Come on and slam—and welcome to Japan! || A little over a month ago, I arrived in Tokyo at 6 a.m. on a Saturday for my first trip to Japan. I spent just over two weeks traveling around Southern Japan and before the trip was over, I already found myself making plans in my head for a return trip. I'll start in Tokyo, where I spent five days but easily could have spent the entire two weeks exploring.
Koinobori and traveling during Golden Week || I visited Japan during Golden Week. It's a week at the beginning of May when several national holidays occur so most of Japan just takes the entire week off. This is the busiest travel week of the year in Japan and I would advise avoiding it if you can, but my sister is living there right now so visiting during the holiday meant that she didn't have to use up as many vacation days for our trip. Having come out the other side of Golden Week, I will say that it wasn't as crowded as I was expecting with one notable exception: shinkansen travel. I'll talk about this a bit more in my next post. For now I will just say that if you are traveling around in the weeks leading up to Golden Week, you will probably see these beautiful koi windsocks (koinobori 鯉のぼり) draped over buildings, strung across streets, and decorating the entrances to many residences. They are flown for Children's Day (Kodomo no hi 子供の日) celebrated on May 5!
Green everywhere || Walking around Tokyo on my first morning in Japan, kind of dazed after nearly 28 hours of travel and fourteen time zones crossed, I was struck by just how many plants there are in this city! Whenever I've pictured Tokyo in the past, I've pictured a bustling semi-futuristic metropolis and I was pleasantly surprised with just how much greenery there was creeping around the hustle and bustle of the city. I was in Japan during Golden Week so sakura season had just passed but I'm actually pretty glad that I visited Japan a little later because all of the fresh spring green leaves were out in full. Everything was just so lush. Ivy draped over buildings, trees fluffy with their new foliage, and hot pink azaleas in full bloom everywhere. I had most of the day to kill on my own before meeting up with my sister and her friend later that afternoon, so I stashed my bags in a locker at Shinjuku station (with ease at six in the morning, a luxury that I would not experience for the remainder of the trip) near where our Airbnb was and spent the day walking around the Shinjuku area.
Yoyogi Koen (Park) and Meiji Shrine || Yoyogi Park was one of my first stops while wandering around on my first morning. It lies just south of Shinjuku and was a short-ish walk* from Shinjuku Station. Upon entering this park, the city instantly falls away and it is so easy to forget that you are in the center of a city of 13.6 million people. I spent a couple of hours walking around the park, gazing up at the trees arching over paths, exploring a bit of the Meiji Shrine at the heart of the park, and grabbing a soda from a vending machine and reading in a field where there were many other groups picnicking.
*my friends always get mad at me whenever I say estimate walking times because I like to walk and am a fast walker. I'll say something is a short walk regardless of whether it is ten minutes away or a half hour, so take my walk times with a grain of salt.
Staying in Shinjuku || After my day wandering around on my own, I met up with my sister and her friend and we walked over to our airbnb which was only a ten minute walk from Shinjuku Station. We picked Shinjuku to stay in because we knew there was a lot in the area and it seemed like a good location to easily access other areas of the city that we wanted to explore. It's a mix of government buildings, shopping, and nightlife and the difference between day and night really is as stark as the old cliché. I've heard it described as seedy but I would say that "seedy" is relative. Seedy by Japan standards? Maybe. For a city of 13.6 million people, Tokyo is freakishly clean. Seedy by the standards of a lot of other cities? Not even close. Our airbnb was on a side-street of the busy Kabukicho area, the red-light district full of host and hostess clubs and love hotels as well as attractions like the Robot Restaurant, and we felt completely safe walking around at any time. I loved the energy of this area and you could really find something to suit anyone. My favourite area was Golden Gai, a series of narrow dimly lit alleyways full of small restaurants and bars that is a few minutes away from the stunningly bright lights and bustling crowds of the main area. We had some great late-night ramen in Golden Gai (see below).
Walking on the street and biking on the sidewalk || One of the things that I loved about many of the neighbourhoods in Tokyo was that a lot of the side streets didn't have sidewalks and pedestrians just walked wherever they pleased. When cars need to go by, everyone just kind of drifts to the side, the cars are patient, and you almost never hear car horns. A lot of the cars and trucks are also teeny and I loved watching them zip up and down the small side streets. In addition, a lot of people ride bicycles in Japan even on the busy sidewalks. Usually this would bug me, but it was kind of charming in Tokyo.
