Italia Day 4 – Rome The First!

In which we leave before dawn to get to Rome before the Romans.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hotel door dumped us out right by the bus stop for 36:37, whose first holiday-time stop was at 5:34 in the morning and took only 10 minutes to get back to Firenze SMN. Our train for Rome, leaving from SMN, would be at something like 7:35. However, since we’d experienced trouble getting on the train the day before, we decided to be as early as possible to make sure we got tickets.

So we shivered outside for a few minutes (skipping breakfast at the hotel, alas) before jumping on the bus. Like most busses in Italy, these tickets were cheap (1.2euro ea) but had to be purchased in advance. We bought them while wandering Florence the day before.

Unfortunately, Aubri wasn’t much interested in eating (other than one case of the most delicious gelato ever) while we were in Florence, and so while I was buying the train tickets she promptly tossed up water and stomach acid all over the floor. We did our best to clean it up with napkins but couldn’t find an attendant to help clean the mess. Ugh.

Finally we gave up and hit McDonalds (the only thing open this early inside the station) to get some food and cappuccino. It was about what you’d expect from them, but Aubri ate almost one whole pancake. She was feeling a little better, briefly, but it was clear she was coming down with something.

We made it on the train without further incident and found ourselves in Rome Termini at around 8:22. While on the train we realized that Aubri was starting to develop a fever, so we decided to look for a pharmacy (Farmacea) for some baby tylenol before heading out to our first Air B&B stay. With a little extra pantomiming, they got the idea and hooked us up with a dropper liquid style tylenol alternative. They told us “three drops per kilo” and we were on our way.
Needless to say, counting out something like 42 drops for the kid was not going to happen, so I just gave her two droppers full and left it at that for the moment.

Our Air B&B stay had given good directions, so we were staying over near the San Giovanni exit and within a 15 minute walk of the Coliseum.  We were an hour early thanks to catching the better (cheaper) train, but our host G was there and we chatted for a while before leaving our bags in the room and heading out for our first day of exploring Rome.  It was expected to be around 54 degrees F as a high, so we felt prepared to have a good day. G hooked us up with a nice Ancient Rome area map and directions to some of the cooler spots, and we were on our way.

Looking back, I really should have pulled out the full paper directions (which I could read because I know enough Spanish/Latin to get by) and dosed Aubri with a lot more tylenol before we left. It turns out she should’ve been getting 7.5-10ml (a third of the bottle) every 6 hours because of her age and weight. Oops.

Anyway, we headed out for the Coliseum, and on the way we found a handful of pizza shops, one of which had thick handheld pizzas for only 2.50 ea. Jamie got one with olives and I got one with chicory leaves. They were delicious. We had to coerce Aubri into eating about 10 bites. We were amused to find several LGBT bars in the area immediately surrounding the Coliseum, well-denoted by rainbow lights. Lots of attractive people wandering around them at night, too. Good place to mingle probably, if you don’t have a small child tagging along.

The line at the Coliseum was absolutely crazy, and we suddenly remembered that it was Saturday. We settled for some cool pictures of ourselves outside it, and then moved on toward the Forum.
The Forum’s line was lighter, but since I thought we couldn’t actually get close to the ruins I didn’t really want to pay 12 euro each to go in there either. A Roma pass would have been a good choice, but we’d skipped on that. Note for next time.

Just past the Forum is the Piazza Venezia, which is dominated by a large and beautiful marble palace filled with cool statues. And let me add that I am pretty good at reading maps (even horrible tourist maps). But for some reason, I didn’t realize that huge marble structure was right by the Piazza, and we got turned around at this point. But I’m still not sure exactly where or how, because we didn’t realize that we were no longer walking in the same direction until we found the Pyramid, and the Pyramid was not on the map. Anywhere. This was an hour or so into our meandering walk, so we were displaced by a decent distance. Naturally, we kept walking and finally found ourselves at the Pyramid metro station, which was in an awful neighborhood with lots of loitering teenagers leering at people (namely, females, including us) as they walked past. We hopped on the metro to get back to the Circo Massimo stop.

