Known for being both weird and wonderful, the thought of Japan brings stereotypical images of sushi, Harajuku girls, Yakuza, and of course, katana-wielding samurai to mind. I was expecting all this, and more, but instead, I was swept off my boot-clad feet into a world of the unexpected. Obviously, my image of Japan was severely skewed by movies and anime.
For this biancadventure, my Mom and I were travel companions, both eager for some legit Japanese cuisine. She had booked an 8D7N package deal for two, through an online travel agency called ZUJI Singapore, which included return flights from Singapore to Tokyo (Narita) with Singapore Airlines and a stay at Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, for about S$2,660 (US$1,918).
We had landed on a cool evening in Autumn* and had been directed to a bus that would take us directly to the doorstep of our hotel for ¥3100 per person (one way).* But before we left the airport, we inhaled a plate of gyōza (also known as iiaozi), a type of Chinese dumpling, and something we quickly became addicted to during our stay. I’d been craving for gyōza since watching the movie Toilet a year or two ago, so despite having spent our first couple of hours in Japan without even leaving the airport, we had already begun our culinary exploration.
The bus into Tokyo took longer than we had expected and we spent a major chunk of it napping. Between dozes, I’d glance out the window to see gargantuan parking lot complexes and factories. The closer we got to Tokyo, the closer the buildings were to each other, and eventually we found ourselves towered over by skyscrapers and crisscrossing highways. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city seems, how the roads look brand new, and the traffic markings gleaming like they’d just been painted.
*Click here for the exact weather we had to deal with last November.
*Click here for the many ways into Tokyo from Narita Airport.
Our room smelled like it was once a smoking room, though (thankfully) the hotel provided a spray that neutralises the stale smoke stink. The bathroom was clean and predictably functional, with fancy buttons on the toilet for butt sprays and heated seating. Never in my life has it taken me so long to figure out how to flush.* Japanese toilets are complicated. Some even have options for fake flushing sounds and something called a power deodorizer. I’m not sure what that is, but if I had to guess…it’s to cover up the smell of those butt nuggets one may or may not have dropped.
Once we had settled in, Mom gave me free rein with our activities and I happily took to browsing Time Out Tokyo for ideas. I also scrutinised a map of the (Shinjuku) area for places of interests nearby, as well as a Tokyo Subway Route Map. Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku is conveniently located a short walk from the busiest train station in the world, Shinjuku Station. I would recommend getting a Suica card, which many locals use to get from A to B. It’s easy to top up and can be used on JR East trains, subways and buses.
*This how-to on using electronic Japanese toilets would have definitely come in handy.
The chilly days made exploring the city especially enjoyable, as we utilised both our legs and our Suica cards. Vending machines are a common sight we came across, though nothing as out of this world as used underwear (I’ve heard that’s a thing in Japan) was displayed, mostly just drinks. Aside from purchasing water from vending machines, we made a couple of pitstops for a coffee or to snack on sushi during our explorations in many vastly contrasting neighbourhoods.
The Old Neighbourhoods
I desperately wanted to see traditional parts of Tokyo, and not just the skyscrapers around our area, so we headed to the”Ya-Ne-Sen” (Yanaka–Nezu–Sendagi) area. Traditional wooden houses, called nagaya, are littered around these beautiful old neighbourhoods. A harmonious mixture of old and new buildings made our twists and turns like a game of roulette! One of the prettiest we saw was that of Hantei Restaurant‘s, a historic 3-story Machiya-style shophouse built in 1917.
The Newer Neighbourhoods
Strolling through Ebisu and Daikanyama, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. Known to be stylish and hip neighbourhoods, we found ourselves passing high-end boutiques, cafés, and art spaces. We checked out Daikanyama T-Site (Tsutaya Bookstore) and easily spent a couple of hours browsing the selection and admiring the architecture, which has won an award at the World Architecture Festival for the architecture firm that designed it. There happened to be a French-themed flea market that day too!
