TOKYO: 50 SHADES OF GREY

Our Tokyo stopover was always going to be different, in many perspectives – not least because Japan in itself is one of the most unique nations in the world but also because it marked for us a significant time in our travels. Having spent months travelling around Asia, Tokyo was our last stop before the big transpacific flight to Latin America (the flight itself was something I thought I would never experience in my life). Then there was the change in climate – as soon as we left the airport following our landing in Tokyo, the fresh and cool spring air was a welcome change after all the heat and humidity of South East Asia. The early morning and evening temperature would drop as low as 5 degrees Celsius, and we walked around the narrow streets layered up in all the clothes we had to keep us warm. I don’t know whether it is to do with the weather or the fact that we slept under duvets again (perhaps for the first time in months!), but a feeling of cosiness followed us throughout our whole time in this city. I am sure the size of it all contributed to it also – everything was considerably smaller: houses, windows, doors, cars and even people! It is strange to think that we were wandering around one of the biggest cities in the world so culturally different to what we have known all of our lives, and yet felt the most safe and comfortable we had for months.

We spent 4 days in Tokyo and it must have been the busiest days of the last year but I hate to think how much was missed and overlooked. This giant of a city is like a buzzing beehive of business, culture and arts, and each small neighbourhood or district has lots to offer – you just need to know where to find it! Perhaps it is the Haruki Murakami’s novels I had read or the documentaries I’d watched about the unique Japanese culture, but there seemed to be this feeling of mystery in the air that made you wander about the extraordinary that happens inside millions of ordinary grey buildings.

The below guide is just a scratch of the surface of what Tokyo has to offer but should you find yourself here for a small period of time, it might help you in making the most of your days. We stayed in the Asakusa district – one of the most affordable areas when it comes to accommodation, however still pretty central and convenient to travel from. They say it has the most Kyoto-like feeling in the whole of Tokyo, with traditional craft shops and street-food stalls dotting the neighbourhood, and women floating through the small streets dressed as Geishas.

MONDAY

We landed well into the afternoon on a Monday, and went straight to the airport tourist centre to confirm our route to the hostel (we had read a number of different recommendations online and wanted to make sure we choose the simplest one of them!). A young worker started to talk us through the Tokyo train map but got confused about the route and, very embarrassed, invited her supervisor over to help out. We smiled and thanked both of them profusely, however this small incident had caused so much stress to the younger lady she kept on apologising and blushing, and so did her senior. Whilst we found this unnecessary, we later read that culturally Japanese are very shy people and even if they can speak English, they often do not even attempt it due to the risk of offending a person they are talking to or embarrassing themselves. Needless to say, we continued to be exceptionally polite and smiley throughout our remaining days!

We did not have much of the day left by the time we made it to our hostel and settled in, however the convenient location right in the centre of Asakusa meant we got a chance to explore the local area, and the main attraction of Asakusa – the Senso-ji Temple. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of the most significant – even though it was bombed and destroyed during the World War II, it was rebuild and till the present day stands as a symbol of rebirth and peace to Japanese people. According to Wikipedia, it is also the most widely visited spiritual site in the world with over 30 million visitors annually!

We spent the evening wandering around the neighbourhood and the main vending – Nekamise – street looking at the traditional produce being enjoyed by the locals and visitors – strawberries dipped in yoghurt, green tea, melon bread, grilled seafood… We were mesmerised by all the small shop and restaurant entries, which you could just about differentiate to understand what it was. Unusual decorations in the store windows left us intrigued about what we could find inside.

Hungry after the long day and a heap of first day impressions, we were on a hunt to try some of the world’s best cuisine. Unlike anywhere I have been, Japanese restaurants are more specialised than you would expect – very often, they do not even have menus as there are only one or two items being served. Depending on what you fancy on the particular day, you would go to a sushi bar, a tempura restaurant or a café that serves yakitori. We went for a classic and after some research Rhys had found a small bar known in the area for its high quality ramen. With only ten spaces around the food preparation area, we had to wait for two seats to free up and drool over the sights and smells coming from inside. In the meantime, the vending-type machine outside outlined the few options of ramen that you had to choose and pay for before entering to get tickets, which we later passed onto the cooks inside. With most ingredients already prepped up, it only took them a couple of minutes to serve us the best bowl of ramen I have ever had – a perfect ending to our first day in Tokyo.

