RETRO TRIP BLOG: Tokyo, January 9 – 15, 2011

Trina and I have done a lot of traveling together, prior to starting our blog. One thing we thought would be fun to do is a retro blog to help us remember where we have gone before. A few more will come up, like our trips to the Grand Canyon, or to Bangkok. One vacation that we really enjoyed was Tokyo and my first trip to Singapore. The first part will be about Tokyo and consists of a lot of comments and photos from Trina’s Facebook page. I added a bit of narrative to keep it structured.

For out trip to Tokyo we had created a nice plan. We, mainly Trina, did a lot of research and packed the itinerary with lots of fun activities. Trina loves Japanese culture, and so she knew about a lot of cool places in Tokyo. At this point in my life I had never been to Asia, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Fortunately, Trina turned out to be an excellent guide and translator for me. Looking back on the list of things we planned to do, I realized we completely changed everything. We saw the most important sites, but we went off on many side excursions. The city was so huge that a week really doesn’t do it justice. Even so, we really enjoyed the brief experience in Tokyo a lot.

Saturday January 8, 2011
We departed Saturday morning from Boston (Logan) to Chicago (O’Hare) at 7:55 am on ANA. After milling around in O’Hare’s massive airport for an hour we departed Chicago (O’Hare) to Tokyo (Narita) at 10:45 am. We would not touch land again until Sunday afternoon.

Sunday January 9, 2011
We arrived at Tokyo (Narita) at around 3:00 pm, sleep deprived but eager to see Tokyo. After clearing immigration we were met by the mass complexity of the Tokyo transportation system. Trina handed me a map and it looked more like a picture of colorful noodles than a train guide. We purchased the Suica & NEX package, which combined a ticket for the Narita Express (NeX) airport train with a Suica (subway) prepaid card at a heavily discounted cost. First things first, we took train to Tokyo Station from Narita Airport.

It was a fairly pleasant one hour ride on the NEX into Tokyo. We then changed to the Marunouchi Line to go to Ginza. Now you may be wondering how I remembered that. I did not. Trina had written the subway directions down before we left and I am just regurgitating her notes. If it wasn’t for her I likely would have ended up in Yokohama vainly trying to ask officials in a horribly mangled Japanese dialect directions back to Tokyo.

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Comfy Japanese subways!
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Narita Express = super convenient to get to Tokyo from Narita Airport

In any event, we arrived in at Ginza station and needed to walk to the hotel for a couple of blocks. We were deep in the middle of Tokyo one of the most populated cities on the planet. We got to the street level and were immediately met with numerous large neon lights, lots of well dressed people, bumper to bumper traffic and absolutely no noise. Quiet. Everybody was walking very orderly and calmly. The noisiest people on the street were Trina and I because of the rumble from our roller-board luggage and the remarks we made as we wandered about.

We quickly checked into our quiet little hotel and neatened up. We were both eager to find food. We weren’t quite sure where to go in Ginza so we settled on what looked like a popular sushi place. We could tell that we were an abnormal site because everyone stared at us the moment we entered. We were too hungry to care. Trina was able to order some sushi and we hungrily scarfed it down. After sufficiently freaking out the locals with our jet lagged appearance we hustled back to the hotel to get ready for some exploring the next day.

Monday January 10, 2011
In the morning we had a quick breakfast at a local cafe. It was chilly out, but we were eager to start sight-seeing. After a lot of discussion we decided to switch up our schedule and go to Asakusa. This neighborhood in Tokyo contains a large Buddhist temple as well as a lot of street food. So of course we were interested in checking it out.

We went to the Higashi-Ginza station and took the Toei Asakusa Line to Asakusa. We headed towards the Senso-ji Temple. There were lots of people around as well as a few food stalls. Naturally, we were curious. Trina bought some takoyaki, otherwise known as octopus balls. They were definitely tastier than they sounded. We happily munched on them and then went to the temple.

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JD eating takoyaki

Once there we filled out our fortunes and tied them to keep them from flying away. It was really windy that day so hopefully a lot of bad luck was blown away.

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Tie your fortune slips on those racks so that the wind blows bad fortune away!

We next found a few market streets to wander up and down. As we strolled around we noticed quite a few well-dressed youths. Trina told me it was “Coming-of-Age” day. Youths got dressed in their finest and went to different ceremonies. One agreed to pose for a photo for us.

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Jan 10th is coming-of-age day. A day when well-dressed 20 year olds across Japan come together to celebrate their adulthood!

