Jumping into a 5 night stay in Tokyo following a ski trip in the mountains, our Japan trip was full on to say the least! An explosion of new experiences and culinary sensations. Oh and an overload of cuteness, especially in Tokyo. Our eyes were wide open the entire time and the following phrases became common place between Derek and I, ‘did you see that?’, ‘Yah I saw that’. ‘Incredible’. ‘I know wow, right!’.
The Japanese appear to be very good problem solvers. Vending machines on the street to satisfy hungry people, lifts for motorbikes, seats on the bullet train swivel around so patrons are not travelling backwards (I think?), toilet seat heaters warm your toosh, ice packs in cake boxes, cat cafes for those that do not have pets and so on.
I was a bit weary about burning a hole in our pockets however found holidaying on a budget in Tokyo was surprisingly not all that hard and very comfortable actually. While accommodation and trains formed an expensive segment of the travel itinerary, there were oodles of low cost alternatives like Ryokans and overnight buses (if you have a bit of time up your sleeve). We were always eating and although the plan was to use the apartment kitchen to cook meals, we found loads of places to eat out on a small budget and only used the kettle to make a cup of tea at night. At the end of our trip and killing a bit of time at the airport I wrote a post of travel tips for Tokyo here.
Every facet of Tokyo is excitingly different to a westerner, Tokyo remains entrenched in its own culture with a few global influences. I think Dominos pizza has made it into the market now. Wandering through the city with traveller eyes, I was amused by the anime billboards and also George Clooney’s head on many advertisements, cool gadgets, efficient train systems, nifty vending machines and funky clothing, but, I suspect life is faced paced in Tokyo with long working hours. We would see commuter’s dozing off on the train and intoxicated japanese business men in the wee hours stumbling home in their suits.
I would love to return again and here are a few highlights and photos from our trip.
A small apartment we found on Airbnb in a funky neighbourhood by the train tracks called Shimokitazawa.
Worth the money
The monorail to the man made Daiba Island. We boarded the train on the Yurikamone line at Shimbashi and from here the train weaved around the skyscrapers towards Tokyo Bay. We crossed the water, travelling on rainbow bridge– this part of the journey was pretty cool and I would recommend it for any train buff! Daiba was created by joining several small islands historically used as forts in the Edo period – this was as much history as I could find in the area and it’s noticeably different by the wide open spaces and supersized malls. A few days in central Tokyo, it was kind of nice to have some space. We made the trip across to see the 60 foot tall Gundam robot statue and following some photos with the Japanese television character, we ate Japanese style pork cutlets at one of the restaurants in Diver City Tokyo Plaza. From memory I think the train journey was 1,280 yen return.
The Tsukiji Fish Markets which happens to be the world’s biggest fish markets was as expected, crowded and immensely popular, and we along with other tourists, lined up for about 40 minutes for the chance to dine in front of sushi masters. I couldn’t help but feel the experience was slightly rushed and falling short of the authentic experience I was hoping for, especially after our dining experiences in Nozawa Onsen where we were able to converse with the sushi master. There was sadly little chance of this at the fish markets. Regardless, I was in complete awe at how precise these guys worked. Sushi in Japan we noticed was always made to order, something I really appreciated. Because the sushi restaurants are quite small, seating no more then five to 10 patrons I guess it is manageable. The sushi and sashimi was amazing. And really, how often can you eat sushi made in front of you for breakfast outside of Japan at a fish market?
Tokyo is the ultimate foodie haven and it’s not just about sushi, there is also an astronomical presence of junk food that I feel needs to be mentioned, its simply mind blowing! There is the most respect for food in Japan; I observed exotic fruit wrapped like a prize in the depachikas (shopping mall), patisserie cakes were carefully placed in a box with small ice packs for the train journey home and each region of Japan boasts food souvenirs like the delicious addictive Tokyo banana.
Some of the best meals we ate were below ground under the train station. The ramen stand on a busy regional platform. The takeaway rice onigiri from one of those tiny seven eleven supermarkets – unbelievable. Buttery eel (a bit more expensive) was delectable. Sushi made in front of us within minutes was cool to witness. The sickly sweet crepe stands in Harajuku were wickedly good, try the caesar salad one. Cherry blossom tea. Overflowing sake at the smallest Izakayas. Pork cutlets became a staple meal.
Our first Japanese dining experience took place at Haneda airport. Touching down just before midnight, we dined at the only restaurant open and also where smoking is allowed in the dining room. It was a bizarre (smoking in Perth is publicly banned) experience eating under a cloud of smoke. Smoking and dining appeared to go hand in hand in some parts of Tokyo. We also found MacDonald’s provide a smoking diners an entire dining floor.
On a bicycle. Cycling around Shimokitazawa, crossing through Yoyogi Park, passing under the cherry blossom trees, to the trendy neighbourhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku. It was kind of nice to skip the metro stations for the day.
A few steps away from our apartment was a tiny coffee shop where the guys were 110% coffee centric and whilst we paid close to $5.00 for a cappuccino, our coffees came out with impressively artistic coffee art etched in the froth. The coffee in Tokyo was superb and the Segafreddo chain stores served up a decent cappuccino to go along with a combination meal, if you like.
We visited a cat café in Shimokitazawa. A place where you can sip on a soda or coffee, whilst spending time with cute fluffy cats that appeared to be very docile and unfazed by the silly little hats place on their heads. Most of the patrons were preteens who I guess do not have pets at home. The place was very clean and the cats are all loved up but there is definitely something in the water. I love cats but wasn’t really sure how to take the experience.
Tokyo is a very walkable city with wide footpaths. We discovered it was quicker walking between train stations, cutting the need to catch two trains.
We got lost
Tokyo Station to me was an unsolvable maze and we found ourselves lost on a number of occasions. Its very layout is unimaginable and so very incredible, networks of shops and restaurants underground and even after the ticket gate. Shopping malls connect to all corners of the station. Seriously you can easily spend a good part of the day exploring and eating up several decent gourmet meals. We never made it to Shinjuku station which I hear is even bigger, and I’m quietly glad as I prefer the street level scene.
Green Scenery change
Imperial palace gardens, Mejji shrine and Yoyogi Park were a couple of pleasant green spaces in the city. The first two are also historical sites.
Sometimes its the smallest details that you remember the most from a trip. Just as we exited the train station for our apartment was a small izakaya (last photo below), best described as a makeshift bar with two wood benches, bottles of sake, a small hotplate and one big pot bubbling away. It was run by two young guys who didn’t speak much English and as we didn’t speak much Japanese they would give us the ‘special’ menu for westerners. In Tokyo this is the place where we started our ‘predinner’ ritual, so bad. The guys would pour the sake to the point where it would overflow the cup into the plate.