That Crazy Intersection
On our explorations, we often went “off the beaten path”, but we also visited many of the tourist hotspots that Tokyo has to offer. Infamous Shibuya Crossing, also known as ‘The Scramble’, has got to be the most mesmerising intersection I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve dedicated as much time watching people cross an intersection than I have Shibuya’s. Each time, all cars are stopped, and from all directions, a sea of people surge onto the road and it only peters out when the lights turn green for cars again. Surrounding the intersection, buildings covered in neon signs, advertising billboards, and gigantic TV screens flicker overhead.
Shibuya Station happens to be where Hachiko, an Akita dog famous for his loyalty, would routinely wait for his owner at the end of each day. When his owner died, Hachiko kept returning to the station to await his owner’s arrival, day after day, for the next nine years, nine months and fifteen days of his life. His legacy remains as a statue and mural erected at the station and is closest to the Hachiko Exit. The iconic statue is often used as a meeting point in busy Shibuya.
A Sprawling View
For an amazing panoramic view of Tokyo, we visited the Metropolitan Government Office. The free observation deck on the 45th floor showcases just how sprawling Tokyo really is and, on a clear day, you can even see Mount Fuji! Unfortunately for us, our day had been a cloudy one, but the view is completely humbling. By the elevators, there’s a small table with a rubber stamp and ink for memento’s sake.
Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park and Harajuku
Luckily enough, not only did we see a traditional wedding procession, we were also lucky to experience Shichi-Go-San, a festival spanning 900 years. During the Shichi-Go-San season, or the “7-5-3”, girls who are turning or have turned 3 or 7 years old and boys who are turning or have turned 5 years old that year are brought to shrines to give thanks for their growth and to pray for their futures.
Cute kids were clad in traditional garb from tip to toe, which must have taken hours to do, especially for the girls! Dressed in kimono, their hair intricately done up with kanzashi (hair ornaments), their round faces painted with make-up, and their little feet taking small steps in geta (wooden clogs). It was amazing to see how beautiful traditions still live in an otherwise modern society.
The park itself is stunningly serene, with beautiful lofty trees and wide pavements. One of the largest in Tokyo and located right next to Harajuku, it can get pretty busy but somehow keeps its peace. While we were there, the Meiji Jingu Kikkaten Exhibition was celebrating one of Japan’s national symbols, the chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemums of various sizes, shapes, and colours, were delightfully displayed for visitors to inspect from a distance.
Comparatively, Harajuku is hardly what I’d describe as peaceful. Quirky would probably be a better word for it. I finally got to see the expectedly stereotypical Harajuku girls on Takeshita Dori, which is a crowded and pushy pedestrian-only street mainly marketed for teens and twens. Harajuku fashion boutiques, dessert shops and fast food chains line this street with vibrant colours, patterns, and kawaii-ness so distracting, I unintentionally whipped my hair back and forth.
At one point, I stopped short to take photos of nine cats being “walked” in a stroller. Apparently, the owner, 53-year-old Masahiko Suga is popularly referred to as Kyushu Neko Ojisan, “The Cat Man from Kyushu“, and updates his whereabouts for followers on his social media (Facebook and Twitter). Like I said…quirky!
A Decadent Business District
Each area has its own unique personality, but the one that completely took me by surprise was the walk to the Imperial Palace from Tokyo Station. Everything was so spacious. Wide tree-lined roads, generous pavements and prestigious buildings border the Imperial Palace and its gardens. The 10-minute walk was a pleasant one, unhurried and enjoyed. Unfortunately, we arrived as they were closing up, so we were turned away. We had no opportunity to return, so the Imperial Palace was shelved for next time. The mote was as close as we got to the palatial glory of the Imperial grounds, and we left feeling a little incomplete.
Tori-No-Ichi (The Rooster Festival)
A festival that reaches as far back as the Edo period (1603-1868), Tori-no-Ichi is celebrated annually by worshippers who come to pray for good health, wealth, and business. Originally a harvest festival, roosters were dedicated to Hanamata Washidaimyojin (the god of Otori Shrine, where the festival originated from). The gathered roosters would then be released in front of the most famous temple, located in Asakusa.