We then found ourselves on a street that contained a lot of plastic food. No, it wasn’t some strip of American fast-food joints. These were stores containing realistically appetizing plastic displays that are used in the fronts of restaurants. I thought that was an efficient way of helping people figure out what they want to eat. The plastic structures looked way more appetizing than photos in a menu book, plus you can serve them to customers you don’t like.

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A store in Kappashi-dori, near Senso-ji. The entire street sells stuff associated with the food business and this includes plastic ramen models, plastic sushi models of every kind you can name. Unfortunately, because it’s coming-of-age day, a lot of the stores were closed.

We were perfectly positioned at Asakusa to enjoy a cruise down the Sumida river. This leisurely boat tour went underneath the many bridges of Tokyo. It also floated past various architecture. It was really cool seeing the progressively modern buildings as we motored towards the bay. After we had passed our 1,000th bridge we ended up looking upon the splendid Rainbow Bridge. It was colored white during the day time, but at night it lights up with multiple colors. We next took a Suijo-bus to Odaiba island.

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Rainbow Bridge!

Odaiba island sits in the middle of Tokyo Bay and contains a lot of industrial and transportation sites. It also has malls and permanent corporate expositions. There was still daylight out so we went to Fuji TV for a tour of the local studio. Trina was excited, she happily pointed out the sets and posters for TV shows I had no idea existed. I did a lot of nodding in agreement and smiling during her descriptions.

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One…
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…Piece!

After some walking around we went to Aqua World for a Ramen dinner. We checked out the mall area where they had some super adorable puppies and kittens. After falling in love with those cute and cuddly balls of fluff we headed over to a ferris wheel. We must have timed our trip well because as we ascended the sun began setting and the lights of Tokyo came on. Wow, was it stunning. We could see around for miles. Mt Fuji was also off in the distance.

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We still had some energy so we went to Tokyo Mega Web. Not only did this expo-like area contained Toyota exhibits but there were also displays of the latest technology from other companies. There were some really odd contraptions there. In the Toyota area I beat Trina in the peripheral vision game. Wanting to quite while I was ahead I insisted that I was “tired” and that we should go back to the hotel. We had another long day planned.

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Tuesday January 11, 2011
This day got off to a rough start. We had some time before our reservations to tour the Imperial Palace and Gardens. While I was getting ready I made an odd request to Trina that we go someplace where we didn’t have to go outdoors. That kind of statement made her head spin a bit and, thankfully, she didn’t lock me in the hotel room.

We ended up going to the Sony Building via the Tokyo International Forum. It was like walking into a giant Sony store. There were tons of gadgets as well as a theater showing a 3D TV. We then started leisurely strolling over to the Imperial Palace.

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Like all male Americans I like to claim that I know directions pretty well. We headed over to the Palace in the correct direction. Unfortunately, my concept of distance and scale was grossly incorrect. The Palace is huge, and the distances between buildings are sometimes a significant hike.

We got to the guard check point a little late for our appointed tour, fortunately the friendly security personnel checked through our passports and our bags quickly and then escorted us to the rest of the tour group. After we watched a little intro video to the Imperial grounds we were guided through the gardens.

The Imperial Palace was very grand, but not as ostentatious as I would expect. We listened to an English audio guide that told us about the different buildings and their usage. It was the dead of winter so the grounds didn’t look too spectacular, but there was an air of formality the permeated everything.

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Samurai’s family crest carved into the stones of Edo castle, now the Imperial Palace.
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Imperial Gardens!
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We waved, but they didn’t wave back.
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Photo Op!

After the tour we decided to shake up our itinerary again and went to Akihabara. This proved to be one of the high points our trip. We took the Hibaya Line to get there. On the train Trina tried to strike up conversation with me, but I shushed her, which isn’t easy to do. I pointed out that no one else was talking on the train. Passengers seemed pretty chill despite how crowded it was.

At Akihabara, aka “Electric Town”, we headed first to the Tokyo Anime Center. To our surprise it was closed! Trina translated the sign outside the store for me. They had closed the day before. Such bad timing. Bummed out, we headed to the other stores in the area. It was like being an open air food market, but instead of produce and meat, there were stalls upon stalls of electronic gadgets and parts.

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Because Akihabara was the electronics + gadget town of japan, the streets have all these cute tiles showing TV’s, batteries etc.
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Akihabara – games, anime, electronic gadgets, manga abound.

We went to a building with a series of stores that had tons of Manga. There was one section that was huge, but only contained guys, and the floor suddenly had a different shade of color. It was full of Manga pornography. Trina insisted that I check it out on her behalf. I went through it and upon exiting I wished to wash my eyeballs out. Some of the images on the covers were so disturbing I didn’t even want to know what was contained within. Thoroughly stunned, I insisted on checking out other, less frightening, stores. We came upon a store that had lots of customizable dolls. You could buy all different body parts. This didn’t seem to help end my queasiness. We did find some stores that contained more traditional comic book sculptures as well as an area filled with retro-Nintendo games. Those stores helped calm my stomach down a bit.

