Monday, March 27, 2017

A Day in One Place - Tokyo 2

Since my first post on Tokyo, Japan, I have been fortunate enough to return several times. My initial A Day in One Place was meant to give someone visiting that location quite a bit to do in a short amount of time whether it be a layover or limited stay in that city. With that, here are a few more things to do while visiting Tokyo.

My preferred area to stay is in the Asakusa area, famous for it's Sensoji Shrine. It just has more of a neighborhood feel which also seems less crowded to me than other areas like Shibuya, Ginza, Akihabara, or Shinjuku. You won't find many branded hotels here either. Most are Asian brands or smaller Japanese or boutique hotels which are actually great. My go to place it the Red Planet Hotel. It's an affordable brand found allover Asia with limited services. The rooms are very clean, modern and comfortable. Why pay for more when you're out exploring a great city. Plus, it's just a few minutes walk to everything Asakusa has to offer - Sensoji Shrine, Sumida Park, Asahi Tasting Room, the Ginza line and more! If you get a view room, you will most likely wake up to this.
View of SkyTree at sunrise

I like to start my day around 6:30am walking to Sumida Park and around the river. It takes about 30 minutes or so. Along the way you will see lots of people walking and exercising. As you exit the hotel take the second right down an alley and through a few blocks of shopping arcades. You will then cross the street and see a sign for Tokyo Cruise. Just to the left is Sumida Park. You can walk through the park, safely, to the next bridge and cross over. You will then come up the other side of the bride and continue on the newly paved path. I usually turn right and cross over the bridge when I reach the corner of the Asahi building. It's the one with the giant yellow squiggly on it for lack of a better word. Here you can also visit a Starbucks or venture back to the hotel to get ready for the day. I also like to walk down Kaminarimon "Thunder Gates" which is the entrance to the shrine. It's so peaceful before the stores open and tourists arrive. Most start to open around 9am but the action doesn't really start until 11am. It offers quite a lot in the way of souvenirs, clothing, and street food. I usually pick up a few things here which I find to be less expensive than other parts of the city. Don't be afraid to try new food, either. There's lot of snacks which can be had for just a few yen.
Friendly staff can assist with your choices
Look for this sign

My favorite is this little fried snack almost to the end of the walk, about second from the end on the right facing the temple. I really don't know the name. For under 200y, you can get a delicious treat. My favorite is the sweet potato. The sellers do speak some English and can help you with flavors. The outer fried coating is light and crisp, and the filling is sweet and soft. It will be handed to you in a little piece of paper. If you don't want to eat it right away, ask for a small bag. Remember, it's not usually polite to eat and walk in Japan, so step over to the side out of people's way.

 Another great place to stop is what I consider the "Walmart" of Asakusa otherwise knows at Don Quijote. This place can be intimidating once you come upon it. It sticks out of the ordinary and almost looks like a casino, but it's not. It's floors and floors of amazing goods including food, snacks, clothing, household items, luggage, toys, etc. This is another great place to find souvenirs or even snacks for your hotel or backpack. Did you forget socks? This place has it! They take major credit cards. Check out the three or four levels for a true experience. Once you pay, you will move to the little table to bag your items. Plus, it's close enough to the hotel that you can just return the items to your hotel and get on with your day.

Asahi SkyRoom
 Finally, a great way to enjoy your day or evening is a visit to Asahi's Skyroom. There is no charge to enter but it's suggested that you purchase a beverage of your choice or snack item (approx 600y). I always find these types of places more enjoyable to visit then other touristy spots such as SkyTree and Tokyo Tower which can have exorbitant entrance fees plus you can't drink beer there. Here you can relax, enjoy a beer or wine for a few yen and take in the views. We opted to go later at night around 7pm. The views can't be beat, however, but taking photos is a bit challenging with the lighting from the room interfering with each shot. The seating area is small and it does allow smoking. Smoke travels so if this is bothersome for you try to sit away from the windows. You will enter the lobby of the elegant skyscraper and proceed to the 22nd floor. If you see signs for the Alaska Room, you are in the right place. Just find the Asahi Room.
It's the building on the left you're looking for!

Additionally, one of my stops included a visit to the Harajuku area reachable by train to visit an "art latte" place called Reissue. You can take the Ginza line from Tawaramachi Station and transfer to the Yamanote line (JR). This small cafe offered a few desserts as well as "art lattes" or 3D lattes. If you are coming from Harajuku Station, you will walk all the way through Takashita Street to the end. Cross at the walk and look to your left. You will see a "floral" clock on a wall. It's very large and you cannot miss it. Turn left here and walk about a block or two down. On the left side you will see Reissue and proceed up the stairs. They charge an average price for a cappuccino or latte, around $400y but for an additional $400y they will do art or 3D. So have a picture ready for them or ask for a 3D character such as a bunny or Pikachu. The extra yen is well worth it. It can get busy, too, and they will take reservations so if you can't get in one day I highly recommend you come back.

