Tokyo Sea Life Park is an aquarium featuring over 600 species of rare marine life from around the world. The distinctive dome rising over the attraction houses a number of interesting collections, including the most famous, a 2,200-ton tank shaped like a doughnut where you can watch bluefin tuna and other fish swim.
Another well known attraction are the penguins, which became famous in an incident in 2012 in which one of their exhibit’s Humboldt penguins pulled a Houdini; scaling a 13 foot high wall and successfully overcoming a barbed-wire fence to escape into Tokyo Bay. The penguin managed to survive and thrive, and elude its captors, for 82 days until it was finally apprehended and returned to its enclosure. The penguin in question is rumored to have gone on to become a noted SERE School instructor, but officials have refused to comment on that.
Three times a year, the park offers free entry to residents of Tokyo. First on May 4 in celebration of Greenery Day and again in October on October 1 for Tokyo Citizens’ Day, and again on October 10 for the anniversary of the aquarium’s opening. Crowds can be assumed on those days, but maybe that is part of the fun?!
Like any other expat living here in Japan, I’ve taken to using the proximity to the rest of Asia along with cheap airfare combined to go on some sweet vacations to places like Korea and Hong Kong. I even worked for a company based in Taiwan meaning there was a heap of back-and-forth travel there too.
All of this added up to a large pile of coins stashed in a desk drawer. Almost US$75 worth actually… and because of many bank’s rules, there is no way to exchange coins… Bills yes, of course, but not the round pieces of metal jingling around in my pockets. And just like Japan, some of these places have coins that are worth a lot.
Then I heard of a company called Pocket Change and it totally changed my habit of trying as much as possible to spend every last coin somehow before getting on the plane home, to just bringing it back with me and dealing with it on my own time in Tokyo.
Pocket Change machines are found in most every major international airport in Japan, and in the case of Tokyo, near places like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo station. The idea is simple: just dump your bounty of coins into the machine, and get the market exchange rate value returned to you in the form of e-money from Rakuten Edy, Aeon WAON, Apple App Store or iTunes, or an Amazon credit.
Also this works if your needs are elsewhere too; for example you can get a Target gift card for use in the US or donate to UNICEF and other charities.
I had no problem converting my leftover American Dollars along with some Taiwanese New Dollars into Edy and Amazon credits; the whole process from start to finish was about 5 minutes.
For more information about updates to their services and new locations, check out https://www.pocket-change.jp/en/.
– By Jason L. Gatewood All Images: Pocket-Change machine in HIS Shinjuku. Jason L Gatewood, Own Work.
Tokyo’s Hibiya district is known mostly for its namesake park right next to the Imperial Palace grounds, and being home to many Japanese government offices as well as corporations. If you want to shop, then you’d just need to wander a bit east into the Ginza and Yurakucho areas… But this is 2018, and who’s got time for that?
A few years ago, the Mori group built Toranomon Hills which sits a 15 minute walk to the southwest. You may know the Mori Group from their sprawling Roppongi Hills development. Not to be outdone, Mitsui Real Estate has extended their “Tokyo Midtown” concept from their corner of Roppongi to the northwest corner of Hibiya park with Hibiya Tokyo Midtown. Oh yeah, so that means the “original” Tokyo Midtown is now known as Tokyo Midtown Roppongi now to lessen the confusion, but I would still ask “which Tokyo Midtown” if needing directions at this point.
Confusing naming schemes aside, Hibiya Midtown (yeah, that’s what I’m calling it!) is a mixed-use development centered around a Toho Cinemas complex and an avalanche of luxury stores and premiere eateries. Seriously, there are a LOT of places to eat a meal here. But that’s kind of expected in this area; this is the epicenter of “Japan Inc.” and those bureaucrats and corporate suits need a place to broker deals, smooze clients, and treat their underlings!
Let’s talk about that new theater though; there’s 13 screens, 3D, ATMOS sound, luxury and box seating options and yes, there’s an IMAX on deck too. Dinner and a movie anyone? …Lunch and a movie and dinner and another movie anyone?
