So my partner and I arrived in Tokyo just over three days ago. We are spending the Japan part of our travels with another couple, so there are four of us in total exploring Tokyo together.
I’m enjoying Tokyo. My main impressions so far are that everything is incredibly well organised, that I will not, unfortunately, be forming a loving attachment to the local food and that Japanese people are the epitome of politeness.
It’s easiest to split Tokyo by days, because we’re actually fitting a lot into each day. This post will cover the first three days.
So actually, this was basically our first evening in Tokyo. We ordered Japanese rail passes in advance, and collected these at a designated counter at the airport. From there, we took a train straight to Shibuya, the area of Tokyo where that famous big scramble crossing is, and the area where our apartment rental is located.
Shibuya station, as we realised the next morning, is actually very easy to navigate, but in our exhausted state post long haul flight, it took us quite a while that first evening. We realised the maps displayed throughout the station, designed to help us find our way, were not orientated in the way we are used to, with North facing, well, ‘up’. They’re all orientated so that the way you’re facing when you’re facing the map is ‘up’. This confused our sleep deprived brains for a while before we finally cottoned on.
We had specifically packed in such a way that meant that we weren’t lumbered with huge amounts of luggage, so after conquering the map hurdle, the walk to the apartment was straightforward, and this is where we met our fellow couple, as they had arrived earlier than us.
There are many, many restaurants dotted around Shibuya, many very good value for money. I had been dreading the Japanese food prior to arrival, having been under the misapprehension (guilty!) that it would all be seafood based – I don’t much like seafood. This isn’t the case, and the pork-based ramen and dumplings we had on the first evening weren’t too bad.
After this, bed beckoned and we pretty much crashed out.
After a slightly broken night (jet lag) and then a lie in, our first stop the next day was the Meiji shrine, the walk to which took us via the famous Shibuya scramble crossing and through the area of Harajuku, a very fashionable district. A point to note – despite the crossing being extremely busy, with the Saturday lunchtime hordes rivalling the central London peak hours crowds, I never got shoved and was never bumped into. This would not have been the case in London! This really impressed me.
The Meiji shrine is free for the public to explore. It was built in the 1920’s and is dedicated to Emperor Meiji (who died in 1912). Walking around was very pleasant, with signs in English explaining different aspects, from the Sake offerings to the correct way of paying one’s respects at the shrine itself. This was the first time I’d ever experienced any traditional Japanese architecture and garden landscaping, and the architecture especially was refreshingly different to anything I’d seen in Europe or India (the farthest East I’d been prior to Japan). We also managed to witness not one, but three separate weddings taking place on site, which was fascinating! Two brides had on what appeared to be traditional, local attire (different colours though, red for one, white for the other), and the third was in a Western style wedding dress.
Afterwards, we went back the way we came through Harajuku and visited an outdoor rooftop Starbucks at the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando mall. It’s the very beginning of spring here in Japan right now and temperatures can still be a little on the chilly side, so we were thankful for the heaters dotted around the seating area as we enjoyed our coffees and the views.
At this point, we were talking about how we had not yet spotted any of the famous eccentrically fashionable girls said to frequent Harajuku. We decided to pop to the mall next door, Laforet, which looked like it housed the type of quirky clothes shops that might be favourite haunts of such fashionistas, and weren’t disappointed. Now, I’m not very fashionable, but all the different styles on display were fascinating. Lots of ‘no photography’ signs seemed to indicate we weren’t the first tourists to have explored Laforet out of curiosity with no intention of shopping!
After this, we had lunch at what I think was a Thai themed place (and therefore I loved it – yes, the ramen the night before wasn’t bad but I wasn’t – and am still not! – a raving fan). Then, we visited the sky observatory, free to the public, of the Tokyo Metropolitan government building, to catch a view of the sunset. It wasn’t bad for a free experience.
