there were two of us, however, we took turns taking pictures of each other. The staff were very helpful and attentive, prepared at the drop of a dropping with a handy moist towelette. We were warned that owls aren’t potty trainable, and that was certainly true. We joked later on the way home that our owl experience was all the more authentic for the poo. But all “accidents” were attended too immediately both for the patron and the floor.

Actually, the room was amazingly clean. I know the Japanese are really into clean, but I was a little shocked at how a room with 24 birds in it could remain so clean. There was no odor (not even air freshener), the floor was spotless, and I didn’t even have a teeny tiny sniffle or itch of allergies from the feathers!

20150816_181731_editAfter a while, I decided to switch owls. I had hoped to handle one of the teeny tiny ones. These full grown owls were maybe the size of my fist and just the epitome of cuteness, but I was not the only one with this idea, and in the end, I ceded the friendly miniature Cherry Tomato to a visiting child and chose a beautiful tawny colored horned owl named Queen of Hearts.

11874169_10155998877910473_1858344596_n_editDespite the staff’s edict to keep the birds at arm’s length, Queen did her very best to climb as far up my arm as her tether would allow. She turned around often, watching the people around her while hooting softly. Her hoots were so adorable. I don’t know if I would have heard them had she not been basically on my elbow. They were near classic owl hoot sounds, graceful and melodious. Her throat feathers expanded outwards as she spoke, always two hoots together.

20150816_185315_editFinally, the staff called the ten minute notice and we all began to turn over our erstwhile feathered friends. I lingered as long as was reasonable, petting more owls and doting especially on the largest owl who was not yet wrist trained, Takoyaki (yes, that’s a type of food). I spotted one staffer checking on the owls as they were replaced on their perches, adding do not touch pink tags to a few, and giving at least one a reassuring nose to beak nuzzle of affection. There is no doubt for me that these owls are much more than just a job to the folks running the cafe.

After a final hand sanitation, we were given our souvenir photo laminated post cards (a really nice touch, since most places I’ve been try to sell these). As we wandered back to the train station I realized that I felt hugely energized and refreshed. We had come into Akihabara some hours before our reservation to check out the neighborhood and the Anime center, so I had been feeling a little run down while waiting in line for our appointed time. Afterward, however, I felt amazing. I’m not saying owls have mystical properties or anything, but I’m sure there’s some kind of dopamine release that we got with all the cuteness and the animal interactions.

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Even before we arrived back home, the cafe staff had sent me a kind email, thanking me for my visit and sharing a digital copy of the souvenir photo. I cannot like these people enough. They are attentive to the needs of their customers and their owls. I wish to pieces we had things like this in the US because I really think that not only does spending time with animals make us feel better, it makes us remember that we aren’t the only living beings occupying this world.

This is a unique Japanese experience that I would recommend to basically anyone who doesn’t have a heart of stone. With an easy reservation process and a great location, a visit to the Akiba Fukorou Owl Cafe is perfect for anyone visiting Tokyo for any amount of time.

Shibuya & The Meiji Jingu Shrine

You ever have those times when no matter what plan you make the universe has other ideas? Well, it seems my summer of lazily watching netflix and contemplating reality has been superceeded by … more adventures. I guess I can’t complain.  

I met two of the new teachers and decided to join them on an impromptu trip to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I don’t think I would have sought out this particular site on my own, but it was certainly a pretty day.

Some History

Shinto is the only “religion” that can be considered wholly Japanese. Buddhism, Christianity and other religions are now practiced widely in Japan (albeit in a uniquely Japanese fashion), but they are all transplants. But try as I might, I could never find any definitive literature (in English) about Shinto, and this is because for nearly the entire history of the Japanese people, it hasn’t been anything remotely like an organized religion, but much more like a series of local beliefs and practices about nature and the spirit world.

Emperor Meiji changed all that in the late 1800s by creating a state mandated form of Shinto as a way to reclaim Japanese culture from foreign influences. While there is a reasonable amount of data about this version of Shinto, it is also known that it isn’t necessarily true to historical Shinto practices, since it was created as a political tool. The Meiji Jingu shrine was built after the Emperor’s death to commemorate his work in the Meiji Restoration and to honor the deified spirits of he and his wife, the Empress Shoken. It was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt again after the war.