TUESDAY

Before leaving Asakusa to explore the wider Tokyo, our first task of the day was to buy the tourist travel cards. One often misconception I found whilst reading about travel in Tokyo and speaking to some of the travellers beforehand is that you must get a train pass that covers the well-known JR line in Tokyo. JR line is a circular line around the centre of the city covering all of the most-visited stops, including Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Tokyo and others. However, all these stations can also be reached by using the Tokyo subway, a different train network, however as fast and convenient and also one that offers travel passes for 24, 48 and 72 hours for a fraction of the price. The three-day ticket we purchased cost us just below £12 per person and allowed us to travel everywhere in the city, including both airports however with an extra fee covering the additional distance outside of the regular subway lines. One thing to note should you be purchasing this is that a tourist office will require your passport to process these passes.

Assakusa tourist centre is a new modern multi-storey building not only offering regular tourist information and travel services downstairs, but also exhibitions on other floors and a viewing platform with a café on the top floor of the building. The first glance of Tokyo from above surprised us a little bit – the vibrant small streets we had just walked through became a part of one big grey cityscape!

The Shibuya district was at the top of our sightseeing list and so we headed straight there. Outside the station, the first stop to draw our attention was the Hachiko statue. As most of us might know from books and movies, Hachiko was an Akita dog who lived in Shibuya with his owner Ueno back in the early 20th century. He would wait for his owner outside the Shibuya station every day after work until sadly Ueno died whilst at the job. Nonetheless, Hachiko continued to wait for his owner outside Shibuya station for ANOTHER 10 YEARS and not surprisingly, since has become a symbol of loyalty and fidelity in Japanese culture.

Right next to the square where Hachiko proudly sits being stroked by thousands every day, the famous Shibuya crossing attracts locals and visitors alike. The unique multi-road crossing is known for the way pedestrian traffic is controlled – the red lights force all vehicle traffic to stop allowing people from all sites of the road cross the junction in any direction they want offering quite a view! There is (not surprisingly at all!) a live feed of the crossing which you can watch on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5U4AEiLt5U

Conveniently located on the second floor of the building right at the junction, a Starbucks is the perfect place to observe this phenomenon and take a break from the busy streets of Shibuya. Although be prepared to queue to order and then queue again to get a spot by the window!

Given how busy Tokyo is, it is not always easy to find places to eat – restaurants are often hidden away or do not display menus making it difficult to gage the prices and / or even types of dish they offer. Therefore we advise doing a little bit of research or getting recommendations from hostels before you go out for a bite. Keen to explore as much of Tokyo as we can, we chose a quick ‘Yo Sushi’-type of place in Shibuya but were sat in the queue again with lots of office workers trying to get their lunch. Rhys was particularly entertained by the fact that you do not only get food by picking up a dish from the conveyor passing your table, but can also order something from the wider menu that is delivered on a different line straight to your table!

In the afternoon, we headed away from Shibuya to explore Harajuku and Cat streets known internationally as a centre of Japanese youth culture and fashion. From quirky vintage clothing shops to more traditional upmarket brand stores, the area is filled with fashionable young Japanese sipping on drinks from one of the trendy cafes dotted around.

The streets lead into the busier and slightly more touristy Takeshita street showcasing more of the Tokyo’s pop culture – lots of game and cosplay shops line the long narrow pedestrian avenue with some popular food establishments along the way. We tried the waffle pancake dessert with cheesecake and ice cream filling – well-deserved after a long day of walking!

On the way back to our hostel in Asakusa, we swung by the Hoppy street, known for its downtown atmosphere and izakaya-type restaurants, likened to English pubs and Spanish tapas bars. They are always filled with after-work locals and curious tourists wanting to explore some of the more local side of Tokyo. The name of the street comes from the popular drink served here – Hoppy is a beer-tasting mixer that is added to a mug shochu (similar to better-known sake) and is often the reason for the crowds here. We absolutely approve.

