Retro Otaku’s Japan travel tips

Soba noodles

I don’t claim to be a guru about traveling over to Japan having only had the opportunity to visit last year for the first time, but figured I’d add something to the sea of information out there based on our experiences last year.

Language

Do not bark at people in English. While English is widely taught in school, it doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly completely fluent in it. In Australia most high school children learn a language, but that in no way guarantees they’ll be able to use it outside the classroom. If you’re traveling to Japan, read up on at least some useful phrases and grab an app for your smartphone/tablet or a pocket phrasebook so that you can express how amazing the ramen you just ate in a tiny neighbourhood eat-in really was. Japanese is built on phonetic patterns of vowels, and pay attention to softening said-vowels. Probably influenced by North American pronounciation, too many people seem inclined to harden their vowels when they speak the language – listen closely to when native speakers fire out the language and take some inspiration.

It probably won’t hurt to learn some hiragana and katakana as well (and if you’re feeling adventurous, add some kanji into the mix). Even if it’s just some basics – being able to read references to your choices of travel (100-yen shops, arcades [Game Centres], anime or manga stores, book shops, budo shops, ramen, takoyaki, okonomiyaki) will make it easier finding the places you always wanted to go visit and stumbling along other opportunities!

You’ll also find language will vary from location to location – Tokyo has a fair whack of English translations against its signage to make it easier to get around, though the further out you go it starts getting a bit more sparse (Ohta, where we visited the Sega building, didn’t have much English signage and both Miitaka and Takao were a bit limited in parts as well). We found that Kyoto needed a bit more attention when getting around in comparison, same with Hiroshima and Osaka. Don’t stress if you get lost though – the locals were always amazing when we asked for help, but just make an effort to meet them half-way by speaking a bit of Japanese ?

Food

Get adventurous when you go to Japan! Ramen, udon, sushi, takoyaki, izakaya fare, okonomiyaki – these are just scratching the surface of all the amazing food over there! While it’s fun to take some time to check out the Japanese take on Western cuisine and take-out food, don’t chicken out and miss out on the fun stuff. One of the most memorable meals while we were away was hitting the neighbourhood soba place near Sega in Ohta – the meals were less than $3 each and it was absolutely delicious! Beer is also delicious off the tap in Japanese pubs despite being dirt cheap, and keep in mind that a number of places will actually have a vending machine out the front you use to select and purchase your meals (including note and coin slots), then you take a seat and wait for your meal to be finished up, collect and then return to your table to tuck in (or they’ll bring it out to you). Feel free to try some unusual gear from the armies of vending machines dotted around cityscapes too, and indulge in Japanese iced tea (hint: they’re not loaded with sugar).

Crime and safety

Don’t be an arsehole and you’ll probably be fine in Japan. The place was incredibly safe compared to home – people would leave handbags and shopping on tables in food courts when they went off to grab food from one of the outlets, prams were left loaded with personal goods outside stores and in amusement parks without the need for supervision. It was a nice change from back home. While we didn’t push any buttons while we were over there and can’t speak from experience about getting out of trouble, if you find yourself in a bad situation be nice and polite. Do not be a tool and get drunk, pick a fight with the locals while being filmed and getting it uploaded into YouTube.

Appearance

Gaijin could do a bit better in Japan. I’m not saying you need to set the pace when visiting the likes of Shibuya or Harajuku, but don’t dress like you’ve just woken up and walked out the door in a pair of baggy trackies (sweat pants to those not used to the Australian vernacular) and a t-shirt that’s seen better days, or making your way around the Tokyo train system dressed like you’re heading out to climb a mountain in a third world country (I’m not kidding – spotted a guy in the Shinjuku Station cranking a small backpack with several water bottles and hiking boots dressed in khaki like he was about to leave civilisation). I certainly didn’t set any precedents over there so it might seem a bit hypocritical, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to take some pride in your appearance ?