By now Aubri was getting really whiny from walking, so of course she passed out on that short train hop, and we wound up stopping at a little tea shop to have a cup of black tea while Aubri slept on Jamie’s lap.

After poring over the map for a while, I finally realized we’d walked right off of it, but in the opposite direction I thought we’d been walking in. So we finished our tea, scooped up the monkey, and spent the next two hours slowly looping around the back side of the large triangle that includes the forum and Coliseum, as well as a bunch of cool old churches and such. We got a few neat pictures of ruins, and Aubri cried. A lot. It was getting a little more cloudy and grey, and she kept complaining about being cold.

Finally we made it back around to where the Coliseum was. We were still struggling to keep Aubri awake. We stopped in at a tasty smelling restaurant and just barely beat their rush. They were delicious and quite popular (though one of our pasta dishes was unexpectedly cold). The matron of the place coddled Aubri and even tucked her in with a tablecloth when she fell asleep. They gave us a to-go tin to make sure Aubri got some to eat because they didn’t want us to wake her up.

For dinner we ordered canneloni, ravioli, and that salmon penne again. Everything was good (especially the ravioli), but the penne was a little overly salty. I also notice that salt and other condiments almost never exist on the table in these restaurants–and maybe you can get your hands on pepper.

After dinner (which took some time because they were so very crowded), we scooped Aubri up and dragged ourselves back to our hosts’ home. Aubri’s fever was feeling much too high. Once we got to the house, we shoveled a few ravioli down her throat and then I resolved to give her two droppers of tylenol every two hours until her fever broke. These were the directions we got from her doctor when she had a high fever in November right after Thanksgiving. So we started watching Legend of Korra and dosing her. She was so hot by this time that her cheeks and hands were flushed totally pink. Yikes! It took like 4 hours, but her fever went down and she broke a heavy sweat. Finally instead of forcing her to drink water, she asked us for it. We were in the clear…and exhausted ourselves.

The bed at this host, hands down the comfiest bed we’ve ever had in a hotel or homestay arrangement. Nice down pillows too,  totally wonderful. Breakfast is a bit of a serve-yourself arrangement, but we’ll make it work.

And tomorrow, we have some choices to make on where to go.

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Italy Day 3: In which we escape from Venice to Florence…

I awoke around 4am, which would have been perfect for getting to the station on time for the 5:40am train. Except that, to save my life, I couldn’t get Jamie to get up out of bed. The Autoespresso wasn’t exactly the most comfortable hotel, but getting lost in Venice the day prior was exhausting. So I laid awake in bed for another two hours, and our opportunity to catch the earliest train faded.

We did gorge ourselves (somewhat) on breakfast that morning, to make up for it. However, despite the fact that trains seem to run every 30 minutes or so between Venice and Florence, every train after the 5:40 was packed up until about 2pm. A kind ticket clerk found us a complicated route where we transferred at both Bologna and Prato to arrive, finally, in Florence at about 1:47…approximately 4 hours later than I had planned.

The Florence main train station is loud and cold, because it is enclosed above but open. Many homeless and questionable people wander around, but at least the station is cleaner than some. The station is Firenze S.M.N. (Santa Maria Novella), and the bus station outside is called “Abside S.M.N.” but also by several other names, to complicate things a bit. Within an easy walk we found the tourist information center, and they gave us a local walking map and advised us to try the Ufizzi Gallery, since we only had time for one now that the trains had stolen 4 hours of our day.

We decided to walk with the suitcase and backpack, rather than go all the way to the hotel and back first. It was finally gloriously warm in Florence! I think it was only 54F, but we started shedding coat layers in the sun. The roads are uneven, you must play chicken with the cars, and sidewalks almost don’t exist. But many of the side roads were at least partially pedestrian-only, so we made our way through streets lined with old reliefs and brilliant giant wood doors with huge knockers molded like lions and angels.

The view along the river was glorious, and we were happy that we saw considerably less defacing of old buildings in Florence. People were still difficult–many stared us down rather than go around the women lugging a suitcase and young child. But the air was less thick, some of the time.

