What to do with 48 hours in Tokyo

Almost every visitor to Japan will spend at least a couple of days in Tokyo, the country’s vast, gleaming & utterly bewitching capital. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rhapsodised in print about Tokyo (no, seriously – you can’t even imagine), and with good reason – it is an amazing place.

The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area covers an area of 13,500 square kilometres, and is by far and away the most populous metropolitan area in the world – with an estimated 37,883,000 inhabitants (according to a 2014 UN report). The city itself, meanwhile, is nothing short of enormous – with a multitude of centres, each with its own unique character. It is a well-worn travel cliché, but you could spend literally years here and never see it all.

Tokyo Time 065

So, given just 48 hours in the capital, what should you do?

Pose this question to the team at InsideJapan Tours and, likely as not, you’ll get a different answer from each person. That is the beauty of Tokyo. But if you want to know what I think – what I would actually do with 48 hours in Tokyo – well then, read on!

DAY 1

Begin the day by making your way to Shibuya, a shopping mecca for young people and home to the iconic “scramble crossing”, where crowds swarm across the world’s most famous intersection under the neon gaze of screens, signs and advertisements. The scramble crossing is located directly outside the Shibuya Station’s Hachiko Exit, where you’ll also find the much-beloved statue of Hachi – a faithful dog who waited outside Shibuya Station every day for his master, even after the owner’s death. A good tip that many tourists don’t know about is to head into the station building and up the escalators, where you can get a good view of the crossing from the windows.

Shinjuku scramble crossing

Shinjuku scramble

After visiting the crossing, I suggest heading into the shops. If you’re interested in fashion, Shibuya 109 is the place to go – but personally I would spend an hour or so checking out the Tokyu Hands Department Store, where you can find everything from stationery to fancy dress. If there was something weird and wonderful you wanted to buy in Japan, the chances are that you’ll find it here. I particularly like browsing the bizarre beauty treatments on the pharmacy floor!

Happy face trainer?

Happy face trainer?

When you’ve had your fill of shopping, I suggest finding a good ramen bar for lunch today. Ramen, thin noodles served in a flavoursome broth with meat and vegetables, is a staple of Japanese life, and you absolutely cannot visit Japan without getting a taste. It’s also very affordable, so you’ve no reason not to. Kiraku (opened in 1952) is a famously good ramen bar in the Shibuya area, or you could try to equally good Suzuran or Usagi.

Slurping up ramen

Slurping up ramen

Map of Shibuya

After lunch, head back to the station and hop on a train to Harajuku (it’s just one stop on the JR Yamanote Line). From here, take a walk down Takeshita Street to browse the eclectic array of shops and hope to spot some of Tokyo’s most outlandishly dressed teenagers! It’s fascinating, even if you’re not into shopping. There’s an excellent second-hand kimono shop nearby called Chicago if you’re after vintage Japanese clothing, and don’t forget to stop at the Daiso at the top of the street for an introduction to another Japanese institution – the 100 yen shop.

Teenager in Harajuku

Teenager in Harajuku

After walking through Harajuku, head back to the station and across the tracks to explore the large, peaceful, wooded area that contains the Olympic Stadium, Yoyogi Park, and Meiji Shrine – where, if you’re lucky, you may spot a Shinto wedding ceremony in progress.

Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine

Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine

Map of Harajuku

By this point you may be in need of a rest, in which case I recommend hopping back on the JR Yamanote Line and riding the two stops to Shinjuku Station. Nearby is Shinjuku Gyoen, perhaps the city’s most beautiful park, and the ideal place to stop for a rest (weather permitting, of course!). If you’re not the park-going kind and would prefer something a rather weirder, I suggest visiting one of the area’s notorious Maid Cafés, where you can play master of the house and be served an (expensive) coffee by a girl dressed as a Victorian maid. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly an experience!

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Whether you’ve decided to hit the park or the Maid Café, my next stop would be the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, where you can ascend to the top of one of the pair of skyscrapers for spectacular views across the city (and Mount Fuji, if you’re lucky). It may not be as tall as the Skytree, but it’s free!

