Photo Stories

A documentation of my photographic adventures.

Travel: Japan Escape 2019 (P4)

Japan is an introvert’s paradise.

Especially for this particular one. Of all the places I’ve traveled to, I find the culture and structure of Japan to fit my personality the most. As someone who prefers silence and not to be bothered by outside world - that peace and serenity in the home is of utmost importance - traveling to Japan has been a revelation. In an alternate timeline, I think I would have moved to Japan a long time ago. 

Let me explain why.

For me the most attractive attribute is how quiet it is. Tokyo is obviously very densely populated city, but the populace seems to have a virtue of being aurally unobtrusive. Our Airbnb suite is situated directly adjacent to the road, yet when inside there’s hardly a loud noise to be heard. Here in the States, I grew up in a neighborhood rife with people playing loud music, shouty pedestrians, and active police vehicles and ambulances driving by on a daily basis. Therefore, whenever I travel I greatly enjoy being away from all of that, and Japan happens to offer an atmosphere of quiet almost everywhere.

Perhaps it’s architecturally that way, too: I wonder how many layers of sound-deadening stuff is inside the walls of a typical home in Japan.

For sure, Japanese culture contributes a large part. Modesty and quiet are demanded from people whenever out in public. Even in crowded and packed areas such as malls, the din of the crowd never seems to reach the levels I’ve witnessed in other megacities in Asia. It’s superbly quiet on trains and buses; If you must talk with a friend, you do so in a low register, and if you need to have an argument, well, I don’t know the answer to that because we did not encounter such a thing while taking the train in Japan.

We’ve all heard of foreigners in Japan being absurdly loud on trains and annoying the local populace, and me and my friend knew better than to add to that stereotype.

Thanks to the pervasiveness of general quietness, no one bothers you in public, either. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember once when we got solicited for anything, even when we were in areas heavily frequented by tourists. There was nobody handing out flyers for restaurants, no one asking us if we’re interested in this or that. As a person with an introvert bent, this lack of intrusion was a very much welcomed.

I think it’s this respect for personal space that allows people in Japan to be completely themselves. The wacky fashion trends and personal quirks we’ve come to associate with Japan likely owe a lot to the paradigm of live and let live. It’s somewhat ironic that for a country known for the proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” it simultaneously created space for people to express themselves freely, whatever niche they so choose. Introverts tend to have hobbies, and the intense and passionate hobby habit of Japan is legendary (see Akihabara). So long as you’re not physically bothering others, people simply leave you alone. Introverts can feel safe that no one is judging you - externally, anyways.  

They can also feel a sense of safety from crime. Japan is renowned for being one of the safest countries in the world, and lifting that burden of stress is not insignificant. As a hobbyist photographer I carry around quite a bit of kit, and when I’m home in the States I always have to keep my head on a swivel to assess potential threats of theft. I can’t ever leave the camera kit in the car because it’ll for sure be broken into and stolen. Contrast that with Japan, where such worries wouldn’t even manifest on my mind. We were at a Starbucks, and I saw a person simply leaving their laptop on the table whilst heading off to use the restroom.

We wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing here in America.

Japan eliminates a lot of the anxiety for introverts in public spaces, and if you rather not interact with another person for as much as possible, there’s really no better country. Many service points are automated and machined; typical restaurants have a ticket vending system where you don’t have to order with a live person. Want a cup of freshly ground coffee or espresso? There’s no need to head into a Starbucks: convenient stores have self-serve kiosks where the beans aren’t grounded until you click order.  

I am definitely coming back to Japan again. Many times.

We pick up from the last time at Kyoto Station, coming here from Tokyo bright and early for a one-day trip at the old capital of Japan. My friend chose our first destination: Fushimi Inari Shrine, which requires taking a local train to Inari Station.

Immediate outside the station is the entrance way towards the shrine.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is a vast temple complex nestled within a mountain, aptly named Mt. Inari. Of course, I found out about this after the fact, as I was not expecting to do any sort of hiking on this trip. Remember, it’s Summer in Japan, and simply walking around outside is enough to make me sweat like I’m in a sauna.

At least there’s cloud-cover. Doing this under a bright sunny day would have been a killer.

As you’ll see later, the place is highly instagram-able, which is largely the reason why we are here, along with everybody else.

Entrance to the main shrine. That girl is smart to bring an umbrella.

Buildings and architectural style dating back to the 1500’s.

Before entering the shrine grounds properly, one is expected to cleanse their hands and palate at the communal fountain. Don’t worry, simply follow the instructions posted on how to perform this ritual correctly.

Surely you’ve all seen this or a variation of this in Japan travel brochures.

The main attraction of the Fushimi Inari Shrine are the paths leading up to smaller shrines up in the mountain, which are canopied with these small gate structures, placed neatly one after another like a row of dominoes. These are the parts where the shrine is instagram famous, though more of an annoyance for me as people would often stop to take pictures and block the narrow path. It’s a hot and sweltering day, folks: let’s get a move on, please!

A closer look at the many, many gates.

The mountain fox is symbolic to Fushimi Inari Shrine, and statues of it appear throughout the grounds.

These paths take visitors to higher parts of the mountain, nestled in which are smaller, more discreet temples to various gods. One can literally make it a day of hiking at Mt. Inari; we obviously chose not to because A, we were very much ill-equipped, and B, we only had the single day in Kyoto so it would be a waste to spend it entirely at one place.

This particular gate design must be typical for Japan, as I’m sure everyone is familiar with the one floating in the middle of the water in Hiroshima.

We’ll make it there some day.

I didn’t expect to see such lushness in the dead of Summer, but it’s captivating all the same.

After taking enough photographs for instagram, we headed back down to the train station and reversed our course towards Kyoto Station.

From there we hopped onto another line for our second sightseeing place (my choice): the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It was the seat of Japan’s sovereign before the Meiji Restoration, when the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869. Today the palace grounds are beautifully preserved and open to the public.

There are multiple entranceways into the grounds of the Imperial Palace; I’m not sure which side of the compass this particular one is situated, as my friend merely picked the one closest to our subway stop.

As it’s typical to palaces I’ve been to in Asia, the walkways leading in are considerably lengthy.

The smaller palaces on the side provide a first glimpse of the overall architectural style; it’s definitely not disimilar to style of the period in other parts of Asia, though each region has its own subtleties, especially in the interior.

After a grueling walk (by now the sun has snuck out from clouds and beating on us mightily), we reached the outer protective wall of the main palace.

The surrounding plaza is surprisingly vast, as you can see with the truck on the right for scale.

It’s like an exquisite life-size banzai tree, though I guess it’d just be called a tree…

After circumnavigating a bit around the palace wall, we arrived at the ceremonial main entrance called Kenreimon. It’s definitely less ornate and ostentatious than what I had expected, but the view opposite to this picture makes up for it.

Because immediately after crossing through Kenreimon is yet another gate - Jomeimon - that leads to the inner courtyard where the main hall of the palace is situated.

It’s a really interesting shade of red the builders chose to color major parts of the inner courtyard wall.

Here is the Hall of Ceremonies - Shishinden - in all its glory; indeed the structure is so big, I didn’t have a wide enough lens to capture the entirety of it from a head-on perspective.

Tiled roof: a tradition of Asia.

Sadly the interior of the main hall isn’t on display for the public, so we quickly moved on to the other parts of the compound, consisting of smaller halls and various gardens.

This picture gives me feelings of being a ninja, covertly poking a hole through the white paper screen and spying on the secrets inside.

With the palace tour done, it was time for a late lunch. Tofu is a well-known staple food of Japan, more so than even for the Chinese; my friend recommended a traditional tofu restaurant right next to Kamo River, in the heart of Kyoto, called Tousuiro.

Unfortunately, my kanji illiterate friend utterly missed the signage for Tousuiro, and instead, we went to the shop on the left of the picture. The style of food is largely the same - and delicious - just not tofu-centric. Perhaps the person with more grasp of Asian languages should have been in charge of navigating…

Like Tousuiro, the restaurant we went to had a deck level with open views of Kamo River and the surrounding recreation area. If it weren’t low 90s F with a beaming sun, we definitely would’ve at outside.

Indeed, the views around Kamo River are so good that instead of ducking down the subway to escape the heat as we headed to our next interest point, we instead chose to walk alongside the river. It helped to burn off a few lunch calories, too.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

After a nice stroll heading north, we arrived at Gion district, an older and traditional part of Kyoto most famous for the Geisha. These days it’s a tourist hub full of restaurants and shops.