Day two started with breakfast at a cute cafe that I had walked past the day before. "Japanese breakfast" isn't really a big thing so you don't have to feel guilty about not eating something more Japanese for breakfast. Western breakfast (especially giant fluffy pancakes) are growing in popularity in Japan. We had some delicious omelettes at Mr. Farmer before walking through Yoyogi Park en route to Harajuku. As much as I absolutely adore and maybe even revere the train system in Japan (the efficiency and wide-expanse of their public transit system nearly makes me weep tears of appreciation), walking will always be my favourite way to see a new city. We covered a lot of ground on our second day in Tokyo, walking through Yoyogi Park and emerging on the other side to the Harajuku district which was hoppin'. (I'm not sure if this was normal for a Sunday or if it was a bit of extra Golden Week traffic, but Takeshita Dori was a sea of people (you can see in the above right picture). After a bit of shopping we headed to Shibuya to see the famous Shibuya Crossing.
It's strange how calm I felt while in the crowd of people in the middle of the crossing. It wasn't until I got a bit of a birds eye view that I realized just how many people I must have been surrounded by! I've heard that the best view is from the Starbucks right next to the crossing but you can get a pretty good view from the train station, too, without having to deal with the Shibuya Starbucks crowds. From here, we took the train to the the Toshima Ward for some Michelin-starred ramen.
Michelin-starred ramen || Nakiryu is only the second ramen restaurant in Tokyo to earn a Michelin-starred rating. We arrived an hour before they opened and there was already a small line (we actually just missed the cut-off for the first group of people allowed into the restaurant). While we waited, my sister and I took turns holding our place in line while the other wandered around the back streets of the neighbourhood. It was lovely and peaceful on a Sunday evening and I loved seeing the contrast of this area with Shinjuku. Much more "neighbourhoody" feeling, with small residences, plants grouped around people's doorways, and small neighbourhood parks dotting the area. A short while after the restaurant opened, we were ushered through the door where we were met with a small counter area of only ten seats. Nakiryu may be Michelin-rated, but you still place your order using a ticket machine, which I love. While you wait for your food, you can watch the chef in action behind the counter. I loved watching him expertly toss the ramen noodles to drain the excess cooking water. We ordered the Spicy Dandan, their specialty, and it did not disappoint!
On our third day in Tokyo, we headed straight to the National Art Center. I was so excited that there were two amazing exhibitions on view that coincided with my trip featuring two artists that I love: Yayoi Kusama and Alphonse Mucha. Since we didn't have time to work Naoshima into our itinerary, I was extra excited about the Kusama exhibit! The museum itself is beautiful, featuring an undulating glass exterior, and merits a visit even if Kusama and Mucha aren't in the house. From the museum, we headed to Mitaka to visit the Ghibli Museum!
The Ghibli Museum (aka all of my dreams come to life) || Visiting the Ghibli Museum was nothing short of magical. It's located in Inokashira Park (the park with the swan boats) in Mitaka and is easy to get to by transit. My friend told me that there is a bus that you can take from the closest train station to the park that plays Ghibli music (!!!) but we opted to walk (about 20 minutes) instead. You have to buy timed entry tickets months in advance (I'll write a bit about this in a later post that I plan on writing about general tips) or you can buy slightly more expensive resale tickets if you can't get them through the main site. The museum is absolutely exquisite and will not leave any Ghibli fan disappointed. I was so happy that Mei and the Kittenbus, was the short on view during our visit and I may have even cried a little (ok a lot) from sheer joy.
Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market || On our fourth morning, we woke up early to try and beat the crowds to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Most of the wholesale action happens in the inner market which you have to book a tour of, but there are plenty of stalls and restaurants in the outer market open to the public. After some ramen, fresh juice, and maguro don (raw tuna over rice), we headed over to Hama-rikyu Gardens.
The Hama-rikyu Gardens weren't a planned stop, just something that we had noticed on the map near the fish market and Ghibli clock that we planned to visit later, but it ended up being one of my favourite stops in Tokyo. The gardens are home to a peony garden that was just past peak bloom when we visited, a 300-year-old pine tree, a beautiful teahouse, and a seawater-fed pond that is home to all sorts of marine life including eels! If you're walking by the river, keep your eyes peeled for fish swimming along the surface of the water. We spotted a moon jelly and a ray!
