Tokyo to Kyoto--A Japan Odyssey

Part 1


This travel journal shares the experiences of a “photography safari” to Japan with my friends and fellow photographers Andy and Jim. I invite readers to vicariously share our trip through this travel log. My intended audience includes:

- Fellow adventurers and photographers.

- Armchair travelers who want to take a trip without leaving the farm.

- Parents recently turned into at-home educators. I invite you to use this project as a starting point for a geography or foreign culture lesson. I’ve included maps and web links to additional information resources.

I have also tried to insert some tongue-in-cheek humor to make you laugh and to stimulate your imaginations.

- Photogrphy: Some photos are included with the journal to illustrate the stories; clicking on the photos will enlarge them. Readers may view the GALLERY, which includes additional trip photos. The gallery also incorporates a map feature (at bottom of gallery page) showing location of the photos.

DISCLAIMER: Any mention or illustration of specific commercial brands, products, or services does not imply or constitute an endorsement on my part. 



Adventure Bound

Monday, March 2:  My photography companions and I departed on a Delta Airlines direct flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (“A” on below map).  We departed Minneapolis at 11am Monday, March 2, and arrived in Japan 3pm Tuesday, March 3. Flying west and crossing the International Date Line over the mid-Pacific Ocean results in losing a day. On our return trip, flying east across the Date Line, we gained a day, departing Japan 7pm on Monday, March 16 and arriving in Minneapolis 3 pm the same day!  (Contrary to what some think, the "International Date Line" is not a place to find a girlfriend from Russia or a boyfriend from Argentina.)

This was Andy's first trip to Japan; he was eager to experience the country's culture and to make a pilgrimage to the Nikon Camera Museum.  Having traveled in Japan before, Jim and I were happy accompany Andy’s voyage of discovery. Our trip planning started in the spring of 2019.  We initially considered traveling in the fall of 2019, then rescheduled our trip for March 2020.

Tuesday, March 3:  Arriving in Japan, we smoothly cleared immigrations and customs (American visitors require no travel visa to enter Japan, only a valid passport), and utilized Japan’s excellent train system to travel from the airport to our AirBnB lodging near the Shin-Okubo station.

Extra Knowledge—Air Navigation:

Great Circle:  Our flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo followed a Great Circle Route (see adjacent maps), taking our flight northwest over Canada and Alaska then southwest along Russia’s east coast to Japan. You might ask, “Isn’t a straight line the shortest distance between two points?” Yes, it is, in two-dimensional geometry. Global navigation deals with the earth’s three-dimensional spherical surface. The shortest distance between two points on a sphere is a Great Circle. Because of the way a three-dimensional surface (like a sphere) is projected onto a two-dimensional flat surface, such as a paper chart or computer screen, the great circle route often appears as a curve.

Jet Stream:  And what about travel time? Our flight time to Japan was about 12 hours. Our flight time from Japan back to Minnesota was about 10 hours, and both routes covered about the same distance. Why is that? The difference in flight time is due to the Jet Stream , constant, high-altitude winds that flow from west to east. So, our westward Minneapolis-to-Tokyo flight experienced a headwind, reducing the plane’s groundspeed and resulting in more time required to cover the distance. Our return trip, flying eastward from Tokyo, had a tailwind, which increased the plane’s groundspeed.

Miles and Miles:  The route from Minneapolis to Tokyo was approximately 5198 Nautical Miles, or 5981 Statute Miles. Nautical Miles (nm) are used in maritime (ocean) and aviation navigation to express distance. A nm is 6076 feet, which is also equal to 1 minute of latitude; 60 minutes (or 60 nm) equals one degree of latitude. A Statute Mile, which is used to measure distance over land, such as by a car’s odometer, is 5,280 feet. One nautical mile = 1.15 statute miles.