If you find yourself needing to catch a breather from all the excitement or looking for a way to impress the one you’re with, just head over to the 6th floor Sky Park. It’s an outdoor rooftop terrace that will have even the most diehard Luddite reaching for their camera phone to snap a selfie or three of that Tokyo skyline in the background. Protip: wait till sunset and wander over here to see a stunning view since it mostly faces west.
Tokyo Midtown Hibiya
1 Chome-1-2 Yūrakuchō, Chiyoda-ku, Tōkyō-to 100-0006
Access is dead simple since the basement floor connects directly to Hibiya station at both ends. Exits A5 and A11 will get you there.
– By Jason L. Gatewood
All Images: Tokyo Midtown Hibiya. Jason L Gatewood, Own Work.
We’ll forgive you for thinking Japan was all about the green tea if you’ve never been here before. Of course we pride ourselves on having over a hundred varieties of
o-cha you can drink, and the image of a kimono-clad stern performer of tea ceremony is forever burned into our memory banks of what iconography can be associated with Nippon.
But when it comes to what is consumed in offices, cafes, and yanked out of many vending machines and convenience stores nationwide, collectively coffee is the drink of choice of many Japanese. Put it more succinctly, the first Starbucks store in Japan opened in 1996; there are now over 1,200 locations with some literally across the street from one another. But we’re not here to talk about them, we’re here to talk about the independent coffee shops that have started dotting the landscape, especially around Tokyo.
Niche neighborhoods like Naka Meguro, Daikanyama, and Shimo-Kitazawa are home to at least a dozen each of little coffeehouses, some unable to seat more than 6 customers at a time. But their customers are fiercely loyal, and many offer something you can’t find anywhere else be it a rare strain of bean, a twist in the roasting and steeping process, or just a touch of whimsy and an eclectic atmosphere. In a quest to find out some of these mysteries, I ventured to the Tokyo Coffee Festival, held twice a year at the United Nations University campus in the Omotesando/Aoyama area. There I asked a few of the local shopkeepers why they got into the coffee game and what they offer to their customers.
We like to provide a nice quiet space for people to come and relax…to get away from the daily grind and just spend some time thinking. Our cafe is designed around that and our coffee blend and sweets help too.
Tōkyō-to, Setagaya-ku, Daita 5−9−5
I had been in the business for some time but only on the sale of the beans themselves. Then I decided to provide customers their own custom roasts but I needed a cafe to showcase the idea. We want to give our customers a unique taste just for them.
Tōkyō-to, Nakano-ku, Honchō 4-31-10, #104
I noticed ‘people seem really happy when they are chatting over coffee.’ I don’t have a lot of resources, but its easy to have a stand; I can make a sidewalk cafe wherever I can!
Kakuya Coffee Stand
Usually found around Chiba-ken, Nishi Funabashi, Nishi-funa 4-24-8
There are a lot of different places in town to enjoy a cup of joe, so instead of heading to the familar green and white mermaid embossed store, search for a local cafe and mix things up a little. You might just find a new brew and some friends to go along with it.
If you want to recommend your favorite java joint to the JIS crew, please drop a comment below!
– By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: Scenes from Spring 2018 Tokyo Coffee Festival; Jason L Gatewood
Situated south of Shinjuku, north of Shibuya and just west of Harajuku, the expanse of lush greenery, rolling hills and clear ponds, Yoyogi Park serves as an oasis of refreshing nature in the concrete jungle known as Shibuya Ward. It’s also the home of Meiji Jingu, the shrine dedicated to the Meiji Period Emperor and a national landmark. But did you know that during the warmer months, Yoyogi also becomes a place where you can visit the world just by taking a stroll in the park?
Countries from Thailand to Brazil hold bazaars and festivals in Yoyogi Park almost every weekend at this time, usually sponsored by their embassies, tourism boards and corporations both domestic and abroad. It is a great chance to learn about other places, listen to some good music and of course, eat lots of different food! Here’s a short list of what’s on deck at Yoyogi Park in the next few months:
Cambodians from around the community always gather at this event. Expect lots of stands selling tasty Cambodian food along with stage shows.
