In March 2016 we travelled from London to Japan for an amazing two week holiday with thirteen (!) of our friends. Find out how we budgeted, fumbled and ate our way through Tokyo in our first few days…
Sunday strolls in Tokyo
Jetlag hit us pretty bad on our first full day in Tokyo. Dan was up at ridiculous-o’clock and I was struggling to get back to sleep after 6am. So, we decided to get up early and stroll through the high-rise buildings and quiet streets of Tokyo. Being a Sunday morning of a long weekend, the streets were fairly empty of people and there was very little traffic on the roads – the perfect opportunity for some aimless exploring.
It wasn’t until we reached Asakusa around mid-morning that we discovered all of the people (and their selfie-sticks).
Asakusa is a colourful and relaxed downtown Tokyo area featuring a large Tori gate, crowded markets, temples and an amusement park. We enjoyed the sites in the area and then headed towards our destination – we were going to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony!
Kimonos and green tea
On arrival to Nadeshiko in Asakusa, our host showed us into a small room and helped us into the gorgeous traditional kimonos that were waiting there for us.
The entire dressing process was so precise and detailed that took longer for me to be strapped and tied into the intricate parts of the kimono than the time I took to get dressed for my own wedding day!
After we were dressed, we learned how to enter the tea ceremony room correctly through a small door called a “Nijiriguchi”. The small door is designed in such a way so that any samurai entering the room remembered to remove their sword before it got stuck on the low entry.
Then, we bowed to greet the kimono clad Tea Master as she entered the room and watched her intently as she prepared the green tea with the most precise and meaningful movements. We watched the tea being whisked with the “Chasen” and placed in the “Chawan” on the ground. We were given “Nerikiri” sweets to complement the bitter taste of the green tea and shown how to eat them with our paper and stick that had been slipped into our kimonos before entering the room.
The host showed us how to hold everything in the correct way and when it was our turn, we were instructed to lift the bowl and turn it in a clockwise direction, twice, so that our lips didn’t touch the pretty pattern on the side. The green tea was slightly bitter but quite enjoyable. We were also told that when you take the last sip, you’re meant to show you have finished and enjoyed the tea by making a slurping noise.
The whole process was fun, eye-opening and awesome. And, at the end, we were given a small souvenir and certificate to remind us of our experience.
(The Nadeshiko plan cost ￥4,400 (£27) and includes the hire of the yukata or kimono and the tea ceremony. There are additional options you can arrange when you arrive. Book ahead via email and give your sex, height and weight.)
After our traditional tea ceremony, we spent the afternoon strolling through the lively and crowded Shinjuku area. The area is full of pedestrian shopping streets and restaurants, some of them themed, and back alleys full of izakayas, love hotels and what we can only assume were strip clubs.
A bike ride through the capital with Tokyo Bike Tour
Having visited Tokyo before, Mickey booked a bike tour for eight of us on our second day in Tokyo to take us to some of the big attractions and temples in the city.
The Tokyo Bike Tour starts near Shinjuku Station at 9am and runs for approximately six hours. Our wonderful guides, Narito and Akio, guided us (very safely) on bikes from metropolitan Shinjuku to the Meiji-jingu shrine, the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
We stopped to explore the Meiji-jingu shrine and Akio showed us the correct way to cleanse before entering. Inside the walls, Narito explained the different aspects of the shrine and showed us how to pray in the traditional way. We were also lucky enough to witness a real Shinto wedding ceremony! We snapped a few photos before riding into Meiji Jingu Gaien park with its Gingoko trees and baseball fields.
Our next stop was the Aoyama Cemetery. The beautiful and importantly historic cemetery is the final resting place of many Japanese and non-Japanese politicians, soldiers, artists, musicians, athletes. We stopped by to visit one of the cemetery’s most famous graves, that of Hachikō, a faithful and dutiful dog whose statue adorns Shibuya Station, where he used to wait every day for his master to return from work.