Look for this outside and Gontran Cherrier is to the right
If lattes aren't your thing, then get on over to Shinjaku Station to visit Gontran Cherrier. This French style bakery on the right side of the JR Station is also a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The exterior is modern and almost sticks out from the other more traditional architecture nearby. You will see it as you cross between two stations outside. Seating upstairs can be hard to come by, and sadly I did not find any outside. The croissants, epi breads, cakes and pastries are all fresh and made throughout the day. I enjoyed a butter croissant, bacon-epi, a cheese bread and sparkling lemonade. Just grab a tray and tongs and choose from the many assorted items offered. A few items were not present when I went through the queue but were quickly replenished. Teas and jams are also offered for purchase.

French loaf, bacon epi, cheese bread, croissant

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Day in One Place - Tokyo

A Day in One Place - Tokyo

Who says you can't see one of the greatest cities in 24 hours?! To get you into a Japan state of mind, I suggest watching Hachiko: A Dogs Tale with Richard Gere and Lost in Translation which are a few of my favorites!

Narita Welcomes You
Once you arrive, you will go and follow signs to baggage and go through Immigration which is easy. Depending on how many flights come from abroad, it could take around 20-40 minutes to queue the line. You will then proceed down an escalator to baggage. Baggage is very organized as is the rest of Japan. Getting checked bags does not take too long but they do need to unload about 400 bags or so for these jumbo jets so be patient. One last step before you exit the terminal is Customs which takes a few minutes. Should you need yen for your trip there will be currency exchanges in the main terminal. I suggest the ATMs which will be to your far left as you exit Customs. You will see 7-11 Banking among others. I usually take out 10000 Yen for a 2-3 day visit. You can basically use a credit card to charge anything except I had an issue at the ticket wall stations and used yen when I couldnt Visa. Suica and Paismo are also alternative forms of payment which I will explain shortly.  If you are on a layover, I suggest one of the better hotels in Narita. I stayed at the ANA Crown Plaza once for a layover which was nice. I have had friends also stay at the Hilton. If this is your option, you will go out to the island to either #16 or #25 depending on if you are in Terminal 1 or 2. This is where your hotel should pick you up. Should you be staying at one of the airport hotels, your hotel should also offer a shuttle back to airport for train to Tokyo. You MUST bring your passport with you. There is a checkpoint at the airport and the security will come on board to make sure you have it. Its nothing evasive just security measures. Don't forget to ask your hotel should also have the Tokyo Handy Guide. It is a tourist guide that has the basic/major points with pictures, maps and descriptions. Its helpful when you have to point to where you want to go and are having trouble with the language.

To get to the city, there are two types of trains I've used, the N'Ex and the Keisei Skyliner. The NEx (Narita Express) which is like an Amtrak and costs a bit more with a reserved seat or you can take Keisei line. Both run about $48 USD round trip. The NEx out seemed less crowded and relaxing and you can take pictures from your seat. You can get a foreigner discount by showing your passport and I think it was 1500 Yen. I usually purchase my Keisei ticket online before I reach Tokyo and present the voucher receipt. You will go to basement of airport by taking the escalator. You will see the two counters. Make sure you go to the correct ticket counter. The Skyliner will be on your left just before you enter the station platforms. If you buy the Keisei Skyliner ticket, don't forget to ask for the Wi-Fi code for the train. You could also buy your return ticket after specifying the date and time. Most clerks speak or have an understanding of English. I highly recommend getting a Suica/Paismo card. It's much easier to tap and go with the trains and can be used a many shops and restaurants around Tokyo as well as vending machines. With ticket in hand, enter the station and go to your platform.

Once you arrive into the city, my first stop was Shibuya. Before exiting station, go to The FoodShow on lower level. It is the most amazing food hall you will see. They have all kinds of groceries, bakery, prepared foods, dumplings, wine, desserts, etc. I picked up some dumplings like (70 Yen each) and some fruit salad. Additionally I have enjoyed the bakery items, fresh sushi and gelato way in the back of the food hall. Last visit, there was a small dining area towards the back of the hall which allowed you to stand and eat your food. At this point, I would also find the restroom since it is a normalone and not a squatting kind. Its in the far back of the FoodShow. Public restrooms are hard to find in Tokyo overall.
Shibuya Crossing
Food Show - Lower Level Shibuya Station

Exit so you are near the Hachiko Statue(Hachiko Exit). Take a picture as its a very famous statue. There is a cute boutique also in Tokyu that sells the Hachi dog. The Shabuya intersection there is famous as well. Its like a six-way stop. Pause and watch them all cross. This was featured Lost in Translation. A great place to take it all in, too, is the Starbucks directly above the Shibuya Crossing.

