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Published: November 9th 2015
Thursday 17th September 2015
Heathrow - and we're off.....
I have always been intrigued by Japan and have been counting down to the days to our first stop, Tokyo, for months. Needless to say, it didn't disappoint.
Having landed on a rainy Thursday afternoon, our first challenge was getting our jet lagged selves and big old backpacks across Tokyo to our hostel, Anne Hostel, in Ryoguku, an area renowned for sumo wrestling grand tournaments hosted in the large arena, Ryoguku Kokugikan, only a stones throw from the hostel. The metro system is a huge maze of coloured lines, but not that dissimilar to the tube so it wasn't too hard getting ourselves to where we needed to be.
After a short rest, we were eager to explore so I could get my first taste of Tokyo by night. Our first stop; the iconic Shibuya crossing. I've seen clips & photos of the area, but nothing quite compares to seeing it in person. Tokyo by night is an assault on the senses. The most striking for me was the colour; the city is a sea of bright neon lights illuminating the very dark night. We managed to get a spot in the Starbucks overlooking
First meal of the trip - Japanese omlette, miso soup pickles
the crossing and got a great view of the crossing in all its crazy glory. Surprisingly addictive watching! Having worked up an appetite, we got our first taste of Japanese cuisine in the most authentic way possible, walking into into a tiny restaurant with nothing in English. Luckily for us, as we came to see in Japan, plastic models of the food outside meant we could put our best pointing motions into action. Success! We managed to order ourselves an interesting mix of rice, chicken, omelettes and a beer to toast surviving our first day. Bring on Tokyo!! Friday 18th September 2015
Our first full day in Tokyo started in Harajuku with a stroll along Takeshita Dori, which is best known for being Japans catwalk for newest and most outlandish fashion trends. The street is lined with small fashion boutiques and fast food shops catering to their predominantly teenage customers. A definite must see to get a feel for Tokyo's strong sense of creativity but be prepared to share the street with a fair few tourists.
Our day ended in the area of Akihabara, famous for its many electronic shops and fast becoming a mecca
The bright lights of Tokyo city
for die-hard anime and manga fans. Whilst I don't consider myself an avid manga fan or particularly au fait with electronics (other than blowing the fuse on my hair dryer), the area is a great example of how Tokyo comes alive at night. The area glows with huge neon signs, bright flashing noisy arcades and kitsch french maid cafes . It's brash & bright and maybe not for everyone...but I loved it!
Both being sushi lovers, we were keen to get a taste of the real thing from the home of Sushi. Luckily for us there were lots of restaurants just outside of our Hostel. We picked one at random and were able to buy a selection of different types of sushi and sashimi (actual raw fish). When the waiter asked if we wanted any wasabi we said yes, but didn't expect him to place a layer of extremely strong wasabi throughout each piece of sushi. This meant that each bite blew our heads off, but if this is how the locals eat sushi who are we to complain. Overall a delicious and eye watering experience. Saturday 19th September 2015
After a cloudy few days,
View from Tokyo Metropolitan Government building
we found ourselves basking in sunshine on Saturday and jumped at the opportunity to find the best view of Tokyo city from above. Whilst most of the viewing platforms in Tokyo charge an entrance fee, the observatory on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku is completely free and offers some great views when on a budget. On a clear day they say you can see as far as Mount Fuji! Unfortunately for us, whilst sunny, high clouds made it difficult to see Fuji but a great opportunity to get some good panoramic pics.
Our next stop of the day was Meiji Jingu in Shinjuku; my first visit to a Japanese shrine. Meiji Jingu is a shinto shrine where the ashes of Emporer Meiji and Empress Shoken are enshrined. The shrine itself is buried within a beautiful forest made of 100,000 trees and framed by a picturesque pond full of carp and small tortoises.
We were lucky enough to witness a traditional Shinto wedding whilst at the shrine and watched the solemn bridal procession of the bride & groom sheltered under a red umbrella, slowly following the priests with friends and family in procession
Meiji Jingu - Japan selfie #1
behind. The bride's face is painted white and she is traditionally swathed in a pure white kimono. The most striking feature of the garment was the large white hood, the wataboshi, a symbol of the brides innocence and intended to protect her beauty until she is married. Once the hood has been removed, a beautifully elaborate hairstyle was revealed decorated with metal hair ornaments and combs. We managed to capture a small glimpse of this from a distance (grainy pic below), before the bride was whisked away in what very much looked like a London black taxi?! All in all, a very enjoyable and enlightening part of our day.