Being back in an urban area allowed me to resume a bit of car spotting. As we walked around Gion district, I saw this red first-generation Honda NSX parked nonchalantly on the side of a thoroughfare. It seems to be bone-stock as well, which for this type of car I would say is quite rare. To capture a scene like the above is precisely what I had hoped for traveling to Japan.

Another one of Kyoto’s specialities is matcha green tea, as the birthplace of matcha is right nearby in the city of Uji. Naturally, there’s plenty of tea rooms and cafes in the Gion district, though the particular one we went to is called Tsujiri. It’s a popular matcha cafe whose claim to fame - with tourist and locals - is the desserts.

I ordered this matcha contraption filled with various jellies, cakes, and ice cream. I’ve not the biggest sweet tooth, but I have to say this was absolutely the most delicious piece of dessert I’ve ever eaten, almost to the point that when I return to Japan in the future, I must come back to this exact cafe to eat it again.

The ground level of Tsujiri is a shop area with many variety of green tea products, making a perfect opportunity to stock up on souvenirs.

After the most delicious dessert ever, we had plans to go to the neighboring city of Nara to see the deers. However, when we came out of the cafe, we were greet by this dreary scene.

Being from southeastern China, I’m not unfamiliar with great thunderstorms, but I had not expected to see it while in Japan. The sunny scene only half an hour ago turned dark and ominous, with the sky pouring down a level rain that will soak you completely within seconds of exposure. Our subway stop was across several open streets, so we were effectively locked in until the storm passes over.

Soon enough the amount of rain did subside enough for us to make it back to Kyoto Station. The bad news is, the locus of the thunderstorm happens to be going exactly where we wanted to go at Nara. Defeated, we decided to call it a day and head back to Tokyo.

And on that terrible disappointment, I’ll end part four of this Japan Escape here. Join me next time for the concluding fifth part where we spend two days in a resort town near the base of the eternal Mount Fuji:

Travel: Japan Escape 2019 (P3)

I like clean restrooms.

One of my biggest pet-peeves when traveling is places that lack proper and clean restroom facilities. It’s the reason why I’ve only stuck to thoroughly modern, first-world cities thus far in my travels; when nature inevitably calls, I don’t want to be scrambling to find a place to go, or worse, find a place, but it’s a mere hole in the ground, or it’s horrifically dirty.

It’s also why I’m don’t frequent music festivals, where there are only portable toilets, clustered together out in the middle of a desert. Hashtag the smell.

I don’t know how the female sect deals with that sort of thing. At least as a guy, I can do my (number one) business quickly without the need to sit down.

Major Asian cities I’ve been to does well to provide adequate public restrooms: there’s facilities at subway stations, at public spaces, and large malls. Any three of these are easily within walking distance from anywhere, should the need to go arises. The cities have done such a good job that small restaurants in Asia don’t even bother fitting restrooms on its premises. It’s one of the many reasons that keeps me returning to the continent.

Conversely, “public” restrooms in the States are for the most part privatized. In our city of San Francisco, I can recall zero public facilities in our downtown area; should you need a restroom, your options are either head into the nearest Starbucks coffee, or walk a bit further towards one of the few malls/shopping plazas (like the Ferry Building.) Both places sort of imposes an unwritten contract that you spend money in order to get access, coffee shops more so than the mall; at restaurants it’s pretty much mandatory. Equally so are the gas stations that double as bathroom break opportunities on long road trips: buy petrol for the privilege. Public-funded highway rest stops are few and far in between.

Going to the restroom, one of the most basic human needs this side (literally) of eating food and drinking water, should be a public good. Asia gets this; America, sadly doesn’t.

Japan being Japan, it takes what Asia does and takes it to a far higher level. Not only are there public restrooms aplenty anywhere you go, the cleanliness of the facilities and quality of the amenities are are top notch. We’ve all heard of Japan’s fussiness about toilets, with the common integration of a bidet, and the heating of toilet seats; I can confidently say it is all true: not only in private homes, but in public toilets as well. I’m not exactly sure why, but Japan takes restrooms really seriously.

Take for example the restrooms in the Family Mart nearby our Airbnb, the place where we breakfast at nearly every day of the trip. Firstly, just the fact there are restrooms in a convenient store is quite exciting; Hong Kong 7-Elevens and Circle Ks don’t have such features. Naturally, the restrooms in the Family Mart are very clean, though the surprise is the toilet fixture itself: you’d be logically to expect a simple unit, given its public nature, but contrarily it’s extravagant and decked-out. The seat of course is heated, and there’s a bidet function with many adjustments; fairly standard stuff. But, there’s more: the toilet will run its water while you’re doing your business, to mask the noise, and should you desire to mask the smell too, it can drop a solution for that.

Imagine public restroom facilities like that, spread everywhere all over Japan, even in what you’d call remote areas. It’s quite a system to behold.

Indeed, Japan does supremely well to provide for the human basics of its citizenry, and we tourists reap the benefits as well. As mentioned previously, convenient stores and vending machines are absolutely everywhere, and when combined with the immense public restroom infrastructure, it makes a day of sightseeing that much easier and more fun. Because unlike here in the States, I never have to hold one in while desperately looking for a restroom.

Obviously then, I like Japan a lot.

Day three called for an even earlier start than the day before, due to the peculiarities of where we were going. This is the look of our block at about 4:15 in the morning. Needless to say, we bought some vending machine coffee on the way to the train station.

Right behind the vending machine was parked this awesome commercial-spec Toyota HiAce van.

The sun has already broke by the time we arrived at the destination station, around 5:20 AM.

The reason for such an early wakeup call is so we can catch the auctions at Toyosu Market. One of the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, this modern, state-of-the-art campus was opened just last year as the replacement for the famous Tsukiji fish market, a mile and a half away. While Tsukiji still retains numerous shops and eateries, and offers a more historical flair, Toyosu is the new and only place to watch the live auctions.

We can see the scant early morning traffic as we walked towards the auction building.

To see so much giant frozen tuna in one place is something special, and well worth waking up at 4:00 AM. My lens cannot do justice the sheer scale of the entire complex.

Because unlike the old Tsukiji markets, Toyosu restricts the public from the auction floor; viewers are relegated to an enclosed promenade on an upper floor, with windows to peer down below. It’s less exciting, but far more sanitary - and I’m sure the merchants rather like conducting business without a mass of public nosying nearby. Shooting through thick glass with heavy condensation (the auction room is climate-controlled for obvious reasons) meant I was unable to get a wide shot.

What is the thing to do after waking up ridiculously early to watch people auction off some fresh fish? Eat some sushi, of course. You indeed cannot travel to Japan without consuming sushi, and we’ve been holding off for the first few days until we visit Toyosu to have our first taste. To be sure, just about any sushi place in Japan is likely better than what we have in the States, but to have the top quality stuff, my friend the planner took me to this place right near Toyosu market.

It’s a restaurant called Daiwa Sushi. Guests sit bar-style surrounding the production area, where you can see the slabs of fish meat and the chefs cutting them up and forming the sushi pieces. You can order whatever fish/style you want by simply asking the chef, though if you’re like us and don’t speak Japanese all that well (if at all), ask for chef’s choice: omakase. For about $45 per person, you get a selection of sushi as chosen by the chef.

Complimentary is green tea and a bowl of miso soup.

Our sushi was made by this white-haired chef who seems have been making sushi his entire adult life, so dexterous he was with his technique. Suffice it to say, it’s the best pieces of sushi I’ve ever had. I can’t go back to the deep-fried monstrosities that have become en vogue here in America.

Japan’s neatness and attention-to-detail in full display.

After eating the best sushi I’ve ever had, it was still not yet 7AM, quite early. Before we headed back to our Airbnb for a quick recharge of body batteries, we took some time to walk around the rest of the Toyosu premises.

First we went up to a deserted roof-deck garden, expectedly so for an early morning on a weekday

With the summer games only a year away, there’s rightfully lots of construction going on throughout Tokyo.

Toyosu is a vast complex indeed if the loading docks can be situated on a floor that’s higher than ground level. Imagine the network of passageways necessary for trucks to comfortably drive up there to deliver or pickup produce.