After the gardens, it was a short walk to the Ghibli clock to see it spring to life at noon. If you're not in the area, I wouldn't make a trip just to see this clock, but if you happen to be nearby it is a fun visit. The clock, designed by Hayao Miyazaki, whirs to life at noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 8 p.m.
Rainbow ice cream! || Ok, so I may not make a special trip for a Miyazaki designed clock, but a rainbow soft ice cream cone? Don't mind if I do. We noticed one day that this mall that I knew had giant rainbow ice cream cones was a few stops past where we were planning on disembarking the train so we made a special trip. One thing you'll notice if you visit Japan is that they love a good soft ice cream cone (ソフトクリーム). In the basement of Nakano Broadway (a large shopping mall that is becoming an even bigger destination for anime fans than Akihabara) is a soft ice cream counter where you can order a myriad of different flavours—or all of them at once! It was pretty humid in the basement and I was expecting this cone to melt a lot quicker but it was actually a surprisingly sturdy. Architecturally-sound ice cream. From top to bottom, the flavours were: strawberry, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, grape, orange, ramune (soda), and matcha.
"The number one rule of kushikatsu is no double dipping." || For our final evening in Tokyo, we headed back to Shinjuku to meet up with some of my sister's friends for some kushikatsu and karaoke. Kushikatsu ("deep fried shit on a stick" as it was explained to me) is easily shareable and makes for a great group meal. I'm surprised that it's not bigger in the States given that it's basically a State Fair smörgåsbord but with a few more vegetables. After polishing off countless deep fried plates and drinks won with the roll of a dice, we left for karaoke to sing our hearts out into the small hours of the morning. Even though the karaoke place that we chose didn't have any songs from Mulan, we still had a stellar view of the neon lights and electric Shinjuku streets below and it was magical. We left in a daze, completely content, and unaware of the Golden Week crowds we would be facing down in the morning when we would be heading to Kyoto...
Additional Tokyo Notes:
All of the ramen that I ate in Tokyo....
Nagi Golden Gai || Our airbnb was a few blocks away from Golden Gai, a hub of tiny restaurants and bars crammed into several narrow alleyways in Shinjuku. After our first night out, we wandered over to Golden Gai to hunt for some ramen in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We found Nagi and, after a short wait outside on the street, were ushered up a narrow staircase that was practically a ladder to the small L-shaped counter on the second floor. I loved the thicker, chewy, noodles that they use in their ramen and the broth was so complex and interesting (I later learned that it is a special sardine broth called niboshi).
Nakiryu || I think I mostly covered this one before, but just to refresh: Toshima Ward, Michelin-starred ramen, get there to line up early, order Spicy Dandan!
Sora No Iro || Mireille read about the vegetarian ramen at Sora No Iro in a "veggy" magazine at Hello Farmer. Maintaining a vegetarian diet in Japan can prove tricky as many of their traditional foods include meat—especially ramen—so we were excited to try out this ramen at Sora No Iro. I've found a lot of the vegetarian ramen that I've tried in the past to be a let down because I feel they are trying to duplicate their meat counterparts and just fall short. I loved the veggie ramen at Sora No Iro because I feel like it wasn't trying to mimic a meat broth and was just the best veggie broth that it possibly could be! The ramen had what tasted like a spicy sweet potato broth and was loaded with a rainbow of veggie toppings. It was so good that I ate here twice! (You can also get a vegan version of the ramen if you omit the egg on top). We visited the Tokyo Station Ramen Street location.
Rokurinsha || Rokurinsha seemed to be the most popular opinion when I googled "best tsukemen Tokyo". It is also located in Tokyo Station Ramen Street (which is actually just a hallway) and I visited here on my final day in Japan. I first attempted to visit at lunchtime but the line-up wrapped around the corner and down the hall (not unusual for Rokurinsha) and I wasn't in the mood to wait so I tried again later for an early dinner with a bit more success (still a line, just shorter this time). Tsukemen is a dipping noodle style of ramen where you are served a bowl of cold noodles on the side of a bowl of broth and it is my favourite kind of ramen! Probably because I like chewier noodles and tsukemen noodles have a bit more bite to them than other styles of ramen noodles. You can usually order a small, medium, or large bowl of noodles but I don't think I've ever been able to eat more than a small without feeling completely sick after (and this is coming from someone that can eat). It was a very tasty bowl of tsukemen, although not my favourite I have to say (looking at you Santouka).