Japan Part One: Tokyo

Wednesday 2 October – Saturday 5 October 2019

Japan has been on my bucket list ever since I read Memoirs Of A Geisha, nearly 15 years ago. I was in my teens, the film had just come out on DVD and I couldn’t afford to buy it so I bought the book instead – despite generally being more of a watcher than a reader.

When my Dad suggested a family trip to Japan for the rugby world cup, I was immediately sold – despite not being particularly into rugby (or indeed sport of any kind). It was an excuse to go and travel buddies to go with. However, I still said yes with some trepidation – I’d been burned by him before. My Dad once called me to ask what I was doing on a weekend in June, saying he could get tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Paris. I told him it would probably be around my exam time but for that trip I would make it work. Once I committed to being free he then revealed that actually he was planning on taking my mother. He’d just wanted to make sure I would be around at home to babysit the chickens. This time, however, it turned out to be a genuine offer.

For reasons I won’t bore you with, I ended up flying to Tokyo separately from the rest of my family. I had a direct flight with British Airways which turned out better than expected. I’ve flown BA long haul twice before and both times there were problems with the in-flight entertainment which left me entertainment-less for 9 hours. That, however, was around 10 years ago and this time I had a pretty smooth flight. I was given a seat with extra legroom when I checked in and a very smiley air steward kindly brought me G&Ts during the flight.

The movie selection may not have been particularly exciting and without thinking I’d bought some of those earphones in the airport that you have to properly insert into your ears, despite knowing I’d find these painful (they had some eco-friendly marketing line and I was trying to be good). I could have just asked the air stewards if they had any spares on board (and on the way back I found that there were some in the back of the seats) but I had no cause for complaint. At least no cause that wasn’t self-inflicted.

Getting through security was easy enough. There were some forms to fill in but the queues weren’t too long and kept moving. Soon enough I was standing with my bag by the entrance to the subway – trying to figure out how to get to my hotel. Travel anxiety started to set in. We’d been told we should buy/rent a portable wifi device since we wouldn’t be able to use mobile data in Japan but never got round to sorting this. Instead, I logged onto the airport’s wifi, and loaded up a route on Google Maps. It turned out that there were enough public wifi spots in stations, restaurants and malls for us to be able to navigate Japan perfectly well but I really did miss the ease of mobile data.

The route from Haneda airport to my hotel in the area of Ginza (which had been described to me as the “Mayfair of Tokyo” but was where we had found a decently priced hotel) turned out to be mercifully easy. I had a little bit of an anxiety moment when my Google Maps simultaneously said I didn’t need to change trains while making it look like I did as the line seemed to change part way through by journey but I took the lazy option of choosing to believe I could get away with not moving and that option didn’t let me down.

I arrived at the Hotel Monterey La Soeur Ginza well ahead of my family and indeed checkin time so I dumped my bags, used the hotel’s wifi to load up Google Maps once again and hit the streets. I’d had a glance for things that looked to be within walking distance and spotted Tsukiji Fish Market. Lots of people had given me recommendations for Tokyo (I found whenever I asked anyone for Japan tips they had an email which they could forward me which had already gone round several people – people had lots of good things to say about the place) and the fish market had popped up a few times.

Although I had walked from the subway station to the hotel, I’d been so distracted by trying to figure out where I was going that I hadn’t really paid attention to the temperature. Now that I was wandering the streets at my leisure – wearing my skinny jeans – I suddenly became very aware of how hot it was. The sun was out and the morning was creeping on. I was melting. I stopped off at a convenience store and picked up what turned to be an unpleasant tasting iced green tea but otherwise I kept on.

En route I passed the Kabuki-za theatre and spotted Tsukiji Honganji – a Buddhist temple that was somewhat different to those I would see on the rest of my trip due to its South Asian inspired architecture. I stopped for a peek before continuing on to the market.

