Guide to Japan: Tokyo Part 1

Day 1: Saturday, March 24, 2017

Our wheels touched down at the Narita airport around 2pm. Although Singapore airlines provided an amazing flight full of slippers, food, and toilet paper ends folded into neat triangles (!) neither of us caught a wink of sleep on the 10+ hour flight. We knew we’d have to stay up for at least another 10 hours in order for our bodies to adjust to the 15 hour time difference. At the airport we purchased tickets for the Narita Express, the train that shuttles passengers to and from the airport into Tokyo. Normally the Japan Rail pass, which we had to purchase before entering Japan, would’ve covered this ticket, but we only got the seven-day JR pass and decided not to activate it until day three of our trip.

 

As we waited for the train to arrive we got our first taste of a Japanese vending machines, which are on every street, and in rail station, and airport. I used our first yen to buy just a water, but there was an abundant offering of choices included warm drinks of green tea and coffee to the less caffeinated folk.
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When the train arrived, we waited to board because there were men cleaning each of the cars.
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What a welcome reprieve from Bart! The train was comfortable and clean, and promptly left on time, whisking us off to Shinjuku station in Tokyo, which took 90 minutes. As a train arrived at Shinjuku we heard a whimsical melody that chimed through the speakers of the rail platform. We would later find out that depending on direction, line, and platform, many rail stations in Tokyo have their own catchy little theme song. Just one of many pieces of Kawaii culture we’d be exposed to on this trip.

Arriving at Shinkjuku station as a first-time Tokyo visitor is like being airdropped into Time’s Square at 11:59pm on New Year’s Eve. You can’t help but freeze for a split second and wonder whether:

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But seeing all the people, and the shops, and the lights, and the buildings, and the billboards, and the food made me giddy to think I had traversed over 5,000 miles to explore this place, experience its culture, and indulge in its food. So *takes shot of vodka, tosses it over left shoulder* LET’S DO THIS TOKYO.
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 Of course it took a hot minute to figure out what direction we were headed. And once that was determined, it was a battle navigating the streets. For blocks we were in a sea full of people seemingly swimming against the current with our big suitcases. After several “Hey, wait up’s,” “I’m over here’s!,” and “Let’s just rendezvous at the airport next Sunday!” Ian and I realized that the problem was us. The Japanese drive (and walk) on the left side of the street. Doh. *Shifts to the left* That’s better. Although to be honest, not that much better. Tokyo is dense. And I’d advise on packing the smallest luggage possible because even if you’re on the right, er left, side of the street, it’s a struggle around those busy stations. Once on track we meandered past tall buildings, shopping malls, the Korean town, multi-level arcades, a batting cage, the robot restaurant:
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and a few adult entertainment clubs (man, this place is eclectic!) and finally found our AirBnB. Inside we slid our feet into house slippers courtesy of our host.
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It was cozy and naturally my first stop was the bathroom so I could warm up my booty on the Japanese toilet. After showering, we bundled up and backtracked to Shinkjuku station and onto the Park Hyatt hotel to grab a drink at the New York  bar à la Lost in Translation. We entered the building through the backdoor and wandered aimlessly for 10 minutes completely confused as to how we actually get up to the hotel, which was supposedly on the 42nd floor. We were finally directed to a stairwell that snaked through a wood-paneled cafe that smelled like chocolate fountains and espresso beans. As promised the elevator dropped us at the 42nd floor and let us off at a lounge with an amazing view of the city (and we still had 10 more floors to go!). We passed a fancy schmancy restaurant and a library on our way to another set of gold elevators that brought us to the NY bar on the 52 floor. Upon exiting we were met with a near perfect view of Tokyo at night. To the right was the bar, and more large windows where we could see the red Tokyo Tower sparkling. Ian ordered a Manhattan and me, a tasty mocktail (#preggolyfe) with tangerine, chai syrup, cream and a sprig of rosemary.
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Unsure whether it was the lack of sleep or the 52 floors but by the time our drinks were half empty both of us felt like the building was swaying and we knew it was time to head back. Of course not before snapping a few mediocre pictures that will never do the view justice!

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 Back we walked towards Shinkjuku station, to pick up a bite to eat. Most of the large rail stations in Japan have extensive food halls and Shinkjuku did not disappoint. Sadly we were forced to buy “platform” tickets to actually get us into the station to buy food, but I had been eyeing these dumplings ever since we arrived there that afternoon so it was worth it. We bought a variety of pork and shrimp dumplings, along with yakitori (meatz on a stick) and candy, because one is never too tired for dessert.
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and headed back to our Airbnb for a good night’s sleep.
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Day 2: Sunday, March 25, 2017

Today was cold and wet so instead of hauling it to Shinjuku station, we navigated the labyrinth of a much smaller Tokyo metro station nearby and headed south to the Meiji Shrine.

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IMG_1146The entrance to the Shinto shrine was marked by a large wooden torii gate surrounded by tranquil grounds and lush foliage.

