Andrew and I have been drawn to Japan for many years. There is something totally unique about the culture, history, cuisine, landscapes, and people that have put it as one of the top countries on our travel list.
So, when we knew that we would be travelling home to New Zealand in March for a family wedding we thought it would be the perfect time to tag on a trip to Japan. And being the beginning of Spring we held high hopes of catching the infamous Sakura (cherry blossom) season which locals, and tourists, go absolutely nuts for.
Our first stop was Tokyo, the bustling capital which perfectly contrasts the old, the new and the bizarre! We had four nights here, staying at an Airbnb in Yoyogi, within walking distance of Shinjuku, a great location to stay if you ever visit Tokyo. On our first morning, we awoke to an absolutely miserable day. My sightseeing plans quickly went out the window so we regrouped and decided that the weather called for a museum day. We headed to Ueno and visited the Tokyo National Museum, which, in hindsight, was a great way to start our trip by delving into the history, art, and culture of Japan. After a few hours, we were starting to feel peckish and found a great local ramen restaurant to take shelter in. Just as we were slurping our way through our first authentic bowl of delicious hot noodles and pork it started to snow!
The weather didn’t let up that first day so we continued to brave the freezing cold rain and visited Meiji Shrine. The entrance to the shrine is marked by the impressive torii gate which follows through to meticulously kept stone pathways surrounded by a tranquil forest.
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is Japan’s ancient religion, and it is deeply rooted in the way of Japanese life. Shinto has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversion. There are literally thousands of Shinto shrines throughout Japan – wiki tells me 80,000+!
Meiji Shrine is within walking distance of Harajuku. Well known for its colourful and quirky style, Harajuku is the gathering place for flamboyant and eclectic teen tribes dressed in a mix of punk/cartoonish clothing – the ultimate people-watching territory. After a bit of sensory overload we headed back to Shinjuku and found the lovely craft beer restaurant Tap Stand where we got a bit tipsy on the IPAs and enjoyed some interesting and delicious small plates, including deep fried beef tongue. We didn’t fill up too much though as I wanted to check out Omoide Yokoch for dinner, also known by locals as Piss Alley (enticing!). The history of this seedy alley dates back to post-war Japan where it started out as an illegal drinking quarter. It is still a prime spot for cheap drinks and is lined with tiny yakitori bars. If you’re lucky you find a space at the bar in one of the numerous cramped restaurants and watch the chefs cook an assortment of skewered meat, fish, and vegetables over charcoal barbeques, hai!
The next day we were up early to start our Tsukiji Fish Market tour with Japan Wonder Tours. Covering a huge area in Tsukiji this fish market is made up of the outer retail market with hundreds of restaurants and supply stores and the impressive inner wholesale market.
Our tour guide took our small group (five of us) around the outer market first, getting us to sample many of the local ingredients and snacks as we walked, including omelet, fish cakes, the biggest oysters I’ve ever seen and the unique white strawberries. It was a great experience weaving our way through the market stalls and interacting with the local sellers.
Next, we went into the inner fish market, where tourists are only allowed in after 10am. The inner market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and handles over 2,000 tons of product per day! By 10am most of the stalls were busily packing up but we still got a feel for the scale and hum of the daily activity. The highlight was seeing three men meticulously measuring up a big slab of fresh tuna and then one sliced through it like butter with a huge sword. Photos are prohibited in the inner market but I managed to sneak in a few snaps!
Our tour concluded at a sushi bar on the outskirts of the Tsukiji markets, where the quality is just as good but the prices are much more forgiving on the wallet. Here we sampled out of this world nigiri sushi made fresh before our eyes. Our server was a comical old man who, in broken English, told us how to eat our sushi – his trick was to dip the ginger into the soy sauce and slide it over the top of the fish and then discard it. Sushi will honestly never taste the same after this experience!
That afternoon we were in the right place at the right time and fluked a tour into the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace – where they had only started holding English tours a week prior. We joined a tour of about 200 people and were shown around the grounds of the Emperor’s current residence and the former site of Edo Castle. Afterward, we enjoyed a break within the beautiful East Gardens and followed the moat to check out all the blossoming sakura.
We finished off the afternoon checking out Akihabara – home to anime, manga, arcades and, in more recent years, mega-sized electronics stores. We checked out the multi-story SEGA arcade where each level had different types of games and the caliber of talent was very impressive. Andrew was pretty keen to check out a maid cafe, which are numerous in this area (and in Harajuku if you’re interested). Maid cafes are cosplay themed restaurants where you’re served by submissive waitresses typically dressed as French maids. Pretty odd concept which I decided that we would flag on this occasion.
Our next stop was Roppongi district where we headed to the top of Tokyo City View where the observation deck offers a fantastic panoramic view of the city. We had intended to see the sunset but the line was a bit longer, and slower, than expected, but was still an amazing view 52 floors up. Just around the corner we found an amazing spot for dinner which specialised in okonomiyaki – a Japanese savoury pancakes usually containing seafood and topped with bonito flakes, mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce. I was happy to be ticking off some of the key foods I wanted to try in Japan. We finished the evening checking out the famous Shibuya crossing which is rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world.
On our last full day in Tokyo we spent the morning enjoying the beautiful cherry blossoms in the Shinjuku Gyoen – one of the best places in the city to see them. This tranquil escape was nice and quiet in the morning and we were in awe of the pink and white flowering blossoms throughout the park. We were so lucky to have timed our trip to Japan perfectly to coincide with the beginning of the sakura season which actually started early this year. We began to understand why the season is so highly anticipated by the Japanese each year. Everywhere we went there were beautiful sakura flavoured sweets, sakura edition Coca Cola, sakura art and of course the actual trees themselves were absolutely everywhere. When the season arrives locals indulge in the nation’s favourite pastimes – hanami, which translates to “flower viewing” and refers to flower appreciation picnics under the sakura.
After our sakura fix we headed to Asakura district to visit the Sensō-ji Temple. The Nakamise Shopping Street and Temple grounds were absolutely packed but the sun was shining and the street food snacks we picked up kept us happy. Sensō-ji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo built in the 7th century – though both the main temple and the five-storied pagoda are relatively recent reconstructions of the original buildings which were destroyed in World War II.
Next, we walked along the river toward the Ryogoku neighborhood where the Sumo tournaments are held just three times a year. If you’re lucky you can see Sumo wrestlers in the area either heading to training sessions or going about their daily lives. We were unsuccessful but we did manage to find an amazing, and affordable, tempura restaurant – another food ticked off the list.
On our last evening in Tokyo we met with four people from Andrew’s Tokyo office. They were extremely hospitable and took us out for dinner at Hantei a traditional kushiage restaurant where we removed our shoes at the door and sat on cushions at low tables. Kushiage (or Kushikatsu) is a Japanese dish of deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables with a coating made of a light panko crumb. We let them order everything for us (I’m not sure the staff even spoke any English) but the kushiage were brought out in 3-4 servings at a time so everything was fresh, hot and so moorish. It was truly a humbling experience to go out to a restaurant like this with locals and one of the culinary highlights of our trip. We didn’t want to have our phones or camera out at dinner so don’t have any photos of the restaurant or food but definitely one experience I won’t forget. If you want to see photos check out the Google images here.
The following day we jumped on the Shinkansen, bullet train, to our next destination – the mountainous, onsen town of Hakone (blog to come!).