Who said there aren’t wide spaces in Japan? Granted, this plot of land where Toyosu is situated is entirely man-made and filled out from open water. Older parts of Tokyo would never have sidewalks this wide.

From the roof-deck we went inside to the markets proper, looking at the sections of Toyosu where the general public can buy directly from vendors.

I particular liked this mural, showing how it’s done at the old Tsukiji market.

I’ve never seen such properly demarcated parking accommodations for bikes of any motivation.

After a morning spent at Toyosu market, we slithered back to our Airbnb for a slight rest before heading back out. After a long day two yesterday and with another long day ahead in the next day’s forecast (spoiler alert), we were definitely trying to take it easier on day three. I am a firm believer that one shouldn’t overstretch themselves to try to cramp in as many activities as possible during travel; isn’t the whole point of taking time off from work is so that you can take a reprieve being tired and stressed?

So it wasn’t until the afternoon did we venture back out to our second and final destination for the day. Oddly, we went back to the about the same area we were just at earlier in the morning: Odaiba district.

Look at the sign for Rainbow bridge; fairly certain we passed or used this same piece of road the previous evening whilst karting

The reason for returning to Odaiba district for a third time within the span of less than 24 hours is to visit the second car-related spot for this trip: Mega Web Toyota City. Basically a super elaborate marketing exercise for Toyota, the Mega Web complex houses a superb showroom of all currently available Toyota models, a separate museum building for older cars, and road facilities for test drives.

There’s even a ferris wheel on the premise, so it’s rather kids friendly, too.

Of course, my focus is entirely on the cars, and the massive showroom. I already know there’s going to be many pain-points when I see cool models that are not available in the States.

Like this Toyota Crown sedan. I’d so much have this four-door than the bog-standard and boring Toyota Camry we get in America. Very nice shade of orange, too.

What is available in the States is the wonderful new Corolla, and this blue is the color to get.

Mega City was my first opportunity to lay eyes on the new Supra. I think it looks much better in the flesh, with the proportions better resolved than what pictures can show. However, the front-end remains a tad incongruent in my eyes.

I think the front hood is definitely too high, no doubt a consequence of pedestrian crash safety regulations. As it stands it makes the Supra look bigger in photographs than it really is.

No complaints about the rear-end design, however: it’s brilliantly executed.

The best detail of the new Supra: the sculpted rear haunches. It’s so wide you can have a picnic on the horizontal surface.

Next to the new GR Supra is a few GRMN-branded Toyota cars that’s sadly not for American consumption. Why? Because these won’t sell in the appropriate numbers in our SUV-crazed market.

The finest parts from Japan, though not available for overnighting.

Surely this is how a car enthusiast go broke.

The now rather venerable Toyota 86.

I was disappointed that a Lexus LFA was not present at Mega Web, though I guess the showroom is truly dedicated only to cars currently on sale. This LFA racing car will suffice. I’d sell a kidney just to hear the sonorous V-10 engine sing.

Toyota Century: the car of choice for the Japan imperial family, and other high-ranking members of society. This is a car to be driven in, rather than drive.

A literal dream come true: I got to sit in the greatest van ever produced: the Toyota HiAce.

From the new car showroom, we ventured over to the History Garage, the museum part of the Mega Web experience. First, we checked out some rallying legends:

The word “iconic” still isn’t adequate enough to describe this particular machine: a Toyota Celica GT-Four rally car adorned in the world-famous Castrol livery.

What a car.

Slightly peculiar to see this, a Toyota MR2 rally test mule, from a racing program that never made it to a starting grid. All that’s left is this awesome prototype.

Further on we have probably the most legendary Toyota car in its entire history: the 2000GT coupe. Produced in the late 60s, this diminutive sports car was a proof-of-concept that Japanese manufacturers can go toe-to-toe with the best of Europe.

I would like to know the story of how this United States-plated sample found itself in the Toyota museum in Japan.

I reckon this absolutely pristine sample of a fourth-generation Toyota Supra would fetch quite a bit of money if it were to be made available in the auction market. Factory-fresh examples of the famous tuner car of the 90s and 2000s are immensely hard to come by.

The History Garage wasn’t entirely Toyota-centric: there were important vehicles from other marques as well, such as this Porsche 356A 1600S coupe in a lovely teal color.

And this Bluebird two-door coupe from rival brand Nissan.

Also from Nissan is the genesis of the GT-R legend: the KPGC-10 Skyline GT-R, the “Hakosuka”.

Rounding out the Japanese “big three” with a spunky little Honda S600 convertible.

Inside the museum is a gift shop, where amongst the memorabilia available is an entire aisle dedicated to die-cast scale models of a variety of cars. It was a danger zone for me indeed because it’s highly tempting to want to buy simply everything. I almost dropped some considerable coin for this precisely detailed model of the iconic AE86 from the Initial D anime.

Next to the gift shop is a cafe area with a vast windowed section where you can look into the restoration shop. As per usual for Japan, the workshop looks meticulously organized, and you just know these two “takumi”s do splendid work.

Right outside from the museum, you can see the test-driving area. Foreigners wishing to participate need only an international license.

I actually wouldn’t have mind testing driving one of these.

A short walk across the plaza from Mega Web is our final sightseeing item for our relatively short day three: the giant Gundam statue.

It’s situated in front of a mall.

Not feeling nearly satisfied with the amount of sushi fill we got from earlier in the day, for dinner we went to a typical conveyor-style sushi spot near our Airbnb, where you pay by the plate.

Confirmed: even a random sushi spot is better than 95% of what we can get in America. The chefs ensure the pieces are fresh, too: any sushi that hasn’t been eaten within a certain time frame gets thrown out. If memory serves me correctly, between my friend and I we demolished 22 plates’ worth.


Onwards to day number four.

On these sort of oversea trips, we like to spend a bit of time in at least one other city of the particular country. When we went to South Korea two years ago, our main attraction was Seoul, but we also spent a few days in Busan and Jeju. For this Japan Escape, we picked Kyoto, the old capital city. Looking to maximize our time for what amounts to a one-day trip, we took the first available bullet train out of Tokyo main station at 6:26 AM.

Like the rest of the city, Tokyo main station is under heavy renovation in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics next year. Thankfully, temporary signage were put up to guide clueless foreigners like us towards where we need to go.

After hearing about it for all my life, I was massively excited to finally ride on the Shinkansen. Hikari 501 was our train.

And I shall conclude part three of this Japan Escape photo story with some videos I took of the scenery outside the train as we sped along towards Kyoto. In the next part, you’ll see exactly what kind of stuff we got into at the old capital of Japan.

Travel: Japan Escape 2019 (P2)

The thing I’ve constantly been told about Tokyo is how utterly dense the population is, and how the buildings are tightly compacted in together. My natural inclination is to then anchor my expectations to the densest place I’ve been to before this Japan trip: Hong Kong, a city of millions built on a few islands, where high-rise apartments dominate the landscape.

As our Narita Express train headed into Tokyo from the airport, I waited to see taller and taller buildings, hoping to use them as an unofficial signifier that we’ve entered into the capital city. To my surprise, even as the train announced the next stop is Shinjuku, the horizon outside my window had hardly changed. I’d expected to see tall buildings densely packed together; instead, the landscape I saw could have passed for any major city here in America.

Except for one key component: the streets of Tokyo are far narrower. Outside of main corridors and arteries, the typical Japanese residential street is just wide enough to fit two cars passing each other in the opposite direction.   

That is the secret to Tokyo’s density, rather than super tall buildings as I had imagined. The narrowness of the roads allows buildings to be bunched together, creating more people space per every square meter. Yes, it helps that homes and living spaces in Japan are quite a bit smaller – the typical hotels rooms are positively tiny for what Americans are used to, and the predominant type of housing are apartments, but there’s a significant amount of what we call single-family homes as well scattered all over the city.

This comes as unexpected because it’s been proposed the solution to San Francisco’s chronic housing problem is to copy what Japan does and build denser housing, at the expense of single-family homes. Well, it turns out, you can have dense housing and keep a healthy mix of single-family homes. Tokyo proves that to be possible, though possibility doesn’t necessarily translate into application: for starters, San Francisco will have to shrink the width of its streets by over half – by getting rid of street parking - which is quite impossible. Even if planners managed to make that a reality, to facilitate such a drastic move, you’d need the most superb public transportation network ever built on this hemisphere, to create an incentive for people to get out of their cars.

