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Day 5 (Jan. 19/20) – Ice, Ice Baby

For some reason, just being on Hokkaido feels neat – I’ve never been this far north in Japan and it’s also my first time off the main island. Compared to the rest of Japan, they get real winter up here and they try to make the most of it.

Snowmen outside the Asahikawa train station.

The plan today was to check out the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion. From the little research I’d done, it looked like a kind of ice hotel. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I got to the Pavilion it looked like it was more meant for kids than adults – a snow play area with slides and tobogganing with lots of Frozen posters. They advertise that it’s -20C inside the Pavilion and they even hand you a wet towel to twirl around after you get inside to see how quickly it freezes. I get it lady, it’s cold inside.

Wonder if Disney licensing knows about this…

And the interior isn’t much. A bunch of man-made ice tunnels with some coloured lights and a few rooms with ice sculptures. One other gimmick they had was a room where, if you hit the button, it’ll drop down to -41C. Basically, a bunch of fans turn on and blows cold air at you for ten seconds.

Lesson learned, do better research!

The worst part was that, by the time I got out of there, their restaurant had closed and the town is so small that there wasn’t anything open, not even a convenience store. Aside for some snacks from the gift shop, I had to get back to Asahikawa to get any real food, about an hour’s travel time. On the plus side, I did have my first hit of sushi since arriving in Japan.

In Japan, even shopping mall sushi is amazing
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Day 4 (Jan. 18/20) – Last moments in Tokyo

I’m always surprised, despite their reputation for being healthy and long-lived, how the Japanese can pretty much batter and deep fry anything. The first time I was here, I discovered kushiage – meat and vegetables on a stick that are battered and deep fried. This morning, I tried croquettes – battered and deep fried balls of stuff (mostly potato). Very similar to the taro ones at dim sum.

One of these is snow crab and one of them is braised meat. Both deep fried goodness for breakfast!

I had time to kill before heading out to the airport so I hung out around Shinjuku station. One thing the Japanese seem to love are their giant department stores. Along the lines of the Bay downtown but each tower a different store. 12-stories of retail with a couple floors of sit-down restaurants at the top and a basement floor of food takeout. And even here, in your basic department store, there are fountain pens.

When nerds collide! Star Wars fountain pens.

The area right around Shinjuku station is packed with stores, pachinko arcades, restaurants and the obligatory neon. But the beauty of Japanese cities are the hidden, surprise gems. Take a “wrong” turn and you end up down an alley, reminiscent of old Japan.

An alley I found while wandering near Shinjuku station.

Flying out of Tokyo, I encountered these self-serve baggage check machines. You put your baggage into the cubby. The machine weighs it, prints out a baggage tag that you attach to your luggage and then issues you a claim check for pick up at the other end. A front cover slides down over the cubby and your luggage disappears. Why am I so fascinated by mundane things 🙂

When Skynet takes over, these machines will just start eating us.

Asahikawa was quite the contrast to Tokyo. Much smaller, but I guess all cities everywhere are smaller compared to Tokyo, and colder. When I was in Tokyo, the weather was kind of mild, anywhere between a couple of degrees Celsius all the way up to 10 degrees. I checked my weather app when we landed and it was -10 C, feeling like -17. Nothing to do tonight but get to the hotel and hunker down.

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Day 3 (Jan. 17/20) – More pens and wandering around Tokyo

A few months ago, as I was planning this trip, I decided to splurge and order a pen from this little shop outside the Tokyo core. Apparently, this is the only place in the world to get this particular pen fitted with a flexible nib. Translation, cool pen, soft nib equals more expressive handwriting.

It was nice to get into the Tokyo suburbs where you’re not bumping into people at every turn and it feels like you have more space to breathe. Guess this is more my speed. This does not bode well for when I have to go to Osaka (sorry Rob).

The shop was down this quiet little street and it’s exactly how I picture these kinds of niche boutiques – small, warm with lots of wood and knick-knacks interspersed with products for sale. I must have spent an hour chatting with the owner, geeking out about pens. When I asked him to suggest a place nearby for coffee, he walked me down to a local cafe.

Although I’ve been to Tokyo before, I can’t help but do some actual tourist stuff so once I was finished getting my pen, I just had to see the Shibuya scramble crossing. The photos aren’t great but I didn’t feel like fighting for a spot at one of the more popular photo spots.

Hi, I’m the Shibuya Scamble Crossing. You may remember me from such films as Lost in Translation and Resident Evil: Afterlife.

Also had to check out the Metropolitan Government buildings since they have observatories with nice views of Tokyo. Not a fantastic choice on an overcast day but good enough for me since I didn’t feel like actually spending money to go up the Tokyo Skytree or Shibuya Sky (sorry Tony).

Lastly, Akihabara. The place where you can get your fill of electronics, anime and seizure-inducing neon (like the rest of Tokyo).

This could be any major street in any big Japanese city, but trust me, it’s Akihabara.
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Day 2 (Jan. 16/20) – Exploring Ginza and jetlag takes its revenge

Some of you may know (and some not), that I’m a fan of fountain pens. So, whether you like it or not, there will be obsessive posts about them throughout this trip because, unlike the West, they’re not savages and still respect the written word over here. Besides, everybody’s got their thing, right?

Ginza is the expensive shopping district in Tokyo. Like, “I don’t feel comfortable walking into this store because the doorman in the white gloves is giving my ragged jeans and running shoes the stink-eye” expensive.

But Ginza also has the mecca for fountain pen fans – Itoya. They’re a specialty shop with 12 stories of craft stuff, stationery, office supplies and other sundries and have been around since 1904. Of course, they have an entire floor devoted to pens. In keeping with the locale, the range is from everyday carry stuff to ridiculously expensive. I won’t bore you with too much detail but, suffice to say, I need to start saving up once this trip is done.

There’s at least a year of my salary in pens sitting in this room.
For context, the Dragon pen on the left is hand lacquered, gold leaf.  The conversion is about $8000 USD.

There’s a good steak and curry place in the neighbourhood but this is where I had my first, and probably not my last, food mixup. Tiny place – about 12 chairs around a counter. You step up to the machine, get a ticket with your order and hand it over to get your food. No translation, no pictures of what you’re ordering. I panicked and pushed a button at random in about the price range I thought it would be.

Not exactly steak with curry but still good.  And before you get any ideas, that’s eggplant.

A heavy meal, combined with being tired from crazy amounts of walking and jetlag resulted in me deciding to go back to the hotel for a quick nap. 12 hours later, I was awake again and ready to go!

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Greetings from Shinjuku!

Sorry about the delay in getting this up, had some technical issues that I hope are sorted. Also, between jet lag and tons of walking, have been too tired to work on this blog over the last couple of days.

Day 1 – Arrival Jan. 15, 2020

Finally made it to Shinjuku after a hell of a long flight with a three-hour layover in Chicago. Haven’t had a chance to do much yet, just settle into the hotel, grab dinner and check out the immediate area. So, for now, I’ll share some Nintendo fandom and other things that amused me.

I knew they were popular, I just didn’t know they were this popular!
Mmm, tasty!