Today, crowds flock for blessings and to purchase lavishly decorated and exorbitantly priced bamboo rakes, generally upgrading them to a size larger than the year before, to “rake” in happiness and prosperity for the New Year. Some even have Hello Kitty plush toys on them!
We walked from Iriya Station to Otori Shrine to face a huge crowd lining up along both directions of the sidewalk to squeeze through the main torii gate for a blessing. We joined the line and waited our turn, shoulder-to-shoulder with locals. Painted lanterns decorated the walls and hung like garlands strung above us. Once we’d been jostled into the temple grounds, we side-stepped out of the hoards and scanned the rake stalls, watching how the sellers would animatedly clap and sing as a good-luck rake was presented to the buyer. People from all walks of life gathered, but we hardly spotted any tourists. Because most of the rake stalls sell similar, if not the same, products, we soon settled on a bench to eat edamame and just people watch.
I am so so soooo fond of browsing through supermarkets in foreign lands. It gives me a glimpse of the daily life and norms, and is a great place to pick up stuff you’d have a hard time finding elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, supermarket stuff can even be the perfect souvenir/gift! Japanese supermarkets are in a league of their own, where packaging design reigns supreme, so a lot of their items are already wrapped like gifts.
We stocked up on seaweed, dried bonito flakes, and rice toppings, whilst sighing about all the fresh items that couldn’t possibly survive the journey back. I really wanted to bring a fresh wasabi stem home, but was told they expire within 1-2 days without refrigeration.
Aside from the supermarket and random street shop browsing, I achieved my aim to visit Nike’s impressive Premier Flagship Store in Harajuku and it was glorious. What’s truly awesome about this store is they have design desks, where you can design and order your own shoes, with fabric samples and different coloured threads on display for inspiration. Despite all the distraction, I ended up getting a pair of Air Force 1 Mid 07’s in plain black that I’d been itching to own.
We also explored the quaint back streets of Harajuku, which are surprisingly quiet on weekdays. Popping in and out of small streetwear shops, we ultimately ended up at Kicks Lab, a multi-brand sneaker store with entire walls displaying kicks worthy of drool. I purchased a Jason Markk shoe cleaner kit for my new Nikes here, which is a great product by the way!
As with all of my trips, I took a trip to a post office to purchase a beautiful set of stamps, as well as to Tokyo Kyukyodo to get a couple of postcards. They’re both lightweight and serve as pretty memorabilia!
We must have eaten at least 3 or 4 times a day, stopping at restaurants for mouthwatering meals and izakaya (Japanese style pub) to snack on sushi and gyōza, gorging ourselves with dishes we’ve never tried before. The ones that truly made an impression on us can be found as recommendations below:
- For fresh crab enticingly served in a variety of ways, Douraku is the place to go (we went to the main branch in Shinjuku for dinner). You can order meal sets or à la carte, but pretty much everything on the menu is crab, crab, crab! Sushi, sashimi, boiled, barbecued, or fried, no matter the way the crab was prepared, everything we tried was our next new favourite, especially their specialty, the crab hot pot. Prices are a little on the steep side (averaging about ¥10,000 per person), but some say it’s the best crab in town.
- If you’re a fan of the battered and deep-fried, Tempura Tsunahachi is reputable and famed for their fare. The branch in Shinjuku slid its doors open in 1964, though Tsunahachi was originally founded in 1923. After a spot of waiting under its quaint wooden façade, we were ushered into a narrow room of booths, all of which were occupied except one, and were efficiently seated and served. The tempura was fried to perfection, and the only disappointment I was left with was feeling like I should have ordered a larger set. Sets include a selection of crispy golden vegetables, fish, and shrimp, accompanied by (my favourite) Japanese rice, pickles and miso soup packed with little clams. Prices are also a little on the steep side (averaging about ¥3,000 – ¥4,000 per person), and absolutely worth it.