Additional Resources:  Air Navigation;  Mapping

Trip Overview

We scheduled our first seven nights in the western Tokyo suburb of Shinjuku-Okubo (“B”); one night in the Mount Fuji resort town of Kawaguchiko (“C”); and our last five nights in the ancient capital of Kyoto (“D”). We lodged exclusively at AirBnB properties, which were all clean, comfortable, and conveniently located.  The lodgings provided us an opportunity to experience Japanese-style living instead of lodging in a sterile, westernized hotel, and also provided ample space, privacy, kitchens, and Western-style plumbing fixtures. We utilized Japan’s excellent railway system traveling around and between our destinations. The larger train stations have ticket offices staffed with English-speaking staff who can help plan trips and purchase special tickets, such as for the Shinkansen(Bullet Train).  A very useful train travel planning application is Hyperdia.

Sensoji Temple and Tokyo Tower

Thursday, March 5:  After a day of rest to overcome our jet lag, we ventured to one of Tokyo’s more popular shrine complexes, Sensoji Temple, in the northeast Tokyo suburb of Asakusa.  Around the temple, we noticed many young women wearing the traditional Japanese Kimono (or lighter Yukata).  We noticed this also later in our trip in Kyoto.  We asked about the significance or reason for wearing kimonos.  One answer was the young women were celebrating turning 20 years old, a right of passage in Japanese culture.  University graduations also occur in March, and many female students wear kimono (often with divided skirts called hakama).    Regardless of the reason, Kimonos, with their myriad patterns and colors, are works of art to be enjoyed.  See Spring in Japan, and more information on Kimono.

Additional Information:  What is the difference between a Temple and and a Shrine?

  • Sensoji Temple area; Asakusa

  • Building Detail. Sensoji Temple area; Asakusa

  • Dragon Purifying Fountain. Sensoji Temple; Asakusa

  • Young ladies in Kimonos. Sensoji Temple area; Asakusa

  • Kimonos and Hakama (divided skirt); Sensoji Temple area; Asakusa

  • Detail of Kimono; Tabi socks; and Zori sandals. Sensoji Temple area; Asakusa

  • Andy, Jim, and Mark at Sensoji Temple.

Tokyo Tower

From Asakusa, we trained to the Roppongi district to experience Tokyo Tower. The tower, modeled after France's Eifel Tower, was completed in 1958, and includes observation decks. We were able to ascend only to the tower’s mid-level observation deck; the upper deck was closed due to high winds.

From the Tower, we walked to an excellent sushi restaurant. This place was a Kaitenzushi (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant.  The food selections are placed on a conveyer belt circling around the bar, allowing diners to select their dishes. The diner’s bill is determined by counting the number of plates stacked at their seat.

  • Tokyo Tower with Zojoji Temple in foreground.

  • Base of Tokyo Tower

  • View northwest from Tokyo Tower.

  • View through glass floor to base of Tokyo Tower.

  • Jim and Andy dinging at Roto-Sushi restaurant; Roppongi.

  • Roto-Sushi restaurant; Roppongi.

  • Vending Machines--a very common sight in Japan.

  • Subway Platform; Subway. Asakusa.

The Nikon Museum 

Friday, March 6:  Friday was Andy’s big day—we would make our pilgrimage to the Nikon Museum in Shinagawa.  Arriving at this mecca of photography innovation, we were heartbroken (well okay, Andy was heartbroken, Jim and I just frustrated) to find the museum closed, a precaution taken in response to the CORONA Virus (COVID-19) situation.

So, we created a Plan B. Perusing our Tokyo Travel Guide, we noted the “Tokyo Photographic Art Museum”.  We were off!

  • Jim and Andy at Nikon Museum

  • Nikon Museum--Closed due to Corona Virus.

Photographic Art and Beer Museums

Disembarking the train at Ebisu Station, we were met with signs promoting the Photographic Art Museum.  Larger-than-life iconic photographs etched into the marble wall panels welcome visitors to the museum—ooh, this looks like it’s going to be good!  Disappointment met us at the museum’s entrance—the museum was closed due to COVID-19.