This annual tradition starts with a parade down The Omotesando from Aoyama, through the Omotesando and Harajuku districts and into the park. Participants from all over the world have been coming to make this a very large event, and the general public is invited to join in.
Oh boy, sooooo many food stands selling yummy curry and Thai coffee! And the performances are not to be missed!
Any excuse to try all the different kinds of Pho and Vietnamese deli sandwiches are not needed now, just come to Yoyogi on these days!
Rounding out :the month will be a chance to learn about Laos and its culture.
Those with an interest in “going green” are invited to see the latest trends in ecologically sound living and sustainability here in Tokyo.
Okinawa actually used to be a different country and its native people share a different history; this is part of the allure of Okinawa that Japanese still have to this day. Here’s a chance to check it all out without needing to go to Haneda Airport!
One of the biggest antique markets in Japan takes place outdoors in the park. You can expect to find almost anything and everything old and possibly collectible here.
This festival, organized by music label BMI, may be a little thinly named, but it’s still a great atmosphere to eat some non-Japanese food and listen to music from other lands.
This one is always popular for its celebration of the music and food of Latin America. Expect the energy of Salsa and Rhumba dancing and music along with lots and lots of Latin food!
Do you like the beach life, with its azure waves, silky sands and the summertime sun perched in the sky? Of course we could just go to Enoshima or Kyujukyurihama but let’s hang out in Yoyogi and bring the beach to the city!
Speaking as someone who lived in Taiwan for a minute, you must come to Yoyogi this weekend if you can’t make it to Formosa in person. There’s more to our sister country to the south than danbing and soy milk breakfasts or dim-sum dinners… There’s also beef noodles! Seriously, come check it out.
Sri Lanka themed event with lots of curry and a dance show
I know you’re thinking “Didn’t the Thais already have a festival back in May?” Yeah they did, but this one is just for food and I have zero complaints about that.
Kochi, located on the island of Shikoku is famous for its Yosakoi Festival, becoming one of the 10 largest summer festivals in Japan. Not to be outdone, our little Yosakoi festival takes place in five different spots around the Harajuku and Omotesando districts including Yoyogi park. Grab your naruko and prepare to cheer the dancers on!
Access: 3 mins walk from Harajuku, Yoyogi Koen, or Meijijingu Stations. (JY, C, F lines)
– By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: Scenes from Spring 2018 Tokyo Coffee Festival; Jason L Gatewood
Hakone is usually more synonymous with skiing or being a jumping off point for tours to Mt. Fuji but it’s actually a great place to check out almost anytime of the year since it’s easily accessible by way of the Odakyu Line or many direct express buses. Of the many things to get into, we’re going to set our sights on the history and natural beauty of this area for this particular day trip.
Touring the Old Tokaido Road There’s a bullet train, regular train, and two expressways named “Tokaido” but the original was just a foot and horse trail. Only 11km of the original path actually remains and you can find it here. Using this map, we’re going to walk along the same trail many a samurai, merchant and laborer walked in the old days of Edo and check out a little history along the way.
Hakone-Yumoto Station We’ll start here since this also means we will be walking downhill the entire time. The station area itself is lively with tourists and shops selling sundries and souvenirs from the area. There are also plenty of restaurants and even convenience stores in case you arrived on an empty stomach. Here’s a good chance to stock up on some water for the walk ahead too.
Hakone History Museum Since its near the trail, head here to learn more about the journey you’re embarking on and all the hot springs you’ll be walking past shortly. You’ll also learn why Hakone was a very important stop along the Tokaido.
Hakone Daitengu Shrine This shrine located at the halfway point may look fairly new, but it’s just because it was rebuilt in 2004. But it’s been around since the late 1800’s and is a very interesting spot to check out, especially if you love the foxes that are symbolic of every inari shrine.
Amazake-chaya A 350 year old teahouse. Wait, what? This teahouse has been serving amazake, a rich non-alcoholic drink which when fermented becomes the beginnings of sake since the 1740s. Of course you’ll be taking that with their other specialty, Mochi rice cakes fired over coals.
