Tokyo: A blow by blow account

We’re back. It didn’t take much discussion to decide that we would start off this trip with 3 days in Tokyo. This vibrant, over populated madness of a city made a big impression last time. We aren’t sure if we want to do completely new things or repeat some of our previous experiences. We decide that we will be spontaneous and make a call each day.

We arrive at Narita at 17:00 after the long flights via Singapore. It is a quick walk to immigration and we are first in the queue. I assume the official wants to see my eVisa and spend time trying to login, whereas he wants to see the immigration card details which I had filled in electronically and received QR codes. He was very patient, even starting to fill immigration forms for us, before I finally get access to the site. Annoyingly I had the QR codes readily available on notes, but forgot. Eventually we are through and then through customs, this time using the QR codes. As we exit into the main lobby, the banks are on either side to change money. Then across to the visitor centre to buy 3 day subway passes, then down to basement to the JR East Travel Support Centre to get our JR passes, book the train to Shinjuku and get Welcome Suica cards. The agent is so helpful and patient, making sure that I know what each of the many pieces of paper and cards are for.

We spend some time trying to get bottled water out of the vending machine using our new Suica cards, initially flummoxed by the technology before realising that the items we were looking for are out of stock. We just filled our bottles from the drinking fountain which was was both easier and cheaper.

We make our way to the Narita Express and wait for the 19:58 train. At Shinjuku Station we manage to exit at the right place and instead of catching a taxi as planned, Nikki suggests we walk the 22 minutes to our hotel.

This a great choice – giving us our bearings and getting into the spirit of Tokyo immediately. We drag our suitcases through Kabuchiko which has a scary reputation amongst tourists. One of the advantages of being South African is that it looks merely vibey and perfectly safe. Our hotel is in a quiet street. The list of amenities in our room is amazing: shower, jacuzzi, sauna, karaoke, king size bed, large TV with multiple channels. We enjoy none of them except the shower and the bed.

Day 1

The alarm pulls us from a deep, jet-lagged sleep. We are a bit befuddled and have to drag ourselves out of bed. Today is a shopping day – specifically shoes and glasses – we catch a subway to nearby Harajuku.

We see our Skechers store and immediately I find the perfect white shoe that I have been looking for. Nikki is not sure if she wants to buy Skechers before she has had a look at Adidas. I ask the assistant to keep the shoes aside for me. There is a large Adidas store nearby, which is closed. We now notice that most stores are closed, we were just lucky with Skechers. Google shows  the Adidas main store is nearby, so as everything is closed we use the time to head there. As we cross the road we see a Zoff (glasses). We had originally aimed to got to the flagship store of Jinn in Shibuyo, but this is very convenient although also closed.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku

We wander through some side streets, passing a tiny eating place that looks inviting, opening at 10:00. The location of the Adidas “head office” turns out to be damp squib. Nothing there. So we walk back to the restaurant, Oreryu Shio Ramen, and wait for it to open. 

We place our order in the vending machine – ramen with mushroom dumplings; Gyoza; pork cutlet and rice. All delicious. 

The Google translation might be a bit strange, but the large sign on the wall of this restaurant captures an essence of Japan. Here is a little eatery in a little side street, yet the the owner is as proud as if he had a Michelin star. We always feel that it is a point of honour in every eating place that they ensure that each patron has a perfect meal and experience. There are no meals hurriedly put together and slapped down.

As you enter any restaurant, you are greeted with a chorus of “irasshaimase” from all the staff, meaning “welcome, please come in”.

My Style Salt Ramen

I have been working as a ramen chef in Shibuya for ten years.
I tried various types of ramen, including Hokkaido ramen, Yokohama lekei, Kyushu ramen, and speciality restaurants, and finally I settled on salt ramen.
Salt ramen is a simple but profound ramen that doesn’t require any trickery. I want to express that ramen is a false way.
Through repeated research I came up with Ore style ramen salt
We used a large amount rice and green onions to create a soup that is full of flavour and sweetness.
It would be a bad idea if now is the starting line and not the completion, but I want to study every day and always hope with the mindset of a challenger.

