Sunday, November 27, 2016

Whirlwind Tour Through Tokyo and Kyoto

I just recently returned from an eight day vacation in Japan where I visited Tokyo and Kyoto.  I'll go through the sights in more detail in subsequent posts, but here is an overview of the trip. The main goal of this trip was to visit Kyoto to see the famous historic sites there and experience the living history that still exists here.
Nanzenji in Kyoto
Kyoto was spared conventional and atomic bombing during WWII.  Many ancient sites, buildings, and neighbourhoods still exist as a result of not being bombed.  The history here isn't what you find in a museum either as many of these UNESCO World Heritage sites are very alive and still in use as Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, or even have people living and conducting business in an ancient precinct that is a mix of old and modern buildings.
Kyoto Station at night
Modern attractions such as Kyoto Station, the Kyoto Rail Museum, and the shopping district around the intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi Streets complement all the traditional sights and the outstanding Nishiki Market Street for all things food.  Kyoto is a relatively large city of 1.5 million and its pace of life is still lively, yet not as frenetic as the megacity of Tokyo.  Kyoto is the city of shrines and it seems like there must be hundreds to thousands of them from tiny neighbourhood mini-shrines to the mega-shrines that are head temple or shrine for an entire Shinto or Buddhist sect across Japan.

Our itinerary was as follows by day:
  1. Arrive in Narita and take the Narita Express into Tokyo in the late afternoon.  Have to transfer to a metro train to get to hotel (not a problem on a Saturday) and enjoy Shinjuku in the evening.
  2. Full day in Harajuku and Omotesando (we skipped Shibuya this trip).  Visited the Kawaii Monster Cafe and experienced very large crowds in Harajuku and Omotesando on a Sunday.
  3. Early morning departure from hotel in Shinjuku to take metro to Tokyo Station (on metro by 7 AM to beat rush hour) and catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto.  Spend the afternoon exploring Fushimi Inari Shrine and Sanjusangendo Shrine and Yasaka Shrine near our hotel in Gion.
  4. Visit the Kyoto Rail Museum, Yodobashi Camera near Kyoto Station and have lunch there at the train station.  Then visit Nishiki Market which is an intense shopping experience for food ingredients (spices, herbs, rice, fish, veggies, miso, etc.), and a continuous snacking experience.
  5. Visit Arashimaya Bamboo Groves, Tenryuji Temple, Adashino-Nembutsuji Temple,
    Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple, Ryoanji Temple, and Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion).
  6. Visit Nanzenji Temple, Yasaka Shrine during the day, Pontocho, Gion, and Kiyomizudera Temple.
  7. Mid-morning departure back to Tokyo, and take metro to hotel across the street from the Tokyo Skytree.  Spend time at Solomachi Mall (excellent mall at the base of the Tokyo Skytree), Asakusa Temple, and Ueno.  Basing out of the Skytree means relatively easy access to Ginza, Tokyo Station, Akihabara, Ueno, Asakusa (so easy), but it is a long trip to Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Shibuya.
  8. Full day at Akihabara to see all the otaku sights, then the Tokyo-Edo Museum, and back to the Solomachi Mall and hotel.  Skipped Ginza and Tokyo Station sights.
  9. Check out of the hotel and have them hold our luggage.  Ascend the Tokyo Skytree just after 8 AM before the crowds hit and hang around the Solomachi Mall shopping the amazing traditional crafts and Japanese souvenir stores on the 4th floor.   Grab luggage for a noon departure to Narita on the Sky Access Express from Oshiage Station (across the street from our hotel).
Yasaka Pagoda in Gion
As you can tell, it was a busy schedule and on some days, we took taxis to reduce travel time (see day 5).  Our feet were pretty sore after the first full day and jet lag hit us fairly hard on this trip, but we managed.  Walking all day means you need to rest your feet and our feet weren't normal for a week afterwards even with good shoes.  We had a great time and really enjoyed Kyoto and the selective sights in Tokyo.
Kiyomizudera Temple with Kyoto in the background
Planning for this trip was not as fun as it should have been.  Finding a room for three really limits your options.  The next time I do this, I might consider a room for two and a single to find convenient locations.  Pricing will factor into this too, but you do pay per person in Japan.  I did find some pretty good hotels, with the hotel on our last night being outstanding for location and accessibility to the Skytree and Solomachi Mall.
Tokyo Skytree and Solomachi Mall
Since I had never been to Kyoto before, I researched all the sights and places to eat before I went.  Tripadvisor, Google Maps, Google reviews, and a number of websites about Kyoto were extremely valuable.  We only had four days in Kyoto and we had to skip northern Gion (along the canal is best in the evening), The Philosopher's Walk, the Silver Pavillion, and Nijo Castle due to time constraints and exhaustion, but we saw what I would consider the essentials.  I Google mapped all of the sights and restaurants I wanted to visit so I could plan itineraries and minimize transit time.