Not being deterred, we advanced to another venue we spied enroute to the Photographic Art Museum—the Museum of Yebisu Beer. Locked doors and posted signs greeted us at the Beer Museum. This attraction was also closed due to COVID-19.

Being disappointed by several closed venues, Andy vowed that returning to Japan was not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”.

  • Advertisement for Tokyo Photographic Art Museum--Oooh...this looks good! Anticipation mounts...

  • Entry to Tokyo Photographic Art Museum--iconic photos etched in the marble walls.

  • Andy at Photographic Art Museum with disappointing news...

  • Tokyo Photographic Art Museum is closed due to Corona Virus. Best we can do is capture a selfie.

  • Tokyo Photographic Art Museum--closed due to Corona Virus.

  • Yebisu Beer Museum

  • Yebisu Beer Museum--closed due to Corona Virus.

  • Andy at Yebisu Beer Museum--closed due to Corona Virus.

Shinjuku Side Streets and Alleys

Saturday, March 7: We strolled out exploring Shinjuku’s side streets and back alleys. Our first discovery was a local fish market, a business that distributed seafood to local restaurants. Not wanting to offend anyone, we first asked permission to take photos. We don’t speak Japanese, and the merchants didn’t speak English. How did we communicate? Saying "Sumimasen ( excuse me)”, one of the few Japanese words I know, I pointed to our cameras, then pointed to the fish. The merchant understood our request and enthusiastically nodded his head and smiled, signaling his approval of our photography. He even invited us into the store’s basement to inspect the holding tanks.

  • Fish Market Operator smiles and laughs, welcoming us to photograph. Shinjuku

  • Fish Market, Shinjuku

  • Fish Market, Shinjuku

  • Fish Market, Shinjuku

Godzilla, Gai, and Hanazono

Our next discovery was...YIKES!!  It's Godzilla...scaling a movie theater complex.  Further wandering revealed Shinjuku’s Golden-Gai, a district of small eating and drinking establishments formed during the chaotic post-WW II period. Adjacent to the Gai is Hanazono-Jinja Shrine, an oasis of calm with fewer tourists than the larger and more popular Sensoji Temple we visited earlier.

  • Godzilla looms above latest Disney hero at movie theater. Shinjuku

  • Shinjuku Golden-Gai: Bar Alleys, entertainment district.

  • Shinjuku Golden-Gai: Bar Alleys, entertainment district.

  • Hanazono-Jinja Shrine. Shinjuku

  • Hanazono-Jinja Shrine. Shinjuku

Gyoen Garden

To escape the crowded, noisy streets, we retreated to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a large park in Shinjuku. We discovered Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms (sakura) were starting to bloom. The local residents were also enjoying the season's first blossoms.

  • A mejiro (Japanese white-eye) enjoys the blossoms. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • Cherry Blossoms (sakura). Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • Andy shooting at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • A couple checks their images at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • Friends photograph each other at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • Andy assists visotirs capture an image with cherry blossoms. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

  • Mark & Andy. Dim Sum Restaurant; Shinjuku.

Sunday Rest

Sunday, March 8: Sunday morning—time to worship. But not today—COVID-19 precautions closed services at local churches. We spent our day of rest walking, with no agenda, around the neighborhood. Our walk brought us back on the trail along the nearby Kandagawa River.  Countless cherry trees, on the verge of blossoming, lined the river.  Signs prohibiting "Hanami" (Cherry Blossom viewing festivals or gathering) due to COVID precautions stood in grim contrast to the anticipated beauty.

  • Street Scene in Rain; Okubo.

  • "No Hanami" sign. Kandagawa River, Okubo.

  • Abandoned umbrellas and pigeon. Kandagawa River, Okubo.

  • Walk along Kandagawa River, Okubo.

  • Jogger and train; Kandagawa River, Okubo.