Hot springs and Minshuku The big draw to this area when the Tokaido had travelers shuffling through the area was the natural warm waters emanating from the earth. It made for great place to wash the grime of the road off, eat a hot meal and get some rest; and indeed not much has changed owing to the number of hotels, B&Bs and bathhouses in the hills around the trail here. Feel free to stop off at any of them and inquire into doing any of the above.
– By Jason L. Gatewood
If you are looking for an English speaking stylist in Nagoya, you have options. London or New York, great options right!? While Hirotaka (Cockney Hair and Beauty) studied at Vidal Sassoon in London, Hiroshi (Stateroom), Yukiko (Uraura Hair Salon) and Akihito (Studio A) lived and worked in New York. If you want a specialist who listens and actually understands your needs, the salons below are the best places to go!
Address: 3-20-20 Meieki, Nakamura-ku, Nagoya, Aichi 450-0002 (map link)
Open Hours: 11:00-20:00 Tuesday-Thursday & Saturday / 11:00-21:00 Friday / 10:00-18:00 Sunday and Public holiday
3 minute walk from Kokusai Center Station (Sakura-dori Line)
Closed on Monday and 2nd & 3rd Tuesday
Ask for HIROTAKA AOKI for the English speaking stylist
Address: 5−10−7 Meieki, Nakamura-ku, Nagoya, Aichi 450-0002
Open Hours: 9:00-21:00 Wednesday-Monday
Appointments available online
4 minute walk from Kokusai Center Station (Sakura-dori Line)
Ask HIROSHI MORITA for the English speaking stylist
Address: 3-10-4 Izumi, Higashi-ku, Nagoya, Aichi 461-0001
Open Hours: 9:00-12:00 / 12:45-19:00 Wednesday-Sunday
Cut appointment by 18:00
Color and perm appointment by 17:00
5 minute walk from Takaoka Station (Sakura-dori Line)
Ask YUKIKO for an appointment on the phone
Address: 1-157 Takayashiro, Meito-ku, Nagoya, Aichi 465-0095
Open Hours: 10:00-20:00 Tuesday-Saturday / 10:00-19:00 Sunday
5 minute walk from Issha Station (Higashiyama Line)
Ask AKIHITO KAWAMOTO for the English speaking stylist
Closed on Monday and 2nd & 3rd Tuesday
Please also note that reference to any business or organization is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute an official endorsement by the H&R Group.
The best way to learn about any culture is to immerse yourself in it. For one thing, this involves participating in the same activities as the locals. To live the Japanese experience, all of the following activities need to be on your list.
Photo booths may have become close to nonexistent in much of the world, but they’re still a major trend in Japan. Called purikura, these machines allow you to take pictures, decorate them (often using a touchscreen or stylus), and then print them into stickers.
The Japanese tea ceremony is called sado, which means the way of tea. It is considered an art form and is only performed in a tatami room, where the host and guests sit in specific places on mats. Everyone who attends must wear formal clothing, usually a kimono. The ceremony uses special utensils, some of which differ according to the season. Serving the tea itself is meticulously choreographed and each movement has a special meaning.
Visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines is a top tourist activity — and for good reason. The stunning religious architecture plays an important role in the community. In a large city, you’ll find hundreds of temples and shrines, but in even the smallest town there’s always at least one. It’s worth visiting at least a few, as you’ll find that each is uniquely beautiful.
Sumo is much more than an exciting sport; it is also an important aspect of Japanese culture. As there are only six tournaments a year, you need to plan in advance if you want to see a match. For the full Japanese experience, you should book a seat on floor cushions rather than for a stadium seat.
If you’ll be unable to attend a match, another option is to visit a sumo-beya, which is where wrestlers (called rikishi) live. Here, you can attend the morning training session. Bear in mind that it starts at around 6 or 7 and lasts for three hours.
Kabuki is a highly-dramatic performance art, characterized by heavy makeup and exaggerated acting. It involves acting, dancing, and singing of a historic or contemporary play or a dance drama. Traditionally, kabuki was performed as a full-day program of five acts whereas now shorter plays are common.