Tasty ramen.  Anything in Japan seems to be better than anything at home.
We still didn't eat at half of the places I researched, but we hit enough of them to have the effort pay off.  It is actually pretty hard to have a bad meal in Tokyo or Kyoto based on my experiences there, as food is really good from pricier restaurants all the way down the food at a convenience store.  I'm not much into really expensive dining experiences ($100+ per person) as it is overkill, but I'm comfortable eating in the $10 to $30 range for memorable dining experiences.
Display for "Is The Order A Rabbit?"
I'll just say one more thing about visiting Kyoto.  In Tokyo, I'm there to visit the modern city and enjoy all of the geek culture there related to anime and high-tech wonders, but I know this stuff.  In Kyoto, you need to read about the history, get the basics of Zen rock gardens, Buddhism, and Shinto, and find a guidebook or make your own resource that has more than a short paragraph about the places you are going to visit.  Otherwise, it might be beautiful, but you don't get the whole context for enjoying it.  In Greece and China I used the Blue Guides for archeological sites, but there isn't one for Japan.  After awhile, one temple is going to look like another temple, so context and the stories about the place are very important.  The Lonely Planet Kyoto guide has a fair bit of content and is a decent guide, but I would still do additional research. One last thing, during peak tourist season like cherry blossom time or November for the autumn colours, Kyoto can be crowded and many of the tourist sites can be an annoying zoo (you will hate selfie-sticks unless you are using one).

Tokyo and Kyoto Trip Fall 2016 




Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pokemon Go As You Travel In Tokyo And Kyoto

I just came back from a short trip to Japan and played a bit of Pokemon Go on the side as I was touring around Tokyo and Kyoto.  That Niantic Lapras Event, to boost tourism in the tsunami hit Tohoku region of Japan, started just after I left.  Lapras everywhere in northeast Honshu for awhile!  That would have been interesting to attend based on the large crowd photos I have seen, but I don't feel quite as bad to miss it as I would have needed more time and a Japan Rail Pass.  Fortunately, my only good luck ever with over a dozen 10K eggs was to hatch two Lapras in a row from my only two 10K eggs during the Halloween Event.  That good luck ended with the next egg as it was a Jynx and I haven't seen another 10K egg for five weeks as I write this.  The only other thing I have hatched that was any good from a 10K egg was a Chansey.


Anyways, Japan, the ancestral home of Pokemon, is pretty much full of Pokemon, and some parts of Kyoto and Tokyo that I ran across were densely packed with pokestops.  I also thought that both the item drops from spinning the stops and the number of pokemon spawns was a bit crazy high, then I figured out it was because of the effect of the increased drops and spawns promotion that Niantic had on from Nov 7 to 11.  I also never made it to Odaiba this trip to see if it is still a Lapras hotspot, or to check out Ueno Park with its crazy number of pokestops.

Anyhow, I'll show some in-game screenshots of the layout of the land and put some real photos to give it some real world context below.  Enjoy the augmented trip through Japan in the virtual and real worlds!  It was another awesome trip there with fantastic sights, great food, and a great cultural experience.

Tokyo First
For the first couple of days after we landed in Tokyo, we just toured around Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Omotesando.  I didn't do a lot of Pokemon hunting at all as I didn't have wi-fi except at the hotel, and no roaming data (way too expensive).  Around my hotel, the Citadines in Shinjuku, there were Pokemon on the nearby, but not many that spawned at the hotel or near it.  The only real Pokemon I saw were in toy stores.  I'll be posting about the travel experiences in more detail later, as this post focuses mainly on playing Pokemon Go in Japan.
Pokemon plushies
Kyoto
Our next major stop was Kyoto, the ancient political and spiritual capital of Japan.  Ancient buildings and art dating back over a thousand years have survived here thanks to it being spared the atomic bomb during WWII (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33755182).  Nintento, Kyoto Animation, and Pokemon also exist thanks to this.  In Kyoto, as I was unfamiliar with the city, I had borrowed a global wi-fi unit from my brother-in-law, so that I could use GPS with data, but it also allowed me to play a bit of Pokemon Go too!  These little wi-fi, cellular modems are pretty nifty (from Skyroam), as it allows unlimited data for 24 hours for $10, and it came in really handy several times.

