Japanese Fun: Robots, Pizza, Onsen, and Flowers

unagi filet crew Japanese fun Kawatoya Honten, Narita Japan. Kurt Jacobson photos.
Unagi filet crew Kawatoya Honten, Narita Japan. Kurt Jacobson photos.

Japanese Fun: Sampling Italian food in Tokyo, meeting a robot, visiting Shinjuku Gyoen, and soaking up the good life in two onsen.

By Kurt Jacobson

Pepper greeted me with a wave and a bow. I tried to talk to this local cutie, but the Japanese language barrier proved to be a problem and gave up. I’d seen other hotel guests approach Pepper and have a pleasant interaction in our hotel lobby.

I thought for sure this hotel employee understood some  English. Later, I as I walked towards the corner where Pepper seemed to hang out, I tried once more to converse.

Pepper at Hotel Nikko Narita
Pepper at Hotel Nikko Narita

With the help of the tablet Pepper held tightly I found the English translation button. So pleased with my discovery, Pepper danced the Maquerena for me. Pepper is a hotel lobby robot at the Nikko Narita, and among its talents are dances, conversation, bowing. Welcome to Japan!

Visiting the Town of Narita

My wife and I started out this, our second trip in Narita. On all of those first seven trips, we’d arrive in Narita International Airport, clear customs, and head to Tokyo without checking out this cool small town. On the eighth trip my wife and I finally stopped in the town of Narita and loved it.

Better Hotels For Less Money

One of the best aspects of overnighting in Narita is that the hotels are roomier and cheaper than in Tokyo. Staying at the Nikko Narita is a breeze thanks to their free shuttle buses to and from the airport and train station.

After a restful night’s sleep, I got up and took the first bus to town so I could photograph the temple and surrounding area just after sunrise.

Narita sidewalk sweeper
Narita sidewalk sweeper

The walk to the temple was peaceful as I saw just a few locals out and about. An old woman swept the sidewalk in front of a shop as I headed downhill towards the temple.

The Temple grounds were almost vacant. I saw two women walking in the woods and spied two Japanese cats enjoying the first warming rays of sunshine on a chilly November morning.

Narita sidewalk sweeper
Naritasan Temple cats.

Further on I saw a flower show with mums sporting ribbons for first place winners. After an invigorating walk through the temple grounds, I headed back to the train station to catch the bus to the Nikko Narita to pick up my wife and her parents then return to Narita for breakfast.

Our next stop would be Kawatoya Honten, a restaurant serving grilled unagi (eel) for more than 100 years.

Kawatoya Honten unagi
Kawatoya Honten unagi

Not Your Average Breakfast

Not that I eat unagi for breakfast often, but when in Japan and jet-lagging, it fits in well. After our unagi meal, we walked back up the main drag and found most of the shops were now open.

My wife and her mom were drawn to the dango stand for an after-breakfast treat.

Kawatoya Honten in Narita
Kawatoya Honten in Narita.

Dango is rice flour dumpling, shaped into balls, skewered, and roasted over coals.

Add a slightly sweetened thick soy sauce, anko (red bean paste), or green tea to the dango, and you have a Japanese favorite comfort food snack.

My food treasure was found two blocks further at Coeur de Chocolat, a shop run by Akiko and her French husband. Check out their delicious chocolates and French pastries in this tiny shop.

croissants in Narita
Croissants in Narita.

Tokyo was our next stop. As usual, we stayed at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. What was different this time was a new Italian restaurant called Obicà Mozzarella Bar.

Italian food is popular in Japan, and I have found it to be of excellent quality. Obicà proved to be a good choice for happy hour.

I found their dinner prices a bit steep, but happy hour featured a wine and appetizer combo for just 1,500 Yen. We had the beet salad, glass of wine, then ordered a salad from the dinner menu for good measure.

Japanese restaurant menus make it hard to get fresh veggies so I’ve learned to order greens when I can get them. Obica’s smoked salmon on salad greens was excellent.

Obica lox salad
Obica lox salad.

Soaking Up The Good Life

Arima Onsen was our first stop for hot springs bathing. This onsen in the mountains above Kyoto was easily reached by taking a 70-minute bus ride. The town is small but packed with shops, a toy museum, and several hotels. Our hotel, Arima Gyoen, provided us with views of the river below and pointy mountains in the distance.

None of the staff seemed to speak English, but even without my Japanese interpreters, I don’t think this would have been an issue. The room, hot baths, and food were worth the $250 or so I paid for the two of us.

Try a kaiseki dinner served in your room, a Japanese-trip must have. Order the kaiseki dinner ahead of your arrival so you don’t miss this parade of delicious food.

Arima kaseki server
Arima kaseki server.

Back in Tokyo for a brief layover between onsen, we took the local JR Lines train to Shinjuku to see the famous park.

In autumn, Shinjuku Gyoen visitors flock to see the maple trees ablaze in gold, orange, and yellow flames of color. The park also has a display of mums in cascading boughs of beauty.

If you go, wander the trails, gardens, and indoor conservatory then head back towards the Shinjuku train station for lunch. Hundreds of restaurants can be found within a half mile radius from the train station.

I found a Joël Robuchon café flaunting one of the tastiest mushroom tarts ever! For a more formal/traditional lunch try the restaurant floor of Takashimaya Department store near the station.

Shinjuku Gyoen Park
Shinjuku Gyoen Park

Standing up for Sushi

We liked Obicà for happy hour so much we talked my wife’s parents into giving it a try before heading to the station for sushi.

My father-in-law knows the Shinagawa area well and said “You got to try the stand-up sushi restaurant in the station. It’s not fancy but the quality is good and the prices cheap.”

Good thing we had our JR Rail Pass to get into the Shinagawa Station free. We cued up in the line of about 10 people waiting for sushi.

I find the Japanese people very patient when it comes to waiting in line. I’m working on my patience to blend in with the crowd, but there’s room for improvement. The sandwich board sign at the front door taunted my patience with a flowing tuna-roll special so stuffed with tuna it flowed to the base of the plate.

sushi tuna
Sushi tuna at standup restaurant.

After waiting about 15 minutes, our party of four was led into the fish feast arena. In rapid-fire succession, I ordered the tuna special, yellowtail, beer, and unagi. For less than 3,000 Yen/ 25 USD we walked out stuffed and happy.

In Hot Water Again

Our last stop on the itinerary was Kusatsu Onsen. A four-hour bus ride turned into a five-hour trip due to a crash on the proposed route. Not to worry, as we got a rest stop along the way and lots of varied scenery. I saw an hour’s worth of Tokyo from the bus I’d never seen before.

As we transitioned from plains to mountains, I saw tiny farming villages with bright persimmons hanging in leafless trees vying for best in a color-fest of fall maple trees. As the bus neared Kusatsu, we could smell the sulfurous vapors from the numerous natural hot springs that well up from deep in the earth.

A Traditional Lodging Choice

My father-in-law chose Kane Midori, a 130-year-old ryokan (traditional hotel) just five minutes from the Kusatsu town center. From this vantage point, we could access shops, public hot springs, and the water mixing show. For hundreds of years, the villagers had to combine the scalding water before bathing in it.

Water mixing show.
Water mixing show.

At around 90 degrees Centigrade, a human would come out like a cooked lobster tossed in this near-boiling water. Nowadays, plumbing mixes the water, but the traditional show must go on.

In the center of town, visitors love the water mixing show given several times per day. At the end of the show, they invite tourists to mix along. This is goofy good fun and only costs 500 Yen to see costumed ladies sing and mix away.

Yubatake Kusatsu
Yubatake in Kusatsu.
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