WEDNESDAY

The first half of Wednesday saw us heading back to Shibuya to explore the famous Yoyogi Park and, of course, Meiji Shrine. The Shrine was built at the beginning of the 20th century and dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. As many others in Tokyo, the Shrine was sadly destroyed during World War II and later rebuilt in the 60s as a result of public funding.

The Meiji Shrine is the most famous place to prepare for worship of the New Year – also known as hatsumode. Nonetheless, it receives millions of visitors all year round and the time we were there was no different. A popular thing to do here is to support the Shrine by purchasing one of the votive tablets – these are small wooden prayer cards that visitors use to write down their wishes and hang on one of the special display structures on the grounds of the Shrine.

The Meiji Shrine grounds and Yoyogi park are adjacent to each other and together form a massive green space in the middle of the city – it houses hundreds of different types of plants that have been brought by public from everywhere in Japan as a part of the funding efforts following the destruction of the Shrine.

However, the part that drew most of our attention was the Meiji Shrine Inner Garden. Whilst the park and the Meiji Shrine are free for visitors, the garden also known as Yoyogi Gyoen asks for a small fee that goes towards maintaining the area.

Hidden away from the city, the garden offers a peaceful and tranquil escape from the bustling crowds at the Shrine. Narrow paths weave around the big pond and small hills surrounding a beautifully built teahouse with large windows at the back – it is believed the Emperor built the house for the Empress Shoken for a resting break in between her walks around the garden which she enjoyed so much.

Moving back into the busyness of central Tokyo, we set to explore the Golden Gai neighbourhood in Shinjuku – a network of narrow alleys and passageways, this small area contains over 200 bars and restaurants and is famous for its nightlife. However, following some food recommendations, we visited Golden Gai for lunch – a small corner restaurant serves yet again one type of food that is a ramen with tempura vegetables, and is evidently popular amongst the local office workers who kept on flushing in from the busy streets of Shinjuku. This is the first time I was struck by how solitary Japanese people are – all of the suited men came on their own, were sat around the bar quiet and quickly slurped their ramen keeping their heads down before shooting off back to the office (interesting fact: the louder you slurp your ramen, the more you are showing to enjoy it!)…

Making the most of the sunny day, we set to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which offers free access to its top observation deck. We were not the only ones aware of this perk and, before getting up to its 45th floor, got to enjoy the view of the building’s façade whilst in the queue for one whole hour!

When we first told some of our friends about having a stopover in Tokyo, they pointed out to us we were very lucky to be travelling at such a time – April is known to be the cherry blossom season and whilst it is not usually known in advance which part of the month it will happen, plane tickets and accommodation prices usually skyrocket for this time of year. Whilst we did not necessarily feel the difference in pricing as Tokyo in general was much more expensive than all other destinations on our trip beforehand, we were pleased the time was on our side – the blossoms were everywhere! To get the most of the experience, we headed to the well-known Shinjuku Gyoen park for the sunset hours.

I feel like I cannot fairly describe the joyful vibe that we felt in this park – lots and lots of Japanese people enjoying the Sakuras by taking photos, walking underneath the blossom-heavy trees and setting up picnics. We joined in with the mood and spent a couple of hours admiring the sheer amount of cherry blossom we would have never seen in one place before.

Shinjuku is an area of importance for Tokyo, rivalling its historical centre of Ginza, not only due to the government being located in the area but also by its administrative and business importance. Besides, it has grown to be a hotspot for the young with all-night entertainment centres and accessible bar districts, such as the earlier mentioned Golden Gai. As it got so dark in the park we could not see the cherry blossoms anymore, we set out to explore Shinjuku and its night scene.

One of the places popular amongst all ages are so-called game stations – we visited Taito which is a multi-storey building full of slot machines, video and other game stations set to fulfil one’s every wish. I had never ever in my life seen so many machines – 6 floors of games were categorized by area and offered arcade prize, music, racing, combat, shooting and other entertainment. What surprised me most, however, was the masses of suited office workers visiting this place – they walk in, pick up an ashtray and a wet wipe from the welcome table at the front of each floor, and sit at the game machine for hours and sometimes even through the night. Yet again that day I remembered the article I’d previously read labelling Japan as the loneliest nation on Earth. There sadly is some truth to that.