Indeed, the narrow streets of Tokyo goes hand in hand with its astoundingly good public transportation system.

On arrival day, we alighted off the Narita Express at Shinjuku station, right into the depths of Friday evening rush hour - we’ve made a huge mistake. The sea of humanity never ceases to amaze, even though I’ve been to other Asian cities with similarly intense people flow. Being that it is Japan, however, the chaos is very much organized. Even with our heavy luggage and needing to traverse quite a bit of the station to get to a different platform, threading through the mass of commuters wasn’t too difficult.

Because Japanese trains are always on time, and the planners do a terrific job deploying the correct amount of trains to acquiesce to the vast amount of people during the commute. On our particular line towards Nakano, at peak there’s a train every two minutes, and because each of those train is utterly on time, it doesn’t cause delays and setbacks for the the trains following. I’m sure the immense efficiency of the train system also lowers stress on the commuters relying on it to get to where they need to be. It all compounds into one big positive, virtuous loop.

It’s a product of culture and planning combining together, and not in a hundred years I think can you replicate that here in the States.

It was an early morning start to day two of our trip, as we were catching the first train out to Yokohama. Leaving Tokyo already? After one day? As you shall see later on, our trip was heavily front-loaded with a an immense variety of stuff to do. Seeing as I didn’t plan to return to Japan anytime soon, we were quite choosy with the places we wanted to go, and that necessitated lots of skipping around.

Before anything happens, however, I needed my coffee fix. In Japan, that means walking down to the end of our block and buying canned coffee from the vending machine. Yes, the cans come in hot or cold; road-side vending machines in Japan are truly marvelous.

On the way back to the Airbnb I saw this late 90’s Cadillac Seville (right-hand drive, no less!) parked neatly underneath an apartment building. Japanese car enthusiasts sure have an affinity for the weird and peculiar.

We took the local train to Tokyo main station (shame we never got a chance to walk around it) for our transfer to the Tokaido line towards Yokohama. Breakfast? Tea and onigiri once again from a convenience store.

While waiting for our train to arrive, I took my first glimpse of the legendary Shinkansen bullet train, just hanging out in the adjacent platform. It was another surreal moment, laying actual eyes on the machine I’ve only read and watch videos about.

The Shinkansen train in its resplendent glory.

Off the Tokaido line, we had to transfer yet again to a local train to get to our first point of interest for the day. On the way to the local station, I saw this Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake up on the lifts at a Nippon Rent-A-Car. This adds to a running theme of cars encountered on this trip: it is not available in the United States.

We will be renting a car later on the trip, but sadly, it’s definitely not one of these.

In a different life, I would have loved to have grown up in Japan. During my childhood I had an intense adoration for trains, and books upon books of it were checked out from the local public library (Internet wasn’t yet widespread a thing back then, kids.) Japan quite literally runs on trains, so much so that there’s a sizable hobby industry of model trains of many types. There’s even a railway museum in Saitama, which I would have love to have gone had there been more time on our itinerary.

I’ve long moved from a love of trains to a still-present passion for automobiles. Therefore, the specialty places for this trip, at least those of my suggestion, largely centers around cars.

On the way to the car-related thing in Yokohama, I noticed this late model ‘Hachi-Roku’ Toyota 86 parked in isolated fashion at the front garden of this home.

And how about this Volkswagen Passat wagon parked nonchalantly at this quite expensive parking lot (~$16 per day rate.)

Obviously, there’s lots of car-related things to do in Japan for a tourist. The museums of the respective major Japanese manufacturers - Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, etc - alone can occupy a few days’ worth of trekking around. I would have loved to visit the Mazda Museum in Hiroshima, or the Honda Collection Hall in Suzuka, but those were not possible for the short duration of this trip. Car-related activities had to fit in with our general heading from a location perspective, so it narrowed down to two places.

We’ll get to Toyota Mega Web later on in this trip, but first, our main reason for heading off so early in the morning to Yokohama is to visit NISMO Omori Factory. It’s a factory-backed tuning shop for well-heeled customers of Nissan cars, and I was eager to see the place in person after reading the fantastic Speedhunters article.

But first, we had a considerable walk underneath and across a section of the famed Shuto Expressway.

Japan is an urban photographer’s ideal.

More evidence of Japanese van life.

Here’s the front gate to the NISMO Omori Factory. The compound’s showroom and shop area is open to the public, no reservation is required.

The standout car inside the showroom is this Nissan Skyline GT-R (R33) NISMO 400R in an eye-searing yellow hue.

Placed next to the 400R is a R35 GT-R racing car for the Japan SUPER GT series.

Omori Factory’s most awe-inspiring aspect is the workshop where customer cars are serviced; from as mundane as a standard oil change, to as extravagant as a complete overhaul of a car’s mechanicals. With enough money, practically anything is possible.

I was thoroughly amazed at the modernity and cleanliness of the workshop, and the professionalism and attention to detail of the mechanics. I could’ve spent the whole day watching them go about their work. You can tell at a place like this, there won’t be a bolt inserted incorrectly, or fluids poured into the wrong reservoir. It’s the type of place I want to service my 911 GT3 at. I’d be very happy if my main Porsche dealership is half as decent as what I saw at Omori Factory.

Also inside the workshop space are parked customer cars, either awaiting service or pickup by their lucky owners. The metal in here might be even more special than what’s in the showroom - if you discount the racing cars, like this ‘Millennium Jade Green’ R33 Skyline GT-R, kitted out with many NISMO goodies.

Or this, the holy grail of all Nissan GT-Rs: the R34 Skyline GT-R Z-Tune. Only 19 samples were ever produced, and I honestly never thought I’d actually see one in person. No doubt these will be worth into the million once it is eligible for importation into the United States.

The Z-Tune’s iconic flared front fender treatment. “Lesser” GT-R owners can buy a similar fender set from NISMO for about $1,500 dollars, a significant price indeed for what amounts to two large pieces of plastic.

Nobody said this car hobby of ours is cheap.

From “old” GT-Rs to the latest Fairlady Z NISMO: a proud lineage of sports cars, but with an uncertain future.

After staring at GT-Rs for a bit of time, we ventured over to the shop area. Here you can have a consultation with a service advisor, buy NISMO-branded parts for your car, or apparel for your body. I did not buy anything because one, even souvenir-type items are appropriately expensive, and two, I fly the Porsche flag.

There’s entire engines available for purchase, should you be so inclined. I don’t suppose you can check one of these in as plane luggage.

The legendary RB26 inline-six engine, and its requisite twin turbochargers.

By coincidence, during our visit there was a few R34 GT-R owners out in the parking lot doing a photoshoot of their cars. The GT-Rs were still parked outside as we were leaving, so out came my camera that was just put away back into its protective case (angry noises.)

Those legendary quad tail-lamps.

Notice the Z-Tune-style front fenders I mentioned earlier on this R34 GT-R.

I bet this carbon-fiber rear wing costs a few thousand dollar of our money; and those motorsport-grade Brembo brakes? 10 grand, easy - per axle. You really don’t put this amount of money into modification without some genuine passion for the particular model of car. This is wholly different from those rich guys on instagram swapping super cars every month solely to flex.

There probably isn’t a more representative car for Nissan and NISMO than the R34 generation Skyline GT-R.

After NISMO Omori Factory, we walked back to the train station to head towards Yokohama proper (think ferris wheel). For lunch, my friend said we’re having Italian pasta, which is not what I had in mind at all given that this is Japan, so why would you eat anything other than purely Japanese food?

The insulation in these houses has got to be remarkable, what with the noise and ruckus from passing trains, mere meters from the walls.

A modified Toyota Prius with big wheels, and a Bentley Continental Flying Spur absolutely lowered to the ground; car spotting in Japan is such a fun game to play.

And here is lunch: Spaghetti Napolitan!? It’s apparently a very popular Japanese pasta dish that has roots in the Yokohama area. It’s nothing spectacular, just pasta and spam mixed in some sort of ketchup sauce. Personally I’d rate it as okay: decent enough to eat, but I’m in no rush have it again.

The restaurant we went to is called Center Grill.

What is always good, however, is Japanese beer, with the proper amount of foamy head. It’s especially so during the humid and hot summers.

After lunch we walked towards the waterfront to our next point of interest, and the reason my friend wanted to come to Yokohama: the Cupnoodle Museum.