We stopped briefly in Roppongi Hills with all of its expensive shops, cafes and mega-complexes. This area of Tokyo is a huge shopping destination and known for being one of the most diverse areas in Tokyo. We discovered that this is the area in which you can purchase a kitten at the exclusive pet shop for over £2,000! (While it is often thought of as the place to go for lively nightlife, it has been specifically designed to accommodate the many tourists, foreigners and international business centres and is known to be quite expensive compared to other areas of Tokyo).
On the other end of Roppongi, we stopped at the Zojyo-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple consisting of the Sangedatsu Gate and Great Hall. Narito explained that religion in Japan is dominated by Shinto and Buddhism, however, less than 5% of the population identify themselves as members of Shinto sects and derived religions, 35% are Buddhists, and more than 60% of the population doesn’t identify with an organised religion at all.
The Sangedatsu Gate was built in 1622 and is the temple’s only original structure to survive the Second World War. It is said that if someone passes through the gate, he can free himself from three passions: greed, hatred and foolishness.
We stopped for a ramen lunch in Shiodome SIO-SITE, the largest redevelopment area of modern Tokyo, and visited the 42nd floor of a building nearby for a great view of Tokyo Bay.
Lunch was followed a ride around the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace is on the former site of Edo Castle and the current residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. It sits in a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls, right in the center of Tokyo.
(The Tokyo Bike Tour runs everyday from 9am – 3pm, depending on weather, and you will need to book in advance. It costs ¥9,000.)
After 34.1km on the bikes, we said goodbye to our guides and reminisced about the incredible sites we had seen throughout the day. It was such a great way to see the best parts of Tokyo in one day, and we were able work off all of the food we were going to consume during our stay. And, according to at least one of the members of our group, it was a great way to get over a hangover from the previous night’s antics!
Fishy, fishy, fishy!
Have you got a good fish pun? Or do you need time to mullet over?
It turns out you don’t need to be a brain sturgeon to come up with a fish pun, but you might need a little bit of krill to catch your own dinner at Zauo, or else you’ll be floundering!
Thankfully, Dan did have the skill and was able to reel in a decent feed for his own dinner – yes, you read that right, we went to a restaurant where we had the option to catch our own fish for dinner! Our hunger was truly on the line.
It was the perfect place to finish after a big day on the Tokyo Bike Tour, and perfect for Dan who loves to fish and rarely gets to do so in London. Sadly, my fishing skills cod be better, though we did leave the restaurant full to the bream!
(Ok, I’m done with the fish puns now!)
(Zauo Restaurant is located in Shinjuku. The catch your own fish option is approximately ¥4,000 – ¥5,000 / £25.)
A fishy start at the Tsukiji Market
Sometimes I question the choices we make when we’re on holidays! Dan and I were up early on our second full day in Tokyo. Very early.
3am saw us in a taxi on our way to the world’s largest fish markets, the Tsukiji Market (築地市場, Tsukiji Shijō) on the other side of town. Sadly, only 120 people are allowed in per day and even though it was 3.30am we didn’t arrive in time to register for the tuna auctions at 5.30am. Defeated, we retuned to our hotel for a few more hours of well deserved sleep.
We were back to the markets by 9.30am to see what it was all about, though the crammed train ride with all of the commuters left us thinking that we might have been better off leaving much earlier. It was much worse than the Northern Line scrum in London morning rush hour!
After 9 am, visitors are allowed to enter the wholesale market. It’s a crowded area full of sellers and buyers rushing around hundreds of small stalls. It’s so busy that there are time restrictions on when tourists can enter, and they are asked not to get in the way or bring luggage with them. But by 11am, most of the stalls are closed and there are hundreds of people lining up for the sushi restaurants located inside the market space.
Everyday sellers, buyers, vehicles and tourists cram into the busy 50+ ha market amongst over 2,000 tonnes of fresh fish and seafood. We spent a few hours wandering around the markets before heading off to the financial and shopping districts for a completely different experience.