For my personal tastes, I’m far more interested in visiting Shinto shrines that pre-date the Meiji reformation, but I’m not so much of a history snob that I would turn down a trip that someone else already planned on a day when I would otherwise just be watching TV.

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The Shrine

20150815_164628We had a bit of an adventure getting there, since Google Maps doesn’t give very specific directions when it tells you to walk from say a train station to a bus stop, but we eventually found the right bus. I think we got off a couple stops too early, but we kept asking folks along the way for directions (including some nice ladies at a pony riding park) and eventually rounded the corner to see a tall torii gate leading to a deep, lush forest.

20150815_165018Soaking in the dark, shady greenery, we set off down the quiet path, alternating between taking pictures and admiring the view. We stalked butterflies and looked at spider webs along the trail toward the shrine. As we approached the main compound, we paused at the fountain outside the gates to wash our hands in the Shinto fashion with small bamboo dippers.

20150815_165447Upon entering, we were greeted by two giant trees with a rope adorned with the folded white paper blessings. We visited the main shrine where photos were not permitted, saw the prayer walls where visitors could hang up their written prayers which would be read aloud and burnt the 20150815_165806next sunrise in offering to the gods, and generally ooohed and aaahed at the stunning surroundings. Sadly, the museums and the iris garden were both closed by the time we got there, but it was still a beautiful and peaceful walk in the woods, punctuated by the vast wooden torii and the gently sloping rooftops of the traditional architecture.

As I said, this particular shrine wasn’t on my personal list, but I’m happy that I went. I doubt I’ll go back this trip, but if I’m living here again in the future, I’ll probably put in the effort to go early enough to see the museums and gardens. I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone on a short visit to Tokyo (with so much else to do), but for expats, long term vacationers or anyone else who’s looking for a nice, green afternoon, it’s definitely a win.

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Shibuya

Shibuya is an iconic part of Tokyo, nearly all of you have probably seen the busy multi-directional crosswalk in at least one movie. So, of course it was on my to-do list while living so close. It’s also the home of the Meiji Jingu Shrine, so I got to kill to sightseeing birds in one day.

20150815_155442On our way between the train and bus, we paused to take some photos of the crosswalk, and upon our return from the shrine, we took some more time to explore the areas restaurants and shops. We got approached by a couple of Mormon missionaries, which could have been awkward, but I subverted them into a much more pleasant conversation about family and sightseeing, and they directed us toward a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

The sushi place turned out to be more expensive than we wanted, but right next door was a tiny little sliver of a ramen shop. These shops are tucked all over Japan, with their ordering machines, and single long bar for seating. Customers order their food from the vending machine where they pay and get a ticket. Then taking a seat at the bar, we turn over our tickets in return for heaping bowls of deliciousness. I finally got a chance to try the tonkostu broth ( a rich white broth made by boiling pork bones for hours and hours, recommended as the favorite by my students here).

20150815_183233Then we set off to explore the shops. Japan doesn’t have a lot of ground space so large shopping centers tend to be very narrow and very tall. Even when we stopped in my favorite boutique cosmetics store, Lush, we had to ascend a narrow winding staircase to see the second half of the tiny store. We also found a store called “Black Flame”. We expected something heavy metal or goth, but instead walked into the most intensely uncomfortable array of cultural appropriation and well intentioned racism. I really don’t know how else to put it. The (Japanese) sales rep was decked out in a full hip-hop array complete with a “fro” style hairdo under his backward facing cap.

Once you step away from the crosswalk, the side streets are narrow and the buildings are soaring, with tiny shops tucked in to every available space between the mega-famous brand stores and shopping centers. We found a store entirely dedicated to chocolates wrapped in messages. Literally, every chocolate was the same size and shape, but each was wrapped in a different message. I suspect one could easily spend days wandering around just a few city blocks there and still not see all there is to see. Needless to say, after 20150815_183149a fairly long day of exploring the shrine, we didn’t have that much energy left for shopping, so after a couple hours, we called it a night and headed back home.


It was really nice to have an unexpected day out, especially one I didn’t have to plan or think about and got to share with fun people. Life keeps on reminding me to be flexible, to let go of my plans and intentions and to just enjoy what is in front of me.