There it is, the recognizable symbol of Yokohama: the Cosmo Clock 21 ferris wheel

The ferris wheel is so named because there’s literally a giant digital clock in the middle of the wheel.

A Jaguar XF Sportbrake appears suddenly!

And here by Cosmo Clock 21 is an Aston Martin DB11 Coupe, followed by what looks like an old-school Chevy El Camino that’s surely been imported from America.

Another look at the ferris wheel before we head into the Cupnoodles Museum, which is literally across the street.

The Cupnoodles Museum honors the legacy of Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant noddles and founder of Nissin. Inside you will discover the story of his creation, and how instant noodle culture proliferated and spread all over the globe. Turns out I owe my love and enjoyment of Shin Ramyun to this very man.

It’s noodles around the world (la la la la la).

The intersection of my relationship with instant noodles.

I wasn’t kidding about noodles around the word: on the fourth floor of the museum is a small food court offering exactly that, a variety of noodles from nearly a dozen countries. I had a surprisingly good bowl of pho - Vietnamese rice noodle - there. Who would have thought!

Also on the fourth floor is a promenade section, offering a wide view of the Port of Yokohama waterfront.

It’s… a giant sail! I believe this is a hotel.

One subway stop away from the Cupnoodles Museum (or we could’ve just walked, honestly), is the largest and most well-known Chinatown in Japan. Being that both my friend and I are Chinese, I guess it seemed appropriate we visit the place of our people, even though it is indeed a tourist trap. More so for me because I’ve had most of the Chinese foods offered at the Yokohama Chinatown at their places of origin. It’s really nothing special for me, though at least we can say we’ve been there. Hashtag for the ‘gram.

Not wanting to spend any more time amongst the crowds, but with still a little more time to kill before our train back to Tokyo, we decided to walk towards the waterfront.

Passed by along the way this Aston Martin showroom, which I believe was only opened earlier this year. Wearing sweat-soaked t-shirt and shorts of a tourist, I figured it was best I didn’t go in and have a look, lest risking the ire of the undoubtedly besuited salesperson therein.

Besides, it’s not like it’s a Porsche showroom…

Also passed by a Mercedes-Benz S-Class Cabriolet in a stunning shade of dark blue.

And this Jaguar F-Type parked in the front of a hotel building.

The view from Yamashita Park. Notice the ferris wheel from where we were earlier on the left, and the RORO car carrier ship on the right.

The famous Yokohama Bay Bridge.

It’s time to head back to Tokyo.

Walking to our main event of the evening, we went through the tree-lined walkway adjacent to the Tokyo International Forum.

I think early evening hour is the best time to walk around Tokyo, though maybe not when you’ve woken up at 4AM to go to Yokohama. The ambiance and atmosphere is simply wonderful.

Getting darker as we approach our destination for the main event.

Which is driving go-karts on the streets of Tokyo!. We’ve all seen the Youtube videos of people wearing Nintendo character costumes driving karts in and around the scenic areas of the city - "real life Mario Kart.” This simply had to be on our to-do list for the trip, because only Japan can offer the culture and environment to do something as crazy as this, (we were driving karts alongside real live traffic on city streets, without so much as a helmet) and we can’t be sure such a concept will be around for much longer.

Nintendo have already successfully petitioned to have its character costumes removed from use, no doubt citing copyright violation. So you’re currently out of luck if you want to dress like like a Mario Kart character. We eschewed costumes entirely because one, we were slightly late in arriving, and two, Japan summer is hot enough as is without the additional layer.

We booked the ‘K - M course’ with Street Kart Tokyo Bay. The route starts in Odaiba district, and it includes driving on the world-famous Rainbow Bridge, and passing right by Tokyo Tower.

The gang of players.

Notice the GoPro strapped to my forehead: of course I got the entire 1.5 hour session on video:

As we approach the ever effervescent Tokyo Tower.

This brings us to an end of a long day two in Japan, and part two of the Japan Escape photo story. Up next, we visit a fish market; see some Toyota cars; and get on a bullet train.

Travel: Japan Escape 2019 (P1)

It’s sort of a surprise it took me this long to travel to Japan; there’s so many factors in my life that should have pushed the island nation to the top of my destinations list. The biggest has to be my passion for cars, and Japan is as car obsessed as they come. Two out of the three cars I’ve ever bought withc my own money have been from Japanese manufacturers. When traveling in Japan, you wouldn’t even need to visit any specific car-related places - and of those there are many: simply walking around and spotting interesting cars is plenty enough to satisfy the car enthusiast senses.

To be sure, I did plenty of that on this trip.

Another factor is Japan’s cultural influence. Long before the explosive wave of Kpop and entertainment coming out of South Korea, Japan was the standard-bearer of entertainment export to the rest of Asia. Even as a young kid growing up in Southeast China, the cartoons I watched were all from Japan. The music I listened to may be Chinese in language, but the composers of those songs were mostly Japanese. Travel programs I watched was dominated by trips to Japan: of eating crabs in Hokkaido, or taking an onsen bath out in the countryside.

I grew up so fascinated with Japan that when it came time to pick a foreign language to study in high school (it was mandatory), Japanese was the obvious choice. Until of course I found out how insanely difficult the language is, so after only one grueling school year’s worth of it, I gave up.

That slight setback aside, it still seemed I was destined to visit Japan as quickly as possible, when the time and means allowed. Obviously, that was not how things turned out. So what happened?

Family, happened. In recent years when i was truly ready and able to start on a travel binge, a more immediate destination came above anywhere else: going home. Not since the turn of the millennium have I went back to China, so it was something long overdue. And because my personality is such that when I find a place or thing I enjoy, I tend to keep returning to it, going back home because a yearly tradition, which pushed Japan even further rearwards on the list.

Fear played a part, too: having failed at learning the language, traveling to Japan would entail being that dumb tourist who doesn’t know the local language, and instead rudely uses the lingua franca of the world - English. All the while hoping to god the opposing party also knows it as well, even though you innately understand that they probably don’t, but you trudge on anyways. I was not yet mature enough to risk looking utterly stupid in public, so I opted for “safer” travel destinations: places and countries where I know the language. Before this Japan Escape happened, I’d gone to Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

Indeed, South Korea also happened. Starting in the late 2008, I caught the Kpop bug hard, and from then it branched out from music to the greater Korean entertainment sphere, and I’ve been consuming it ever since to this day. I really dig the culture as well; I was so immersed with Korea-related milieu that I even took the step to learn the language - something I could not accomplish with Japanese. It’s a small wonder how much easier it is to learn another language when you don’t have six other classes’ worth of workload to contend with simultaneously.

Naturally then, South Korea leap-frogged Japan on the travel list.

To be honest, by the time 2019 rolled around and the Japan trip was imminent for the summer, I was not all that enthused. Even from a car perspective, I’ve switched from Japanese cars to something German, and currently hold dreams of driving on the Nurburgring. Truth be told, I rather return to Seoul instead. That said, it was something my good friend wanted to do, seeing as he has never done Japan “properly”. As we age deeper into our thirties, who knows how many more opportunities we’d get to travel with ous best mates, what with prospects of family and kids looming in the near future. Therefore, to honor the wishes of my friend, it was (finally) time to tick Japan off the list.

Before departure, I’d remarked that this trip would be truly once in a lifetime: I don’t intend to return to Japan again after this.

Famous last words.

Here is our ANA Boeing 777 plane, flying out of LAX. My friend and I are very much not from LA, but rather, San Francisco. The reason we’re flying out some 300 miles south is because non-stop tickets to Tokyo NRT from LAX is significantly less expensive than routes out of SFO. A negative side-effect of having a relatively small international airport with only two runways, I reckon.

A brief 12 hours later, we arrived at Narita International Airport. Praise be to Lord Nobunaga.

Like most airports servicing major cities in Asia, NRT lies quite a bit away from Tokyo proper. Of the many ways to get into the city, taking the Narita Express is the quickest option. It’s the perfect appetizer to get your first taste of the vast Japanese railway network, and taking an initial glimpse of rural Japanese countryside life. In a little over an hour, we arrived at Shinjuku station for our transfer to local train.

For our first leg of the trip, we stayed in Nakano district, on the western side to central Tokyo. More quaint and less busy than the typical touristy districts, we really like the balance at Nakano. Yes, initially it will be slightly more difficult to get to compared to, say, Shinagawa, but as with most anywhere in Tokyo, it’s conveniently accessible by train.