The walk from the tourist center to the gallery was straightforward enough. However, when we arrived at the gallery, we saw that they were completely packed and would be inaccessible until the next day. Fortunately, they had many beautiful statues nearby, so we were able to enjoy some of the splendor of Florence even if the holidays had them overrun with tourists. We also discovered the best gelato we’ve had so far, just around the corner from the gallery.

The walk across the Golden Bridge and down that long winding road past the large Piazza was charming enough, though Aubri was getting very tired and whiny. We took note of a book/game shop and a tea shop for perusal later. Our hotel was a converted 14th century convent known as the Convitto della Calza. The bed was dreadful, and the room was understandably small. But the shower was amazing and the location was fabulous (36/37 bus stop immediately outside the door, easy walk to Boboli Gardens). We can’t speak for the breakfast because we had to leave far too early the next morning to catch the train to Rome.

After dropping off our bags, finally, we headed out for tea and dinner. The tea shop we’d seen before was also a chocolatiare. We spent some time perusing their wares before leaving with several truffles and a cup of delicious green and fruit tea. Aubri charmed them all, of course, including the Korean exchange student learning Italian while we were there.

Afterward we wandered the street looking for dinner. We settled for a place with some pasta dishes that sounded alright. Their food was overly salty and clearly more for tourists. By the time we got out of there only an hour or so later, it was getting to be after 7 and we were exhausted from all the walking. So we returned to our room, watched a few episodes of Legend of Korra, and collapsed with the alarm set for 4am…

And the next morning we are off to Rome!

Italy Day Two: Venice! Again!

There are several conclusions we’ve reached while traveling, even this short period of time:
1. Graffiti is a national pastime, and the older the wall the better. (It’s true, see this link).
2. Every third person in Italy smokes. Maybe not quite, but it sure seems like it when they are all carrying lit cigarettes at the height of Aubri’s face. (Another research point here).
3. All the signs are in both Italian and English but few people actually speak English. For someone who can read Italian decently well but not understand fast speakers, that presents a problem.
4. No one looks down in this city. Ever. So they aren’t looking for a walking little person.
5. No one apologizes for slamming into you either.
6. Clearly we shouldn’t have visited Japan first.
7. Every hotel charges a separate 2euro/person/night tax payable only in person (adults, littles under 4 don’t count). This vaguely complicates super early checkout. This was a “known but forgotten” factor, so just prepare for it.
8. People don’t make eye contact and are really confused if you do.
9. I sometimes can’t be sure if someone is speaking French or Italian and I’m sure that’s insulting to someone. But maybe there are some French tourists around.
10. Conditioner? No one uses or sells conditioner? Only shampoo? My hair weeps.

Those things being said, we started our second day in Venice off with a well stocked (mostly cold) breakfast from Autoespresso. Eggs, various breads and sweet treats, ham and baby swiss (The best swiss we’ve ever had), boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of decent strong coffee with steamed milk, Delicious. We ate our fill and headed out to Venice proper.

I realized a little late that our hotel is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. There were lots of broken bottles and trash etc all over the place after the night’s revelry. Also when we tried to find the hotel originally, we noticed the other side of the station was much nicer. Typical. We had a similar experience in Kyoto with the hotel gem we found back in April–great breakfast, horrible beds, nice price, awful location. For two nights in Venice only a 12-15 minute bus ride from Venice Proper, including breakfast, with a spacious room, it was only about $108/night during New Year’s. Other times of year would likely be much less expensive.

So after our bus ride, we took a look at the only free local map (at the waterbus station) and headed off in the general direction of the Doge Palace. And promptly spent the next 6 hours wandering aimlessly through the small alleys of the center of Venice, where we saw lots of random graffiti (Our favorites were unsavory, of course) and ruined houses. We noticed little restoration process, but lots of layered building that was interesting.

We had intended to actually go into San Marco Basilica and the Doge Palace, but the lines were obscene. This was also the first place I felt uncomfortable leaving my tripod standing to get group photos, because we expected someone might just knock into the camera and send it crashing down.