Takeshita Dori - Harajuku
Next stop Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street) Harajuku! Walk up Mejii Avenue. As you start, you may see a Taito Station arcade which is pretty common here. Try your luck. Its hilarious. They also have taiko drum games which can be pretty exhausting as well. Continue up Meji Avenue about a mile and a half. There will be one section where you will need to take stairs up and over. You will also pass a few ramen places, kabob, Birkenstock, and others. Takeshita will be on your left and it marked by arches. Turn left onto this street full of Harajuku girls (fashionable young Japanese girls) and start shopping. Great people watching. Walk all the way to the end of Takeshita Dori, exit and turn left your next stop is Mejii Shrine then right over a walkway into Mejii Shrine. (You will pass Descente, a soccer gear store and a Gap). Harajuku Station is also in this area. A great connecting point to other parts of the city.

Mejii Shrine Torii
Mejii Shrine - This should be about two blocks off Takeshita Dori. You will walk over a transportation bridge. You should see a big Torii gate. Enter into what looks like Central Park. Snap some photos of the Saki and wine barrels. Turn into the park to find the Shrine. Wash your hands starting with your left one and proceed in. I spent about twenty minutes here. Walk back out and over same bridge. Cross street. You should see a Garretts Popcorn right there on your left, and yes, a line. Go up that street which will join you back to Mejii Avenue. There is a Quicksilver also on that street as a point of reference.

Go back to Shibuya Train station up Mejii Avenue and either find the ticket booth or the ticket kiosk. I found a cheap Ramen place midway back and had that as a late lunch for about $4USD. Your next stop is to Asakusa on the Ginza line which takes about thirty minutes. You are going to the Sensoji Temple. Exit train station and turn right and go about two or three blocks. You may also see pedi-cabs/rikshaws there. You will then see a cluster of people standing on a street full of shops that lead to the Sensoji Temple. Shop and walk through, take pictures, etc. You can buy some toys and candy and artwork from Ukiyo-e Gallery on the right side of street. There are tons of people and school kids. Walk to end and there is your temple. Make a wish with the wooden sticks and wash your hands, etc. Before you leave, use the restroom here, too. One last treat - face the large shrine then go to your left to a shopping arcade. Here, on the left corner, you will find a bakery that serves sweet Japanese bread. You can even get it with whipped cream. They only take yen and I think it's about 45 yen. Walk up to through the arcade and explore this amazing area of Asakusa.
Sensoji - Asakusa

View from the Park Hyatt Tokyo
Shinjuku - Once you get back to the train station, Ginza line, you will go to  Shinjuku. This is another popular hub and also where the Park Hyatt is located (it was featured in Lost in Translation). Exit station and go up Koshu Kaido Street towards Park Hyatt. It's almost just as easy to take a cab which will be about 800 yen. Ask anyone for the specific direction if you are unsure. If you decide to walk, you will pass a Pachenko gaming center. Open the door as it is the loudest place you will ever hear. Try a few games if you want. Once at the Park Hyatt, make your way to the 52 floor. I dined at the New York Bar on the 52nd Floor of the Park Hyatt. Expensive but worth it. There is live jazz after 8pm and a small cover charge of about 2400 yen. The views are amazing. They also have small plates that are awesome. This is why I would skip the Tokyo Tower and go here! As for dress code, it's a mix of business and tourists. I have arrived in jeans and a sweater and had no issues.You can also cab back to the Shinjuku station at the end of the night to train back to your hotel, etc.
Sadly your time is up in Tokyo and you'll need to return to Narita International Airport. Checking in with a U.S. based carrier was easy and efficient. There are a lot of shops before security so I suggest buying your items and placing them in with your checked bags before you check-in so you don't have to carry them through security. There are also some great restaurants, too, and an outdoor dining area as part of a food court that overlooks the runways. Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world, and even if you only have 24 hours, you can still see and do so much. The people were very helpful and gracious. I walked and walked around and felt safe. It was amazing. Have Fun! Sayonara!

Songs: Big in Japan
            My Woman from Tokyo
            Turning Japanese

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Day in One Place - Guatemala

A Day in One Place - Guatemala

If you're fortunate enough to have the easy hop from IAH to GUA then you will most likely have arrived and have enough time to see quite a bit of Guatemala City in one day. Just prior to landing you will be given a customs card to fill out. I suggest getting two because you will need to fill out another one once you check-in and before you head out through GUA immigration. Immigration is rather easy and quick. Make sure they stamp your passport, however. You will then proceed to baggage which is also as easy then get in line to have your items scanned at customs. There are a few third party agents at baggage who will check your claim ticket against your luggage so keep that claim check handy. I just showed them my ID.