20190719-IMG_5940-japan-escape-iphone.jpg

Our plane touched-down at around 4PM local time, so by the time we got settled into our Airbnb, it was already past 8PM. The only thing to do for our travel-wearied bodies was to quickly grab something to eat and then head for bed. It’s quite fitting, then, that our first official meal in Japan is ramen noodles.

At a local shop just around the corner from where we’re staying, this fun little ramen place is operated by this old couple, and it looks authentic as it can be. Not knowing how to read Japanese, we quickly asked for an English menu, which luckily they had. As far I’m concerned, the only appropriate soup for ramen is tonkotsu, which is of course what I ordered.

First meal in, and it’s already the best ramen and gyoza (freshly hand-made by the elder gentlemen in the photo) I’ve ever had. Yes, I’m going to be saying that a lot on this trip.

Onto the following morning, our first full day. A thing I wanted to do in Japan was to constantly scan for interesting cars scattered throughout. The country is famed for being obsessed with cars, especially peculiar types that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. One such example propped up immediately as we walked towards breakfast: a Jeep Wrangler four-door, looking sinister in all-black everything trim. While small by American standards, in the tight streets of Japan, this Wrangler might as well be a Hummer.

The owner of this car must be well-heeled, seeing as it costs about $15 a day to park at this tiny lot. These lots are what counts as street parking, because in Japan there aren’t any of the typical street-side parking we Americans are used to. I have to say It really cleans up the aesthetics of the roads and buildings.

Restaurants in Japan tend to cater to the lunch, dinner, and the late night crowd, and there doesn’t appear to be a breakfast restaurant culture at all. Unlike in America where there are diners aplenty serving up pancakes and eggs, just about the only restaurant in Japan open in the morning hours is McDonalds.

We did what the locals do, and bought “snacks” at a convenient store for breakfast.

Convenient stores in Japan are legend in their own right. Open 24-hours a day and scattered absolutely everywhere that civilization touches, these 7-Elevens and Family Marts are an absolute havens. These magical places offer fresh, hot food and drinks, a place to sit, and clean restrooms to use. In the heat of summer, the air-con alone is a welcome respite. During the entirety of the trip, we visited a konbini many dozen times.

For my first breakfast in Japan, I bought at the local Family Mart two onigiri rice rolls, and a bottle of tea that’s already preheated. For the equivalent of about $3 dollars, it was sublime.

The absolute best and most efficient way to get around Japan is taking the train. The network is vast and extents to any corner of the country you’d wish to go. The train stations themselves offers a superbly unique flavor of life, great places to people-watch the locals going about their daily business. Yes, it’s completely true: trains in Japan are always on time, to the dot. Imagine us Americans being amazed at public transport arriving at the time it’s printed on the schedule.

Foreigners should definitely take advantage of the 7-day JR Pass, granting you unlimited rides on the massive JR system for about $260 when we went (price fluctuates with currency exchange). One round-trip ride on any Shinkansen route alone would already justify the initial cost.

Our first place of interest, which turned out to be a bit of a tourist-trap, is the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa - the oldest temple in Japan. We figured that visiting a temple in Japan is a must do, so might as well be the one that’s been around the longest?

Here is the “Thunder Gate” entrance to the temple facilities.

Before entering the Thunder Gate, looking to the right you can see the Tokyo Skytree tower, which is our next destination.

Once you get pass the front gate, there’s a long corridor full of shops on either side that you must traverse through before arriving at the temple proper. This is the tourist-trap part of the equation, replete with a sea of people looking at things to purchase, invariably blocking your progress to the temple. Of course, I too was being a blocker as I stood right in the middle to take photographs.

Not having spent a single yen on any of the stores, we arrived at what I guess is the official main entrance into Sensō-ji.

Looking back at whence we came from atop the main temple steps.

When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. Even though I am not Buddhist, I did the polite thing and prayed at the altar.

Yes, you are able to rent traditional Japanese outfits and cosplay to your desire.

Some shots of the temple architecture.

Whenever I go to ancient temples like Sensō-ji, I wonder to myself what it must’ve been like back before the advent of easy international travel, back in a time when these hallowed grounds were truly places of worship, of peace and serenity. Somewhat sad that these places will never revert back to its original, undisturbed existence. Admittedly, as a traveler, I am definitely a part of the problem.

20190719-DSC05973-japan-escape-2019.jpg

The sights of side-streets surrounding Sensō-ji.

One thing I greatly admire about Japanese people is their utter dedication to a task or art-form. All this person in the picture does all day is make these stuffed pastries, and it is an absolute awe to watch him precisely produce these tiny little things, batch after batch. Boring and repetitive? Not in the least.

The famous hand-hold rings of the Japanese subway trains.

A brief subway hop took us to the grounds of Tokyo Skytree. Honestly, it looks just like any other tall tower featured in other Asian cities. Unlike the “old” Tokyo Tower, there’s nothing particularly special about the Skytree’s exterior. It’s a thing built solely to extract money from tourists. I’d say the same thing about the Seattle Space Needle.

It would seem I am not the only person with that sort of thinking: it wasn’t at all busy at the Skytree when we were there, though it must be said the weather that day was extremely cloudy, so visibility was compromised. I think had it been a sunny day, the photographer spirit in me would’ve sucked up the expense and gone up to the observation deck.

The Skytree’s rather uninspiring lattice work up close.

Since we weren’t going up the tower, we walked around the surrounding area around Skytree instead, including this I am assuming man-made stream nearby.

Or perhaps the stream isn’t man-made, but rather just diverted from a natural source. As we walked along the promenade, we encountered an elder gentleman fishing from the river (a fake stream couldn’t possible have fresh fish, right?) Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, provided you can withstand the heat and humidity of summer in Japan.

The facade of Tokyo Skytree really isn’t all that different from the Seoul Tower in Namsan, aside from lattice exoskeleton.

Spaces for only three cars passes for a typical parking lot in Japan. Parked at this particular one is a Suzuki Swift Sport, a car I wish were available here in the States.

Another car we don’t get because Americans hate minivans: the Toyota Alphard. I’d rock one so hard if given the chance; one with better wheels than the tiny donuts on this particular one, though.

What a lovely place to spend time. I can be here all day.

If it weren’t for the heat. Being from San Francisco, I am not acclimatized to temperature extremes, and the hot humidity in Japan can only be withstood for so long without a bit of reprieve. Indoor spaces offer excellent opportunities to get a breather and cool down.

But before long, it’s time to get back on the train system to our next point of interest.

More so than sushi or takoyaki, the one food item that was a must for me on this trip is, oddly enough, curry. CoCo Ichibanya is a world-famous Japanese-style curry restaurant chain, with international franchises all over. Being the smug person that I am, though, I was adamant in eating CoCo curry at its country of origin. So that was what’s for lunch after visiting Skytree.

My particular order was the curry over rice with chicken made in three styles, and I have to say, chain restaurant or not, it was super delicious.

The ubiquitous Japanese taxi, which oddly, we never once took in the week and a half we were there. The rail system does too good a job, and far cheaper, too. Due to traffic, taking the taxi might not even get you to a destination any faster than taking the subway.

Vans are cool. Don’t let silly Americans tell you otherwise.

In America there’s the strip mall plazas. In Japan and much of Asia, there’s strip-mall buildings. Surely there’s something for everyone in one of these.

Right around the corner from the CoCo Ichibanya in Asakusa is the Sumida River; it flows through much of Tokyo in a north to south direction, terminating into open water in Tokyo Bay.

As per usual with any major river that flows through an Asian metropolis, there’s the obligatory river cruises to entice locals and tourists alike. I have a major disdain for lines, so we obviously passed on the occasion.

Tokyo: a city of apartments where seemingly no two are alike in any way or shape.

When I travel, I tend to avoid the super touristy places. But, since I was still of the mindset that I don’t plan to come back to Japan ever again, the world-famous Shibuya Crossing - supposedly the busiest crosswalk on the planet - is then a must-visit. So onwards we departed via subway towards Shibuya station.

Even before you leave the subway station, you can see the entire operation right across the street. Seeing the Shibuya Crossing live and in person was my first “holy shit, I’m really in Japan!” moment.

It was incredibly surreal to be right there; these famous crosswalks I’ve only seen on television and in movies. I guess that’s why places like the Shibuya Crossing is such a hot destination for tourists. We definitely look ample time to soak in the atmosphere, and crossed the street (for no reason, really) multiple times.