So, given the lines, we resolved to search for reasonably priced Venetian masks and other interesting things. We came across a DaVinci exhibit, likely identical to the one in Denver (similar pricing, 8 euro vs $12/person). We went in to give Aubri something to do, as she was getting mopey about being forced to march all over. We also discovered some Steampunk influence to masks, as some artists had taken to gluing plastic machinations all over mask forms and then painting the whole thing.

And then we had Dulce du Leche gelato and the whole world was made right. Until poor Aubri started shivering from the cold.

Ultimately, we spent the entire day just wandering, and then found ourselves back across the way from our first restaurant experience, ordering food. This whole restaurant was so charmed by Aubri that they were offering to let her keep the Christmas tree she liked (what?? No!). But their ravioli with spinach/Gorgonzola/walnuts were delicious, as was the brie/Gorgonzola/mozzarella cheese pizza. And their service was extremely fast, so I think the other restaurant was just odd. The pizza chef came out to flirt with Aubri because his daughter’s name is Arianna and the staff thought that’s what we were saying.

And then we went back to the hotel and passed out because we really needed to be at the train station early.

Italia! Day 1: Entering Milan and Escaping to Venice…

Sorry for the long silence, but we’re back to adventure blogging with a young child–this time to Italy!

Apparently I’ve absorbed all my WordPress storage space, so I’ll have to put the photos in later.

We’re operating at a much greater handicap this trip because neither of us speaks Italian (though I know enough Spanish and other Latin variants to stab my way through most signs and menus). We had a prediction at the beginning that Aubri would steal the show, as she always does.
We also knew that depending on the system in question, most transportation and museums etc are free to under 4 or under 6. So that was a plus, at least. The exchange rate when we started out was around 1.22 usd : 1 euro.

I’m probably going to use metric and military time throughout the Italy posts so I don’t have to screw my own head back on in the actual travel.

Let me also add that it is much cheaper to buy train tickets 4-6 weeks in advance (potentially up to 30% cheaper), but I opted not to do so because it can be hard to guarantee an exact time for trains with Jamie’s deep love of sleep. As a rule, new readers will note that we pride ourselves in packing only one suitcase for the three of us, plus a backpack for electronics such as the camera and laptop. This means our luggage may be heavy, but we each have an arm free to catch the kid at all times. Said kid is 3.5 as of this trip.

First, let me say that the flight from Denver to Milan (MXP) is totally awful. Not because the individual legs are totally unbearable (3 hours and then 7.5), but because the layover (Newark) was long (4.5 hours) and that airport is dreadful. It’s loud, full 0f people not paying attention to little ones, and it took us half an hour to get from gate C92 to gate C102 because they are on opposite ends of the airport. Someone failed at counting, I’m thinking.
And we had to be at DIA by 6:30am, and it was -4F when we left the house.
But the Newark airport also had staff and employees of various kiosks who were far more polite than the Detroit airport, so that’s something. Though the Starbucks made Jamie’s coffee so hot it melted her cup and burned her hand pretty good. Aubri did befriend someone at dinner though, and Jamie got to chat four hours with a woman from China who was also headed to Milan and had more experience in Italy than we do.

That start aside, we finally made it into Milan and discovered it is also not the best airport–though several hundred dollars cheaper per person than, say, Rome or Venice (Literally about 350/ea cheaper to fly in the 31st and out the 9th). The airport is super long and you have to keep walking for ages to make it anywhere. The customs were quick though, in and out in under 15 minutes. The guy checking our passports flirted with the overly sleepy Aubri, thus already affirming our suspicions of her future as the princess of another country (See all my Japan posts ever).

We discovered our first major issue here in the airport. Apparently, train kiosks, some registers and most automated devices won’t accept a credit card (or debit card) that doesn’t have one of those new chips embedded in it. ATMs will, however, and this is still my preferred method for exchange. I use a bank that charges no exchange fees and refunds ATM fees from other banks, so I get dangerously close to the full bank to bank exchange rate with no painful overhead.

Unfortunately, there seems to be only one actual ATM in the entirety of the MXP airport, so we did a bit of hunting. Once we found cash, it was a $10/ea ticket to catch the 45-minute bus directly to the Milano Central station, where we picked up tickets for a total of 75 euro to get to Venice Mestre, where we were staying for two nights at the Autoespresso Hotel.