Mind, I’m doing this from my perspective as a guy – my gender limits me to being in the thick of things with the same appreciation for social norms as the opposite sex, but the etiquette research beforehand and what we noticed over there suggests that legs are fine to show off and crazy heels are an amazing idea, but perhaps be a touch conservative with your chest for the daily grind. Mind, a plunging v-neck on a guy sporting a hairy hipster chest won’t exactly win you any awards (you might be able to get away with it if you’re making a statement in Yoyogi Park on a Sunday with a crepe though!).

The art of walking

Did you know that we don’t know how to walk in public? I guess when you have that level of population density it comes part of the routine. It doesn’t mean that everyone walks fast, it’s just everyone knows how to bob, duck and weave through the human sea and be comfortable with cramming into the subway in sardine-like conditions (which, to be honest, isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be). Just be prepared to go with the flow – it’s a pretty interesting experience and when you get home (assuming you don’t live in a super high-density city, which we haven’t noticed in little old Australia), it adds some perspective!

Inside voice

My speaking voice is loud. In Japan, you don’t speak loudly, so be considerate of others, and if I can get into the habit of not being a noisy pain in the arse, anyone can. This is especially prominent on trains – even when they’re packed, they’re quiet, at least in most cases (they were a bit noisier in Osaka!). By extension, note the decorum in public when it comes to your phone as well – don’t speak on your mobile phone when on public transport, but texting, listening to music and gaming’s okay as long as you’re wearing earphones or headphones. At least that’s what we noticed in our travels and from all the stuff plastered around the place.

Arcades

Here’s a tip – if you find yourself playing a round of Street Fighter, BlazBlue or Virtua Fighter against a fellow gamer and find yourself getting your arse handed to you on round 1, winning round 2, then getting torn apart in round 3, you actually weren’t amazing in round 2, you were being treated to some local hospitality (thanks Steve at Super Gaijin Ultra Gamer for the tip!). In addition, it’s a bit of a faux pas to take photos or videos in arcades over there (though Wifey took some photos and videos while I was gaming without incident). Just be subtle about it and be aware you’ll be asked to leave if staff catch you. The same goes for video game stores – I would have loved to have taken some video footage and recorded my nerdisms when wandering around Super Potato or Mandarake, but IIRC there are plenty of signs warning that photography is a no-no in shops as well.

Shopping

Customer service is pretty awesome in our experiences. Granted I didn’t understand everything at the checkout since my Japanese is a bit rubbish, but it was at least polite! The handy bit is that most cash registers will display the amount owing in Yen (I’m bad with numbers in Japanese!), but remember to use the little tray they provide to plonk your cash in. The operator will then take the cash, count it back, take the money and put the change in the plastic tray for you to take and you’re good to go.

This leads onto the next shopping bit – go with cash as your primary means of spending where possible. We found most of the 7-Elevens had ATMs that accepted foreign credit cards and we used our travel Visa cards to withdraw cash in chunks as we went through the trip. On a couple of occasions I was caught short (the one I remember most is in Mandarake in Akihabara on the second visit towards the end of the trip, who handily had credit card facilities), but most of the time cash sorted stuff out. The exception to this rule is with hotels (all accepted credit cards) and I’m pretty sure the big department stores will also take credit cards (well, Visa and MasterCards anyways).

Internet access

Wifi access was intermittent when we were over in Japan – some had free wifi, some had limited wifi access, some none. We didn’t have a lot of luck hopping onto hotspots while we wandered around the place, but at the same time internet access was a bit of an optional perk rather than a necessity when we were there.

However, if you want to get online in Japan, some of my friends (thanks Kate and Sly!) have suggested grabbing a pocket wifi device when you get into the country and use that. You’ll get access to Japan’s comparatively excellent (compared to Australia :P) mobile network speed/coverage and since it’s a pocket wifi device you can attach anything with a wifi connection (thus great for consoles, smartphones, tablets and laptops).

… well, that’s it for now. I’ve probably missed some stuff as I’ve gone back and added to this a couple of times already, but it’s been a while since I’ve written on the blog ? Hopefully this will mark a more sporadic blogging habit rather than the long awkward pauses over the last few months!