The government building is within the Shinjuku region, famous for its nightlife, and so after sunset, we decided to go for a drink. After wandering around for a bit, we saw several people heading into something called the ‘Donzoko bar’ and decided to follow. A quick Google suggested we try their namesake cocktail – the only things I could tell on trying it were that it contained was some sort of lemon juice and that it was strong. It was a fun bar and we whiled away quite a bit of time (slowly sipping!) there. I noticed a few people smoking inside – there was a blanket ban on indoor smoking in restaurants and bars in England a few years back and I’m so used to that now, I always get a bit surprised when I’m reminded that such bans are not present yet in many countries! Still, it didn’t hamper our enjoyment, it was just something I noticed. The smoking levels are far lower than much of Europe.
After a few drinks, it was, of course, time for karaoke. After locating the guidebook recommended Pasela resort, we paid for an hour in a booth and ended the night with some out of tune but very enthusiastic renderings of our favourite songs. My partner and I adore karaoke, and so of course it was on the list to do in Japan – and we weren’t disappointed.
We dined out at a cheap place in Shinjuku. It was okay; rice and chicken this time instead of ramen. Again, not bad, but I wasn’t enthralled!
Also, regarding the food – at this point, we were noting that fresh fruit and veg did not seem easy to come by (we found out later that this isn’t the case, it’s just a case of knowing where to look!).
Our third day in Japan was fairly relaxed. We began by visiting the Imperial Palace – or more specifically, the East garden of the Imperial Palace, which is free to visit. A tour around the rest of the gardens, we learnt, must be booked well in advance, and the actual Palace itself is only open to the public two days of the year. However, this didn’t really dampen our spirits, because the approach to the Imperial Palace is in itself scenic, with signs in English by the outer walls explaining the history and layout, and the East garden itself is quite pretty, and contains the section where the keep used to be. This part is on a slight hill, and offers a nice photograph opportunity.
There are many cherry blossom trees in the garden, of which only a couple were in bloom when we visited. No doubt in a few weeks time, the garden will be completely awash!
I won’t go into the detailed history of the Palace (you can look that up if you so choose!) but it was an interesting spot to visit, and we enjoyed it.
We had lunch at the famous Ramen Street in Tokyo station. This was quite an experience. There are eight different mini Ramen restaurants lining the ‘street’ and every single one has long queues around meal times. Some of the menus outside are in English, some aren’t – the whole thing is a bit confusing, but definitely worth experiencing. When we finally sat down to some ramen, my third proper Japanese meal, I was once again not overwhelmed by the experience and realised that Japanese food + me were not meant to be!
In the afternoon, we visited the National Tokyo Museum. The entrance fee is reasonable and the museum houses quite a good collection. In particular, my partner was quite interested in the samurai armour and weapons on display. We had read that if one museum is to be visited whilst in Tokyo, this should probably be it. After visiting, I would say this is probably correct – though as we haven’t visited any others, I can’t strictly compare.
Ueno Park, just outside the museum, is good for a walk around and is full of cherry blossom trees – again, in a few weeks’ time when they’re all in bloom, it will look spectacular. Also, dotted all around Ueno Park are various other museums and also the zoo, which we agreed to return to – mainly to see the pandas.
In the evening, I mentioned my unfortunate lack of enthusiasm for Japanese food, so far, and to my surprise, my partner, who is usually open to everything and much less fussy than I am, agreed. So we ended up going for Indian food! I’ve been able to always find Indian food, no matter what country I’m in. However, that’s not to say I’ve dismissed Japanese food altogether, and will continue to sample dishes – I’m determined to try to find something I like! I will say this though – I oughtn’t to have dreaded the food as much as I did do prior to arrival, because it isn’t bad by any means, and I can certainly see why some people love it.
Some random things I’ve learned
- Japanese people are friendly and extremely polite
- The girls in Tokyo always seem to be beautifully made up and have a good sense of fashion
- Many restaurants have a ‘vending machine’ system, where you select and pay for food in advance at a machine
- Cherry blossom season starts late March
If you made it this far, I’m impressed. Thanks for reading and if you’re interested in the rest of our times in Japan and/or beyond, keep checking back 🙂
P.S. If I appear to have misunderstood or misrepresented any aspect of Tokyo or Japan so far, please do let me know. If it happens, it’s not intentional – I’m really loving it out here! Lots to see and do, a safe city, and lovely people 🙂