The station was cold because it was only about 32 degrees outside (Dec 31st) and the station acts like a giant, beautiful wind tunnel. I also noticed a disturbing number of creepy people looming, staring over other peoples’ shoulders as they bought tickets, or just getting way too close for no apparent reason. There were a lot of people in this station with a wild-eyed look and lots more carrying all their possessions with them.

 

 

Finally the train. And then there was much dozing in the next 2.5 hours. The trains are neat because even economy class is arranged around tables, so there’s a surface you can use if you need it. The luggage rack is really high up, though.

 

We chose to stay in Venice Mestre instead of Venice Proper because it’s considerably less expensive. We did not anticipate it being much harder to find the hotel (which appeared to be right outside the station, if Google Maps was to be believed). So while we got to Venice at about 13:30, we spent another hour and a half ish trying to find the place. If only we’d gone a half block further…

When we finally made it to the hotel, one part facepalming and one part wondering how Google thought it was close (it’s like a half kilometer from the station), check-in was painless. The front lady (she might be the owner?) “forced” Aubri to accept like three pieces of candy. Check two on her list. Unfortunately, their elevator seems to be an outdoor service elevator and we had to cart our heavy luggage up three full flights of stairs. Apparently they start counting floors at number zero here? They don’t do that in Japan.

The room is a bit eccentric, and has a concrete floor rather than wood or carpet.

 

After we change out of our now-two-days-old clothes, it was time to go find a way to Venice proper. By sheer luck, around the corner from the hotel is a bus stop for Route 6, which goes almost straight to the Venice station and bus hub. This stop doesn’t sell bus tickets, though, so the bus driver grouchily let us on because he was having a hard time explaining what we’d done wrong. Normally each ride is 1.3euro/person, and each adult has to have a swipe card with the charge. The ticket is validated on each ride to deduct the total from the balance on the card. These cards are sold from machines at most, but not all, stops. But we made it to Venizia after a 15 minute bus ride!

Our plan was to see the fireworks at the San Marco Basilica Plaza on the 31st, and enjoy the outdoor concert in the meantime. However, as I mentioned, it was cold. The high was about 32, and around the water it felt much colder. It was about 16:30 by the time we finally made it to Venizia, and we snapped a few pictures and browsed a few kiosks. Aubri was feeling photogenic.

 

We decided to try some dinner on for size, and a persuasive woman outside a place called Trattoria Bella Venezi (I think) convinced us to come in and try their set plate menus.

Aubri approved of their penne with salmon, and their lasagna with meat sauce was delicious. I’m pretty sure I can replicate the penne easily enough. This is why I come to other countries, to learn their culinary secrets.

 

The chicken was chewy, but tasty. Ultimately we enjoyed it immensely, but we did discover that water only comes in expensive bottled form here. 3.50 euros for ordering water, 4 euros each for cappuccinos. All told, the meal was 42 euros. I expect other parts of Italy will be a little less expensive for “cheap” menu items. The portions were also not really sufficient for sharing, so it’s fortunate that we had more than one item each. For some reason this restaurant was very slow. We were unsure at the time whether it was their style, or the style around town.
Aubri adored their whole staff and enjoyed tons of chatting with the waiters. Of course.

Also it seems like you don’t tip waiters and the like. Here’s a list of other tips I probably should have known ahead of time (mainly the coffee note).

After dinner we wandered for a while longer and tried some cheap 2 euro hot wine. We also picked up some meringues because seriously. Everyone was saying the fireworks were cancelled because of the cold, and we were exhausted. So we headed back on the same bus (which had to loop all the way around before hitting our stop), and then crashed at about 20:00. After consuming cappuccinos and the delicious meringues.
…And promptly woke up at exactly 10 minutes to midnight, thanks to jetlag and the sound of bombs (fireworks) bursting in air. For two and a half more hours…The inability to get back to sleep might have been partially due to the sugar and caffeine.
We did go down to the lobby to watch a few of the fireworks, but we could only see some of them. They were being set off very low in the sky compared to what we’re used to, and so weren’t really visible over the buildings.