You may think that you can skip karaoke if you’ve already tried it in your home country. However, singing karaoke in Japan is different from anywhere else in the world. This is a pastime that people take seriously. For instance, they invest in high-quality equipment, including properly soundproofed karaoke boxes. Wherever you go, you’ll find a full range of songs in English, meaning you have no excuse not to sing.
Living the Japanese experience involves understanding both the country’s history and modern-day life. Only by participating in all the above activities will you see the different facets of Japanese culture and feel like part of the country.
Sport plays a big part in modern Japanese life and expat sports enthusiasts can find plenty of activities to keep them fit and entertained. Kobe is home to some world-class sporting facilities and has clubs and sessions open to everyone that run throughout the year, from martial arts classes to a relaxing 18 holes of golf.
Football (or soccer) is one of the most popular sports in Japan with fans getting behind both the men’s and women’s national teams as well as the J. League club competition where Vissel Kobe plays in the top division. The Kobe Sports Park and the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club both have soccer pitches for hire and the Kita-Kobe Rural Sports Park runs regular sessions, including weekly soccer schools for kids (starting at 4,320 yen per month).
Fancy yourself as a bit of a Roger Federer or Serena Williams, or maybe you’re just interested in a casual knockabout to get the heart-rate going? Tennis is another key sport in Japan, winning the country its first Olympic medals in 1920. The Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club runs weekly lessons for adults, juniors and kids through its Tennis Academy, as well as private lessons. Prices start at 9,000 yen a month for adults, 8,500 yen for juniors and 6,500 yen for kids. Sessions are also available for soft tennis, a version of the sport also popular in Japan.
Japan is well-known for its rich martial arts history, giving the world judo, karate, jiu-jitsu and aikido among others. The Gracie Barra school in Kobe teaches a specific form of jiu-jitsu known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Derived from judo in the 19th century, it is a form of self-defence and self-improvement that seeks to improve fitness, reduce stress and build character. Gracie Barra offers classes for everyone, from beginner to advanced. First session is free.
Kobe is the birthplace of golf in Japan with the first course opening here in 1903. Nowadays there are around 70 golf courses in and around the city. The Kobe Golf Club is home to that first course over 100 years ago and is still in operation with two short 18-hole courses. A round costs from 12,100 yen. Kobe also boasts the Hirono Golf Club, considered the best course in Japan and one of the best in the world, with stunning views and tricky holes. Costs range from 5,000 yen – 35,000 yen.
Mount Rokko is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Kobe and its snow park is open for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts from November to the beginning of April. The slope is suitable for beginners and all equipment is available to hire on site. Costs are 2,600 yen for adults and 1,550 yen for kids. Ski School sessions are also available if you want to hone your skills.
Boxercise is, as you may have guessed, exercise using boxing choreography. It’s not a sport as such but will help you improve your fitness levels and sporting prowess. Sessions are held on Thursdays 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. at the Kobe Community House and Information Centre. 2,500 yen for non-members.
Kobe Sports Park – http://www.kobe-park.or.jp/sougou/
Kobe Regatta & Athletic Club – http://www.krac.org/about.php
Kobe Port Island Sports Centre – http://www.kobe-spokyo.jp/psc
Kita-Kobe Rural Sports Park – http://www.denspo.com/newinfo/2054/
Sports and fitness meetup groups in and around Kobe – https://www.meetup.com/cities/jp/kobe/sports-fitness/
When you are in a new place, you always find yourself trying out the restaurants first. Unless you’re on a diet, you’d find it a must to sample the local delicacies and the popular eateries that you’ve researched on. The ones with the best reviews are the most favorable but the ones that’ll suit your palate will be prioritized. If you have a sweet tooth, you end up stopping for pastries, bread and dessert.
Japan is known for exquisite presentations of dessert and different sweet treats that are unique as well as delectable. The Japanese cheesecake and mochi are popular all over the globe so you know that anything made in Japan’s numerous patisseries and bakeries would satisfy your craving for food that is not only pretty to look at but would satisfy the rest of your senses especially your palate.