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 12

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We were up early and rearing to go in order to catch an early train to start our commute back to Tokyo, with the added challenge of an extra full sized piece of luggage in addition to our two existing pieces. With the help of a generous baggage strap I hauled two of the luggage cases (each weighing a fair bit a this point!), with Wifey carrying the other. We ended up walking from the hotel to catch the train from the Universal City Station to Osaka Station, transferring from there to catch another train to Shin-Osaka, then from there we boarded the Shinkansen to go to Tokyo Station.

Once we arrived we found our way to the Keio Line and hauled are arses down to catch the rapid train that dropped us off at Maihama, with some signage confirming that we were walking a kilometer or two in the train station as we made our way to where we needed to go. We exited the train to the trill of Disney-themes on the PA, then wandered down to the Bayside Station to jump on the monorail (giving our Pasmo IC cards a wake-up run), then walked from the stop to our final destination, the Hilton Tokyo Bay. If we used our brains a little bit more by this stage we could have waited a couple of minutes to catch the shuttle bus, but we saw the pearly lights of the hotel and walked over to it without thinking.

Since we arrived prior to the room being available we left our extensive pile of stuff and headed back out into the city to do some more shopping. The original plan was to finish up the souvenir shopping in Harajuku with a combination visit of the Oriental Bazaar and Daiso, but with culture day happening on this day, we ended up only getting to the Oriental Bazaar. After a thrilling/exhausting fight through the human sea that was choking up everywhere from the train station to well past the bridge, we crossed to hit up the Bazaar.

The Oriental Bazaar made for an awesome stop to grab some souvenirs for ourselves and friends/family back home. Prices were pretty reasonable and we picked up some fantastic goodies. It was a bit embarrassing seeing some of the other gaijin mulling about being loud and obnoxious (there were at least a couple who were getting antsy that not all the store staff could speak English), so we did our best to get what we were after and tried our best Japanese wherever possible – one of the ladies who helped track down a happy coat for Wifey said she thought it was very nice of me to use Japanese to practice while shopping in there. Gotta love those nice touches 🙂

By the time we were done the sun was beginning to set, so the combo of human sea and an early start encouraged us to head home since the train ride combinations were going to take 30-60 minutes before we made it to the hotel.

By the time we arrived at the Maihama Station our bellies were ready for some love, so we ducked into the food court in the shopping complex next to the monorail station to fill up on some delicious udon before heading back to our hotel. This time we were entirely sensible and waited at the bus stop at the bottom of the escalator to grab the shuttle bus back to the hotel.

The shuttle buses are an amazing homage to the classic chrome beasts of many years ago, although once you step on board they seem to behave like any modern bus, so nice and clean with air conditioning! Once the door closes Mickey greets you in Japanese which was hilarious because it just came out of nowhere, and it was only a few moments until we arrived at the hotel.

Things got a little interesting here, as the room arranged for us was a smoking room (even though we had stipulated a non-smoking room in our booking). After some discussion with the staff (a little tricky as my Japanese + English combination was fraught with incoherency), they were able to secure us a room at no extra charge that was in the non-smoking section. The catch was that it was on the same floor as all the family rooms, but that didn’t bother us at all. We got the access card and the porters arranged for our luggage to be brought up (very fancy by our standards!!), and lo-and-behold if we didn’t manage to get an awesome/amazing themed bedroom!!

Wifey was absolutely thrilled as she was secretly hoping the room was going to be themed, so it was a really nice way to finish up our first day on the final leg of the trip.

While the day wasn’t as productive as we hoped (it presented the challenge of adding in a trip to Daiso the next day, but we’re always up for a challenge :)), it was still good fun and the hotel made for an amazing way to rest and relax after a big day of travel.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 5

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Saturday saw us packing up, checking out and heading down to Shinjuku Station to transfer to Tokyo Station in order to jump onto the Shinkansen to visit our next stop – the cultural center of Japan, Kyoto.

One of the advantages of the Japan Rail Pass for foreign travellers is that the Kodoma, Hikari, Mizuho and Sakura Shinkansen lines are covered in your pass, which makes it easy to travel from different parts of the country to another. We spent a little bit extra to have access to the Green Car, which is a slightly more fancy way of travelling. The Green Cars have more leg room, more likely to have extra seats to stow luggage and nicer seats, but not every Shinkansen line will have Green Cars as parts of the service so do your homework – for what it’s worth, we were able to secure Green Cars for all our Shinkansen travels around the country for our trip.