- For a more unique taste, Enraku Takadanobaba-sou is an izakaya specialising in Japanese fusion that’s definitely worth the visit. Making a reservation is recommended, as this place is extremely popular, especially with the locals. We took the subway to Takadanobaba, and as we walked out, the theme song for Astro Boy blared as our train departed from the station. Exclusive to this station, the song is played to commemorate the fictional character’s “birth” in Takadanobaba. A short walk from the station, Enraku hides away and could easily be missed. I’m not quite sure how we found it. It is extremely small! So small, in fact, that we had to duck in order to enter through the hobbit-sized door. There is no English menu, but we were lucky enough to have come with a local who could order for us. I’d happily recommend it for the neighbourhood feels, the authentic and intimate local atmosphere, and the drool-worthy food. Everything was delicious. Everything.
- Anyone living in or visiting Tokyo needs Sushi no Kiichi in their lives (and their mouths). A short walk from Ebisu Station, it is, by far, the best and most refined sushi I’ve ever had in my life. It is run by Endo-san and was established by his father, Kiichi, in 1985. Endo-san visits the famous Tsukiji Fish Market at 6AM every morning to buy the freshest of fish for the day, and totally disapproved of me eating my sushi with soya sauce and (freshly grated) wasabi because he wanted me to appreciate the flavours without any distraction. Despite the language barrier, we were able to get to know Endo-san and his family better whilst we enjoyed our sushi, and when we left, Endo-san’s wife rushed out with an English-speaking patron in tow, to act as translator for her. As she struck stone with steel over our right shoulders, she explained it was an old Japanese tradition of igniting sparks upon a traveler’s back to drive away evil and bad luck, called kiribi, which we later found out is hardly practiced these days. It was such a sweet gesture and made us feel so at home. The quality of food here is reflected in the price (approximately ¥500 per piece), but it is 100% fantastic, I swear.
- For those of you who know the French beauty product retailer, L’Occitane en Provence, it may come as a surprise to hear that they have a café! They offer Western mains, drinks and dessert. Lo and behold, L’Occitane Café has a creme brûlée platter of five types (¥1,540) – original, green tea, lavender, ginger, chocolate – and by golly, anybody who knows me well enough knows that my favourite dessert of all time is creme brûlée. It was everything I thought it would be, and more.
I hadn’t made any plans to party in Tokyo, but found out that one of my favourite dub/reggae bands, Fat Freddy’s Drop, would be performing at Red Bull Music Academy whilst I was there, and I desperately wanted to see them live. I convinced my friend, Hiro, to accompany me and we started our night by dropping by Punto Punta, a small cute Colombian bar, for Hiro’s friend’s birthday. We then moved on to Bacchus Gallery Bun (pictured below), a bar and art gallery owned by Bungo Morita, an artist and personal friend of Hiro’s. Even though we arrived at Bungo’s after closing time, he graciously whipped up some fried avocado served with wasabi and soy sauce as dip (so yummy), as well as a cold tofu in soy sauce topped with bonito flakes (also yummy), while we sipped on wine (mmm yum).
Hiro had insisted that we wouldn’t have to go to Red Bull Music Academy too early, as it isn’t usually packed, even when there are events. I trusted his judgment and we only headed to the venue around 12:30am, and approached a line so long, it snaked around the block. The bouncers had confirmed they were at full capacity. I was distraught, but there was nothing we could do and we had to abandon Fat Freddy’s Drop, with Hiro especially apologetic.
Instead, he brought me to Air for groundrhythm’s 12th Anniversary, and it was probably the most unusual partying atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. That night, the music was almost ethereal, there was virtually no lighting on the dance floor, and people swayed from side to side instead of danced. An accurate depiction of what I’ve just described can be seen here. It was also my first time being in a club that had lockers for you to keep your valuables in (i.e. handbag, coats, etc.), in exchange for a solitary key on a plastic coil spring bracelet. This concept should be implemented universally! Needless to say, I was introduced to a totally new way of partying and had a great time experiencing something new.
Bar Martha is another place Hiro took me to, on a different night; this time with my mom and a couple of friends who happened to be honeymooning in Tokyo. The bar’s unique selling point is that its walls are filled with shelves upon shelves of vinyl records that are then jockeyed live by their resident DJ, whose turntables are under unobtrusive spotlights. Enjoy the likes of Tom Waits in this moody, dimly lit bar, with a selection of jarred bar snacks and your vice. It’s a refreshing concept that focuses on good music and good whisky.