Owner Kobayashi

Rejuvenated and, now that shops are open, we’re off to the original Adidas store – an amazing multi level store with a great selection. They don’t have Sambas but they do have Gazelles so Nikki buys a white pair that look and feel good. (At time of writing Sambas and Gazelles are in shortage across the world.)

Then we walk back to Zoff and have our eyes tested (a recorded voice instructs you in English) and buy a pair of glasses each. Mine are for reading (with blue light filter) and Nikki’s for distance. Great selection of frames and brilliant service. The frames starting from ¥5000 as advertised don’t look or feel great. Ours are ¥11000 before Tax Free. Still a bargain. 

We get chatting to the assistant and she is astounded that we have to go a optometrist for a prescription to get glasses; as well as what we have to pay.

There is a waiting time of 45 minutes, so we walk back to Skechers to collect my shoes. Like kids in a candy store, we start looking at other shoes. Once again the patience and helpfulness is remarkable. The assistant speaks into her earphone walks to the back, and by the time she gets the there, the shoes have been whipped up from the stock room. We try a number of different styles but eventually select a pair of black slip-on GoWalks each.

We then walk back to pick up glasses, where they double check that we are completely happy, explaining that our eye test and warranty are available at any Zoff for 6 months. An excuse to come back?😀

Not sufficiently shopped out yet, we go off  to UniQlo – how can we not? It is technically fall even though it is 27° and the shop is stocked with warm things. I try on different T-shirts, but I don’t like the cut. The selection of clothes is staggering and we cannot help buying sweaters, long sleeve shirts, polo necks, cardigans and jumpers. None of which we can wear for a year. 😂

Now suitably shopped out, we wander down nearby Takeshite Street. The design above the entrance is different to last time and we find out that it is changed on a regular basis, sometime linked to seasons sometimes to events.

It is as wacky as ever. The costumes and merchandise in the stores and their patrons are both fascinating. 

Takeshita Street is probably the most Kawaii street in Japan


In Japanese, the word literally means “acceptable for affection” or “possible to love” and has been translated as meaning “cute,” “adorable,” “sweet,” “precious,” “pretty,” “endearing,” “darling,” and even “little.” Its use varies in Japanese and can refer to babies, puppies, young people, clothing, and even senior citizens. In Japanese, one might refer to one’s own grandma as kawaii, even if she’s not decked out in pink bows and a frilly dress.

There are crépe stores everywhere with long queues. The variety is amazing and the plastic models are enticing, but we know from last time that they are full of cream and sweetness and we don’t want anything to detract from supper tonight.

We see lots of people drinking something that looks quite yummy. We ask one where he got his. This is how you  ask in Japan: you point at the item, smiling and waving your hands in a funny questioning way. The fellow, obligingly goes out of his way to walk a distance down the street to show us.

It’s a boba milk which consists of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, all shaken together like a martini and served with that famously fat straw to accommodate the marbles of tapioca that cluster at the bottom of the cup. We choose their flagship flavour – Roasted Brown Sugar.

Delicious and refreshing.

We are near the Sunjuku Gyoen National Gardens with the annual Chrysanthemum exhibition which is on our list of things to do, but the light is fading, we are tired and carrying bags of shopping. So we decide to go back home and recuperate before dinner.

We set the alarm for 17:15 (luckily) and fall into an exhausted sleep.

Nikki has organised a Wagyu and sake pairing experience for the evening. We are a little tardy leaving our hotel and quite tight on time. The subway is fine but as usual we are never sure which direction to go when we exit. We are really struggling with Google maps. The arrow points where it feels like and you have to walk a while before you can see whether you’re walking in the right direction. Tonight it is all over the place, so consequently, we are all over the place.  Nikki eventually asks at a shop and luckily they are able to direct us. We arrive 10 minutes late, hot and sweaty. We are in fact first. Six more are still expected. They straggle in, all victims of the confusing stations.

