This continues the story of my Asia expedition begun in An Asian Expedition Part 1: Seoul, Korea.
ONE THING that will forever be memorable about my first trip to Tokyo is that I actually flew there in Business Class from Seoul.
A little thing? Sure, but it’s only the 2nd or 3rd time in 30 years of flying that I’ve ever been in one of those cushy cabins! The airline upgraded me (I have no idea why) when I got to the gate, so I had more leg room than I am tall, and a reclining seat that would have served as a bed. If only I’d had that on the previous 13-hour trip from Chicago! Talk about pointless luxury for a 90-minute flight!
It was a little decadent to be served orange juice before the flight took off and to watch how attentive the stewardesses were to the businessmen in the front cabin though (they took the suit jacket of the man next to me and hung it somewhere, returning it to him at the end of the flight. Nice.)
After the short plane ride from Seoul, I made it through customs and a 45-minute cab ride without any problems and checked into my hotel just after lunch. It was a hotel in Shibuya, a restaurant and nightlife district of the city. The hotels near the university where I was working that week had been sold out, so I had decided to stay in a spot in a part of the city that sounded like it would be fun in my off-time.
The lobby and adjoining restaurant looked small but nice. My stomach sank, however, when I opened the door to my room at the Tokyu Rei Hotel.
If I’d had sinful space on the flight over (and in my previous hotel), this was the reverse. The room barely could contain the bed and a wall-length shelf that the small flatscreen TV and a bunch of advertising flyers sat on. There was no closet. The window to the street was covered in a wooden “door” that slid open on a track. I immediately opened that for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic. I’ve been in closets bigger than this room. And the bathroom was even worse… the entire thing, floor to ceiling, was covered in hard plastic (do they just hose it down after each guest?) and the toilet was wedged into a corner.
Damn. I’ve been in Motel 6’s that were swankier. After the luxurious InterContinental Coex in Seoul, this was… depressing. Especially since I was going to be there four nights. I texted a picture to Geri and she said “it looks like a prison cell.” That’s exactly what it felt like at that moment.
I didn’t have time to stew on it though, because as soon as I unpacked, it was off to a business meeting and subsequent dinner. When I returned to the room a few hours later, it was night, and I quickly changed clothes and went out to explore nearby Shibuya… and my depression at a crappy room faded.
Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo (it’s listed as a “thing to see” on all the tourist lists), was hopping.
Just a block from my hotel, the city was alive with neon and throngs of people. J-pop music blared from giant TV screens on the buildings, and teens and twentysomethings moved in and out of the nearby Taito Arcade next to the big Bic Camera store.
I walked a couple blocks and entered a busy pedestrian street that went from restaurant to bar to restaurant to clothing store.
My faith was restored. I may not have gotten the best hotel room, but this was exactly where I wanted to stay. Shibuya is definitely one of the beating hearts of Tokyo.
Smiling, I followed my phone’s GoogleMaps guide until I reached a British pub I’d heard of, The Aldgate, and walked up the stairs to find myself in a classic British-style pub with British bartenders and Bass Ale on tap, as well as some local brews.
My first beer in Tokyo was a London Calling cask IPA from local Sankt Gellen Brewery. I settled in with hops and my laptop to catch up on email and Facebook for a couple hours. And had a plate of British chips with malt vinegar. I’d found a comfort refuge spot for the next couple nights!
The next day was a long one, 12+ hours on the clock, but when it was done… we were done! My business in Asia officially ended Friday night around 7 p.m., but my workmate and I had agreed to pay for a couple extra hotel nights on our own, so we were staying until Monday. We actually had Friday night through Monday lunchtime to explore Tokyo. And over the next 60 hours, we covered as much ground as I think humanly possible.
That weekend I bought some nifty cords and an anime doll of hologram star Hatsune Miku in Electric Town, had a decadent steak dinner and visited a microbrew pub in Roppongi, stopped at the inpsiring Meiji Shrine and grounds, hung out in fashionable Harajuku, ate amazing sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market, snapped photos of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building lookout station in Shinjuku, spent an afternoon around the big Buddhist temple / market area in Asakusa and walked around the grounds of the Imperial Palace (the actual palace was sadly closed). I got to be quite adept at deciphering the Tokyo subway maps and figuring out how to vault from one end of the city to the other using foreign coinage (which was quickly in short supply!).