The only major downside is its service; posturing itself as a high-flying establishment, the treatment we received in the bar was both rude and pretentious. The DJ had the darkest of faces on when he snapped at us that no photography was allowed and we received disapproving glares whenever we went a decibel over their preferred whisper. Although a beautiful concept with an equally beautiful interior, Bar Martha made us feel less welcome than an elephant in a glass shop.
The Day-trip to Kamakura
Hiro urged us to venture out of Tokyo to explore the historical city of Kamakura. When he told us it was one of his favourite places to day-trip and described it as a mini Kyoto, our ears pricked up in interest. For ¥918 one-way, a direct train from Shinjuku Station took us about an hour out of the hustle and bustle of the city, to a prefecture near the sea. We picked up an English map at the tourist centre in Kamakura Station and started walking towards Hokokuji Temple, known for the small-scale bamboo grove that inspires comparison to Kyoto’s famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Though I hadn’t accurately gauged just how far a walk it would be to Hokokuji Temple, we set off across the road at a leisurely pace. Through a simple red torii gate, we entered Komachi-dori Street, Kamakura’s main shopping street. What seems like hundreds of shops line both sides, selling a choice of souvenirs, foods, snacks, traditional crafts, and art. I was really impressed with one shop in particular, called Shato, which sells the biggest collection of washi (traditional Japanese handmade paper) I’ve ever seen, as well as a variety of stationary, and I friggin’ love stationary! A lot of the products we saw in Kamakura we hadn’t seen in Tokyo, so we shopped happily and parted with much of our small change.
We walked through quiet residential areas, passed many German sausage places (I’m actually really curious as to why there are so many in Kamakura), along a stream that had koi swimming gracefully beneath its surface and also stopped for a tempura udon fix. We finally arrived at the temple (maybe 2 hours later?), paid our entry fees, and stepped into serenity.
The largest temperate bamboo species on earth towered over us, with over 2000 moso canes rustling and creaking in the slight wind and a delicate light piercing through the gaps. A path of concrete slabs forked in the middle, one path leading to the tea house and one leading to the rest of the temple’s garden. We gave the tea a pass and continued on our exploration of the intricately manicured Japanese garden. The 880-year-old Zen temple was established to commemorate Ashikaga letoki, the grandfather of the very first Ashikaga shōgun, Takauji, and what a beautiful and peaceful commemoration it is.
We opted to take the bus back into Kamakura, instead of another long walk, and headed for Hiro’s next recommendation, Inamuragasaki. To get there, we would have to take the Enoshima Electric Railway, which was established over 100 years ago! The route is mostly narrow and single-tracked, and the trains are electrically powered by overhead lines. It costs ¥220 one-way to Inamuragasaki, and there are trains every 12 minutes or so. I really enjoyed the ride and would recommend it to anyone!
Sunset on a black sand beach. We got there by electric railway! (Enoshima Electric Railway, founded December 25, 1900) | Inamuragasaki, Japan | November 2014 | #kamakura #japan #inamuragasaki #blacksandbeach #sunset #enoshimaisland #sagamibay #travel #explore #discover #adventure #learn #nature #chasingsun #wanderlust
A short walk from Inamuragasaki Station, we approached the beach as the sun was setting. Rolling waves met the black sand beach as the wind tried to blow us over, but my mom and I parked ourselves on some steps and watched the skies blaze orange hues and fade to dusk. Unexpectedly spotting Mount Fuji ended our day on a sweet note and, knackered from the long day, we looked forward to a good night’s rest.
Tokyo is a terrific blend of heritage, culture, and modernity. My visit feels unfinished because it’s the type of city that warrants a visit in each of the four seasons, the type of city so large that you’d need to live there for a relatively extended amount of time in order to see “everything”, the type of city I definitely want to come back to. I loved it, thanks Mom 🙂