  • Fire Truck; Okubo.

  • Shin-Okubo rail station.

  • Images from Shin-Okubo station platform.

Tsukiji Market and The Ginza

Monday, March 9:  With late morning delivering clear skies and sunshine, we departed for Tokyo’s well-known Tsukiji Outer Market to sample its fresh seafood and produce. We reached the market around 1pm, just as the stands started closing. An earlier arrival would have allowed us to see more. Our trip was not wasted. We savored a late lunch at one of the market’s intimate seafood stands. The fresh fish was fantastic!

  • Tsukiji Outer Fish Market

  • My delicious order being prepared; Seafood Restaurant; Tsukiji Outer Fish Market

  • Delicious seafood lunch; Tsukiji Outer Fish Market

  • Mark and Jim Rice. Delicious seafood lunch; Tsukiji Outer Fish Market

The Ginza

From Tsukiji, we trekked to Tokyo’s famed Ginza shopping district—glamour, glitter, and big-name luxury brands. We explored several of the district’s boutique camera stores. Similar to the boutique camera stores we found in Shinjuku, these shops are about the size of an American home’s large bedroom; are crammed with glass display cases filled with meticulously arranged vintage (film) cameras, mostly Nikon and Leica brands. These stores, manned by at least three well-dressed salespeople, did not seem to be very busy, causing Andy to wonder how they managed to stay in business?

  • 2020 Summer Olympic banner; Ginza Shopping District

  • Parking police ticketing bicycle; Ginza Shopping District

  • Andy and Jim, Street Scene; Ginza Shopping District

  • Hermes Store and Motorcycle Police; Ginza Shopping District

  • Jim through camera store window; Ginza Shopping District

  • Subway Scenes

  • Train Conductor; Shin-Okubo station.

  • Images from Shin-Okubo station platform.

Fuji Bound

Tuesday, 10 March: We three amigos departed our comfortable lodging and trundled through the rain to the train station. Jim departed for the airport to return to the US.  Andy and I rode the rails westward towards our rendezvous with Mount Fuji. Seeing Mt. Fuji during a limited stay in Japan is very uncertain—anything but guaranteed—due to Japan’s changing weather. How would we fare during our one night near Mt. Fuji? Would we capture a sight of this sacred mountain, or would we have to settle for buying a few postcards to serve as mementos of our visit?

We arrived at the resort town of Kawaguchiko( "C" on map), located ten miles north-northeast of Mt. Fuji’s 12,388-foot (3,776 meters) peak . A 10-minute walk from the station brought us to our next safe haven, a newly constructed building with Japanese styling and western comforts. This AirBnB property’s listing featured a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji from the back deck; all we could see were clouds and rain. We pondered the truth in advertising.

Dinner Time: We marched through the cold, dark, and rain seeking a meal. We found many restaurants closed, victims of the downturn of local tourism due largely to the COVID-related closing of nearby Fujikyu Highlands amusement park. We found an open restaurant, a tempura place. Its delicious hot food and refreshing drink were solace to our souls. Simple comforts such as a hot meal improve one’s disposition. Most of the other cliental at the restaurant were also westerners, fellow sojourners exploring Japan and hoping to catch a view of Japan’s iconic peak.

  • Shinjuku Station. Train trip--departing Okubo-Shinjuku.

  • Cocoon Building seen from Shinjuku Station Platform. Train trip--departing Okubo-Shinjuku.

  • Tempura Restaurant--delicious hot meal on cold, raining night.

Read Part II of this story to learn:

- Will the weather allow Andy and Mark to photograph Mt. Fuji?

- Does the Second Amendment also protect the bullet train (Shinkansen)?

- Did Andy’s Fujifilm hat disappear due to being “Lost in Translation”?

- The ancient capital of “Kyoto” and the current capital of “Tokyo” are spelled with the same five letters.   Is this a coincidence or a case of lethargic cartography?

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