Nothing really prepares you for the impact of Tokyo. Despite all my pre-reading, Tokyo unleashed is overwhelming, but in such a good way. It’s a bit like being offered all your favourite foods at once. It’s hard to know where to begin. You just want to indulge in everything.
We’d come for cherry blossom season and it’s laughable in restrospect, how I tried to photograph a random tree on the way to our Shinjuku hotel. I had no idea! Our friendly hotel manager literally pushed us out the door after we checked in. Cherry blossoms were in full glory at a number of locations and we needed to get there fast!
We bought a 3-day ticket for the metro which really paid for itself as we spent a great deal of time zipping between stations. Really such a practical way of getting around especially given the traffic above the ground.
We took the train to Ueno Park. First we had something to eat at Ameyoko market. It’s a busy street along the tracks between Okachimachi and Ueno Stations featuring all kinds of shops and some small casual eateries. We decided on a quick bite and eventually picked a random noodle bar which was a diner-type place. Well we immediately realized that the adage is true – you can’t have a bad meal in Tokyo. We tried their delicious fried rice and pork gyoza or what we call pot stickers. OMW! A totally different food group to what we’ve eaten in SA. Such flavour! Thin wrappers and juicy, tasty fillings. The local beer was excellent too.
Then we took a short stroll up the hill and made our way along the lantern-lit avenue of literally hundreds of cherry trees. Ueno Park is one of Japan’s most crowded, lively and popular spots for cherry blossom parties and there were rivers of people heading for the colourful, festive food market that had popped up around Shinobazu Pond.
We took pics of the cherry blossoms and the lights of the Saraswati Buddhist temple reflecting across the water and marveled at all the yummy and unusual eats being freshly prepared.
In complete denial about jet lag and the 7 hour time difference, we opted to keep going and took a train to another recommended spot for viewing cherry blossoms at night – the Meguro river walk which is flanked by around 800 trees, also romantically lit and delightfully atmospheric, despite the thousands of people who had also come to enjoy the ambiance.
Pop up champagne bars offered pink bubbles over strawberries. The police were out keeping an eye on the crowds but there was no need. Everyone behaved impeccably, taking turns and allowing others easy access to views from the bridges. It was hard to assimilate that so many people could be in one space with minimal touching and certainly no pushing and shoving.
We slept fantastically well proving perhaps that the cure for jet lag is to just keep going and immerse yourself in the new time zone.
Tsukiji is famous for housing the largest and oldest fish market in the world until just recently. The market where the tuna auctions etc are held have been relocated, but we had come to taste the delicious seafood at the outer food market which still remains.
And what a bounty! Seafood of every kind being prepared to perfection over hot coals and grills. This guy specializing in buttered crab sticks, that lady toasting scallops, the alley to your left specializing in fresh sashimi bowls on rice known as ‘kaisendon’, and a line forming at the sea urchin or ‘uni’ lady serving the delicacy – steaming hot in a fresh, black octopus-ink bun. Famous for a folded egg dish which is omelette like but sweet and light was a delicious surprise. The choices were overwhelming. We got there early as advised, but the crowds just kept coming. Polishing off all manner of tasty morsels, we finished off with freshly brewed coffee and some matcha flavoured ice cream.
We caught a train to the Yurakucho station near Ginza in the Maranouchi business district in order to view the striking architecture of the Tokyo International Forum which is a multi-purpose exhibition centre. It was lunchtime on a beautiful sunny day and we watched the office workers emerge (black suits and camel trench coats everywhere!) and grab lunch from the various vendors offering a snack.
From there we strolled towards the Imperial Palace, which is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. It has a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls right in the center of Tokyo. We viewed and photographed the famous Nijūbashi bridge. This bridge is famous for actually being a double bridge (there is an iron bridge directly behind the stone bridge) and also for looking like eye-glasses when reflected.
I’d read that the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is a perfect first stop in this prefecture. The 8th floor observation deck offers a free view of the Asakusa skyline and the Tokyo Skytree across the Sumida River and we were lucky to have a clear, sunny day. The Tokyo Skytree is the world’s tallest communications tower at 634 meters high and it has become an iconic part of Tokyo’s skyline.
