These past months have been really busy, but we still managed to get away for an awesome trip to Japan. Over the next few posts, I’ll be writting about our 3 week trip around Japan: Tokyo-Yudanaka-Nikko-Hakone-Takayama-Kyoto-Tokyo, with lots of photos and some impressions. Hope you enjoy it, we definitely did!
Let’s start at the begining… The most common questions we got asked, when we told people about our trip, were ‘Why Japan?’ and ‘Why in winter, surely spring or summer are nicer?’ Well, the second question is easy – this is when we have time to go. The first one… I’ve been wanting to revisit Japan, after my first visit as a teenager 13 years ago, and also the culture, the food, the sights are all very different and interesting. But mostly it’s a place in the world we both wanted to visit, so why not!?
We started with Tokyo… I wasn’t really in favour of spending a week (4 days at the begining and 3 at the end of our trip) in Tokyo, mainly because I’m not a huge fan of big cities. I was expecting Tokyo to be very overwhelming, crowded and noisy. It was all of this, but in a manageable way. It probably helped that we were there in low season, so there weren’t hoards of tourists around! We didn’t plan too much ahead of our trip, but we both had ideas of areas we wanted to see and then just played it by ear. I must say Tokyo really grew on me!
Arriving late on a Wednesday evening, we started our adventure by finding our AirBnB flat in Shinjuku. It was fascinating walking from Shinjuku station through the neon lit streets! Next we went on the hunt for food. Our random choice of a Ramen shop just 5 min walk from our flat turned out to be amazing! Of course, we didn’t immediately realise that you order your ramen from a vending machine that gives you an order ticket, but one of the waitresses quickly came to help and we managed to communicate what we wanted and she showed us how to order. We both had a spicy miso tonkatsu (=pork) ramen – an excellent start to our Tokyo adventure!
Over the next few days we wandered around the various neighbourhoods of Tokyo – each with its own quirky character, even if the neon signs on the buildings make them look very similar. Our Airbnb was really well located in Shinjuku, which is a lively area with lots of bars. Around Shinjuku Station the crowds get denser and there are lots of huge, bright department stores. A few side streets away though you can find Omoide Yokocho – a couple tiny, narrow streets with lots of small yakitori shops (grilled skewers). It gets very busy in the evening and you sometimes have to wait in line for a spot at the counter, where you then point and order the skewers. Another small side street area is the Golden Gai – a collection of traditional izakaya and bars where people go for an after work drink. Each bar has it’s own theme and it was very difficult to choose where to go; since we were there very early it was still quite empty. We eventually decided on the ‘Not suspicious’ bar (a japanese joke), because the owner was outside and talked to us. It turned out to be a tiny bar with a great character – we came for one drink and ended up staying for several, partly because it was fun talking to the different travellers coming in and partly because we were sitting at the far end of the bar and it was very difficult to leave once it got full!
Other neighbourhoods that screamed Tokyo to me were Shibuya (with the famous Shibuya crossing), Harajuku with Takeshita-dori shopping street (apparently the hip area where it’s common to see people in cosplay, even if we didn’t) and Akhibara, the tech and anime area with multistory arcade rooms and tech stores. These were where we saw the most eccentricity, from unique styles, crazy shops to intense gaming. But in the middle of all the madness you can still find peaceful temples or shrines. Something fun to do in an arcade are the Purikura photo booths – basically a normal photo booth, but with an editing option at the end where you can decorate your photo and the software makes your eyes bigger and skin smoother, more anime-like. Within the madness of the busy neighbourhoods it is also possible to find quieter and smaller ones with galleries, theaters, shops and restaurants, such as Nakano and Shimo-Kitazawa.
Worth a visit (and free!) is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building that has two viewing platforms on the 45th floor, one in the South and other in the North Tower. They offer some great views of Tokyo that you can also enjoy at sunset and if you’re lucky you can see Mt. Fuji from the South Tower. We didn’t see it from here but got a hazy glimps of it from the Sky Room of the Asahi Building (The HQ of Asahi Beer Company) – another opportunity to have a view of Tokyo for free (although you are expected to buy at least one drink since it is a bar).
On the last day we visited Senso-ji Temple and the surrounding area full of craft shops and little restaurants. This was probably the most tourist crowded area we’d seen so far. The temple is beautiful though, a small pocket of old within the busy high tech city. It was interesting to observe people getting charms and fortunes (something we did ourselves), bathing in the incense smoke and making wishes at the temple. And just a few side streets away, we managed to find a quiet area with street food where we got our first okonomyaki (cabbage pancake that you grill at the table).
It’s difficult to put the whole Tokyo experience down on paper and there is still so much to see and do that we didn’t have time for. All together Tokyo was a really fun and positive experience. Our interactions with various people we met in restaurants or on the street were really positive and it’s amazing how much you can communicate even with very basic English and a little Japanese. Next we went to Yudanaka with the Snow Monkey Park, taking the Shinkansen and some retro regional trains.