Our hotel, the Sunline Gion, was located right by Yasaka Shrine in Gion, the district where geishas still walk the streets.  I was surprised by the number of tourists cosplaying in kimono and there were rental shops everywhere for them.  Every day we would head out to see sights and shrines of Kyoto, but we hit a few days of cool, rainy weather that had us switch our itineraries a few times.  A few of our favourite sights are listed next.
Red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Bamboo groves at Arashimaya
Nanzenji Temple Old Gate
I started checking out the Pokemon sights around Yasaka Shrine at night as it was right next to the hotel.  Almost every historical building, shrine, monument, etc., is tagged in Kyoto, so there are plenty of pokestops.  There were also a fair number of Pokemon, although I'd say that Clefairies and Drowsies were uncommon.  Water Pokemon were quite common down by the river, canal, or by ponds/lakes.
Yasaka Shrine front gate
Yasaka Shrine with all the lured stops out at the north end of the shrine complex.  The park area just north of that had a few gyms.
Big Electabuzz spawn just north of the shrine grounds.
On the way to the Kyoto Rail Museum we passed by the Kyoto Aquarium.  OMG.  There were so many Slowbros right outside the main entrance.  I counted seven at one point.
The bar district of Pontocho just west of Gion with its narrow main street.  You could just imagine what a bustling place this would be in the evening.
I'm walking down the narrow street of Pontocho and there were water Pokemon everywhere.  I caught two Dratinis and tons of  Psyducks.  I also really don't like how Pokemon Go needs to be restarted after taking a photo.  Hope they fix this in future releases.
I actually didn't think I would catch a Farfetch'd this trip but I ran into this little guy on the way back to the hotel one night!  I noticed a funny looking brown Pokemon on the map and probably shouted out loud when I realized it was a Farfetch'd.  Got real lucky as they are uncommon.  Another got away from me in Tokyo.
Pikachu at a shrine entrance.  Many shrines / temples tend to have cluster spawns at their entrances.  Some of the shrines / temples also have no Pokemon Go signs up too so please respect them.
Fantastic scenery near Arashimaya as you walk north up the mountains and there were very few tourists.
Other than getting a Farfetch'd by luck, I also got lucky as I bumped into two Snorlax while walking through Gion on afternoon.  I couldn't believe my luck because I loaded up the game for fun and the first thing I saw was a Snorlax blocking the sidewalk. It was a block and a half down Yamato Oji Dori, south of  Shijo Dori.  Then two blocks later at Kenninji temple, there was another Snorlax, a CP1500 and then a CP1000.  After getting the two, I pretty much put away the game and just focused on the sights.  That was an amazing moment as I had spent months playing and only have seen two, catching a CP400, and having another one run on me.
We also visited Pokemon Centers in Kyoto and Tokyo.  These are Pokemon stores run by Nintendo I think, but we did not visit the biggest one (the Pokemon Mega Center - which I have previously visited on another trip).  The Kyoto Pokemon Center located in Takashimaya Times Square is not huge, but it still had plenty of Pokemon merchandise.   I got one of those Pikachu cosplaying as Mario from the Mario x Pikachu crossover event that was happening at the time.
Pokemon Center Kyoto
1:1 scale Pikachu on a Ho-Oh
Pikachu x Mario Crossover
Pikachu in traditonal garments.
All Pokemon gashapon machines.

Tokyo Again 
We only had 4 days in Kyoto, but we managed to blitz the old streets of Gion, and most of the major sights.  All too soon, we were on a bullet train back to Tokyo.  Here, I stayed at the Hotel Richmond near the Tokyo Skytree.  What a great hotel and so convenient if you are planning on staying in the NE quadrant of Tokyo and then heading back out to the airport at Narita (direct train service at Oshiage Station across the street).   There was a nice modern supermarket with a great liquor section right below the hotel (to buy all your food souvenirs) too.

The Solomachi Mall and the Tokyo Skytree are some of my favourite places in Tokyo.  The mall here has great food and shopping (Uniqlo, Loft, Daiso, QPot, etc.).  Just in the last year, they opened up a new Pokemon Center here called Pokemon Center Skytree Town.  This Pokemon Center was bigger than the one in Kyoto and was full of good stuff.
Pikachu rides Rayquaza
Great big statue of Pikachu and Rayquaza.  This was cool and it looked like itwas breaking out of the ceiling.
Pikachu plushies
Note the Pikachu tails and backpacks.
The Pokemon Center was a gym along with the Skytree pictured above.  There was a Macross Valkyrie robot here too and that was another pokestop!
Skytree Mall and the pokestops and gyms here.
Pokemon Center Gym
Skytree Gym.  I tried to train at the gym one morning, but as I leveled it up, my GPS wandered and I wasn't able to get a pokemon in as it was attacked and taken down a level.  I was only going to play 5-6 mins and I just packed it in to focus on other things again.  There gyms here were not usually at too high a level as there are too many people battling.
Crazy lured Pokestops outside Ningyocho Station.  Big crowd playing there.
And, McDonald's here are pokestops!
Anyhow, that all for now.  So happy Pokemoning if you ever visit Japan, but do take time out to enjoy the sights, sensations, and food of Japan.

Tokyo and Kyoto Trip Fall 2016