On our fourth day in Tokyo (Saturday, June 9), we were finally able to sleep in a bit and hit the 7-11 for our eggs and onigiri at 8:30am instead of the usual 6am.  By 10, we were inside the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park.  The children loved the dinosaurs, aviation, and car exhibits, as did I.

Just before noon was an experience we scheduled for our son, who started taking karate a few months ago, but it was probably my favorite activity we did, too.  We booked, via AirBnB “experiences,” a karate lesson with Hiroki (use the link to book him too!), a black belt instructor there, followed by lunch at a local place where no menus were in English (and American visitors were apparently so rare that the proprietor wanted a picture of us after our meal).  We loved it.

We met him at a train stop, where he and 2 friends greeted us.  Then we went to a local studio and put on gis he brought for each of us, complete with white belts.

We warmed up, learned some punches and kicks, put on gloves to hit pads, and got some great exercise with our instruction.

After our lesson and lunch, we walked through Yanaka cemetery, because I love going to old cemeteries any time I visit a new city or country, and then my bride needed to shoot some video of the fabric shopping in Arakawa “fabric town” area for her loads and loads of online fans.

In the early evening, we went to Ueno Park and paddled the swan boats in Shinobazu Pond for a bit before a dinner we’d scheduled months ago at Innsyoutei.

A bit about making reservations for dinner in Japan:  it’s hard.  Tokyo leads the world in places to eat with a Michelin star, so I was excited to plan a few really nice meals while there.  Unlike when we were in Paris, however, I couldn’t just get my Amex concierge to make reservations for us; most of the nicer places will only give a reservation to a local, and since we weren’t staying in hotels but were in AirBnBs in Tokyo (and Kyoto for that matter), we didn’t have a hotel concierge to do it, either (which is what the Amex concierge suggested doing).  That said, the Amex folks did a good bit of research for us into fine dining places that allowed children and had openings for the nights we had available, but they indicated we’d have to call them to get a reservation (which is also hard, when we’re 13 hours behind in Atlanta and would have to rely on someone answering the phone who spoke English well).  So, for this particular dining experience, we’d stayed up til midnight one Sunday night and were able to secure it over the phone.

Back to dinner at Innsyoutei.  The building looks hundreds of years old.  You walk in, take off your shoes, and then walk down a hallway with wooden floors and sliding rice paper doors on either side of you until you come to your little room.  You sit around the table on cushions on the floor, which is all tatami mats, and the table is just a few inches high.  The nice thing was, the floor has a pit of sorts below the table, so your legs can go into the pit comfortably instead of having to be cross-legged the entire meal.

It also had a pleasant, somewhat antique, smell to it. The service was great, and the food presentation and taste were also outstanding.  Because our youngest 2 can be finicky eaters, we’d only arranged for the eldest to join the adults in the “chef’s choice” Kaiseki meal offerings. They got their own special meals they liked, which were also well presented, but were less exotic:

After just over 2 hours, we’d finished eating our meal, and the older 2 children really wanted to check out the Tokyo National Museum, which was just across the park from us, so I took them there while my bride and youngest waited on the check to come.  We ran through all of the weapons exhibits and some of the ceramics, calligraphy, and sculptures until they kicked us out at 9pm.

I was proud that my 11-year-old and 9-year-old were so wanting to learn about the local culture that they not only got up from our meal before we had received the bill, but ran across the park in the darkness to get to the museum before they stopped allowing visitors at 8:30pm.  All 3 of us enjoyed what we saw and learned.  We took the train back to Ginza to get some sleep, telling the children that Sunday would be a long day, but that we had a surprise for them if they behaved well the first half of the day!

My son and I sat quietly for several minutes on one of the several hundred stone steps we’d climbed to reach the Shinto shrine at Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site northeast of Tokyo.  His sisters and mom were putting their shoes back on somewhere behind us.  A mountain stream could be heard nearby.  We were surrounded by trees, several times older than the two of us combined.  Not a person was in sight.

Me:  “Where, do you think, is the most peaceful place we’ve ever been?” I asked him.
Him:  “I think–the Grand Canyon, at night, under the stars!”
Me:  “I agree…that was very peaceful.  I think where we are now, however, is the most peaceful man-made place I’ve ever been.”
Him:  “Yeah.”

When I started this blog in 2014, it was right after the Dad 2.0 Summit; that year, there had been a speaker who’d taken his son for a bike tour of Japan.  It sounded like the most exotic, out-of-reach  father-son experience I could imagine at the time.  I own no Lycra, and I lack the quads for a long biking excursion, but this felt like I’d arrived at exactly where I wanted to be as a dad; it was the day after my 43rd birthday.

