February 2, 2023

The tricky part of traveling with my eleven-year-old daughter is finding ways to make it fun for both of us. I wasn’t going to keep us in the Narita Airport Crowne Plaza longer than I had to, so I’d booked us into Annex Katsutaro Ryokan in the old Nippori and Yanaka section of Arakawa City – one of Tokyo’s many wards. Annex Katsutaro Ryokan is an old style Japanense hotel with futons on the floor run by a lovely old couple (also named Arakawa but I didn’t inquire if the city was named after them).

Getting there from the Crowne Plaza should have been easy – but I managed to mess it up. A taxi was going to cost around $200 and so that wasn’t going to happen. The clerk at the Crowne Plaza told me to take a bus to Tokyo Station (after taking a shuttle to the airport) but then the bus attendant at the airport said “No, to get to Nippori take the fast train”. The ticket agent at the express train said “Your train leaves at 10:22 from downstairs and make sure you get on Car 3 for Seats 1A and 1B” but then I couldn’t figure out how to get us downstairs which was stressful, but finally we found an elevator and a train was pulling up. I desperately searched to find Car 3 and grabbing the bags and making sure Sophia was with me got us on the train but there were no seat numbers matching. A nice couple seemed to be in our seats but no biggie we sat in other seats and the train took off – then I looked at my phone and realized it was 10:16 and this was Japan so there was no way we were on the right train. I spent a few minutes figuring out we were on our way to Haneda Airport which wasn’t where we wanted to go at all – so we got off at the next big stop. My apple translate app came into play and we found a super nice Japanese housewife who told us what train to get on and that it would take us to Nippori – it would take an hour longer than our original train but no biggie – except the train didn’t go to Nippori and when I figured out we had passed it, we got out at the next stop, paid 130 yen to adjust our tickets and then got an uber taxi to our hotel that cost about 1000 yen more than the fast train tickets that should have gotten us there forty minutes earlier.

I worked really hard not to stress Sophia out with all of that, but she is a smart kid and picked up on all of it. So, that added a bit to my stress level and by the time we got to Annex Katsutaro Ryokan – I was fully exhausted. To be fair, I usually make a lot of mistakes when I travel and that is usually some of the best parts of travel but it’s very different when you are traveling with a small rucksack and by yourself or with suitcases and a kiddo. Those mistakes are not nearly as fun when I’m not alone and traveling light. Anyway we made it.

The ryokan sits in a really cool, low-key, old fashioned part of Tokyo that is spectacular in that it’s how Tokyo should feel. What I mean by that is the vibes of the place are tiny alleyway, artisan knife maker, people drinking sake on wooden crates, and pedestrian streets without cars surrounded by closet sized artisanal shops. We walked around for a couple of hours, ate some freshly made potato chips, had some lovely buckwheat soba noodles and then called it a night. This was Christmas Eve – oh, one more thing – we turned on the TV and found a bizarre Japanese variety show where plenty of crazy things were happening including men in their underwear and Santa hats banging big bells with their dongs. Oh my god how we laughed.

On Christmas morning we surprised each other with very practical Christmas gifts. She’d gotten me socks and I’d gotten her an oversized sweatshirt. I’d also gotten us matching hats. The real present of course was this trip and our upcoming visit to Tokyo Disneyland Sea. Her grandma had sent her $100 to spend on the trip. I asked where she wanted to spend it and the answer was (of course) Akibara. She loves video games, gacha culture, manga, anime, and all that sort of stuff. One of my great joys of travel is long walks – so off we went on a long walk to Akibara.

We’d had breakfast in the ryokan which to my disappointment was not a traditional Japanese breakfast but more of a traditional English breakfast. It was Christmas morning, Sunday Morning, and early so I knew we wouldn’t see much in Akihabara before 10 am, so I took us there by way of a nice walk through the park surrounding Shinobazu Pond, a remarkable urban bird sanctuary that is home to dozens of bird species. We spotted a few of them – but Sophia was mostly enraptured by the cute mini-dogs which owners had brought out for walks.