I’d been told to go to Tsukiji Fish Market in the early hours for the live fish auction but I knew that was never going to happen – I am just not an early hours kinda person, no matter what the reason (apparently the auction has actually now been moved, along with the wholesale market, to the Toyosu Market anyway – so I was very glad I didn’t get up early only to find that out).  Still, I was able to peruse stalls with a variety of food – from street food, to boxes of crabs to packs of dried octopus – but not actually buy any of it because I had forgotten to get cash out. This was a shame because it looked damn good but I knew I’d be eating when my family arrived shortly so I just stuck to my wanderings, using my Google Maps to try and spot sites that might be worth visiting.

I found Namiyoke Inari Jinja – a very pretty shrine right around the corner from the market, with rows of lanterns at its entrance. This was was where my successful solo sightseeing ended for the morning. I spotted somewhere called the Time Dome Akashi but all I could find when I walked to the spot on the map was a playground – which I promptly left because I felt creepy. From a subsequent Google, I think this was actually a museum. I was looking for an actual dome.

By this point my family had landed and weren’t far from our hotel so I headed back in that direction via another shrine which turned out to be a very small shrine on the side of the road in a busy area. From a tourist sightseeing perspective, this might not have been much but I liked the fact it was so accessible, for passersby to stop by and pray as they went about their daily routine. I also took a route through the Nissan Crossing which was flagged on my map and so I thought it might be “the” famous crossing in Tokyo (it wasn’t). I picked up the family and we went on the hunt for a place for lunch.

We found somewhere close to the hotel. The restaurant was quiet, underground and the walls were covered in pieces of paper with words written in calligraphy on them. We ordered some dishes to share – they were all delicious. As we ate, the place got busier, with people zipping in for a quick lunch break. Unfortunately I have no idea what the place is called.

Once we were – somewhat – energised, we headed out for some more exploring. None of us had slept well, if at all, on our respective plane journeys but we knew napping was out of the question if we wanted to fend off jet lag and it was still too early to check into our hotel anyway. We decided to head over to the Imperial Palace, as we wanted to do something but weren’t feeling up to walking too far. The palace was set within a park and was within walking distance so this seemed the perfect option. I was left in charge of directions – as I would be for pretty much the rest of the trip – and found a way that would take us passed the godzilla statue – which turned out to be small and disappointing.

Given our energy levels, we soon needed another stop. We found a mall – the Hibiya Central Market – close to the statue and wandered inside. We stopped for caffeine at a cool place called And Coffee Roasters – with tables that involved us taking our shoes off before settling down at them – before attempting to pick up our sightseeing route again. This time we actually made it to the Imperial Palace – only to find that there is very little of the palace that you can actually see. What was open to the public, however, were the Imperial Palace East Gardens. I’m not sure they would make it onto my list of things I’d recommend to do in Tokyo (/I am sure – they wouldn’t be) but we did get to see several of the old guard houses and some fancy trees which was something.

By the time we were done here, we actually could check into our hotel. I planted myself on my bed and then, I couldn’t help it, I did drift off for a quick power nap (my brother had already dozed off on a bench in the imperial gardens so I wasn’t the first to pass out). We did manage to make it out for dinner. We walked in the direction of Tokyo station as the family thought they had seen a good looking street food place round there.

This turned out to be The Farm, which was full of wooden huts – a bar, a grill, a BBQ and places for pizza and desserts. This might not have been a particularly cultural option – perhaps it would have been if could have had the BBQ – but we found seats and had a tasty dinner of four-cheese pizzas, huge onion rings (which I don’t usually like but even I liked these) and truffle fries. Did I feel bad about having pizza and onion rings on my first night in Japan? Yes. Did I regret it? Absolutely not.

Despite wanting to push through, we did have a relatively early night. Although my family crashed until late morning, my body hates me and woke me up in the early hours. Eventually, however, everyone else did wake too so we could start our first full day in Japan.

I didn’t want to dictate what we would be doing on a daily basis so I told my family that my plan was to go over to the area of Harajuku in Shibuya to see something different from the ‘Bond-Street-esque’ Ginza but that I was happy to go off solo. They didn’t have any plans for Tokyo, however, so pretty much went where I directed them (and the same went for the rest of our Japan trip). We arrived on Omotesando Avenue and I started to get a bit of travel anxiety that I’d dragged everyone to a part of town that was actually just the same as where we’d come from. The street was lined with designer shops and apart from some more greenery it felt pretty similar to Ginza.