Before we climbed to this remote spot at Nikko, we were surrounded by hundreds (maybe thousands) of school kids on field trips; each group wore its own color of matching hat.

We saw tall pagodas and the famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys carved into the wooden side of a sacred Shogun horse stable of all places.

After climbing up to multiple shrines, temples, and pagodas, we walked along the river to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss to see the 100 or so little Jizo statues in red knit caps and scarves that line the path.  Supposedly, a ghost Jizo dwells among them, which is why one can never reach the same number if trying to count them all twice (my children each counted, and their conclusions differed, so there’s clearly a ghost Jizo).

That evening, we took the subway to Meiji Jingu stadium (built in 1926–oldest in the city) for a Tokyo Yakult Swallows baseball game.  We loved it.  The locals all seemed to have a Swallows jersey in their bags or briefcases that they put on as the game started (over whatever they’d worn to work).  There were cheerleaders before the game to get the crowd excited, and during the game, women with little pony kegs on their backs sell draft beer to the crowd–it was awesome!

I felt the spectacle and convenience merited at least 3 beers. During the 7th inning “stretch,” the crowd pulled out umbrellas and did a song and dance that’s way better than singing “take me out to the ballgame” at home.

The Swallows lost, but we had an awesome time; I even bought a jersey to wear the rest of the evening.

After the game, we took advantage of the Tokyo Tower’s policy of allowing free admittance to the top  on one’s birthday (for 24 hours, so I was good on June 8 as well) and looked out over nearly 40 million people from above.

I got a special birthday bookmark from the tower and a keepsake envelope!

Such concluded my 2nd “American birthday” on June 8, and we returned to our AirBnB in Ginza for the night at like 10:30pm.  And if going to a time zone 13 hours ahead of Atlanta’s is all we need to do for me to celebrate back-to-back birthdays, I’ll happily make it an annual tradition.

I awoke at 5am on June 7 and walked to the nearest 7-11 for breakfast of eggs and some triangular rice thing with meat inside before taking the train down to a sumo gym to watch giant men in diapers push each other outside of a dirty circle.  There weren’t any matches going on during our stay, so we found that the Arashiobeya gym allows folks to quietly watch through the window from the street, which sounds worse than it is–the wrestlers are actually quite close to the windows, which are open, so we could hear the slapping sounds of their enormous chests slamming into each other at the start of every contest.

We then went to Tsukiji market, where all the fish that go to sushi restaurants all over Tokyo arrive, get inspected, and get chosen.  There’s also lots of food to buy and eat in the “outer market” area, so we tried some desserts and meats on sticks before sitting down for “conveyor belt” sushi at Sushizanmai.

We went to the Park Hyatt, since 1) the concierge was supposed to have our baseball tickets for later in the trip (we’re staying there our last night in Japan) and 2) I wanted to have a drink in the New York Bar featured in “Lost in Translation.”  The bar didn’t allow children (or open until 5pm), so we had cocktails and mocktails at the Peak Lounge instead, which was still 40-something floors up and offered great views, ambiance, and drinks.  It was there that I introduced the children to Bob Harris’s “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time” commercials from the film, and it became a running joke for the rest of our trip.

Shortly after noon, we went to Meiji Jingu Shrine. It was our first shrine, so we got to learn how to wash our left hand, then our right hand, then our mouth (via water in our left hand), and then our left hand again before walking up to a shrine, and how we remove our shoes, bow twice, clap twice, and then bow again before entering to show respect.  We also saw a 450-year-old Bonsai tree (among younger trees) and an enormous Torii gate.

We spent the next few hours going into various stores, including an enormous vintage record store called Disk Union, where I picked up several hard-to-find albums from U2 and The Cure. We got ice cream at “the zoo,” and then watched the insanity that is Shibuya crossing.

That evening, we had 6pm reservations at the amazing Ginza Kyubey, where Phil got sushi on the PBS show we watched to prep for our trip.  It was hard to find and was our family’s most expensive meal together ever, I think, but the food was outstanding.  See the pretty fishes?

I loved it.

I’d hoped to go out afterward, but given the jet lag and the long day we’d had, all 5 of us were pretty exhausted by the end of dinner, so we returned to our AirBnB to get some sleep at about 8pm. And also? I figured since June 7 was just getting started in the States, when we woke up on June 8 in Tokyo, I’d have my second (American) birthday!

And that’s exactly what I did…