Our hosts Andrea (French) and Megan (English) are Ninja Food Tours hosts. Our fellow guests look like they come from India and somewhere in the east. In fact, the Kai sisters are originally from Myanmar but are now doctors in Gold Coast Australia. One couple is from Malaysia and are now in Melbourne, Australia. The last couple are originally from Malaysia and are now in California.

Sake Bar Doron

Sake Bar Doron is a full-service Izakaya, Japanese gastropub in Shinjuku

Izakaya (居酒屋) are casual drinking establishments, similar to tapas bars, where customers order a variety of small dishes of food that can be shared at the table. They are one of the most common restaurant types in Japan and a popular spot for friends or coworkers to meet up for a drinking party or to wind down after work. Also a great dining choice for tourists, izakaya are easily found around train stations and entertainment districts, and range from tiny single-counter joints to multi-story chain restaurants.

We start off with a welcome drink. An easy, slightly sweet sake (pronounced sah-keh, I learn). Then our education begins. We are shown a picture of 4 cows and asked which one is Wagyu. I guess “all of them” which happens to be true – it’s not about colour or what looks fat. Then grading: A,B,C,D are grading that the farmers use; 1 – 5 is the amount of fat/marbling. A5 is the highest grade and therefore most expensive.

We taste 10 sakes with varying sweetness, alcohol content (13% – 17%) and price. The cheapest comes in a Tetrapak carton while the most expensive we are only allowed a single tasting. The rest we have repeat tastings. Hot sake often served with the fattiest Wagyu as it cuts the grease.

We are treated to wagyu (all A5) prepared in many different ways, stewed, minced, seared, culminating in large steaks so marbled that there seems to be more fat than flesh, served with garlic chips.; the last meat course is shabu shabu which gets its name from the Japanese onomatopoeia for “swish, swish,” as each piece of meat is lightly swished around in boiling broth before eating. Each paper-thin slice only requires seconds to cook

We enjoyed getting to know our companions. Glowing with bonhomie, rich food and far too much sake we all stagger off to our subway stations.

As we stroll down the side streets we are fascinated by the number of Izikaya, all well patronised mostly by locals, all with their own specialities. Picture menus are prominently displayed at some that welcome tourists. (Not all do)

Shinjuku is alive and pulsing. Food, neon, and maid cafés. Godzilla’s 80-ton head glowers down at us from the Shinjuku Toho building.

Once again we are too tired to take advantage of all the amenities we have available in our room and sink into our comfortable bed.

Day 2

8:00 alarm today and a little easier to wake up. 

We’re off to the Gotokuji Temple today. Our subway takes us to Shinjuku Station where we find the Keio line quite easily. The line changes colour on Google maps and it says stay on the train. When we get off at the next station and try to get through the turnstyles, the barriers close. We can’t understand why and assume that there is mistake and barge though and use our Suica card on the Tokyu Setagaya  train to Gotokuji

Google maps is still confusing us and we walk right past the road to temple.  Eventually we do a U-turn and find Gotokuchi.

The sheer number of Manekineko cat statues is amazing. They are everywhere. Rows and rows of them – on shelves, on the ground and positioned in trees and buildings as people have tried to find novel ways of placing them. They range from 3cm to 30c and cost between 
500yen and 7,000yen. People write their name and date on them and make a wish.

Gotokuji Temple

Located in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, the Buddhist temple is said to be the birthplace of the maneki-neko, or “luck-inviting cat figurine.”

Although there are many different kinds of maneki-neko raising either their right or left paws, Gotokuji Temple specializes in the right-pawed version of this good-luck symbol.

Legend has it that during the early 17th century, Ii Naotaka (then the second lord of the Omi-Hikone Domain) escaped from being caught in a sudden thunderstorm after being invited inside the temple by a cat that lived there.

To show his gratitude to the cat, Naotaka decided to dedicate the temple to the Ii clan. After Naotaka passed away, the temple was renamed to Gotokuji, from his posthumous Buddhist name “Kyushoin-den Gotokuten ei-daikoji.”

It is lovely  to sit and relax in the shade, undisturbed by crowds.

Eventually we make our way back to the station just in time to see a cat train pass through.