On Friday night I did some people watching on the crowded streets and had dinner at a small Japanese / Vietnamese restaurant on the second floor of a busy street. It was hard to settle on a restaurant there… many of them are very small, and there were several Korean barbecue places (I’d just come from Korea, and was looking for a more Japanese experience). Plus, many of the restaurants are on the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings, so it’s hard to tell from wandering the street where to go. If I ever go there again, I will do a lot more Internet stalking to choose my restaurants (though the food that night was good.)
After dinner, we tried to stop by the Aldgate, which was packed, so instead we headed down to the Hobgoblin, another British pub in the area. Sadly, they were out of their flagship Hobgoblin Ale! But their Hobgoblin “light” wasn’t too bad.
HARAJUKU / MEIJI JINGU SHRINE
First stop on Saturday, after an egg sandwich and coffee at a Pronto – a chain of cafes there, was the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.
Just a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel, we cut through Harajuku and stopped at the small Togo Shrine there before heading towards Harajuku Station and the large Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine area.
I’ve been curious about Harajuku ever since I heard the Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” song:
So it was a kick to finally walk through the street that day and a subsequent night and see some real live Harajuku girls dressing up in wild costumes and parading about. The morning we walked by, there was a line that stretched down a whole block for a fashion store that was about to open with a big sale. Fashion capital, indeed.
Once past Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine park was thronged with people. We walked around the grounds first which would have been far more impressive if we’d been there in the spring or summer; the area was originally cultivated for a queen, and apparently has flowers everywhere in season. While the trees still had leaves while we were there in January, there were no flowers. Though I did get to kneel and dip my hands in a sacred spring.
The shrine itself was much larger than the one I’d seen in Korea, and had dozens of vendors selling prayer sticks and poems. That was one interesting thing about all of the shrines I visited in Seoul and Tokyo – there were always people selling prayer sticks and satchels that held small prayer scrolls at all of them, no matter how small the venue.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
After visiting the gardens and the shrine, we took the Toei Oedo Line train to Tsukiji and walked around the famous wholesale (and retail) fish market of Tokyo.
There are auctions there early in the morning for the best tuna, but we were there midday, so while it was still thronging, crowds had begun to thin out. That said… the streets were still mobbed!
There were several blocks of vendors, some selling packaged freeze-dried fish goods, others selling fresh, others selling trinkets and kitchen pottery. And interspersed with those were lots of sushi joints.
I’ve enjoyed sushi for quite a while now, but until Tokyo, I had always been a sushi baby — mainly, I’ve always stuck to some kind of roll – my tiny hunk of raw fish always shielded by a blanket of rice and well-seasoned with soy and wasabi. When we finally stopped for lunch at the fish market, I decided to go ahead and get the “large hunks of fish” style sushi. Hunks of fish that sat on rice, sure, but the rice wasn’t going to hide the taste of that fish like a California roll does.
And man. Was the taste amazing.
I worried a bit that each different slab of fish was finally going to hit me with a “fishy” taste, but none of them did. The meat was creamy and rich, some lightly seared which gave it a “grilled” flavor, some not. And we were warned to avoid the soy sauce — the sushi chef had already lightly seasoned various types with soy and/or wasabi… and it was true.
The taste was perfectly balanced. Exquisite! I was instantly converted and before we even left the fish market, I was looking forward to having more!
There was a small shrine at the edge of the fish market which we stopped at briefly before heading to the train for our next destination.
It was late afternoon when we left the fish market, but we figured we could get in one more stop before returning to Shibuya. We decided to head to Akihabara, home of Electric Town, a huge shopping district for video games, electronic equipment (I bought a couple ipod/iphone cords and chargers) and anime and manga merch. I figured the place wasn’t going to pull up the carpets at 5 p.m., and I was right — the streets were full of people.