By the time you’ve accomplished all this (allowing plenty of time for aimless wandering), it’s about time for the maddest dinner you’ve ever had in your life. Tokyo is known for its fabulous food, so it’s rather a shame to head somewhere where the food is so bad (yes – it’s bad) – but Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant is one place where the food is not the main attraction. If you’ve ever wanted to see an electric cabaret performed by bikini-clad girls, robots, neon tanks, sharks and more – you’ve come to the right place. Not to be missed – trust me.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant

Buzzing from your evening at the Robot Restaurant, there’s no better place to head for an evening of drinks than Golden Gai. Also located in Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a tiny slice of old Japan amongst the skyscrapers – consisting of just six impossibly narrow alleyways packed with over 200 tiny bars, clubs and restaurants, this is a truly unmissable Tokyo experience.

Tiny Shinjuku restaurant

Tiny Shinjuku restaurant

Map of Shinjuku

 

DAY 2

Assuming you’re not bedridden after your night in Golden Gai, this morning it’s time for one of my very favourite Tokyo experiences: Tsukiji Fish Market. As I discussed in a recent post, I’m not all that keen on getting up mega-early to see the tuna auctions, but I do highly recommend checking out the inner market when it opens to the public at 9am. It’s also the perfect excuse to stop off for a late sushi breakfast – I recommend Umai Sushi Kan opposite the Suijinja Shrine for its relaxed atmosphere.

Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market

After breakfast, my next stop is the beautiful Hamarikyu Gardens, just next to the market. This is one is a little-known gem of a place, where you can have green tea and a traditional sweet at the teahouse on the lake – just like Prince William!

Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu Gardens

Map of Tsukiji area

After relaxing at Hamarikyu, hop on the water bus (which departs from within the garden) and take a pleasant ride along the river to Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district and home to Senso-ji Shrine. Here you can pick up souvenirs at the little market stalls, sample a bit of street food, and even visit Kappabashi-dori – or “Kitchen Street” – where you can buy cooking supplies and the plastic replica food that is so ubiquitous in Japan.

Senso-ji pagoda at night

Senso-ji pagoda at night

For lunch, I suggest tucking into some hearty okonomiyaki – an extremely popular (and cheap) type of cabbage-based savoury pancake. Doesn’t sound too appetising? Well, you’re wrong. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t loved it. My favourite okonomiyaki restaurant in Asakusa is Sometaro, where you cook your own pancake on a hotplate in the centre of your table, surrounded by lovely traditional décor.

Tucking into okonomiyaki at Sometaro

Tucking into okonomiyaki at Sometaro

After lunch, if you didn’t manage to squeeze in the Tokyo Metropolitan Buildings yesterday, you could head to the Tokyo Skytree for fab views of the city before hopping on the train to Akihabara (two stops on the Asakusa Line to Asakuabashi Station, then one stop on the JR Line to Akihabara).

Akihabara is known as Japan’s “electric town” and is the spiritual homeland of Japan’s otaku (nerd) population. Surrounded by towering neon buildings you can browse electronics stores, manga shops and huge buildings packed with gaming memorabilia, before heading to one of the area’s vast arcades to have a go on the games – or just watch the pros. There are many Maid Cafés in this area, so if you didn’t manage that yesterday you could easily fit it in today.

Tour leader William enjoying the arcade games

Tour leader William enjoying the arcade games

For dinner, a visit to an izakaya (traditional Japanese restaurant) is a must. Izakaya are often called “Japanese pubs”, but they’re actually nothing like. Food is served tapas-style to be shared with friends, often ordered throughout the meal using an electronic screen at your table. Beer and sake flow freely – and there are often nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) plans available. These restaurants range from the amazingly cheap to the astronomically expensive, so there is something to suit everyone! And it’s a great place to try out some interesting Japanese dishes.

If going to a proper izakaya is a daunting prospect for you, we can arrange an izakaya experience with an InsideJapan tour leader, who can guide you through the ins and outs of Japanese etiquette and help you make your orders.