(Entry to the Tsukiji Market is free for tourists, but you have to register between 3am – 4am on the day at the Fish Information Centre to attend the tuna auctions at 5.25am and 5.50am. Note, the auctions and markets are not open every day. Check the website for more details and a map.)
Shopping and famous intersections
On our first few days in Tokyo, we were surprised about the lack of people there seemed to be around the city. But Tuesday was the first day back after a long weekend and the workers were commuting in droves. The train stations were much more crowded and the city seemed much more alive… except for this guy:
We explored the sports shops along Yasaukuni Dori where Dan purchased himself a new pair of snowboarding gloves and dreamed of all of the snowboards he could buy. With more than 10 dedicated shops, it truly was a paradise for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts.
Then we visited Akihabara, aka electric town, to visit the electrical shops and take a peak at the animation-based stores that dominated the area. Walking through the shadows of bright and flashing high-rise buildings, amongst the loud city noises and against the rushing but relatively silent crowds was a pretty hectic experience.
And (of course) we followed all of the guidebook advice and finally visited Shibuya station to see what is apparently the busiest intersection in Tokyo. This bustling intersection is famous simply for the sheer volumes of foot traffic it experiences every time the traffic lights turn red and the pedestrians are allowed to cross at the same time in every direction.
In somewhat organised chaos, the crowds of shoppers, students, tourists and commuters spill onto the intersection the second they can, like a balloon full of water bursting under pressure.
It was beautiful to watch but an absolute shambles to be a part of!
The best view is from the second level of Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side, but as we found out, it can get almost as busy as the intersection!
An authentically sharp Japanese meal at Sengoku Buyuden
On our last night in Tokyo, six of us decided to book dinner at a themed restaurant in Shinjuku, and Sengoku Buyuden did not disappoint!
Sengoku Buyuden is a sword-themed restaurant with a great ambiance and many beautiful armors from the Japanese Sengoku period, also known as the age of civil wars (around 1550-1600). The colourful armours and printed flags of family crests of the much-loved Sengoku warriors are scattered throughout the restaurant and a great photo opportunity. The restaurant is divided into unique chambers that are dedicated to each of the 17 specific Sengoku period generals and decorated with historic artefacts.
The modern Japanese food is authentic and delicious, the decor is tasteful, and the English menu with photos was helpful. We sampled many things from the menu, including an assorted platter of delicious sashimi (raw fish and prawns), salmon and roe, and traditional Japanese sake!
But the icing on the cake was the parting gift of katanas (plastic swords) for each of us. Sword fights ensued.
A golden gaytime and some Japanese whisky in the Golden Gai alleyways
A short walk from Sengoku Buyuden restaurant and Shinjuku station, are the Golden Gai alleyways. The six tiny and dimly lit alleys are lined by almost 200 bars housed in ramshackle buildings surrounded by a giant centre of commerce and entertainment.
When we arrived at the Golden Gai alleyways just after 10pm a few of us had our doubts about drinking at such a divey place, but we had heard great reviews and wanted to check out the scene.
Each of the small shacks are only a few feet wide and cater to a variety of different clientele, or serve only regulars. However, some bars will display menus and lists outside to attract new customers and even visitors from overseas – like us!
It wasn’t easy to find an izakaya that would fit all eight of us, but we finally found one that was cosy and friendly. We made friends with the owners (Ken and Bebe) and the locals, and enjoyed a selection delicious plum wine, beer and Japanese whisky.
After a trip to the loo, Dan found a photo of Ken and Bebe with Eddie Jones, the former Australian and Japanese national rugby coach. Turns out he was a regular at their izakaya!
What’s next on our journey through Japan?
I don’t know about you, but I’m so full! The food here is delicious and the culture is amazing. I had high expectations of Japan before I came, but our first three days have really been extraordinary.
Follow our journey through Japan as we venture into the Japanese alps, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Hakone!
Follow @jacquitravels on Twitter and Instagram, and Never Ending Honeymoon on Facebook for live updates and photos. And, stay tuned for more details on the blog – this is going to be an epic journey through Japan!