We were headed in the direction of Takeshita Street (lol), which seemed to be one of the most famous parts of the area, but veered off the main road route we were taking to see if the side streets were any more interesting. Now we found more of what I was expecting. Harajuku is known as a hub for fashion and pop culture and here on the side streets we found an array of vintage clothes shops with California vibes.

As we continued to wander, we found ourselves back at the main road. We were on the look out for somewhere for our first meal of the day and spotted a little restaurant with a line of lanterns hanging outside called Masaya. We ended up with a similar meal to lunch the day before – basically pork/fish/chicken with rice and miso soup – but it was all very tasty.

Masaya was just down the road from Takeshita Street. I’m not sure I can accurately describe Takeshita Street but I think Camden crossed with Hello Kitty comes close. There was lots of pink but there was also a bit of an edge. We walked from one end to the other but didn’t stop to look around any of the shops. I’d later come back here to find a giant candy floss shop (as in a shop that sold giant candy floss – not a giant shop that sold candy floss).

Instead we kept on walking to the somewhat more traditional Meiji Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken and is set in a park close to Takeshita Street. As we entered the park, we found both torii gates and barrels of sake which had been donated to the site.

At this point in the day, we did separate. My Dad and brothers went off to find a nearby sword museum and I hopped on the metro to check out another area – Shinjuku. If you’ve seen pictures of Tokyo, you’ve probably seen pictures of streets lined with lots of bright signs. That’s what I found in Shinjuku.

At first I walked up to Omoide Yokocho, otherwise known as Memory Lane or Piss Alley (yes, the name is the reason I went). I’d heard that I could find some interesting eats here. I wasn’t particularly hungry but figured if it was street food I might be able to find a snack. It wasn’t. Instead there were a lot of little restaurants and bars. It was very quiet, making me think that mid-afternoon was not the right time to have come here but still it was nice to see the little streets lined with lanterns and without hoards of people.

From there I kept up the march and wandered back towards the station and then off in the opposite direction to the one I’d come in. I stumbled across the infamous robot restaurant which I planned to frequent later in my trip (and frequent I did – stay tuned). I did consider ducking in now but I wasn’t quite sure what the whole experience involved (to be honest, I still don’t) and I would rather have done that one with company.

Instead I walked up to the Samurai museum – I know this is not exactly a world away from a sword museum I had chosen not to go to but I’d wanted to go to this one instead as I knew we were limited on time in Tokyo and I’d heard they put on a bit of a display here. It turned out the place is so small that they only allow a certain number of people to go in at a time. I initially decided not to bother as I didn’t know how long the family would be but after a text exchange it turned out that the sword museum they had spotted on Google maps had in fact relocated several years before and they were now in a rather long queue for the observation decks of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building.

I was a little bit miffed – I would have liked to have gone up there. I love a good viewing deck and after my family decided to go up the TV Tower in Berlin when I left our holiday in the city a day before they did, they seemed to be getting into a habit of going to high places without me. I didn’t realise that the government building was actually not far from where I had ended up (welcome to a world without mobile data). At least I did get some more time to play around with so I booked a ticket for the Samurai Museum in about an hour’s time (there had been an earlier slot but by the time I’d gone away and come back I’d missed that one) and hit the roads of Shinjuku again.

I walked in the direction of the Golden Gai – an area full of ramshackle bars (as a friend had described them to me) – thinking I could grab a drink and read a book while I waited. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Japanese don’t like day drinking as much as Londoners do… because at 4pm they were all still closed. Instead I kept wandering and came across an Instagram-able looking place that seemed to serve bubble tea and some kind of milk with some kind of syrup in.

All that stood between me and a sweet, sweet drink was a machine where I’d need to figure out how to order and pay. Needless to say, I could not. Instead I ended up at a 7-Eleven, where I picked up a coke and a pack of koala biscuits filled with chocolate which I’d practically survived off when I was in Vietnam nine years ago. I appreciated the throwback.