For dinner we went to a Maid Cafe. There were a number of them dotted throughout Akihabara. You could always tell you were near one because a girl in a maid outfit was handing out fliers next to an entrance. As we were heading to the elevator to take us to the restaurant, an American guy walked by and told me “Don’t go here for the food!” Strange comment. In any event, the maid cafe experience was pretty fun. We were doted over by girls in maid outfits. Pretty much the dinner just consisted of the girls being super cute around the guy patrons. There were a lot of guy patrons. And tons of smoking. We ate an egg omelet, which was tasty. Not sure what the other American patrons were eating. After a few more cat poses with the maid/server, we headed over to more stores.

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That’s the maid cafe we went. They were really nice and fun!
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Our maid!

We wandered through the streets a bit more and came upon the theater where the girl band AKB48 performs. We also went through a massive store called Don Quijote, that contained just tons and tons of household stuff. We also checked out an arcade with tons of video games. Some of the youths were really going at the dancing games. At this point we were pretty exhausted, so we headed back to Ginza.

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Soba on the go! Punch a ticket for your entree, punch another one for your toppings and you are all set to go!
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“Electric Town”

Wednesday January 12, 2011
In the morning we headed to Ueno where the Tokyo National museum is located. We took a quick trip on the Ginza Line. We emerged into Ueno Park. It was a surprisingly mild winter day. We wandered through the park to admire shrines as well as a monument to the Flame of Peace. It consisted of a flame that was preserved from the Hiroshima bombing in 1945.

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A peony garden near the shrine.
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Flame of Peace

We then headed over to the Tokyo National Museum. This massive gallery contained countless artifacts and artwork from different points in Japanese history. There were numerous well-crafted samurai swords and Hokusai wood block prints. We spent half the day wandering through the galleries. I don’t think we even saw a quarter of it.

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A bit famished we went back to the train station where we found a number of restaurants underneath the elevated train tracks. This was a common arrangement in Tokyo. Since space is at a premium, even tight spaces underneath a train are occupied. We picked a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch. Basically, it was self serve at a the sushi bar. If something came around that looked appetizing all you had to do was pick up the plate and chow down. When we were doe we paid based on the types of plates we collected. We happily munched on our sushi while the trains rumbled overhead.

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We then took that train to Roppongi Hills, one of the posher areas of Tokyo. This massive complex featured weird statues in the central plaza. It was getting a bit chilly outside so we ducked into the Asahi TV studio nearby. Trina wasn’t as familiar with the TV shows here, plus there wasn’t any tour of the studio running at the time we got there. We still needed a breather so we went to a nearby Starbucks.

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In the US going to a Starbucks is no big deal. The coffee shop is everywhere. In Tokyo, it was very rare to find a casual cafe where a patron could get something to eat and just sit down. Most of the eating establishments we encountered were full-service or take-away. Eating on the street was faux pas. So Trina and I were immensely relieved when we came upon this oasis of American consumerism. Interestingly, it was very crowded. Every Starbucks we encountered were packed. People really needed a non-full service restaurant to go and chill.

We recharged on some mini beverages and onigiri, one of my favorite snacks. It consists of seaweed wrapped around rice. Inside is mayo and tuna. These little snacks pack a lot of energy in a small space. Feeling refreshed, we headed over to Shibuya. Here we encountered the famed Hachiko Statue. It’s a monument to this loyal pooch, named Hachiko, who used to wait for his master in the spot near Shibuya Station in 1924. One day in 1925 his master died, and the dog continued coming back to same spot to wait for his deceased master. Hachiko continued waiting for his master for 9 years until he too passed away. City officials built a monument to Hachiko’s loyalty and buried him next to his master.

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Hachiko Statue
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Shibuya madness!

After seeing the cute little statue we turned and faced a massive crush of humanity. Shibuya is also known for its massive crowds and an intersection that a half a million people cross every day. Trina and I were quite frightened by this. We tailed some tough looking people who looked like they knew what they were doing.

After surviving the crossing we went to Shibuya 109. This tower consisted of floor after floor of the latest Japanese youth clothing trends. We were completely out of our elements here. There were lots of well dressed Japanese youths and trendy stores in which we had no business entering.

Feeling demoralized by our lack of fashion sense we scooted over to a massive do-it-yourself store. There were tons of arts and crafts floors as well as home improvement tools. At this point the coffee from earlier was wearing out so we headed back to Ginza.