Shinkansen only depart from selected stations in Tokyo – from the main Tokyo station, as well as from Shinagawa. We were contemplating grabbing the train from Shinagawa (so travelling from Shinjuku to Shinagawa on one of the JR lines) in case Tokyo was too crazy, but we ended up going back to the original plans we made before arriving in Japan and braved the early morning rush hour in Tokyo Station. Our car was pretty empty for the most part, so I whipped out the iPad to start writing up these series of blogs as we were getting home pretty late during the first leg of the trip and scribbling the day’s events weren’t as high on the priority list as kicking back, taking a nice Japanese bath and watching a movie before going to bed.

Having lived in Australia all our lives, the Shinkansen are a revelatory establishment – the speed these things travel at are amazing, and from what I understand, the Nozomi Shinkansen is even faster. We hammered through the concrete jungle in no time and soon enough we started seeing the quasi-industrial fringes, followed by semi-rural Japan. Amazing stuff. There were also attendants going through the carriages with snacks and drinks if you’re so inclined – we had picked up some goodies before heading out so we didn’t bother (Pocky FTW!).

We got into Kyoto just after midday (so around 3 hours in the train), and the difference between the two cities was absolutely tangible. While Kyoto wasn’t dead by any stretch of the imagination (compared to travelling in Australia it was positively busy), it was nowhere near the insanity of Tokyo. We also found out pretty quickly that Kyoto isn’t as idiot-proof for gaijin, so we had to kick our brains into gear to concentrate a bit harder on where to go. It wasn’t difficult, but you had to put in a little more effort, and let’s face it, part of the fun of travelling is doing the whole sink/swim thing and experiencing life outside a cultured tourist-friendly environment.

Once we loaded up with a couple of subway tickets (¥210 each, as there’s always the option of using the fare adjustment machine when you arrive at the exit gates) we jumped aboard one of the Karasuma Line trains to arrive at Karasuma Oike. After jumping out of the subway and dragging our heavy suitcases up a few flights of stairs, we wandered up Karasuma-Dori and checked into our hotel, the Hotel Monterey Kyoto (and lucky for us, despite it not being check-in time, our rooms were ready).

At this point Wifey was starting to start suffering the telltale affects of a cold, and combined with an empty stomach, it was time to grab a bite to eat le viagra sans ordonnance. On the way to the Nishiki Markets we stumbled across an udon place that seemed to be teeming with customers, so we jumped in for a whirl. We both grabbed a basic bowl of udon, broth and some veggies and sliced pork, then as we wandered down the line they had some extras to add on, so on went some karage and crumbed miniature hard-boiled eggs on skewers.

Once food was sorted, we wandered the final distance to the Nishiki Makets. The place was awesome, a hive of measured activity with Japanese and gaijin flowing down the central lane with an assortment of souvenir shops, food stalls, speciality goods (including some pricey but beautiful handicrafts) and at least one ¥100 bargain store which Wifey insisted in entering.

Once you got to the end of the Nishiki Markets, it opens up to a modern undercover strip mall that runs along Teramachi-dori. After aimlessly wandering about the place for a while we decided to head back, this time going via Rokkaku-dori. On the way I spotted an upstairs nerd store next to a convenience store, as well as another place advertising LDs in addition to CDs and videos for sale. At this stage Wifey was feeling positively knackered from the onset of her cold, so I chalked these down in my head to visit later as we headed back to the hotel.

After getting her settled and taking advantage of the awesome complimentary wifi in our rooms, I found out where the nearest Book Off was located and went for a walk, intending to visit it and check out the other stores along Rokkaku-dori on the way. The LD store was sadly void of any LDs, but they did have some awesome classic Japanese vinyl that was fun to look through. Next up was the otaku store, which was a fruitless but hilarious adventure into the seedy side of nerd culture over here. Upstairs was a labyrinth of ecchi figures, dedicated ladies area for all their shounen-ai adventures, another area for eroge PC games and eventually I unintentionally stepped into the porn area where all manner of amusing/disturbing stuff assaulted the senses.