I spent a lot of time in a store with hundreds of anime-oriented figurines and ultimately bought my Hatsune Miku figure there… not realizing at all that she was the representation of one of the most bizarre music phenoms ever — a music company sampled a woman’s voice and used it in music creation software… which has since led to more than 3,500 songs being created using the voice, as well as spawned a 3D holographic character (Hatsune Miku) who has opened for Lady Gaga, and is currently touring North America!?!
I just thought it was a cool doll. And even saw one later in the trip in a video arcade machine.
My iPod charging cable was dead, so I found a replacement that also serves as a battery pack, which was pretty cool (never had seen one of those before for an old-school iPod.) And I got a fancy recharging cord there for my iPhone while I was at it.
Plus… I found a nice tea set there for Geri and I, since we’ve recently been drinking more tea.
All along the strip of shops, there was J-pop blaring out into the streets, which added to the energy. Usually with female singers, the music was electronic and catchy, and belatedly, I used my Shazzam iPhone app to figure out the name of one of the bands. I wish I’d done that earlier, because there were some crazy catchy songs playing while we were there.
But thanks to Shazzam, I now have a new favorite act — Silent Siren. And the start of a J-Pop Playlist on YouTube!
I stopped at a few anime and electronics shops, and probably could have stayed there looking at all of the neon and dolls and electronics all night…
But after a day of walking for miles, we decided to catch the train back around 7 p.m. so we could eat dinner in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I was determined not to wander cluelessly looking for food as we had the night before. The concierge gave me a tip on a good restaurant row, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie, a building a couple blocks away, so we stopped in there for dinner and I enjoyed a beef pot and pot stickers with the local Suntory pilsener beer. It hit the spot after a long day!
Way to Play!
One of the cool things I noticed in Japan is that their entertainment centers are on multiple floors. The building across from our hotel had bowling alleys on three floors, plus a couple floors of arcade, a billiard floor and a table tennis floor. Plus Karaoke. It was fun to go up and down the elevator and check out the action on each level!
It was a long day, but I packed a lot of sights into that Saturday! At the end of it all, I stopped back at the Aldgate to refresh my “Western” batteries, and watched a little soccer with a Baird Jack The Ripper IPA.
A View From The Top of SHINJUKU
Sunday was slated to be the warmest, sunniest day of my trip through Asia – with temps in the low 50s. So that was the day to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there is a free observation floor. At first, it appeared that we wouldn’t be able to get in to the building — all the visible access doors were locked. But then after circumnavigating the whole building, we found a sign for the observation deck pointing to a stairwell down. After walking through an underground garage area, we arrived at an elevator to the observatory (travel lesson #1: never give up!)
Visibility was a little hazy, but I had a nice coffee and cake while overlooking the city there. And got a distant view of Mount Fuji!
I also found a Studio Ghibli display at the gift shop there, and broke out the credit card for Shaun. We have watched most of the Studio Ghibli movies of Hayao Miyazaki together, and I’d hoped to go to the Ghibli Museum while in Tokyo (unfortunately for me, it was sold out for the weekend).
I ended up carrying around a bag of Ghibli stuffed animals, towels and chopsticks for the rest of the day! I also met some kind of walking green symbol of the Tokyo Department of Tourism!
After the lookout station, we walked across the bridge to Shinjuku Central Park where a martial arts exhibition was going on.
And found yet another shrine — the Kumano Shrine:
Then it was time to hop the train to our next destination — the old town temple district of Asakusa.
Sensō-ji, Buddhist Temple
While it was a little difficult figuring out the subway system given that most of the signs are in a foreign language, we had our only major subway gaffe of the weekend leaving Shinjuku. First I misread Google Maps and walked past the underground subway station… and then managed to get on a train going the opposite direction. But … this time Google Maps clearly demonstrated my error, and after hopping off the train and walking to the other side of the station, we were at last on our way.
The Asakusa area is right near the Sumido River, and is a major shopping area, as well as the home of one of the more famous Buddhist temples, the Sensoji. Out of the entire week, this turned out to be the most crowded place I went. The street that led to the temple was lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, food and other merchandise, and you could barely move right or left to move towards a shop if you wanted to. The street was a solid mass of people.