We take the train back to Shimo Takaido. At the gate our subway cards don’t work and the assistant helps us use our Suica cards to get tickets for the Keio train. (Clearly the mistake when we came was ours and we should have gone to the counter to do a “fare adjustment” and not barged through.)

Quite blasé, we leap on the first train that comes along. It stops at Shinjuku. We really don’t want to get off and get lost here again. However, instead of carrying on as expected, it reverses back in the direction we came. We jump off at the first stop. One side of the platform says Shinjuku and the other says Motoyawata.

I think that Motoyawata probably bypasses Shinjuku and takes us to where we want to be. At the last minute I don’t feel like taking a chance so we decide to take the Shinjuku train and get off there. As is our experience we wander around Shinjuku station following what a clearly marked directions to the F train, but still getting lost. Even asking directions doesn’t help much. We go up to the 9th floor and the restaurants, but they don’t look like the simple, light fare that we feel like now. Eventually, starving we take the M subway line for the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. We look around for something light to eat meandering down a smokey alley. We find a couple of pizza places. Nikki says that apparently the pizzas in Japan are really good. Looking at those of the patrons at the few tables outside, they must be right. Soft, thin, puffed up on the outer rim – very Napolitan.

We choose one by ambience. They have a choice of lunch time sets – We have a Quattro Formaggi pizza and a porcini mushroom risotto washed down with grapefruit juice. We salivate at the  crisp white wine and champagne enjoyed at the table next to us. But we are steadfast in keeping it light.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens

Suitably satisfied, we walk down to the gardens. It is already 3pm (closes at 4h30pm) and there is still a queue to get in. It moves quickly though and our Suica cards short circuit it further. ¥500 each. The grounds are packed with picnickers. Today is National Culture Day. They have a lot to celebrate

We follow the signs to the Chrysanthemum exhibition through the park. I somehow imagined that they would be growing in beds. They are in pots in covered stalls. The range is amazing.

We leave at about 4pm as the light is already fading. The queue is still going strong though.  One subway stop and we are back at our hotel for a quick nap.

Piss Alley, also known as Nonbei Yokocho – Drunkard’s Alley – and Omoide Yokocho – Memory Lane is a one stop subway train away. We are really well situated.

As always, it is filled with smiling, happy people. We are lucky and we have learnt from last time. We see two empty seats at the 3rd Izakaya we see, raise 2 fingers to the chef, get the nod and slide into the narrow eatery. No walking up and down trying to find the perfect place (whatever that means).

Green pepper stuffed with cheese, chicken thigh, beef and onion, pork, shiitake mushroom, pork wrapped tomatoes.  All with copious amounts of Ginger Highballs. A perfect meal.

Happy as Larry we leave, still slightly hungry, which is nice for a change. We decide to go to Akihabara. It is quieter than we remember. We have  ice cream cones and watch rows of men in suits playing arcade games. They all look completely bored.

Women are  pushing joysticks manoeuvring grab cranes to pick up fluffy toys (unsuccessfully). They insert 100 yen coin after coin, spending much more than the cost of the toys.

It’s been a long day and we happily return to our haven and pass out.

Day 3

We wake naturally at 7:30 feeling rested. Our plan for today is to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market; then to Shinjuku JR station to book our seats for Wakayama; come home and take our washing to the local coin laundry; rest; go to Roppongi to visit the Maman spider; then up to the top of the Mori Art museum tower to see the cityscape at night; rounding off with our local Korean barbecue – Kouei, which we enjoyed on our last visit.

Our local station – the Oeda line goes straight to Tsijiki Fish Market. Arriving at the platform, I realise that I had not established which station number to get off. There are trains on on either side about to depart. Looking at both pillars, we see that one stops at Tsukishima. Sounds sort of right, made a snap decision and jump on and don’t do any more thinking. When we get off at Tsukishima, we head to gate 1. Surprised that it isn’t A1 as expected and also surprised that not one other person is going this way. At  street level we ask 2 old gentlemen the way to the fish market. They seem a little taken aback, but point helpfully down a road. Off we go. Luckily just around the corner there’s a map and we realise that Tsukishima is not Tsukijishijo, which is another 2 stops down the line. So we walk all the way back to station, take a train for 2 stops and join a wave of people exiting the train at A1. We recognise the road, as well the vendors selling dried fruit and nuts on the pavement.