A Japanese izakaya

A Japanese izakaya

Finally, your izakaya visit should have left you well lubricated for that most quintessential of Japanese hobbies: karaoke. If you’re imagining singing your heart out in front of a crowd of people – think again! The Japanese way is to rent a booth with friends and sing away in privacy, accompanied by plenty of beer.

Map of Asakusa & Akihabara

8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

Alternative Japan – Osu district in Nagoya

Our main Japan office is in Nagoya and so I have spent a fair amount of time in the city, Japan’s “third” city – and yes I know that Yokohama is technically second, so Nagoya is further down the list. However, on my most recent visit I realised that I had spent all my time either around Nagoya station or the central shopping and business district of Sakae. Incidentally that’s a city district with only one kanji – name any other famous ones…?

Nagoya shopping malls

So I decided to delve a little deeper to see what else Nagoya has to offer. The result was a very satisfying weekend afternoon wandering around the Osu district close to Osu Kannon, one of Nagoya’s biggest temples. Around the temple is a network of covered shopping arcades, lined with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, cafes and food stalls. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Asakusa in Tokyo, with something of an old-world feel to it, despite the occasionally electronics store. They even have helpers on hand with yellow flags attached to their backs, offering maps, directions and local advice.

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Insert cliché here...

Insert cliché here…

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Lost? Need something? Just ask!

Lost? Need something? Just ask!

Fried local chicken (karaage) seemed to be the thing to eat in Osu, with several hole-in-the-wall shops serving freshly cooked chicken in various flavours to a queue of people. Each stall also had plenty of signature boards from celebrities, though with the number of celebrities Japan has this might not be much of a guide!

DSCF4655

Mmmm...

Mmmm…

So if you thought Nagoya was just bright lights and modern buildings, take a trip to Osu; An afternoon well spent!

Three Reasons To Choose a Small Group Tour

Getting into local life
As an independent traveller, I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant about joining a small group tour. I’ve been on tours before, but it wouldn’t normally be my number one choice to travel with a group. However, having joined InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked tour for a few days, I can now see that there are massive benefits to joining a small group tour instead of going it alone.

1. Stress-free sightseeing
Your full-time Tour Leader will take all of the stress out of travelling around from place to place, and will be there to either show you the sights or point you in the right direction if you wish to do your own thing. You have the best of both worlds, in that there is an expert to deal with all the logistics of travel, and yet you have the freedom to do as you please and don’t have to be herded around in a massive group or squeezed uncomfortably onto a hot bus at any point during the trip. Yes, you can have your matcha roll cake and eat it too!

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

2. The Group
Travelling in a group of people you don’t know can be slightly intimidating at first, especially as a solo traveller. However, InsideJapan’s small group tours attract all different kinds of customers from all over the world, and joining a tour group is a great way to make new friends and share experiences. You all have Japan in common, and probably all have different reasons for wanting to visit Japan. For some it will be another country to tick off their list of places visited, and for others it will be a life-long dream come true to visit Japan because of a particular interest in some aspect of Japanese culture. Together you can share experiences and knowledge, and try new things!

Tour Group at Sensoji

Your Tour Leader might turn out to be something of a celebrity…

3. Getting beneath the surface
InsideJapan’s motto is ‘get beneath the surface’, and there’s no better way to do that than with an expert Tour Leader by your side. As someone who has travelled in Japan quite extensively I would consider myself something of an expert. However, after just one evening with our expert Tour Leader I realised there was still so much to learn! Whether it was finding new items on the menu in the izakaya, hearing a snippet of history for the first time, or simply visiting somewhere new, your Tour Leader will certainly help you to get the most out of your time in Japan!

Cultural experiences in an izakaya...

Cultural experiences in an izakaya…

Finally, if like me, you’re quite an independent traveller but like the idea of joining a small group tour, why not do both? No matter how much you fit in whilst you are on tour, you will always wish you had just a little more time in Tokyo or the chance to visit just one more destination, so why not add on a few extra nights of independent travel after your tour. By the time the tour finishes you’ll be something of an expert yourself, and ready to take on Tokyo alone (armed with your tailor-made Info-Pack of course!).