Notice the Starbucks Coffee in the background: it’s the perfect place to people-watch the crosswalk from a higher vantage point. Sadly, because it is such a perfect place, this particular Starbucks is beyond crowded. We didn’t even try to get in, as the line was already out the entrance doors.

Beyond the Shibuya Crossing is a huge shopping area, very much akin to the Myeongdong district of Seoul, or Mongkok district of Hong Kong. If massively shopping is your sort of thing, Shibuya is the place to be.

Where else but Japan would there be shops with a dedicated section to glow-sticks? It’s this style of obsessiveness towards a niche subject matter that I can greatly appreciate.

After Shibuya, we still had some time to spare before the dinner, so we went back to our Airbnb in Nakano to chill.

And by chill I really do mean it: Japanese summers are absolutely no joke. Periodic breaks indoors and proper hydration is crucial to ward off fatigue caused by the heat.

Thankfully, drinks vending machine in Japan are as ubiquitous as street signs; it seems we were never more than a block away from the closest one. The one in the picture is literally directly across the street from our apartment building.

The sheer logistics to keep all of these things operational and stocked - and it’s always stocked; I didn’t encounter a sold-out drink item the entire time I was in Japan - has got to be immensely impressive. Imagine such a system here in America, and it’s immediately impossible: the vending machines would get wrecked or stolen in quick order.

I’ve heard that Japan car enthusiasts are mad about classic Minis, and I was lucky enough to encounter this clean sample as we walked back to our Airbnb from the train station.

As evening hour arrives, we reemerged and headed out for dinner.

Japan train stations are incredibly photogenic, and as a photographer they serve as delightful canvases. The same station we departed from this morning is now bathe in a wholly different ambiance, in the bluish tones of a departed sun.

20190720-DSC06047-japan-escape-2019.jpg

When it comes to food association with Japan, amongst the sushis, ramens, and 7-Eleven Onigiris, is the famous Wagyu beef. No trip to Japan is complete without sampling the cuts from local cows that’s been tenderly cared for to extract the best possible taste. My friend suggested an all-you-can-eat Wagyu barbecue (say no more, fam) somewhere in the Ginza district for dinner.

Before we got to the restaurant, how about two Lamborghini Countachs just parked out here on the side of the street? Moments like this reaffirm my adoration for how car-crazy Japan is every single time.

A sampling of all the cuts of Wagyu that’s available; it makes that piece of chicken in the bottom middle look horrendously out of place, doesn’t it? And yeah, hashtag marbling.

Needlessly to say (but I’m going to say it anyways), it’s the most delicious pieces of beef I’ve ever had.

A stroll around Ginza at night is a good way to burn off some of the Wagyu.

Finally, we returned to our “home” station of Nakano after a packed first day’s sightseeing, and I think it’s an equally good time to stop for this part one of the Japan Escape photo story. In the next part, we briefly leave Tokyo for Yokohama, and later that same evening, we get in some go-karts.

Motoring: The Car Lounge meet 04/06/2019

One of the car-related forums I frequent mosts is The Car Lounge (TCL), a general discussion forum welcoming to any and all makes and models. TCL has been around for a relatively long time, and some of us there have known each other through this little corner of the Internet for many years. There been plenty of meetups over the years, to facilitate putting actual faces to the usernames, and more importantly to hangout and enjoy this car hobby of ours (read: drive). However, yesterday was the first local TCL meet I finally gathered enough social courage to attend.

Hosted by a retired car enthusiasts who lives nearby in Danville, the meet consisted of meeting up at a local BART station parking lot not so bright and early (it rained) in the morning, then doing a loop of a local mountain road, and finally ending up at the host’s house for some drinks and discussions. The following photos are mostly of the gathering at the home:

My view of the proceedings. Long live the analog gauge; I have zero desire for cars with LCD screens to replace absolutely every function inside the interior (look at you, Audi).

Yes, this is just the garage, not even the main house. Surely it’s every car enthusiasts’ dream.

One forum member’s just arrived acquisition, a McLaren 12C. It’s a lovely shade of gray, and excellent choice on the brake caliper color to compliment.

I of course will shamelessly take photos of my own car.

This green monster likes to eat its own. Also, this color is a vinyl wrap, and not paint; it’s superbly executed.

During the morning drive session I was two car behind this GT350, and I have to say the sound the ‘Voodoo’ engine makes is spectacular. Compared to my GT3 it's less "synthetic" and loads more throaty - it really barks. 

Whenever you see one of these, an obligatory “JAAAAGGGG” is required.

20190406-DSC05563-tcl-meet-e-type-convertible-interior.jpg

I am unable to find anything wrong with anything inside the picture. 

20190406-DSC05565-tcl-meet-930-interior.jpg

The timeless interior of the Porsche 930. Black-faced instrument dials with white lettering and red needle can never go out of style.

Owner of the house has an absolutely minty 930 in Guards Red - my favorite Porsche color. What a thing to look at, and I'm sure, to steer as well.

The iconic Mustang taillamp design, which coincidentally equals the same mount of bars you get in cellular reception out in rural Danville.

I bet you can’t tell whether this Aston Martin V8 Vantage has got a full vinyl wrap on it.

And then suddenly an Austin Cooper showed up, replete with stickers and a roof rack.

One of the best and most appropriate custom license plates I’ve ever seen.

20190406-DSC05581-tcl-meet-austin-cooper-s.jpg

This thing must be a riot to drive.

My first time seeing a Fisker Karma in the flesh, and it's certainly got presence. The owner actually knows Henrik Fisker and on the wall next to the car is a personal sketch done by Henrik as a gift.

Inside the garage is an utter dream hangout space. And yes, the blue McLaren 12C is also vinyl wrapped.

I simply could not get enough of this 930 so I took some more shots. I low-key wish my GT3 were painted in Guards Red but alas very few 991.1 GT3 came in that color with the specs I wanted.

I also went back for more shots of the E-Type Jag. A convertible series 1 with a hardtop would be my choice of the lot.

Having driven behind this MK1 Rabbit with not stock everything, I can say this car goes and grips like stink. It’s got the perfect stance, too.

Now this is the kind of party I like.

A bone-stock AP2 S2000 that's got miles on it is excellent stuff. 

A relative unicorn: Chevrolet SS with a six-speed manual. To say this car hauls would be an understatement. Don’t let the 4,000+ pounds curb weight fool you: in the right hands this car is super quick on a mountain road.

A relative unicorn: Chevrolet SS with a six-speed manual. To say this car hauls would be an understatement. Don’t let the 4,000+ pounds curb weight fool you: in the right hands this car is super quick on a mountain road.

Is this enough ‘patina’ for you?

This 12C has got trick doors but a non-functioning windshield wiper (see how it’s stuck in an awkward position). It’s a car built in Britain, after all.

Later in the afternoon a few us decided to drive Mines Road since Livermore is just a few highway stops away from Danville. Mines Road is Norther California’s equivalent of Angeles Crest Highway down south, a twisting yet scenic piece of winding tarmac that goes on for tens of miles. It’s super fun but quite intense, a superb spot to tease out the limits of a sports car (in a safe manner, obviously).

Here is a picture of me encountering some wild locals.

Overall I am immensely happy I came out of my usual introverted cocoon to meet up with a few like-minded petrol-heads, some of whom I’ve known digitally for many years. There aren’t much better ways to spend a Saturday than talking shop for hours and then going for a long and spirited drive afterwards.

Photowalk: Presidio Parade Grounds

Back in high school I was a member of the JROTC program, mainly because it was an alternative to P.E. and let's face it who likes having to dress for P.E. anyways?

The annual spring competition amongst the city's participating high schools was held on the Main Parade Grounds at the Presidio. For those unfamiliar the Presidio, it was once an army base in real life, and home to Starfleet Command Headquarters in the world of Star Trek. 

It's been over a decade since I've been to the parade grounds as I've no reason to visit since I've graduated. On this particular day our group had wanted to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge during golden hour, but as is the norm during the Summer months, sunset isn't until well after 8pm therefore we had a few hours to kill. Coincidently all of us went through the same JROTC program so for nostalgia's sake we decided to see the old drilling grounds.  

What was a giant plaza made of concrete have now been thoroughly paved over with real grass. I suppose the lawn is exponentially more colorful and useful than before, but it always hurts slightly when a piece of memory from childhood get converted to something else. We even had to pay for parking; back then it was free. 

