9-26 April 2014
Probably one of the more longer trips we’ve done and quite easily the most expensive. It was quite hard to plan what to see and do as there are plenty of choices. References: Japan Guide is a one-stop shop packed with ideas. HyperDia was indispensable for checking intercity train times and which platform to go to.
Tokyo is a city of ironies: smoking banned on the street, but you can smoke your heart out in a lot of indoor places; on the media we see colourful clothes and extreme fashion, but they highly prize uniformity and you can see throngs of schoolchildren looking so much alike down to their hairstyles, and the office workers in black suits; they are very courteous to a fault when they serve you, but they act like nothing happened when they step on your toes in the subway. So many people wearing masks, though it did not bother me. But I also saw a lot of people taking pride in their work. And they take their emergency training seriously that handbooks are always present in hotels and emergency alarm buttons are found everywhere (even in toilet cubicles).
An incident in the subway – a sick man fell down onto the laps of a group of older women. None of them dared touch him, people cleared out and he was left on the floor. I had to stop myself approaching as it seems I would be breaking a rule. Men hurried out to alert staff. He got up with everyone staring but keeping clear. Only the staff dared touch him. I do wonder if Tokyo citizens are mostly hypochondriacs.
9 April. It’s going to be a really long flight to Narita (more than 12 hours). Virgin Atlantic was not exactly as expected. Service was not really any different in economy. Better seating layout, slightly better food, drinks always available, cheap-looking amenity pack, no footrest, same uncomfortable chair, blankets that leave your clothes covered in red fibers, old entertainment system, they don’t wake you up for meals (not always a good thing). Hardly slept.
10 April. Arrived at Narita. First meal of gyudon (beef strips over rice). Found a free bus to go from Terminal 1 to 2. Rented a miFi at sky (JPY 1k/day 3G unlimited use). UK 3G phones work fine in Japan. Waited for sis in law’s plane to arrive. Bought Narita Express tickets from the JR offices at the airport (JPY1,500 discounted when you show your foreign passport), credit cards accepted. There are plenty of ways to get to Tokyo from Narita. N’EX was relatively fast (limited express is under 1 hour) and cheap and runs direct to Shinjuku, our final stop. The airport and train station are well signed in English.
Staying at Shinjuku Granbell Hotel (google map location). JPY21,600/night for a triple room with loft. 12th floor with a view of Tokyo. As expected, it was a small room, with not much space for storing clothes. But the loft helps a bit, offering extra privacy for 3 people (but you can’t stand whilst on the loft). It was immaculately clean and well stocked with toiletries and water (always appreciated as this is the first thing we need). And as with most hotels in Japan, toilets are high-tech – heated seats, bidet functions with dryer. Vending machines on ground floor, coin washers on 2nd floor, ice machine on each floor. Hotel was some 15min walk to shinjuku station with plenty of shops and restaurants along the way. At 12th floor, you barely notice the busyness of Shinjuku nightlife. It was comfortable and the staff the most welcoming and helpful in Tokyo. The toilet does have a window, but comes with a curtain, so privacy has not been an issue (i actually emailed the hotel and asked about this).
After settling in, we went out to look for a cat cafe. We found Calico cat cafe, at the 6th floor of a building off Yasukuni Dori (google map), and you have to look up for the cat cafe sign. You pay by the hour and you don’t have to buy drinks/food. Lovely, but indifferent cats who seemed to be too used and annoyed at the constant attention. You’ll be warned which ones bite. Trick here, we found out too late, is to buy treats and the cats will be jumping all over you.
Dinner was yakiniku at DonDon in Shinjuku. Try Japanese beef, really tender and tasty. They understand a bit of english and you can get by as there are pictures in the menu. You’ll be given ice cubes to help control the smoke and fire. And anywhere in Japan, if you’re looking for a recommended restaurant, it’s best to come armed with pictures of the store front or the restaurant’s logo, as more often than not, there are only Japanese characters.