Thursday January 13, 2011
We had been looking forward to this day for a while. Trina and I are big fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. He developed such classic films like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”. There is a museum located in Mitaka, a suburb in Tokyo, dedicated to all of the films at Studio Ghibli. We were super excited for this part of the trip so we got up early in the morning to prepare for the train ride to Mitaka.

A visit to the Studio Ghibli museum requires some pre-planning. Visitors need to buy a ticket in advance for a specific time, and have to be purchased through licensed vendors. Trina was able to buy one through a travel agent before we left. The museum tries to limit the number of visitors throughout the day in order to maintain a high-quality experience for everyone. Basically, being around strangers is just plain annoying. Since we were in Japan, there’s a lot of people everywhere at all times.

In any event, we left the hotel at 8:30 am for our 10:00 am time at the museum. We hopped onto the train at Ginza station and took the Marunouchi Line to Shinjuku station. From there we changed to the JR Chuo line and took a 45 minute ride out to Mitaka. The transformation of the environment was stunning. The relatively suburban neighborhood was very tidy and orderly. People dressed less formally and did not have a hurried appearance. It felt a lot like a metro Boston area town, spacious and low-key.

We took a leisurely stroll over to the museum. It was an enchanting looking large house. There were some modernistic designs but there was a lot of plants and trees surrounding the building. There were even plants on top of it.

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Inside we weren’t allowed to take pictures but it was an amazing arrangement. There was one large central room that was brightly lit by natural sunlight. There was a massive mural as well as criss crossing wooden balconies. You could hear light music echoing throughout.

One of the main exhibits we saw was a replica of Miyazaki’s studio. It contained many photography books on natural landscapes and European architecture used for inspiration for the films. Another room contained the different exhibits on animation techniques that are employed in the movies. My favorite was the zoetrope containing characters from “My Neighbor Totoro”.

A zoetrope is a circular device that shows how animated films show motion. There were fully sculpted characters in different poses arranged on a large circular dial. It started rotating around quickly. To the human eye it was just a blur of color, like watching a washing machine. The lights around it were dimmed and then suddenly started flashing. The characters appeared to be moving. Animators use this trick as a way to create motion in the film. Our eyes are only picking up the flashes.

After being mesmerized by the zoetrope we headed to the Cat Bus playground. It was huge stuffed cat that was part bus. Little kids played in the area with Susuwatari toys aka the little wandering soot in the Miyazaki movies. The kids were very orderly. Before the attendant let them into the play she instructed them to put their shoes over in the corner and include everyone in the playtime, even the little kids. Once the children were let in they played in a calm and quiet manner. Trina and I agreed that in the US little American kids would destroy the Cat Bus within 5 minutes, screaming as loud as possible along the way.

We then headed up to the roof garden to look at the giant Laputian statue from “Castle in the Sky”. I saw this film a long time ago. It was the first Miyazaki film that I saw. It was cool seeing what they would look like in real life.

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One more thing we saw was a film specially drawn for the museum. The animators drew shorts on the side of their full-time projects. They are only shown at the museum. At the time we were there they had created about 7 films. When a new one comes out it is shown the museum until the next one is ready. When they get to 12 they will rotate between each of them once a month.

The one we saw was the “Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess”. It was about this little egg that has to help this evil witch make bread. One day the witch insists on making a dough man. The dough man comes to life and helps the egg escape. I won’t ruin the ending, you have to go there to find out (or just use the Internet like everyone else). After the movie we went to the gift store. Our time was up so we returned to Tokyo.

We got off at Shinjuku station and walked over to Harajuku street. The area is known for its freaky fashion and crepes. We were there on a week day night so there was not much fashion activity, but there were plenty of crepes. We first had dinner at an awesome ramen noodle place. For dessert we munched on a couple of crepes and checked out the different stores.

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Kyushuu Jangara is sooooo soooo soooo yummy. And very affordable. Lonely planet made a great recommendation. MUST-TRY. It’s in Harakjuku.
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Cheesecake Banana Crepe

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We explored the rest of Shinjuku in the evening. It was very similar to Shibuya, lots of flashing lights and large crowds. Thoroughly exhausted from our day we returned to our hotel.