Tsijiki Fish Market

The market is madness. The first 2 shops at the entrance have queues that stretch around the corner and into the distance. One sells sushi. We can’t see what the other sells, but is clearly very popular. The side streets are jam packed. The crowds are overwhelming and we don’t move for minutes at a time. Each stall has little queues. Each queue hampers the flow of the crowd.  They were well managed though. We are urged along – order, pay and ushered into a tiny area to eat and deposit our containers or skewers. No walking and eating is permitted and no general trash cans.  The side restaurants (one of which I had my birthday breakfast last time) have lengthy queues, with staff taking orders from those in line to expedite the process.

We have scallop skewers and eel skewers to start. Followed by a succulent chicken skewer. We buy pork dumplings while we are waiting in the queue for an authentic drip coffee. We plan to get a Guatemala roast. After 10  minutes in the queue of 5 without the first person moving at all we decide to leave. This is the second time we haven’t satisfied Nikki’s desire to experience a great coffee. We end off with tuna and salmon sashimi. We haven’t managed to find the sea urchin bao bun that is Nikki’s favourite.

We decide to call it a day. The crowds are intense and it’s tiring shuffling through the streets. It is also getting hot.

We go back to the station to catch a train to Shinjuku and the JR East Travel Service Centre. On the pillar we see Roppongi. We look at each other and think that we might not have enough energy to come back to Roppongi later so make a snap decision to go there now. As we exit Rapping station, we  are transported to a completely different part of Tokyo. Affluent, spacious, slower.


It is short walk to Rappongi Hills Mori Tower. The first place we see is Zara and I need more T-shirts.   It is a well laid out store and the fashions are mostly blacks and greys with some white. We are fascinated by the clothes and the clientele. Classy and upmarket. Nikki finds a beautiful pair of latest style trousers as well a crisp white T-shirt. I wander down to  menswear. It is fall and mostly warm clothing is on display. The few T-shirts are oversized as fashion dictates. I am about to give up when I find a marked down one with a beautiful grey/brown shade. It fits perfectly and I find a white one too. 


Maman is fascinating. The spider with its cluster of eggs is awe inspiring. It is difficult to get the perfect photograph, but we have trying.

“Standing at a terrifying 9.1m (30ft) tall and 10m (33ft) wide, it is not the place to arrange to meet an arachnophobe (unless you really don’t like them). If you stand below the creature you can look up to see a cluster of 26 marble eggs held within an abdomen and thorax made of ribbed bronze. The Roppongi sculpture is one of 6 bronze castings which followed the original 1999 steel creation which was displayed in the Tate Modern, London. Other than Tokyo – Arkansas, Doha, Bilbao, Ottawa are also homes to Maman.

“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

— Louise Bourgeois

Now for coffee and something from the patisserie. We immediately see a Starbucks downstairs, but I feel that we need to find an “authentic” experience for Nikki. A bit of up and downing of escalators and going in circles soon results in irritability. We run out of energy to find that perfect experience and decide to go to Starbucks where we have the perfect experience. Delicious coffee, one iced and one hot with a cranberry slice and pumpkin (a nod to Autumn) cheese cake. Sitting quietly, people watching, observing what they wear and musing over what makes them look so wealthy and sophisticated.

The sun has moved slightly so we decide to go up to visit Maman again and take more photos. Mission accomplished, we descend within the centre to the walkway with direct access to the station and realise that we hadn’t taken picture of the giant rose sculpture that we had noticed near Maman. So up we go. Again. So worth it – the rose sculpture is quite beautiful, situated in a landscaped area that provides a view of that part of the city. You can see the Tokyo tower (inspired by the Eiffel Tower and a symbol of post WWII, it was built in 1958 and was the tallest tower in the world at the time.)