11 April. Bought a pasmo IC at a machine at Shinjuku station. Pasmo is a prepaid card you can use in the trains/subway/buses around Tokyo (we’ve used it in Kyoto subway as well). Saves time in having to buy tickets each time. JPY500 deposit and charged(top-up) in multiples of JPY1k. If it runs low, there are ticket machines inside the station to charge it so you can get out.
We were off to Tsukiji fish market for some of Tokyo’s famed sushi. Most shops close as as soon as they run out of ingredients (12:00 noon is too late). We settle for Yonehana and were handed green tea, miso soup, bamboo shoots, sashimi, unagi, cooked cod and rice. No sushi here, but we were entertained with Japanese language lessons. Fun experience. Afterwards, we explored a bit more of the outer market.
Walked to neighbouring Hama-Rikyu gardens to see if there are any more cherry blossoms left. Found a few trees still in bloom! though we missed the blooming season by about 2 weeks.
Walked to Ginza and had coffee, cakes and people watching at Cafe Miyukikan. Walked around Ginza.
Subway to Shibuya to find the statue of Hachiko (faithful dog who waited at Shibuya station for his owner, who had died suddenly and never returned to their meeting spot). And photographed the famed Shibuya crossing. Not sure why this one is famous, as there are other crossings like these around Tokyo. Walked around Center Gai and entered Shibuya 109 looking for the purikura mecca (no purikuras there). Finally found a purikura one street behind the Zara shop.
Back to Shinjuku for dinner. And found a ramen place. No english was spoken and we had to rely on some of the customers to help us pay and choose a ramen from the vending machine (no pictures too). Ticket was handed to the chef who prepared our ramen. It was worth the extra trouble. The ramen was out of this world.
Passed by Shinjuku’s robot restaurant and saw Shinjuku nightlife in full swing. Considering this is a red-light district, you don’t feel unsafe here (or anywhere else in Japan).
12 April. A late morning start and brunch of tempura at hotel restaurant on the way and we were off to skytree. Didn’t realise the queues here would be sooo long. 60-90 mins wait, but the lines move fast. Should not be a weekend activity, if it can be helped. Lots of shopping areas here and the views are good from the top. Very touristy thing to do, but we had time.
Dinner at a kaiten sushi place at basement of MyBuilding, Shinjuku. Kaiten sushi places are usuallly great for quick meals, and not famed for quality of food. This one was ok. But their sushi was nothing to rave about.
13 April. Asakusa in the morning and we were waiting at the Kaminarimon gate for the shirasagi-no mai. Didn’t see it.
Nakamise street was crowded, but we had a great time looking at traditional food and wares on offer. Sensoji temple was at the end of the street.
We pulled out sticks to find out our fortune. Challenge here is the sticks have numbers in japanese characters which you need to match to a drawer to pull out your fortune from.
We had kamameshi for lunch. You wait for some 25 mins whilst the rice soaks up the broth as it cooks on the table over a paraffin fire. It’s basically a flavoured rice with some meat/fish/veggies.
Subway to Harajuku. Walked to Takeshita Dori street, but it was just packed with people that it would be impossible to browse at the shops. We made a u-turn and headed for Meiji shrine instead.
Meiji shrine was a bit of an escape from the frenzy of the rest of Tokyo. With its rough, gravelled paths, I am amazed to find a few japanese women walking in heels. Trying to wear out their shoes perhaps?
Found a couple of cosplayers on the way out on the bridge from Meiji shrine to the station. I was expecting more of them gathering here.
We had dinner at this cosy-looking restaurant with no english menus back at Shinjuku. Good thing sis in law passed on dinner. We sampled Japanese tapas and raw meat. I had a bit of a fright here as they look like raw chicken fillets (i still have no idea what meat it was, but it doesn’t taste like chicken). We were waiting a bit if they would be giving us a bbq pot, none arrived. Seems like raw meat is quite common here (we had no food poisoning episodes).