The area was filled with old architecture and once inside the temple grounds, there was an avenue of street food vendors. I tried what I later found out
(thanks to Loren Rhoads) was a okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake omelette that included flour, shredded cabbage, shrimp and pork belly.
I also had some gyoza – Japanese pot stickers.
There was a ceremony going on inside the temple itself, but I braved the throng and got a quick peek at the entryway. The public was not allowed inside the building itself.
There was a group of kids practicing martial arts near a small shrine nearby, as well as a woman showing off a trained monkey!
And who can resist a trained monkey?
On the way back to the train, I bought another Totoro stuffed animal for Shaun (a Miyazaki character) and posed with a welcoming kitty!
For our last night in Tokyo, we decided to visit another nightclub district. After the craziness of the past 36 hours, things turned out to be a bit slow there on a Sunday night. And after searching for a good restaurant, we ended up deciding to see what the Japanese would do with a “Western” steakhouse. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was definitely the fanciest room and pricetag of any of our meals in Asia… but my lobster bisque and petit filet was definitely good!
After dinner, we walked around the club district a bit, which is filled with Nigerian guys trying to lure men into hostess clubs. It was truly annoying, as they will follow you for over a block, ignoring your increasingly aggravated declarations of “I’m not interested” as they implore you to “just take a look” at their club. After having read about many instances of business men getting a mickey in their drinks and their credit cards charged to the hilt in Roppongi, there was no way I was walking into one even to look.
Instead, I closed the night with a Kanagawa-brewed Brimmer Pale Ale – clean but robust with just the right amount of hop bitterness – at the Two Dogs Taproom, a little microbrew place that obviously caters to Westerners (they had Japanese micros, but also taps from U.S. breweries like Left Hand and signs from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (where, ironically, I just was a couple months ago!) Had to love their tap wall — which was completely “tiled” in pennies!
Last Look ~ THE IMPERIAL PALACE
Monday in Japan was a holiday, so I knew the Imperial Palace was going to be closed, but took the subway there anyway, after a coffee and scone across the street from my hotel. I figured there was bound to be something to see.
For awhile… I feared that I was completely mistaken. While there was a flea market going on at the perimeter of the palace, and a marathon filling much of the sidewalk around the place, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is not one of those palaces that you can see for miles.
For one thing, the place is surrounded by a moat… but there are also hills and hedges and stone walls on either side of the moat. The place is completely shielded unless you can actually gain admittance to the inner grounds. So I never actually saw one inch of the palace itself. I did however, get to see the gardens on the outskirts (which would have been more impressive in the spring or summer, I’m sure). And there was the remains of some old guard posts, as well as a small bamboo garden.
After hanging around the Imperial Palace area for a couple hours, it was time to return to Shibuya. I had just enough time for a last dose of sushi before leaving Japan, and I wasn’t about to miss the chance. I stopped at a “sushi go-round” restaurant, where the chef stands in the middle cutting fish and filling plates that go around a track that runs around the bar where the customers sit. Each plate is color coded, based on the cost of the sushi, and you just keep grabbing plates and eating what you want until you’re done… then the waitress totals up the cost of your stack of plates.
I ate my fill, largely of a nicely wasabi-ed whitefish variety!
And then… it was time to go home. While I hated to leave the throngs and sushi of Shibuya behind, I was more than ready. It was an exceptionally long week. I saw a lot of things, but still only scratched the surface. I loved the politeness and manners of the culture — it’s a small thing, but everywhere I paid with a credit card, it was handed back to me with two hands, as if it were a gift offering. People appeared helpful and friendly, if not well-versed in English. And while our hotel room was not what I had hoped for, the staff at the hotel itself were wonderful – going out of their way to help us with our bags, and taxi and restaurants.
I wish we could have gotten out of the city to places like Kyoto or Mount Fuji… or even poked into Tokyo Disneyland, which I passed on the way to the airport. But I was happy I at least got a couple days to bounce around and see all of the things I did. From the Shibuya to the Fish Market to Harajuku to the Akusa Temple… it was all an excellent adventure. And with a direct flight, that 11-hour flight home seemed like a breeze compared to the 18-hour commute that started the trip to Seoul the week before!
Here are a few more pictures from the trip:
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