One hotel I enjoyed was the Mercure Casa Veranda. You can set up a shuttle pick up by emailing the hotel. They will send you a confirmation email and bill it to your room. The shuttle driver will be outside the airport doors with a sign and YOUR name on it. The hotel will charge you approximately $5 USD for this service both ways. I tipped USD and then was able to get a few Quetzals at the hotel. The hotel is located in a pretty cool and hip area called Zona Vida. There's quite a few hotels including the Best Western, Days Inn, Crown Plaza, Westin, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental and others. Once you have checked in, it's time to return to the lobby and request a cab to the city center or Capital de Cultura. There is a "cab manager" out front that will work with the hotel to get you a cab that takes a credit card. They are either green or yellow. Indicate you want a cab that takes credit cards (unless you are using Quetzals) and that you either want it to wait or come back and get you at a mutually agreed upon time and spot. My cab cost $80Q which is about $9-11USD with a time frame of about 2 hours. Have the cab first drop you off at the Iglesia Metropolitan. This is a large church in the square. You will notice it by its size as well as the giant Guatemalan flag in the center of the square. Spend some time visiting the church and the square area. There may be a "pigeon man" in a little box (no kidding) who sells pigeon food. And you will see ALOT of pigeons. EWR has nothing on this square. There are also some street vendors that sell ice cream, fruit and religious trinkets out front. They take Quetzals and some will also take USD. I bought a religious figure for like .89 USD. If you are in the church, exit the church and make a right onto the sidewalk. 

Go to the next street and turn right. Go up about maybe two blocks to the Central Mercado on your right hand side (under a parking garage). You may see some fruit vendors outside. Take the stairs down and explore. Just remember which side you entered it as this is also a good spot to have you picked up. I initially went into the church, took a few photos, then returned to my cab out front who then drove me to the market literally two blocks away. He returned to pick me in front of the mercado when I was finished. I then walked back up the street back to the square to explore. (This is an option). In the mercado, they sell meats, fruits, snacks, party supplies, candles, etc. I also sat at one of the many food stalls and ate some delicious food and had some tamarind juice. The whole thing was like $1.99 USD. It's like eating with family. You don't need to speak the language. After I finished with the market, I went back up the stairs I came down and turned right to the next street, then right again (You should see a McDonald's). This street has a ton of vendors and you can pick up some very inexpensive souvenirs. There are also bakeries and other eateries. Don't be afraid to try the fruit or horchata or other food offerings. Be careful both on the street and market about taking pictures. Some do not want their picture taken. After you are done, walk back to your designated pick up area (or call your cabbie when you are ready). I felt safe and kept my small purse as a cross-body close to me. I was told by one of the food vendors that thieves would cut it if it's on your side. Just use caution. There is also a presence of tourist police and police with automatic rifles. Just don't be "that" tourist!

Back at the hotel, I got ready for the evening. Exit the hotel and go right and walk to two lights then make another right and explore. I dined at Tacontento and had like four tacos for cheap. Gallo is also the national beer apparently. They also take AMEX. Other choices in the area include San Martin Restaurant and bakery (great to pick up that croissant fix for like .89). There's also Kloster, BBQ Barn, Jack Russell Burgers, Pitaya Juicery, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, Applebee's, TGIFriday's, Hard Rock Cafe plus a few along your walk. I found chocolate at Zurich which is also a cafe. There are also a bunch of small "tiendas" or stores to get snacks and water. However, most did not take credit cards. There is another shopping center called The Plaza Village. There is also a Starbucks in a fancy mall called Fountainbleu, I think, with additional restaurants and wine bars. Again, I felt safe walking around and returned around 8pm. Depending on the day you are at the hotel, there may be music in the bar/lobby area. You should be able to see the Mercure above the buildings to guide you back if you get lost. Try and skip the chains and eat outside of your comfort zone.

The morning of your return to the airport, the shuttle leaves at the top of the hour every hour. Just be down a few minutes before and to settle your bill. The shuttle drops you right in front and I tipped him the remaining Quetzals I had. Also in front are street vendors. This is a good place to pick up really cheap items before getting in the airport. There is security before you enter the terminal checking passports so have it ready. Once you have checked in, you will go through immigration with your second form then security. However, there are a row of shops just before this that you can pick up some additional items. I found them cheaper then actually the shops by the gate. They take credit cards. Also, you will need to take off your shoes. I had the fun experience of watching them take every single item out of my backpack one section at a time. There is a small food court between gates with a McDonalds and a coffee and snack place. There are a few beer kiosks as well and additional shops. I had no issue taking water on the plane. Now might be the time to try some Guatemalan coffee if you haven't already. Some of the duty free stores were not open when I was there but there's plenty to see. Oh, and I was able to get Wi-Fi only at the gate under "Claro". It was free. I could not get it anywhere else in the airport. Board your plane and off you go!

Viajes Seguros!


Items to buy: Coffee, chocolate, little woven items such as coin purses, belts, sandals, little Guatemalan dolls, flutes, toy guitars