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Our itinerary described the area as an urban oasis and it did not disappoint. Upon entering the forest, an endless canopy of trees lined a straight path to the shrine buildings and protected us from the rain. We were able to enjoy a quiet stroll with barely a soul around.

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While we bypassed a few of the buildings on the grounds, the main emperor’s shrine was peaceful to walk through.

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Like many of the shrines we’d encounter on our trip, there was a purification fountain at the entrance which we decided to skip as there’s a specific ways to use the wooden ladle to wash your hands and mouth. Didn’t need any cultural faux pas’s this early in the trip!

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On the way out of the park, we passed a giant set of colorful sake barrels that we’d later learn are often found at shrines as an offering to the gods.

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Suddenly we were starving, but before we could get out of the shrine grounds our path was blocked by hundreds of runners participating in the Puma Women’s Run. There was a group of hilarious middle-aged cheerleaders dancing to quite the playlist keeping the runners motivated.

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We headed towards the more bustling part of Shibuya only to find the place void of anything remotely representative of breakfast (still too early for shops to be open!) so we walked back to where we were (Meiji-Jingumae station) and stumbled upon a fantastic cafe called Good Town Doughnuts. It wasn’t the most Japanese-y place we could’ve found, but it was cold, rainy, and girl wanted a donut, not Tamagoyaki for breakfast. The warm coffee and fireplace were a welcome reprieve. We ordered a lemon, poppy seed donut, a blueberry muffin, and a bacon cheddar muffin with maple butter. So good!

Turns out we were just around the corner from one of the main shopping streets in Harajuku. Most of the big-name stores were similar to those in SF, but we to found a cool, country mart-y concept store called CPCM that was fun to browse around. After gawking at over-priced goods, we walked towards a more affordable shopping option in Shibuya called Tokyu Hands – a seven-story home goods store with bicycles, sushi earrings, pens, and stationery, clocks, bath towels, you name it.

I thought their stairs were funny. Because there are so many levels, they indicate how many calories you’ve burned going up. At least I *think* this is what that meant!

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We bought a bunch of knick-knacks and then checked out Shibuya Loft – similar to Tokyu Hands, but even better. Picked up cutesy socks, washcloths, more pens, and stickers. Everyone is so nice. Cashiers are sure to wrap up your purchases as delicately and beautifully as Mr. Bean from Love Actually.

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There’s also a lot of bowing involved in every transaction. We visited the Tsutaya book store and walked up to the Starbucks to observe the sea of pedestrians at the infamous Shibuya crossing. It was especially impressive with all of the umbrellas!

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Lunch was at Afuri. The restaurant has about 16 seats around the counter, which surround the chefs cooking pork and assembling the ramen. You order from a machine and hand your ticket to the host.

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I got the Yuzuratan Ramen (soy sauce based, with chili and spice) and Ian got the Yuzu Shoyu (the same, without the spice). The broth was amazing and it had a citrus element I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy, but absolutely did. This ended up being my favorite ramen spot of the entire trip.

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After lunch we backtracked to Cookie Time, a New Zealand cookie shop in Harajuku and waited way too long for two chocolate chunk cookies. The silver lining? An excellent playlist of the Spice Girls, J-Lo, and a few other ’90’s keepers. Right around the corner was Takeshita-Dori, the crazy, crowded teen fashion mecca in Harajuku that Shoshanna from Girls appropriately described as “Katy Perry’s vagina.”

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The visual stimuli were numerous: bright (mostly pink) colors, frilly socks and pigtails, trinket stores, cat (and owl!) cafes, cotton candy, and excellent people watching.

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After walking the length of the street we stopped into the Asics Onitsuka Tiger store, Happy Socks, and the ridiculous Q-Pot shop. The Q-Pot “Cafe” was closed, but the shop was ridiculous – seemed like you were walking into a gingerbread house full of kawaii trinkets that just didn’t make sense.

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Grossly overpriced berets, mugs, and tiny pieces of jewelry made to look like candy and desserts like macarons, whipped cream, and fruit. Pretty random, but such was Harajuku! We walked along Omotesando, a large tree-lined avenue with ritzy stores and pretty window displays before going back to Shinjuku in search of dinner. After a day of traipsing around in the rain we opted for the highly-recommended food hall in the basement of Takashimaya department store. Like so many department stores in Japan, the food options are endless and overwhelming, in a good way. The floor was hundreds of yards long by a couple hundred feet across (we got lost a few times!). THIS PLACE HAD EVERYTHING [insert best Stefon from SNL voice here].

IMG_1223IMG_1224IMG_1225IMG_1228In addition to the entire grocery store of fresh ingredients, there was sushi, tempura, dumplings, gyoza, sweets, cheese, and wine in every color, texture, or flavor you could imagine. We agonized and did a couple laps and settled on supermarket sushi, a tempura sampler, and a couple of salads. I got an anko (red bean paste) dessert and determined beans and sugar should probably stay separated. Clocked in at 22,000 steps and turned in for an evening of Japanese ninja warrior television.

 

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