After an hour of wandering the streets of Shinjuku – the same streets over and over again – I headed back to the Samurai Museum for my time slot. We were taken around as a group by a guide talked us through the artefacts on display. We saw armour, pictures, swords and helmets. We watched a couple of guys have a mock sword fight and we had the opportunity to dress up in samurai dress (being by myself, I passed). It won’t make the list of my all-time favourite museums but it was interesting and I enjoyed it.

Done at the museum, I had to hotfoot it back to our hotel in Ginza as we had a 7pm dinner plan – passed a more entertaining godzilla statue/head which, now that it had become dark, had lit up and roared. My Dad had arranged to meet an old work colleague who had moved to Tokyo and my cousin and her husband were also in Tokyo on holiday and would be joining us. My Dad’s colleague had picked the place – Chabozu. We managed to find the area okay and bumped into my cousin and her husband en route. The hard part was finding the actual restaurant.

Our maps were telling us it was close but we just couldn’t spot it… at ground level. At some point, someone pointed out a tip they’d heard about finding places in Tokyo – you have to find the right area and, then, look up. Restaurants here are not just on the ground floor. They’re in the basement and on every level up from there. Once we’d started looking up, we soon spotted the sign. The next challenge was getting up to the right floor. We couldn’t all fit in the lift so my brothers took the stairs. They arrived at the restaurant looking a little scandalised. Turns out there was a bar with somewhat different vibes on a level below.

The restaurant was busy and we had to take our shoes off at the door. It turned out my Dad’s colleague had pre-ordered for us (an excellent shout since we can neither read Japanese nor make any sort of decisions for ourselves). What followed was a meal full of lots of small plates – the highlight of which was some tasty, tasty beef. It was here that I realised that the Japanese actually do like a drink just as much as us Londoners. And I realised that when we saw a guy go from lying down on the bench at his table to falling off the back of it. All in all – from the chat to the food to the other patrons – it was an entertaining night. We took the stairs back down and passed the bar with waitresses dressed as bunnies on our way out.

The next day we were set to leave Tokyo for Kyoto. I had two options ahead of me before I left. Either I went with my family to Tsukiji Fish Market for breakfast, which I had already been to but which I hadn’t eaten at, or I went to relive my childhood with a visit to the Pokemon Center DX store. My initial idea was to get up early enough to hit them both but I’m not a morning person so of course that did not happen. Instead I decided to stick with my family. I figured I could hit the Pokemon store when we came back to Tokyo at the end of our trip (spoiler, I did not do that either).

I didn’t regret my decision though. Tsukiji Fish Market was so much busier than my first visit so I was happy I’d been there before but now I got to try the food. We spent a while figuring out what we were in the mood for before settling on a sushi restaurant called Sushizanmai. We were sat at the bar which ran alongside the open kitchen so we could watch the chefs at work while we waited for our food.

Sushi was one of the reasons I was excited to go to Japan. It’s only been relatively recently that I’ve actually started liking sushi but now I’m here for it. However, I quickly realised that there is a big difference between the sushi you get in Itsu and the sushi you get in Japan. I wasn’t quite ready for the latter. But I did have the best salmon rolls I’ve ever had here.

Now it really was time for us to hit the road. We’d been told that Japanese train stations were intense and we’d need to give ourselves some time to find our way to our platform. This turned out not to be completely true. Japanese train stations are indeed intense so giving yourself time is a good idea but they are also set out pretty logically and there are station guards around to show you the way.

I’d heard of Japanese efficiency when it came to trains so I was a bit surprised when our bullet train (which on the inside looked like a plane cabin and on the outside looked like some kind of sea monster) just sat in the station with the doors closed while people queued and queued and queued, waiting to get on, as our departure time ticked closer and closer. In England we love a good queue but that love goes out the window when it comes to public transport, when it’s every man for himself. In Japan, that is not the case. There are even lines on the ground on the platforms for people to line up in between.

I didn’t think there was a chance the train would leave on time now, given the amount of people waiting. But then the cleaners got off with a few minutes to spare, guards stood by the doors and bowed to us as we passed, the platform full of people filed inside, the doors shut behind us and we left bang on departure time. We were not in London anymore.

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