So, Happy New Year! And on to Venice, Day Two…

Japan Day 17 (ish!): Yabusame and More Kimonos!

I had heard of the Japanese traditional horseback archery, called Yabusame, when we were in Japan the last time in 2012. According to all the good information it’s best seen in Kamakura, but I heard about a demonstration being done in Asakusa on April 19th this year following a parade. I talked to our host, Hiro-san, about the festival and ceremony. He warned me that I might not find it as interesting as I thought if we watched the Asakusa festival, because the tradition there was only five years old and that wasn’t long enough to get very good.

But I was stubborn, since Jamie was so interested in seeing horseback archery and our friend Hazuki-san from the northern part of Japan was meeting us to go see it. Kim-san, our Korean friend also staying with Hiro-san, decided to come along and keep us from getting lost in Asakusa.

We arrived in the vicinity of the performance at just the right time to see the entire parade marching from their starting point to the beginning gate. This was the best view we got for the entire affair.

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The samurai armored people are not archers but attendants.

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One of the archers preparing in line.

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So we shoved our way around until we found a spot where we could see the beginning of the track, at least. And then we stood for a while waiting.

The general description I see about the archery is that they should be shooting 3 arrows each, but as far as we could tell (from the sounds) they were only shooting one. So each archer (8 total I think) shot once after a big ceremony to start them off.

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This was the only female participant (and she hit her mark).

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6 out of 8 hit the one target we know they shot for…but we’re still fairly sure based on the rate at which they were riding and the way they wore their arrows that they were only shooting once.

So after that everybody pretty much left. Big crowd, lots of waiting, for just a few shots. Crazy.

On our way out for lunch we did see this guy:

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Then we went to Akihabara with our friend from up north and hit the Doujinshi stacks a little hard. We really should’ve gone to Ikebukuro instead, but at least we got some good pictures.

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And fast-forward to the Sunday night (our last night) and Hide-san dressed us up for some pictures:

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And tomorrow: Our last day in Japan, so Ueno Park of course.

Japan Day 16: Kimonos and Shinjuku

We stay with a host family while in Tokyo, and mentioned to them that we were interested in getting (at the very least) an Aubri-sized kimono, but didn’t want to spend too much on it.

So our host, Hiro-san, made some calls around and found a wholesaler with a sale happening the next day. We made the plans and he said he would take us.

It turns out that we only got into this place because the shop owner thought Hiro-san was a kimono dealer. The place was crazy, and we got our own personal sales person to fetch, carry, and put things on us.

So we started with Aubri’s kimono, which was actually a brand new 3rd Birthday style kimono priced at 8,000jpy ($80) as opposed to its usually 30,000jpy.

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I can’t even describe the words.

So then we moved on because Jamie wanted to get me a hakama. It took a minute or two to explain to the confused sales guy that I wanted a men’s hakama and to wear it in the men’s style.

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We also picked out a haori (long jacket, explanation here) for me. Total for mine was about 10,500jpy ($105) after we explained that we wanted used rather than brand new.

So then we moved on to Jamie, and of course the women’s kimonos are all sixty times as expensive.

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We actually wound up with a yukata (summer kimono) and several “slightly stained” inexpensive 900jpy/ea kimonos for Jamie because they only had 30,000jpy+ or “slightly stained.” But we’re confident in our ability to fix that problem since they are just little tea spots. Also I don’t have any more pictures because Aubri started acting up and we ran around the store/warehouse.

All told we spent 21,600jpy and about 2 hours in the place. So Aubri was starving and we were exhausted from the madness.

So we headed for Shinjuku because our next goal was some shopping in Shinjuku, but also because some of the best mid-priced tempura available is there. If you head for the South Terrace shopping area, cross the big bridge and find Takushimaya Times Square, you will also find Tokyo Hands and, on the 14th floor, Tsunahatchi, the delicious food. Its prices are best at lunch time, but the food is delicious.

