Guide to Japan: Tokyo Part 2

March 27, 2017

6:45am and it’s snowing in Tokyo. Weather app says it feels like 29 degrees. As much as our cozy bed willed us to stay, we rallied because this morning’s itinerary included the Tsukiji Fish Market and we wanted a sushi breakfast! We took the train to Shinjuku station where Ian’s umbrella immediately perished in the wind. This sushi breakfast better be worth it. Inside the station we activated our JR passes, good for seven days of unlimited travel on JR lines within Japan. While the JR pass covers some local lines in Tokyo, there are so many different companies that own the rail lines in the city that it’s hard to decipher which passes cover what. We mainly bought the pass to get from Tokyo to Hakone and Kyoto (and back to the airport) but we had hoped to use it a bit locally, too. So even though Google Maps told us differently, we attempted to use a JR line to get to the fish market. Spoiler alert: It took longer, we got lost, and the whole trip subsequently cost more.

I’ll spare the details of our journey, except for this funny anecdote: After boarding a train car, we noticed, though packed, it was so silent you could hear a pin drop. Most of the trains are quiet, even during rush hour, but this was unusual even for Tokyo. By the second stop we really felt like something was off, but neither of us could pinpoint it. The car had a digital screen that was circulating various messages and we watched it passively, eyes glazed over as the train lulled us into a trance. Suddenly one message in English popped up, noting the car we were in was reserved for women! Big, imposing, American Ian, among these sweet, mousy Japanese women, melted into the corner. They were sweet about it, and didn’t seem to mind us clueless tourists, but we were sure to scurry off at the next stop.

When we arrived at the Tsukiji stop we followed the crowd towards the market—an entire block with stands upon stands of 4-seater sushi shops, fish/seafood kiosks, and other spice/dessert stands. It’s packed, confusing, and oh so entertaining.

We knew we wanted to eat at Tsukiji Sushi Sei Honten and surprisingly found it quickly. With barely a line, we were seated on the second level in front of the sushi bar and got to watch the chefs making spectacular creations out of the freshest fish. Ian got the lunch special and I ordered à la carte because ol’ preggo needed to keep her mercury count down. In addition to our nigiri rolls, we were served green tea and miso soup. The sushi was out of this world, as if you weren’t even eating fish. Such melt-in-your mouth deliciousness like nothing I had ever tasted. The rolls didn’t need to be dipped in soy sauce or accompanied by wasabi because the chefs would rub the fish with the appropriate spice or sauce before serving it.

When it was time to go, the entire staff collectively chanted a thank you to us. We realized this happens at most ramen restaurants too. Outside there was a huge line of people waiting in the rain to get in. For once we timed something right. Sushi breakfast FTW!

We continued to navigate the maze of stalls, dodging umbrellas and people. We came face to face with a crab that looked 25 lbs, straight chilling in a fish tank.

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This was one of the many oddities we’d stumble upon at the market. We bought a strawberry mochi ball from a vendor selling a bunch of different flavors, along with what looked like albino strawberries. It was sponge-y and odd, but quite enjoyable!

Next up was Ginza, a swanky neighborhood in Tokyo where we got a break from the rain in the Matsuya Department Store. First I had to use the bathroom and must take a second to note how impressive, abundant, and clean the restrooms are in this city! Although flushing can be an adventure. There’s a gazillion buttons. The coolest one, in my opinion, is one you wave your hand over for background noise in case you’re, ahem, doing your thang. But I couldn’t help think that if you turn on the modesty sound, don’t people know what you’re up to anyway?! #bathroomdiaries The top floor of the department store had a kimono department, which was cool to browse around.

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The place was dead, but there were *so* many employees. Ten for everyone one customer. Every time you passed a display someone would greet you and bow. It would’ve been exhausting, but the gesture is so enduring it’s hard to complain. Next we visited the Sony building, which we quickly realized was being closed that week(!) and knocked down to build Sony Park (and later, another Sony building) for the 2020 Olympics. The building itself was dedicated to the new complex, featuring wall murals and funky displays like an interactive museum.

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Our favorite was the wooden ball that rolled down several flights of stairs to the tune of “What a Wonderful World.”

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Then we headed to Asakusa to visit Senso-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple. Before walking to the temple and gardens we moseyed through several side streets that catered to tourists like us.

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Most notably we passed an owl café where a female employee had a real owl perched on her hand outside the store.

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Oh and hark! It finally stopped raining.

The touristy, but charming Nakamise-dori, is a street with cherry blossom decor that leads to Senso-ji. It’s Tokyo’s oldest temple (founded in 628 A.D.!) and is one of the most well-known tourist destinations in Tokyo.

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The temple was bombed during WWII, but was subsequently re-built. The imposing Kaminarimon, or “Thunder Gate,” marks its entrance and has a huge red lantern hanging in its center.

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To its left is a stunning five-story pagoda. As we approached the main hall we were greeted by a haze of incense and I washed my hands in the purification fountain (though couldn’t bring myself to cleanse my mouth with the water).

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In the main hall we tossed a few coins into a wishing/prayer bin and got to observe monks chanting inside. Connected were beautiful Japanese gardens and a perfect view of the Tokyo Skytree.

Exhaustion led us back to Shinkjuku where we caffeinated with hot chocolates from Tully’s near our Airbnb. We rested for an hour before succumbing to hunger. Tonight called for more ramen, this time Tsukemen from Fuunji—known for broth made from fish and chicken making it thick and rich (Kid Rock’s comeback album?). We ordered from a machine and waited for two of the 15 seats at the counter to open up. The noodles were served cold on the side of the broth. I made the mistake of ordering a small serving of noodles (small, medium, and large were all the same price) before coming to my senses and embarrassingly miming I wanted more, more, MORE!

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At that point they plopped a plate of noodles the size of my torso down in front of me and I, of course, felt compelled to eat every last bite.
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We used chopsticks to dip the cold noodles into the steaming broth, taking our cue from the recent Portlandia Tsukemen episode we watched before leaving home.

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Luckily, no Tsukemen monster terrorized Tokyo as a result of our amateur noodle dipping ability. We were stuffed and, because you should always walk off your dinner, I navigated us to a nearby stationery store called Sekaido. Before arriving, we checked out one of the many arcades in Shinjuku.

The “claw” game seemed a popular choice, with ridiculous prizes like anime action figures, and Beats headphones.

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And Sekaido was a success. I loaded up on stationery, and received only a few eye rolls from Ian. Afterwards, we hit up an odd department store that catered to Harajuku girls. I picked up a small canvas bag with sushi doodles on it. By that time we had accumulated 20,000 steps so it was time for bed, but not before snagging some ice cream at the local convenience store 🙂

March 28, 2017

The next morning we woke up early and were encouraged to see sunshine streaming through the curtains. Shinjuku Gyoen national garden, our destination for cherry blossom viewing, opened at 9:00am. En route we passed a bakery and with time to spare, ducked in for a cinnamon roll, a cherry custard pastry, a savory ham, cheese, and tomato tart, and some strong coffee. Their selection couldn’t have been cuter, a lot of cutesy animal creations made from molded dough. Fifteen more minutes of walking put us in line at the entry gate outside the park. The gardens were beautiful and had many different unique areas with ponds and lagoons, bridges, footpaths, and excellent flora all around.

After wandering, we were rewarded with multiple spectacular cherry blossoms trees. The pink and white blossoms stood out vividly against the otherwise green backdrop, and we got to Instagram-worthy pictures.

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Happy to have caught a glimpse of those before heading to our next destination: Hakone.

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