Akihabara was a pretty astounding place. At least 95% of the people we saw there were men and boys obsessed with anime and manga. I tried to get Sophia to visit a ‘maid cafe’, the places where otaku (nerds) go to play games and hang out with beautiful girls dressed in French maid costumes. I’d searched up a few that were family friendly and recommended as being a fun and unique experience but Sophia was like ‘No way, Daddy. We’re not that kind of nerds.’ Instead we went to six level buildings filled with claw machines that were even more slanted towards the house than the ones in the U.S. After spending too much trying to win some prizes, I convinced her that we should go shopping to buy the prizes instead. She wanted to find a cosplay store but we must have looked in the wrong places because we didn’t find one which was probably a case of missing the forest for the trees. We did find the exact figurine she had been obsessed with winning from the claw machine though – for slightly less than we’d fed into the machine trying to win it. Oddly enough – the one she had picked was a girl with a horse tail in a French maid outfit – so I probably should have insisted on the maid cafe.

Right at 10 am we saw a crazy line that stretched for blocks. It was all men and boys. They were rabid to get inside this building – it was an anime themed pachinko and slot machine business. Something like a casino. I found an old blog post that describes what is happening inside (where we didn’t go).

Another thing we loved about Akhibara was the many Gachapon machines – basically the Japanese equivalent of bubble machines where you put in a coin and get a prize in a plastic capsule. For between 300-500 yen ($2.5-$4) you could get anything anime or manga related. There were literally thousands of these things on the streets.

What I did insist on was that we join the Japanese in their obsession with eating KFC on Christmas Day. It was the kind of strange tradition that I find fascinating enough to want to participate in. Here’s the lowdown – Christmas isn’t actually a holiday in Japan but it’s sort of celebrated in a decorations sense. Christmas Eve is the Japanese version of Valentines or sweethearts day. Christmas Day is business as usual except that decades ago the owner of KFC franchises in Japan ran a promotional campaign saying that Christmas was the perfect day for American fried chicken – and it stuck. The other Christmas food tradition is a delicious strawberry shortcake.

I was the tiniest bit disappointed to not find guests lining up out the door or the restaurant filled with Santa hat wearing French maids – but the dining area was closed and there was not much a line at all. We bought our bucket of chicken and headed towards Ueno Park. I love Ueno Park – it’s like Central Park but in Tokyo with a zoo, museums, and culture all around. The pond we’d visited earlier is actually a part of the huge complex. We didn’t really find picnic tables or places to sit and eat but finally found a place that was comfortable and scenic. I guess most people take their KFC home but we enjoyed the beautiful weather and a KFC Christmas picnic. More than a few passersby took our photo probably thinking something like “Look at the gaijin eating KFC on a big flat rock on Christmas under a beautiful red Japanese maple tree”.

The KFC in Japan tastes better than the KFC in the US. 100%.

After our Christmas feast we went to the Ueno Park Zoo where we waited in line for an hour to see a panda bear sleeping on a platform. Then, with no wait, we saw the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in any zoo. A polar bear playing in the water with a three gallon plastic jug. We also saw tigers, gorillas, bears, and otters. Actually – we saw a lot of bears. Polar bears, panda bear, black bear, brown bear, sun bear. Huh…I just realized this was a bear day. Still the polar bear was the highlight without a doubt.

Leaving the zoo we took the train to Shibuya Crossing – which might be the most iconic spot in Tokyo – as well as the busiest crosswalk in Japan (and maybe the world) – it was astounding! Up to 2500 people scramble across this crossing every two minutes. It was mind blowing.

We walked from there up to NHK studios just in time to catch the lights being switched on for the last day of the Ao no Dokutsu Illumination. The blue lights and the reflective surface make it feel like you are walking through a tunnel of blue. I’m very glad that we were able to experience this – especially that moment when the lights came on.

We had a nighttime stroll through Yoyogi Park – which would have been creepy in any other country as the park was poorly lit and we probably would have gotten robbed in a similar setting in the USA or many other countries, but in Japan where crime is almost non-existent, it was just a nice walk in a dark park.

Back to our hotel neighborhood where we bought bento style dinner from two nice old ladies cooking in a closet sized shop and grabbed two pieces of kurimasu keki (strawberry short cake – sort of but better).

We walked nearly thirteen miles on Christmas Day in Tokyo. We were both exhausted, but it was a great and memorable day. We managed to make it fun for the 11-year-old girl and the fifty-year-old man and my kiddo is such a trooper that she barely complained about all the walking at all.


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