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Alternatively, if you want tempura udon, there’s a place nearby that is crazy delicious. If you exit the same exit but on the main level (instead of using the South Terrace bridge), and turn right to follow the major street you’re on for about 4 stoplights, you will see a recessed courtyard area with several restaurants. CoCo’s will be the sign you can see from the street, but across from CoCo’s is this udon restaurant:

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Basically you pick your initial udon (which runs about 390 for a normal or 490 for a large portion of broth/noodles, even for curry udon) and then you pick your own tempura selections from a huge range. The prices are very good. For all this food I only paid 1490jpy (about $15). The food was delicious. Aubri ate four helpings of noodles and a whole tempura pumpkin slice.

Moving on, we were in Shinjuku for that giant department store across the Southern Terrace, with its 8-floor Tokyu Hands (mostly).

Tokyu Hands is like the DIY store of kings in Tokyo.

The 8th floor is dedicated to dayplanners/calendars/stationery/drawing supplies/writing supplies. We spent an hour playing with pens before selecting a few.

The 7th floor is dedicated to cell phone supplies, other techy gadgets, toys and pet supplies.

Pet me! (They even had a lint remover intended to use on cats).

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Barnes and Noble’s puzzle selection is more limited.

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Healing Time puzzles.

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These are cell phone cases that look like gun handles.

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The 6th floor is dedicated to being the Tokyo Home Depot but with leather design tools too.

The 5th floor is interior decoration/design.

The 4th floor is the cooking and eating floor.

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Walls of bento boxes, tea pots, pans, chopsticks, and more. There are better places (for pricing) to acquire bento boxes (such as 100 yen shops) and chopsticks (the same), but for looking and admiring, this is the place. Also the quality of them is probably a bit better. Foreign shoppers get 5% off with their passport!

The 3rd floor is health/beauty (mostly diet and cosmetics), and the 2nd floor is an extensive travel luggage and personal bags floor. Very nice stuff, but not inexpensive.

This Takayashima place can absorb your soul for an entire day if you let it.

We’re almost out of time in Tokyo, but my next post will be about our Yabusame experience (Japanese horseback archery) and Don Qijote and hanging out with Jamie’s friend Hazuki.

Japan Day 15: Akihabara, Ikebukuro, and Nakano Broadway

Tokyo is a mecca of shopping districts, divided by subway and train lines, thrown up around major stations and sprawling like monstrous octopod extensions of the skyscrapers that house them. In an effort to find everything you seek, you may tromp back and forth, up stairs and down escelators, through the metro and across the Chuo and Yamanote lines…

So here I will give you a comparison of the super-meccas of anime/video games, because everyone has heard of Akihabara, but perhaps you have not seen or heard of Ikebukuro or Nakano Broadway–and both of those may prove more interesting and fruitful in your search.

We shall start with Akihabara, which I have covered in part on a previous post, but I’ll touch on it briefly here.

Akihabara is a major stop on the Yamanote line. It is home to Electric Town, and if you walk out of the JR Station from the Gundam Cafe side, you will see before you staggering towers with Sega, Apple, Sony etc on them. If you walk out past the Gundam Cafe you’ll find the seedy electric flea market area off a distance to your right. The area is filled with bins and shelves crammed with electric devices that might be of value to someone. Many older computer parts and lots of shops with $100 laptops that probably weren’t more than $250 new. Buyer beware, because even the cheap stuff will garner a profit. If you want cheap cables, I advise trying Amazon (if you have a Prime subscription) rather than surfing through these bins. But you might find rare camera parts, and patience will net you some interesting treasures.

Aside from this, Akihabara houses at least a dozen shops at ground level (and more higher up) that are exclusively dedicated to figures and “character goods” and cards. In Akihabara you can find a lot of the most current and popular animes and games. And that’s just about it. If it’s not One Piece or Gundam you aren’t likely to find anything older than the last couple of years. Even Sailor Moon is only around because of the reboot they’re releasing, and you can’t find much Final Fantasy or anything else around. Lots of Jpop stuff, though. The shops are fairly well split into appealing to “girls” and appealing to “boys.” And maid cafes are everywhere. Almost every building has two or three. I reviewed Queen Dolce in my last post about Akihabara, but most of the cafes target guys and involve girls in costumes serving drinks. A large and popular cafe is inside the building right in front of the station.