Bemused, I wandered out and back onto the street to continue my journey to the local Book Off. I found out something quite handy though – in light of the awful Maps app on iOS 6 (seriously, the thing redefines awful, and as of this blog post there is finally a dedicated Google Maps app so I can stop using the useless default), I found out that the Google Map I brought up through Safari was happy to function when disconnected from data and relied purely on the GPS functionality to help guide me to my location. To my surprise, I ended up back at the Teramachi shopping mall, and proceeded to follow this up Sanjo-dori to get to my destination. On the way I was fortunate to see how Kyoto transformed from afternoon to evening, with kids riding their bikes home from school or practice, parents taking their kids to the local parks after school, teenagers heading out all dressed up for the night and salarymen finishing up for the day.

Eventually after crossing two rivers (one small and one big), I came upon the impressive Book Off situated opposite the Sanjo subway station. I’m not sure how long I spent there, but I managed to pick up a small pile of titles on my to-get list once again, with an emphasis on cheap PSone titles much akin to the other Book Off stores (averaging, once again, about ¥100 per title).

Nerd shopping done, it was time to head back to the hotel (with Kyoto now in the full swing of evening) and, of course, time to pickup something for dinner. I ended up dropping into a bakery to grab a variety of yummy savoury and sweet things, then exhausted a couple of convenience stores to get some drinks and some cereal for brekkie. Unfortunately there was no luck on the cereal front, so I grabbed some fresh bananas instead.

While the day ended a little earlier than others, it was an awesome way to induct ourselves into Kyoto life. What was interesting from our experience of day one (and this would be a recurring theme for Kyoto) is that the pace is much more relaxed than in Tokyo, and while I expected there was going to be a change, I didn’t realise how pronounced it would be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by any means, just an observation I wanted to share.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 4

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Friday marked the last full day we had in Tokyo and the culmination of a bit of a juggle to squeeze in what we missed out on doing to date owing to the previous day’s hiccup. Wifey and I geared up and hit the subway early in the morning to head out the furthest we’d been thus far to visit the town of Takao and attempt to climb its namesake, Takao-San (or Mount Takao). Being an amputee, the whole mountain climbing thing can be a bit tricky, but we were both keen to see how we went.

After the lengthy (but engaging) train ride out of the city center we arrived at the beautiful town of Takao. Now, the day got off to an interesting start – I needed to use the facilities once we got there and after deciding that I’d rather avoid the lineup in the train station, I spotted another public toilet on one of the paths leading up to the mountain. So, there I was standing at one of the urinals waiting for nature to kick in when an elderly Japanese gentleman wanders in, and I swear he was taking a look at my junk. For the entire time he was doing his business at the urinal. And it wasn’t like he was being subtle about it – he bent his head and took a good old look just in case he missed something if he merely glanced at it. When he was done relieving himself, he zipped up, washed his hands and wandered out. While this doesn’t seem to be anything too unusual from some of the stories other Westerners tell of their travels in Japan, this was the first time something like this had happened to me. When I told Wifey what happened after finishing up she doubled over with laughter, which was therapeutic. This land is an amazing and eccentric place.

Anywho, toilet stories aside, we continued the trek through the town and up to the entrance to the mountain. Instead of being super crazy and walking from the base station we decided to take the open chair lift to the first station and head up from there.

When we arrived we noticed that a couple of primary school kids’ classes were visiting which made for some very cute observations of kids at play, especially as they followed us up the mountain to visit the monkey park 🙂 Once we’d seen enough monkey behaviour oddly reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001, off we went to have a quick chug of water while being amused at the kids ride-on exhibits and offer to take a photo of a father and son visiting for the day.