We also managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the Imperial Palace, which comes up as a recommended Tokyo sight. It's a nice to see but can only be seen from the gardens so it ends up being a photo opportunity from quite a distance. If you go, don't make the mistake we did and enter the park from the back. We spent a good 15mins taking pictures of a lovely building we thought was the palace...which was probably actually the garage?!
Then Chris got hungry...so we stopped
Vending machine ticket meal
at a local noodle shop and had our first experience of vending machine ordering. It ends up being a bit of guess work if there are no pictures but that's half the fun of it. Super efficient; insert the money, make a selection, get your ticket, hand it in at the counter, eat. So we stocked up on noodles and yummy prawn tempura for about £3 per meal. Cheap & tasty - double win! Sunday 20th September 2015
Shimokitazawa is an area of Tokyo we had read about in travel blogs, but hadn't featured too much in any of the tourist maps or guide books we'd seen. But it ended up being one of my favourite areas. A small pedestrianised area of winding narrow streets lined with small vintage and independent shops. My idea of heaven. Whilst at first glance we could have been back in East London, once inside you got a real feel for the effortlessly cool Japanese style. Chris had quite a challenge tearing me away from the small, dimly lit treasure caves. I was in my element and had we not been backpacking would have left with an amazing 70's
suede cape. Not quite your essential travelling garment.
From Shimokitazawa we jumped on the metro and travelled back to Shibuya to see the crossing by day. Unbeknownst to us, we found ourselves in Tokyo during a national holiday and the streets around the crossing were packed with locals and tourists out celebrating. This made for an even busier crossing! We got to see some local rituals with processions of people carrying golden ornate statues. Although we are still not entirely sure what we were witnessing, it was great to be swept up in the energy of the day and the occasion.
In the evening we ventured to Golden Gai, an area made up of 6 narrow dimly lit alleys lined with almost 200 tiny bars. On first sight, the area looks very dingy and ramshackle but actually you find yourself immersed in the Japanese drinking culture. All the bars are unique, with many reserved for regular locals only. We ended up there on a Sunday on a bank holiday weekend so many of the bars were closed. However we were beckoned into one by a friendly Japanese barman called Shohei, who on only his second day at the
Japanese gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
bar seemed keen for the company. The bar was typical of Golden Gai, with seating for only room 3 customers. We spent the next few hours learning about Shohei's life on Kyushu, one of Japans islands, drinking beer and attempting to master a few phrases in Japanese. A great way to spend to our Sunday evening!! Monday 21st September 2015
Our original plan had been to leave Tokyo today, but with the national holiday making accommodation across Japan ridiculously scarce, we were luckily able to extend our stay at the hostel and benefit from a few extra days in the city.
We started the day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, one of Japans biggest parks. The park started life as the feudal Lord's Tokyo residence, being handed to the Imperial Family in 1903. We spent the morning meandering through the traditional Japanese garden with pretty manicured trees, carp filled lakes, small wooden bridges and picturesque pavilions. A perfect way to spend a sunny Monday morning! Note to self, when in any grassed area wear insect repellent! Whilst we had a pleasant morning taking in the sights, the mosquitoes had an equally pleasant morning going to
Beautiful kimonos at Senso-Ji Temple
town on our ankles. Nice.
From Shinjuku, we took the metro over to Asukasa to visit the Senso-ji Temple. It would appear that half of Tokyo had made the same decision. The area surrounding the temple was packed full of locals in beautiful coloured kimono's, tourists and the odd television crew, all out to mark the national holiday. Senso-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Tokyo built in the 7th Century. We entered the shrine through a bright ornate gate, which was quite a sight. From there we were swept along with the crowds in the direction of the main shrine, passing an array of small stalls & shops selling everything from Japanese fans & kimonos to local snacks. Pretty touristy but a nice place to pick up the odd souvenir. We left content with the obligatory fridge magnet & postcard!
We've loved the variety & energy of Tokyo, it has definitely lived up to expectations and has been a great way to start our trip!
Next stop, Mount Fuji.....
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