Akihabara is the place to spot lolitas, the place to wander around and be ignored by the cool kids. It’s the popular anime destination, but also a madhouse of teenagers, especially on the weekends.

Move on to Ikebukuro, a major stop on the Yamanote line.

Most people don’t realize that Ikebukuro hosts any anime shops at all. It has lots of big shopping right outside the station, and is also home to Sunshine City, a big shopping mall with absolutely zero geek merchandise. But it does have a large Tokyu Hands (DIY for geeks of all types, really). And if you walk straight out from the station and past the Sega sign for a crane game arcade, you’ll find the largest An!mate store in Japan (and arguably the largest anime store in the world). THIS location has a floor dedicated to each kind of interesting shopping, from the bottom floor with series snacks, to the 4th floor with doujinshi, to floor 5 with figures and keychains and everything else series related (and Kingdom Hearts/Ghibli/Final Fantasy goods galore) all the way up to the 8th floor. If that wasn’t enough, the “old” An!mate store around the corner and down a couple of blocks now houses 5 stories of cosplay goods. They only have full costumes from newer series, but loads of wigs, makeup, accessories, etc.

Dispersed between An!mate the new and An!mate the old are a series of KBooks satellite stores. Rather than renting 9 stories of a building, they have 9 main-floor shops that split out each category including CDs/DVDs, figures, character goods (like pillows,   folders, etc), manga, doujinshi, etc. And right next to the old An!mate is a store called Mandarake, with its largest Doujinshi supply (and some CDs/DVDs in the back). This place buys/sells doujinshi new and used, and loads of their titles are available for only 200jpy/ea. They are by far the cheapest supplier we’ve found.

Now, move on to Nakano Broadway, which is a very quick jump from Shinjuku Station if you grab the red Chuo Rapid toward Nakano. Walk straight out from the exit (south side I believe, turn right from the JR platforms) and you will see an arcade archway. Just walk to the end of that archway (passing a used game store on your left) and you’ll find Nakano Broadway. There are anime stores on every floor, but the best stores are on floors 2 and 3. Be careful, though, because the escalator in front of you will take you right to the third floor.

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Now there are also some cheap clothing stores and other things around here, so it’s a good place for bargain shopping. The stores tend to be a little dusty, and there are antique shops studded throughout. In the very center of this mostly-geek mall is a super high end watch shop. Weird.

If you’re looking for the new stuff, this isn’t the place to search. But inside you will find a vintage movie poster shop, something like 8 Mandarake satellites catering to doujinshi, figures, games, DVDs/CDs, character goods etc. Loads of Mario and Disney goods (some made in Japan, lots of Disney imported back from the U.S.). Lots and LOTS of toys. You have to search the whole place to find the right bargain, but there are also several suppliers of antique robots and things of that nature. An entire store dedicated to Kaiju (Godzilla).

The storefront of the branch of Mandarake that is filled with expensive antique robots–it might as well be a museum.

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And an awesome ice cream shop.

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But it’s not all innocent, because this vending machine next to the ice cream shop vends *coughcough* panties and vagina-shaped sheaths. Yes, really.

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But then all the doujinshi…

 

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There is a super cool game store on the third floor filled with games older than my parents maybe, and gold copies of everything. They have more reasonably priced vintage games in the back, but everything in the front case is at least $60, and more likely $250.

There’s also a big cell and drawing auction store up on the 4th floor, with some neat stuff from Full Metal Alchemist among others.

Nakano Broadway does have a few downfalls–aside from the fact that most of what it carries is not totally new, some of the shop owners are not overly fond of foreigners. But even in the late afternoon it was much less crowded than Akihabara or Ikebukuro, so we could mostly shop in peace. That’s definitely an improvement.

Oh, and there’s this place called Uogashi Nihonichi down in the arcade (it’s a chain). It’s a standing sushi bar, and one of the best sushi experiences I’ve ever had–the prices are really good too. Give it a try.

Tomorrow I’ll cover Shinjuku in its entirety, as well as our experiences in a wholesale kimono shop.