The mountain itself has a variety of ways to scale it, with the various paths becoming accessible around the entrance of the shrine situated a little bit above the first station. We ended up going along path number 4, which took us along a variety of mountain paths, stairs and an awesome suspended bridge

I’m not sure how that path compares to the others, but it was a hard push in places (well, at least for me), but the journey was amazing. Given I’m a slow walker due to the nature of my gimped leg, we would regularly make way for other hikers on the trail, returning the greetings of the other Japanese travellers going up or down the trail. The primary school kids in particular were fun to watch as they bounded up and down the place – one little girl decided she would be helpful and corrected my Japanese at one point, as I wasn’t emphasising the “-ni-” in “konnichiwa”, which Wifey and I both thought was cheeky and hilarious at the same time 🙂 Her teacher apologised profusely and seemed genuinely embarrassed, but I reassured her that we found the whole experience amusing and entertaining.

After a hard slog though, we hit the top and had an amazing view of the mountain ranges and cityscape from the top of the mountain. After enjoying the view and getting ice-cream and cold drinks (soft-serve green tea ice-cream is the best), we headed downhill and knocked through the same trail in excellent time. When we hit the bottom we picked up some dango (rice dough covered in a sweet and savoury sauce – yum!) before heading back to the train station.

To finish up the day in Tokyo we headed out to Shibuya to visit Hachiko at Shibuya Station, then walk and watch the famous Shibuya Crossing.

Wifey bought some clothes from Forever 21 (yay for Western sizing!) while we found a place for dinner – we ended up hitting a cook-it-yourself teppanyaki place where we fired up a few things on the hot plate (first time for me as I hadn’t been to a teppanyaki self-cook restaurant before), which turned out great. Before heading home we walked across the other side of the road to check out the Book Off for nerd stuff, while Wifey went shopping in their basement in the Bingo store for fancy pants designer second-hand clothes.

I walked out with a pile of PSone games that came in at practically nothing (around ¥100 each!) and Wifey walked out with a designer jacket. We then braved the subway system during another crazy peak period squashed in like crazy sardines, much like how the Tokyo Subway system is shown in docos and travel shows. As uncomfortably tight as it is, it’s all very orderly and everyone just gets on with things. We got the same experience the previous night too, so by this point we were getting pretty comfortable with things.

Once we got back to the hotel it was time to juggle and cram our impromptu shopping in Tokyo into our luggage in prep for the next part of the journey!

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 3

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Thursday started off on a sour note – a combination of late night, rich food and left-over jet lag kept Wifey and I in bed for half the day nursing some unintended nausea. Once we got over this setback, it was go-time again! First stop was heading out to Suidobashi, near Tokyo Dome City, to go budo shopping.

Having studied karate for a number of years with some limited experience in kobudo, I was keen on bringing something back that was practical as well as being a momento from the trip. Following some advice from Sensei Chris Gillies (of Soukoban) and using Google Maps, I found a couple of places opposite Tokyo Dome City to check out. One of the bigger stores were closed up from 2pm onwards so we missed it by the time we got there (my Japanese wasn’t clever enough to ascertain why), but we ended up walking down a bit closer to the Suidobashi Station and happened upon the legendary Suidobashi budo shop run by a now-elderly couple after decades of service in the area (it was also incidentally the store I wanted to visit after reading up on it online).

While my command of Japanese was poor, with some discussion I was able to explain what I was after (a shorter, wakizashi-sized iaito, since I wasn’t confident of squeezing a fuller-sized iaito in our luggage). This done, the sword was bought, wrapped in a purple slip and boxed up and ready to go. Full of gratitude (which I offered profusely, as it was an amazing experience), we jumped back on the train to head to Akabanebashi for the next stop – Tokyo Tower!

As a comfortably-nerdy anime fanboy, visiting Tokyo Tower was a bit of a pilgrimage – it’s been a focal point of so much anime, from Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, X, and has also found its way into a handful of game titles (the most memorable to me being the Tokyo Tower-inspired level in VF3). By the time we made it down to Tokyo Tower it was starting to get dark, and combined with a clear sky, it was an amazing sight to behold as evening gave way to dusk, and then eventually dusk gave way to night.

After navigating back to the first floor (we came up the street ramp which was actually the second floor) and paying the admission price, we headed up to the main observation deck for an amazing night-time view of Tokyo. The night was capped off by a trip to the food court for some ramen to nurse our slightly wonky stomachs before heading back to the hotel.

While it certainly wasn’t the day we had originally planned, the end result was still amazing 🙂

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

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