We finally catch the subway to Shinjuku. My directions for the Statue of the Suica penguin are proving very useful. The JR Service centre is exceptionally helpful. Patiently they help us explore different options. They make sure we know how to catch the connecting train from Shinjuku to Tokyo station for the Shinkansen to Wakayama. The 9:00 is fully booked, so select the 8:03. It too is quite full and we cannot sit together for the leg to Shin Osaka. (Lesson learnt to book Shinkansens  well before). 

We take careful note of the route we take from the JR station to the F line subway station as we will have to retrace this on Sunday when we will have neither time nor energy to drag a heavy suitcase in the wrong direction. It is quite a walk. Imagining this on Sunday, Nikki says “Taxi time”. What a good idea. In fact there is no better idea.

Back home we start packing what should go to Wakayama and what should be forwarded to our hotel in Hiroshima.

We take a dark and a light load to the laundry. We manage to get 2 top loaders, they have automatic soap dispensers in the machine. ¥300 for the bigger one and ¥200 for the smaller. 30 minute cycle, so we decide to go back to our hotel, 2 minutes away to carry on packing and planning.

Washing finished and clean and we pop it into 2 dryers. Bloggers say that the machines in Japan are not as quick and powerful as those in the States. 😳 However, 8 minutes and most things were dry. We put the items that were not quite dry together into one machine for a further 8 minutes – all dry. Certainly much more powerful than ours back home.

Now that we have clean clothes all round we can continue packing. We realise we need clothes for 8 days. Bearing in mind we more or less only brought clothes for 8 days we need to take more to Wakayama than we thought. We decide to take Nikki’s bag, which is bigger than mine. It is a tight fit and Nikki’s bag is quite heavy. So now we can send my bag, which is full and the carry-on bag (not so full) to Hiroshima. The whole process has taken about 2 hours. Clever us for changing our plans. We take our bags to 7 Eleven for the kitty cat forwarding service. ¥1690 per bag.

Supper time – 6:00. We are starving and looking forward to dinner. Kouei are full, but have space at 7:00. We decide to shop for our train trip now rather than after dinner. Nikki has been craving the famous sandwiches sold at convenience stores. We go to Lawsons and get chips, chocolates, lemon drink and a sandwich, then to Family Mart to see if they have a shower cap, then to 7Eleven for more sandwiches. They all look delicious. Soft white bread with interesting fillings – soft boiled egg, ham and cheese, broccoli and shrimp, chicken and egg, ham and lettuce, whipped cream and mandarin orange. Yes, whipped cream. (Nikki ended up leaving these behind in our bar fridge by mistake 😭).

We walk back home to put everything into the fridge, relax for a while and then we are off to dinner.

Kouei Korean Barbecue

Kouei is as atmospheric as we remembered. Ox liver, Wagyu short rib, pork chop, chicken thigh, green salted chilli, shiitake mushroom, eggplant,  barbecue rice and large fresh red tomato slices. All washed down with 5 Jim Bean whiskey highballs. Hard to choose favourites, but the seared ox liver was special.

Back home, a quick shower before collapsing.

The alarm jars us out of a deep sleep at 6:30. 

The owner is waiting for us as we come down stairs (we are convinced that we there are cameras everywhere – they have our key ready as we approach the reception every time). The taxi is on its way. We are invited to sit and wait inside and then escorted into the taxi. He waits to make sure that we are safely on our way, bowing deeply, before going back inside. What an amazing stay.

The streets are quiet at this time and on a Sunday. We are dropped off at the entrance of the JR station. We soon realise, this isn’t the same entrance we had planned so carefully the previous day. We have time though and the signs are reasonably clear and with not too much backtracking we find signs to the Shinkansens. It gets a bit confusing with many green signs to North bound trains, but no others. Eventually we ask a staff member and he points us to the blue signs, none of which say Shin-Osaka. We follow these and get the main entrance of the Central bound trains and see Hikari 503 at 8:03 listed (platform 16). We grab a drip coffee and locate our seats with time to spare.

As always, Tokyo has been extraordinary. It still amazes us that cities that have comprehensive transportation systems still require so much walking. There is just so much to see, and although we had resolved to do less (and we did do substantially less) we still managed to rack up many steps.



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