We were approached by a young man proposing a Rickshaw ride through the area. Our instinct was to decline but he promised us great cherry blossoms and a trip through Geisha town, and most importantly, we’d get to sit on our fat arses for the next hour. 😄 We really enjoyed the trip and the change of pace. The most interesting thing I learnt is that Geisha traditionally paint their faces white in order to ‘glow’ intriguingly in the candlelight, and there are approximately 600 types of cherry blossoms that bloom for less than two weeks in early spring.
We spent some time strolling around Sensoji Temple. It is the oldest Buddhist temple in the capital, and the five-story pagoda, trails of incense and vast eaves will take you back to a Tokyo of time gone by. We spent some time watching some young ladies dressed in kimono 👘 blend with the ancient architecture and pose underneath cherry blossom boughs.
Kaminarimon or “thunder gate” is the outer of two gates that lead to Sensoji Temple. With it’s massive lantern and towering statues it’s quite something to behold.
Nakamise Dori is a pedestrian shopping street that spans from Kaminarimon to Sensoji Temple. Nakamise Dori is lined with independent vendors selling all sorts of traditional Japanese items and snacks. We took a slow stroll once again amazed at the continuous crowds.
We popped back to our hotel for a quick rest and then headed out to the nearby Shinjuku area.
Omoide Yokocho, (meaning “memory lane”) is a maze of narrow alleys close to the West Exit of Shinjuku Station and home to tiny yakitori shacks. It has around sixty tiny old-school bars and restaurants crammed along its narrow corridors. More widely referred to by its colorful vernacular name “Piss Alley,” this is one of the most iconic places to experience the old-world Tokyo atmosphere. Historically, it was a hidden street for drinking and other illicit activities, and is still a symbol of some of the older traditions of the city. After wandering through the alleys, we squeezed ourselves into the only two seats in a tiny, smoky, counter seating-only ‘bar’. The atmosphere was instantly awesome and we ordered a beer and some grilled meat and veggie skewers and had the most delightful yakitori experience, one of the many highlights of our time in Tokyo.
We were back at Tsukiji market to celebrate Geoff’s birthday and with a view to trying more delicacies. We indulged in a bowl of Kaisendon, tender sashimi cuts on a bed of sticky rice. I finally got to try sea urchin, known as ‘uni‘ in a light-as-air, black bun. The sea urchin was delicious, creamy and definitely more-ish.
Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine
Meiji-jingu Shrine, located in a gorgeous forest right in the middle of Tokyo, is a fantastic reprieve from the colourful, overwhelming world of Harajuku shopping district. A walking path cuts through the trees, leading to the shrine in the centre. Walking along this misty trail will make you forget you’re in the middle of two of Tokyo’s busiest districts. Entry into the shrine grounds is marked by a massive wooden tori gate that leads to a tranquil forest. The approximately 100,000 trees that make up Meiji Jingu’s forest were planted during the shrine’s construction and were donated from regions across the entire country. Sake barrels are on display and are called kazaridaru, which means “decoration barrels.” Sake traditionally has been a connection between the gods and people in Japan. These sake barrels are offered every year to the enshrined deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine. They have been donated by sake brewers.
Adjacent Yoyogi Park serves local Tokyoites with sprawling lawns and ample sports facilities and places for club meetings and practice sessions. It was nice and relaxing away from the craziness of the city crowds and we watched people walking their dogs and enormous groups of people getting together.
Harajuku Shopping district
Takeshita street is the busiest and brightest pedestrian shopping street that you will ever find. It is lined with fashion boutiques, cafes and fast-food restaurants. It was packed with people moving methodically in two major human streams. It is known to be the focal point of Harajuku’s teenage culture and its side streets, which are lined by many trendy shops, is also famous for crepe stands and cat, hedgehog or rabbit cafes. Living in the density of Tokyo means that people don’t have the space to keep pets and the cafe’s are a way of fulfilling that need. We indulged in a juicy strawberry and Nutella crepe, but forwent the opportunity to spend some time with the pets.
We also stopped to see the exciting Tokyo Plaza, where we joined the queues of people taking advantage of one of Tokyo’s most instagrammable spots due to the crazy reflective mirrors above the escalators.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens
Shinjuku Gyoen is home to a large number of cherry trees of more than a dozen different varieties. From late March to early April, more than 400 trees blossom turning the lawns into one of Tokyo’s most popular and pleasant hanami spots. The sight of hundreds of people (mostly locals) enjoying the gardens and relaxing under the trees with their picnics (and in one case, their pet owl!) is truly delightful. Packed as it was, it didn’t feel overwhelming and although there was barely a square inch left to squeeze into, people didn’t mind you sitting almost on top of them! We mostly wandered from area to area. Our favourite was the river area, where the blossoms were reflected on the water as were the crowds on the bridge. The afternoon light was perfect for photography.