THURSDAY

We started our last full day in Tokyo early to make the most of our time – by this point, we realised how much we loved the city and were very reluctant to leave! The sunny day was perfect for visiting the Imperial Palace Gardens. Whilst the large green area in the Chiyoda district is the official place of residence for the Emperor of Japan and contains the main palace as well as the private residences of the Imperial family, the large grounds contain beautiful gardens and a massive park with a view of Tokyo skyline.

Whilst the blossoming sakuras make it feel like everyone is anticipating the coming summer, the nature in Tokyo in general created a vibe of autumn to me. The hues of browns and green dominate the palette and the particular types of coniferous trees popular here in Japan fit into this notion very well. It made me feel very nostalgic for a European winter.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. In fact, the actual vendor market, which at the time was the largest fish and seafood market in the world, was closed in 2018 however the outside area surrounding the building remains popular amongst visitors and locals with an array of food stalls and fresh seafood restaurants to choose from.

Located in the upmarket Ginza area full of high end boutiques, the busy narrow alleys of the market with lots of people enjoying seafood right on the pavements felt a little out of place. Nonetheless, it is a perfect place to visit for a lunch hour – what I especially enjoyed was that most vendors offer small portion / one-bite tasters which allows you to try out many different things before you have had enough!

Even though Rhys and I are truly dog people, to visit a cat café has always been on my things to do whilst travelling, and what a better city to do it in than Tokyo!? There are plenty to choose from and we headed to one back in Asakusa on our way back to the hostel. The flat-like café made us feel like we are in someone’s home, never mind the dozen cats snoozing around all over the place! Was it fun and interesting? Yes, of course. Would I do it again? Not sure I would go out of my way for it.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering around Asakusa again on our last evening. Even though we walked through the centre a few times a day on our way to and from the subway station, there is so much to see on each corner it does not become mundane.

We decided to try okonomiyaki for our last Japanese dinner and headed to one of the best rated restaurants in Asakusa for just that. Okonomiyaki – is a type of a savoury pancake that you cook yourself on a heated plate that is placed on or instead of a table in a restaurant. The ingredients are presented to you once you have made your choice on the menu, and instructions are usually also provided as well as help from the assistants at the restaurant. Okonomiyakis usually contain some vegetables, meat, eggs and perhaps noodles, and are served with a special mayonnaise-like sauce. The place we went to was very small and cosy, and all guests were sitting on the floor cooking their pancakes whilst enjoying a cup of matcha – and so did we!

We took a long route back home that night via Sumida park in Asakusa. The park stretches on either side of the river Sumida and, of course, is famous for its cherry blossoms reflecting into the water. We did not know this but only some of the parks in Tokyo are open in the evenings and only few light up their sakuras at night! Sumida does!

I had not realised until then how seriously the locals take this time of year and how much they like to enjoy it  – all banks of the river were busy with groups of people having picnics and drinks. Everyone was super prepared – the Japanese were carrying large covers for the grass, picnic chairs, boxes (and boxes!) of beer and wine, as well as baskets with food and other refreshments. It was such a different vibe from the lonely office workers I had observed the day before, and made me reconsider some of the impressions I made of the people of Tokyo.

FRIDAY

We dragged out our last morning as much as we could – had an early breakfast, visited a local bakery and watched the city through the train window on our way to the airport soaking in every detail along the way. Before we knew it and without a sufficient time to reflect on our adventures of the past few days, we were eating burritos on our flight taking us to a very different part of the world…

RHYS AND GABS’ TOKYO HIGHLIGHTS

  RHYS GABS
Food Tough choice, but the ramen stole the show. I could eat it every day Ramen of the first evening
Drink Hot tea (in a plastic bottle from a vending machine?!) Green tea
People Drunk business men after every work day Hostel staff – the most helpful and smiley guys!
Place Shibuya crossing Meiji Shrine Inner Garden
Experience Visiting Taito game station. It’s some people’s reason to live! Okonomiyaki restaurant
Culture shock Everyone is polite to a fault Suited Japanese men at Taito game station smoking and playing video games for hours at a time
Any other Everything worked. Everyone was friendly. The food was incredible. Transport was great. The accommodation was amazing. Everything is clean. There is so much to see. I can’t believe I didn’t want to go to Japan sooner Japan is now the top country I want to go back to

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