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Sometimes it’s not the destination but the journey

If you’re travelling between Matsumoto and Takayama (as many of our customers do) there are a couple of ways to make the journey, but my number one recommendation would be to take the highway bus through the Japan Alps.

I heard the journey was stunning, but nothing could have prepared me for how breathtakingly beautiful it would be!

As the bus trundles along twisting mountain roads (sometimes precariously close to the edge!), lush green mountain ranges dominate the skyline, with villages dotting the valleys below. Clear waterfalls, lakes and streams punctuate the landscape, as the bus carefully waits on a mountain edge for an oncoming vehicle to pass by, and between the mountains rice paddies wait patiently.

The journey is simple to make, and one to be enjoyed. Just sit back, relax, and keep your camera at the ready!

The view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to Takayama

 

5 reasons Japan is the most convenient country

In Japan, possibly the most orderly country in the world, convenience is king. Here’s why…

1) Everything runs on time
Unlike certain other countries (mentioning no names… *cough*… England) you can actually rely on train and bus timetables in Japan. It’s possible to plan quite a full-on day of sightseeing and know that you should always be able to make your connection and catch the next bus or train. Of course, delays do happen occasionally, but every precaution is taken to ensure there is the least possible disruption to your journey.

Shinkansen

Trains on time for your convenience

2) No luggage worries
Japan has an incredible luggage forwarding service called ‘takuhaibin’ (most commonly referred to as ‘Takkyubin’, which is actually Yamato Transport’s version of the service). The service can be used to send just about anything from any part of the country to another over night. If you’re travelling to a rural part of the country or only stopping somewhere for one night, you don’t want to be carrying large cases, and ‘takuhaibin’ is the answer! Simply pack an overnight bag and forward your large suitcase on to another destination. As well as this overnight service, a few places in Japan offer a same day short distance forwarding service. Hakone’s ‘carry service’ is a great example of this: for around 700 yen you can send a bag from Hakone Yumoto Station to your hotel or vice versa, allowing you to get rid of your overnight bag whilst sightseeing. Of course, most stations have plenty of coin lockers too, and for a few hundred yen you can leave you bags securely for a few hours – just don’t forget where you left everything! In addition, if you do pack an overnight bag and forward your main luggage, you won’t need to take much with you – most hotels offer basic amenities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo, and there’s usually a yukata to wear in bed too, so you don’t even need your PJs!

Hakone Yumoto Station's 'Carry Service' office

Hakone Yumoto Station’s ‘Carry Service’ office

3) Easy eating
Even if you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s not too difficult to order food in a restaurant. Most restaurants either have colourful menus full of pictures of the dishes on offer, or they have plastic replica food in the window, so you can always just see what looks good and point. A lot of restaurants and cafes, especially in major tourist areas, also offer English menus, although the staff won’t necessarily speak English.

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

Plastic food in a restaurant window in Tokyo

4) Convenience stores really are convenient
Convenience stores in Japan sell just about everything you could need, including food that actually tastes good, and many are open 24 hours. As well as food and drinks, both hot and cold, convenience stores tend to sell basic overnight essentials and things to help out in any minor emergence (Ladder in your tights? Forgot to bring clean undies? Run out of hairspray? No worries!). If that’s not enough, there’s usually a drinks vending machine on every corner too, and even some vending machines selling food such as instant noodles!

7-Eleven: One of Japan's many convenient convenience stores

7-Eleven: One of Japan’s many convenient convenience stores

5) Public conveniences
Toilets are usually free to use, clean and they’re everywhere! Most stations will have perfectly usable toilets, usually with paper (although you sometimes need to use your own tissues, but tissues are often given out on the street for free with advertising pamphlets). Sometimes you might need to face a Japanese-style squat toilet, but that’s a small price to pay really for free loos!

 

 

I actually could go on – Japan is a pleasure to travel around, with reliable services, polite staff, and generally helpful and friendly people wherever you go! Wherever you’re from, when you return home you’ll be sure to miss the convenience of Japan!

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