Not a bad way to spend a date. 

Scattered about the vast lawn are these funky decorative chairs people can lounge on. Depending on which side you flip it to one can either sit upright or flat like a La-Z-Boy. The chairs are not bolted down, though it's big enough to render it difficult for someone to steal. As we found out it takes at least two person to carry them about, not that we were attempting any thievery. 

A bit dim for sunglasses, no? 

Some prefer to stroll on sidewalks. 

Having lounged to our content on those red chairs, we ventured off to survey the buildings surrounding the parade grounds. These used to be the living quarters for soldiers; nowadays it's rental space for small exhibitions. With real estate so prime and dear in San Francisco I wonder why these buildings haven't yet been redeveloped or at very least rented out. 

As the cliche goes, they don't build them like they used to. 

Let's only walk on flower roads. 

Seeing these buildings brings me back to when the JROTC program went to Camp Parks for a week of boot camp fun. Back then there were no smartphones and the barracks definitely lacked any sort of entertainment devices. During downtime we were "forced" to converse with each other; hang out in small courtyards like one pictured above.

In our hyper-connected world today I think we all could use some of that down-to-earth bonding with one another. It can be as simple as eating with a group of friends with our cellphones on silent and in the pockets. 

A bee hard at work. 

Some modernity grafted on to the old buildings. 

Armed with the G Master 24-70mm lens I was desperate for more reach in tracking this bee in harvest. 

If these were houses on the market it would no doubt be significantly into the multiple millions. 

A lot of people's imagined retirement probably looks similar to this. 

As you may have noticed from the pictures thus far the weather this day was not exactly conducive to golden hour shots of the Golden Gate Bridge: it was an overwhelmingly cloudy day. San Francisco played its usual trick on us because in my south-eastern side neighborhood it was positively sun-burn territory; seven miles westward it's a blanket of fog. 

We had thought it was a total bust and would have to return another day, but during our walk around the Presidio the clouds gradually receded somewhat. An hour ago from when the above shot was taken we were unable to see Alcatraz. Thinking since we are here let's try our luck anyways, we headed off towards the other side of the Bay. 

You know it's a crappy weather day when there's a dearth of people at Crissy Field.  

But not before we stopped briefly to check out this weird art installation, still within the greater Presidio:

It appears to be a collection of fallen tree trunks (sure hope it wasn't deliberately chopped off for the purpose) tied together into this enormous cone-shaped tower. It's difficult to comprehend the size from the photos; I had to stand relatively far away from the structure to get its entire height into frame. 

It's ready for Burning Man. 

I've taken photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from numerous vantage points, but there was one that have eluded me (out of sheer laziness, I'll readily admit): the vista point at Fort Baker. It's directly across the Bay from where we were at the Presidio, so there was no avoiding the hefty bridge toll.

After many years of this photographic hobby, this shot is finally in my collection. 

By this time it was an hour before sunset, and as you can see the clouds were simply too stubborn on this day: there will be no perceptible golden hour. Undeterred, I broke out the ND filters and proceeded to shoot some long exposure:

The silky smooth water effect achieved with an ND filter really is pleasing indeed. 

We took the opportunity to walk underneath the bridge as well: 

Human at the lower left corner for scale. 

Karl the Fog remains undefeated. 

The roar of traffic passing by above deck is surprisingly muted from down below here. 

After enduring the neck pain from staring high up we moved over to the lone pier that juts out from the shore. It offers a panoramic view of the entire northern side of San Francisco, from Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate. Sadly I did not take a panoramic shot of said panoramic view.

A commercial freight ship was on its way west towards the Pacific Ocean so as one does we snapped shots of it as it crosses under the famous landmark: 

In before the lock. 

One more attempt at long-exposure later, this time with the 3-stop ND instead of the 10-stop, and our day was done. I intend to return to this spot when the weather is fairer and with a steadier tripod because it was way windier than I'd thought.

Until then. 
 

Cutting Room

Photowalk: Apple Park Visitor Center

Apple's brand-new 'Spaceship' campus (properly named Apple Park) officially openned late last year and I've been remiss in making a trip to see the circular monolith. Unfortunately and expectedly the entire complex is securely walled-off so plebeians like me with no inside connection and not a technology journalist are relegated to admiration from a distance. 

Given the situation as it is, Apple built a Visitor Center on the lot adjacent to the main Apple Park complex so people making the pilgrimage will actually have something to see/do (or a public bathroom to use). Essentially an Apple Store, half of the architecturally stunning building is dedicated to showing off the majesty of the new campus across the street. 

The center has got plenty of parking above and below ground so everyone can drive their own car and just forget about carpooling. 

Give it another year or so for these trees to be completely grown and the courtyard should be properly lush.

Out of the parking lot the Visitor Center's courtyard greets you with its perfectly aligned trees and benches made of stone. Being less than a year old the greenery have yet the appropriate amount of time to mature so currently it's a bit sparse and the trees aren't doing much to provide shade. 

Stone slabs for bench seating is a good recipe for scorched bum on a sunny day. 

Like the Apple Park campus, the Visitor Center's outer wall is constructed entirely of huge glass sheets, with its roof-deck giving the illusion of being impossibly suspended above. There's lots of architectural cantilever trickery going on as the glass panels bear no load other than holding itself up. It's quite magnificent and gives the inner space a tremendous amount of natural light. 

Resembling the well-oiled wooden decks of expensive yachts, the roof design of the Visitor Center extends to the interior as well.

The magnificent floating roof. 

In addition to normal entrance doors, a few giant panes of glass on either horizontal side can swivel open to let in air and give the space a hybrid indoor-outdoor ambiance. 

I bet these can be moved with nary a finger's force. 

On one end of the first floor Apple have set up an interactive area featuring an enormous scale-model of Apple Park. Armed with dedicated iPads passed out by attendants, visitors can take an augmented-reality tour of the 'Spaceship' and adjacent buildings. Lacking the ability to tour the actual Apple Park itself, this AR experience is a convincing fascmile.  

Look at the guy on the right taking a picture of what's being shown on the iPad. 

The structures on the lower left are enormous parking garages. Even so, there aren't enough spaces to house a car for every employee therefore just as it were in the old One Infinite Loop campus, parking at Apple Park is at a premium and first-come-first-serve. 

As I walked away from the interactive space I was greeted with this beauty of a staircase. it looks spectacularly suspended and free-standing, and I love the way it appears as if it's hewn together from carved pieces of solid rock. Notice the intricate grab-rail that's directly inset into the railing.  

The middle portion of the Visitor Center resembles a typical Apple Store in its latest guise, dominated by the giant display mini-theatre setup in the center. Indeed guests are able to purchase the entire slate of Apple products, and also memorabilia bespoke to the Apple Park like mugs and t-shirts. One thing it hasn't got is a Genius Bar, so if you've got problems with your Apple device don't come here for a fix.

Advertise the HomePod all you want, Apple; it's tough to plop down $350 for a mono speaker no matter how awesome it sounds. 

Floating staircase. 

Ascending the artful stairs will bring you to the upper balcony that in theory should afford a good view of the 'Spaceship' campus. Unfortunately the structure is inexplicably blocked by a few tall trees. I'm not entirely sure why Apple made the effort to construct a viewing deck but then planted trees that obstruct the sightline. It was quite disappointing. 

Dear Apple: those trees are in the way. Please remove them. 

Back down to level ground on the other side of the building is the cafe, offering bite-size treats and the standard fare of coffee products. The coffee machines are obviously brand-new and looks super premium. iPads are used as menus, and if you're paying via any method other than Apple Pay you're simply embarrassing yourself.

Unlike the tech products sold in the room adjacent  the cafe prices are surprisingly reasonable. I bought a shot of expresso for $3. 

I simply could not stop admiring the ceiling deck. 

After enjoying the shot of caffeine, I decided to take a short walk circumnavigating the 'Spaceship'. To repeat the complex is completely walled-off and you can't see much inwards due to the sheer amount of greenery planted all around. However Apple did construct a lovely walkway that circles round the outer block, which on a fine day makes good opportunity for a stroll. 

Nothing much to see here. 

Overall, the inspiring architecture and the cup of coffee makes the Visitor Center at Apple Park a worthwhile trip at least once. 

 

Cutting Room