Cities like Kobe that welcome tourists at any given time of the year offer sumptuous packs and boxes of these delightful sweet treats that would keep you wanting more with every bite. These are only a few of those stores where you can get the sweet and savory bundles that are freshly baked and ready to be served.
This affordable shop is known for its ever famous Zakuro, a fluffy sponge cake from egg yolks, stuffed with cream, and topped with strawberries and powdered sugar. With its reasonable prices and mouth watering treats, tourists keep coming back to this family-owned business that has been serving their clientele for over 70 years.
Their taiyaki is a fish shaped crispy cake filled with red bean or azuki paste. The name and the shape comes from the Japanese red seabream or Tai. If you’re not too fond of red beans, they also have a sweet potato version or you can opt for their equally famous vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone. They serve their traditional goodies fresh and right from the griddles. Walking around Kobe will surely be a lot lovelier with a taiyaki or vanilla ice cream on hand.
Although it’s not a sit down type of cake shop, they would be happy to set up a table and chairs for you so you can relax and enjoy their delicious chocolate cakes. The Choc’Frambo has delicate layers of berry, pistachio and chocolate and is one of the favorites of tourists and locals alike. The balance of flavors will leave a lasting memory in your palate making you want to keep coming back for more every time you visit Kobe. The rest of their sweet concoctions are colorful and artfully crafted just like the signature glossy chocolate cake and will surely beckon you to try them out, too.
Since Kobe was at one time a haven for foreign settlers, most of the bakeries and dessert shops were inspired from what the west has brought to its shores. This confectionery and cake company whose name means “King’s crown” has expanded tremendously over the years and now has 31 locations in Japan with most of them in the Kansai region. One of these is in Kobe and not only famous for its pastries, cakes and bread but for its hotel that was actually established by the pastry brand and not the other way around. So while you’re in Kobe and decide to stay in Hotel Konigs Krone, you get to hit two birds with one stone. A relaxing stay with loads of sweets just a few floors away.
After a bunch of cake and pastry shops in this list, let’s recognize one bakery that’s been around for 70 years and has four locations just within Kobe. It’s so popular that locals and tourists always drop by to purchase their daily bread fix when they are near any of their stores. The serve savory bread such as curry bread, the famous salt bread, the bucho’s salt and kelp bread, an extremely long sausage bread that you can ask them to slice for you or you can bring home bags of dry roasted butter rusk, which is actually French bread soaked in butter. With 7-8 new flavors every month on offer, everyone has something to look forward to when visiting.
Although it’s a bit tricky to locate, before the entrance of the Kobe Sogo Sannomiya Underground Shopping Center, the smell of buttery bread wafting in the air will beckon you to grab a croissant or two so you could relish its aromatic goodness. Recommendations range from their smoked cheese croissant to their French bread as most of their bread has French origins. The location is convenient for those who work around the area as they could just stop by and buy a bag of croissants before going to work and for tourists to sample their fare while they shop at the mall.
Right within Kobe Harborland is another famous patisserie and bakery that is operated by a hotel, Hotel La Suite Kobe. They utilize homegrown ingredients as well from abroad as they focus on their products’ quality and that some ingredients should be locally produced to meet their standard of freshness. They use homemade natural yeast from Hyogo Prefecture and organic wheat that is millstone ground from France. All their baked goods are crafted within the hotel and has been quite popular among guests and tourists who decide to stop in to try their flowing supply of fresh bread.
With a 100 different kinds of bread, you can never go wrong with your choices. You can try their savory, sweet, hard or soft bread and ideally sit by the relaxing terrace as you enjoy your order when its fresh from the oven. Their friendly staff will serve you bread as well as give you recommendations as to what is new in their baskets and trays and will gladly let you know the ingredients in English in case you ask. They are famous for their black tea cream bread that is filled distinctly with black tea leaves blended in the cream.
Kobe isn’t just known for their special variety of beef, the city is also famous for their traditional Japanese pastries and desserts as well as Western-inspired bread and cakes. History will tell us what happened and why the blend of the east and west helped this city thrive to what it gloriously is today. Don’t forget to sample as many sweet treats as you can when you come to visit.