Friday January 14, 2011
Our last full day in Tokyo would arguably be our most fun day. It was also the most serendipitous day. We really only planned two things: see the Tsukiji Fish market and go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

In the morning we walked over to the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was within walking distance of the hotel so it was a manageable commute. Tsukiji is where a lot of the sushi consumed in Japan is bought. They have an early morning auction (4:00 am!) where buyers bid on tuna from around the world. On the flight over to Tokyo I read a book called “The Sushi Economy” by Sasha Issenberg. The author writes about how some of the highly prized cuts from the blue fin tuna were found in the fish indigenous to New England coastal waters. The tuna is flown in from Massachusetts and put up for auction. I would have loved to have seen the auction, but non-participants were banned from observing.

Besides, we got to the market around 9:00 am when the market was winding down. Closing up still meant tons of activity. There were numerous stalls containing a plethora of exotic sea life that would be consumed. It was like an aquarium you could eat. In between the stalls were numerous forklifts zooming around. Trina and I nearly got run over on a few occasions.

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Tsukiji fish market at 9am in the morning. Winter being one of the busiest season for the fish industry, the market was closed to visitors from Dec 20 to Jan 22. We were allowed in at 9am when activity was winding down. Despite this, motorized carts were zooming around all the time. Tuna auction was definitely closed to visitors.
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Sea slugs/ sea cucumbers, very yummy

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After seeing so many edible delights we walked over to a nearby sushi place known for having the freshest fish. The line was a really long at 10 am. So instead we wandered over to a sushi restaurant nearby. They had the freshest sushi I have ever had. I was particularly taken aback by the eel. I am used to having it cooked and covered in teriyaki sauce back in the US. Here it was raw and much tastier. The source of food matters!

Full of raw fish, we decided to check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We hopped onto the Hanzomon Line at Otemachi station and changed over to the Toei-Oedo line at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. We would get off at Ryogoku station. Again, I would like to point out that Trina wrote down really good directions. There is no way I would have knew how to get there without her.

At Ryogoku we started heading over to the museum. Along the way we passed a green-roofed building called Ryogoku Kokugikan. We noticed some large imposing gentlemen, decked out in colorful robes, strolling into a side entrance. A Sumo wrestling tournament was in progress! We couldn’t resist and went up to the box office to get general admission seats.

We were lucky. Sumo tournaments only happen three times a year in Tokyo, and we were there on the last day of the first series in the Ryogoku Kokugikan. We were in the nosebleed seats but we enjoyed it nonetheless. We were only watching the early stages, but it was cool to see the rituals and the wrestlers combat each other. After watching a bit we went down to the main lobby for some snacks. They were serving this broth that sumo wrestlers eat. It was terrible. Not sure why they liked it, or why they would consume large quantities of it. In any event, we headed over to the museum before it closed.

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Sumo wrestlers eat a specified type of stew called the chanko-nabe. They were selling those at 250 yen a bowl in the sumo arena, so we decided to try some. Not very appetizing it seems…
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SUMO TIME! Flags outside display the names of top sumo wrestlers who are wrestling for the day. Are you all set to watch some sumo?

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The Edo-Tokyo Museum showcases the city’s history. It had a lot of interactive displays about life in the city during different eras. There some rather large models of the city layout. Some exhibits had artifacts you could pose on, like rickshaws, bicycles and palanquin.

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We explored a bit more until closing time. As we left, Trina pointed out that the Sumo tournament was still going on and that the best wrestlers in the Yokozuna (champions) class would be fighting. Eager to see this we headed back over to the tournament.

Sure enough the venue had a way different vibe. There were more people and you could tell that there was excitement that built up for each match. The last one was between two Yokozuna’s. Everyone was paying attention. You could see the tension as they stared each other down. Apparently, both participants have to engage only when both are ready. This involves a lot of staring at one another. When they charged each other the place went nuts. It was like the impact of them charging into each other rippled through the audience. They must have wrestled for just 10 seconds, before the challenger was pushed out of the ring. We were both really glad we came back.

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Evening session of the sumo tournament. It’s really crowded now, because the big weights are out. These are top wrestlers with many many sponsors….
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SUMO!

For dinner we went to another beneath the tracks restaurant. We found a katsu place that had delicious pork cutlets. I was always astounded by the consistently high quality of food in Tokyo.

We then took a train back to Ginza, grabbed some eclairs at a local bakery and packed for the next day. Our trip to Tokyo was coming to an end.

Saturday January 15, 2011
The next morning we took the train back to Narita. While at the airport we picked up any last minute souvenirs to show our friends, like green tea Kit-Kats and boobie pudding. We got on our flight and headed to Singapore.

Our trip to Tokyo was really memorable. We did a lot each day and enjoyed every minute of it. It was very sad seeing Tokyo and Japan get hit with the Tsunami in March, just 3 months after our visit. But after visiting such a wonderful city I am convinced if there is any place that can come back from such a tragedy it is Tokyo.

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