We were interested to see how many people dressed up in kimono and in other interesting cute (kawaii) costumes.
We decided to head out to Akihabara, famous for its electronic shops and nick-named ‘Electric City’. Many shops and establishments are devoted to manga cafes (for reading comic books) and anime (hand-drawn and computer animation) outlets. Also dispersed among the electronic stores in the district are a plethora of maid cafes. Maid cafes are themed restaurants where waitresses dress as maids and address their customers as “master” and “mistress”. Apparently it’s not a sexual thing at all but definitely seemed more than a little odd. 😳
We marveled at the size of the BIC Camera store selling all kinds of electronics. We’ve never seen such a range of products and brands. Despite its name it is not only for cameras. In fact it’s Japan’s best overall electronics/computer/toys/ alcohol and computer store. And it’s enormous!
Wandering through the streets, we stumbled upon another outstanding restaurant where we ate tasty pork and rice and more gyoza. It may sound fairly plain but my mouth waters when I think of the flavours!
Well aware that it was our last day in Tokyo, we got some washing done and sorted our clothing across our two suitcases. Japan offers an amazing service that is almost inconceivable to South Africans. (By way of example, in SA I received a Christmas card posted in late November in the same city that I live in, that was delivered in April). In Tokyo you simply pop into your local 7-Eleven and they arrange (for a small fee) to have your luggage sent ahead and overnight to your next destination. No dragging your bags through the streets and subways or having unnecessary stuff taken along. We sent half our things to our hotel in Osaka, leaving one bag for our trip to Nikko and the Nakasendo Way.
We took a train to Shibuya emerging into one of the biggest subway stations I’ve ever seen. We headed for the Hachikō exit, one of Tokyo’s unofficial landmarks and a popular meeting spot for locals. The Hachikō statue pays homage to the faithful dog who waited at Shibuya Station every day for his master to return from work, even 10 years after his death. 😢
Shibuya Crossing is rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world. People are constantly pouring across the street from all directions. They all meet in the middle in a chaotic yet orderly mass – side stepping and swerving around each other as they navigate through the intersection. Then, for a few minutes, it stops and clears so that the traffic gets its turn. Steadily each corner of the intersection begins to fills up with people and just as the curbs can almost no longer contain the masses, the “walk” lights turn green and the mayhem starts all over again. One of the most popular views is from the giant Starbucks located across from Shibuya Station. In addition to being a constant contender for the busiest branch in the world, its second floor seating area has a counter across its floor-to-ceiling windows, perfect for overlooking the intersection. We bought a pastry and a coffee and eased into a window seat enjoying the unfolding views below.
Odaiba Island is accessed via the Rainbow Bridge or the futuristic Yurikamome train. Odaiba is a high-tech entertainment hub on an artificially created island in Tokyo Bay.
As a treat for Geoff’s birthday, I’d booked tickets for “teamLab Borderless” – billed as the world’s first digital art museum – which opened in June 2018. teamLab is a consortium of artists, programmers, engineers, animators, mathematicians, architects and graphic designers who have produced a group of artworks that form one borderless world. The experience is truly amazing and intrinsically delightful! Brightly coloured artworks move in and out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence, and sometimes intermingle with each other with no clear boundaries. The kaleidoscope of ever-changing colours and the endless rooms of illusions and shapes made us feel like little kids.
Right beside the teamLab venue is a 115 meter tall ferris wheel which is one of the world’s largest and offers nice views of Tokyo Bay and Odaiba below. We decided to take advantage of sitting for a bit and enjoying the sunset and the city lights. Each cabin seats about 6, although we were given our own peaceful capsule.
We’d been intrigued by a smoky, vibe looking “yakiniku” restaurant near our hotel. This is a Japanese barbecue-style of cooking bite-size pieces of meat and vegetables on griddles over a flame of wood charcoal. We had such a fun experience cooking our own ingredients in the atmospheric restaurant. Once your meat is cooked you can dip your morsel into a tasty sauce.
What a delightful ending to four days of hectic walking, sight-seeing, eating, taking pictures and simply admiring! One thing we knew before we left was that we couldn’t wait to return. However, the rest of Japan was beckoning…