Tokyo Part 1
Just as we were getting ready to pack up and move back to the US from London, Josh got assigned to a three-month project in Tokyo. Becca is lucky that she works remotely, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and spend time in Tokyo together. Since we’re here together for a month, the blog format will be a little different from our typical weekend trip posts, but we wanted to give everyone a taste of what we’ve been up to in Japan. We hope you enjoy it!
Thoughts on Tokyo
Tokyo is an amazing city, and we’ve been having a blast exploring and getting to know the culture. It’s different from anywhere we’ve been before, and it feels foreign in a way we’ve never experienced. English is not widely spoken, and many restaurants don’t have English menus (the Google translate app is a lifesaver!). People are polite and everything is very clean (including public bathrooms, which are everywhere!). It’s a fun place with many quirks, like city blocks dedicated solely to anime or electronics or TV character stores. The subway system is efficient and incredibly easy to use (and the trains have fun jingles when they pull into the station). There’s also a traditional side to the city, and you can find shrines next to ultra-modern shopping districts.
And the food… Tokyo has an incredible food culture. Many restaurants specialize in one dish and will only have one or two things on the menu. On the basement level of department stores there are massive food halls with prepared foods and sweets that are beautifully presented. Sometimes you order your meal from a vending machine, and most restaurants have plastic food replicas out front so you know what they serve. We’ve been sampling as much as we can, sometimes not even knowing what we’re eating, but loving the experience of trying it all. We feel so lucky to be here and to have the chance to explore this unique and fun place together!
We’re staying at the Oakwood Premier Tokyo, which is a long stay hotel next to Tokyo Station. It’s a ten-minute walk to Josh’s office, which he can do all underground if he wants. There’s a whole underground city, with restaurants and shops and passageways connecting the various office buildings in the area. It makes for a confusing maze that’s great for exploring on rainy days. The neighborhood is mostly big office buildings, but it’s convenient for work and for getting around the city. The staff at the hotel are incredibly friendly and helpful, and we have access to a great gym in the building (very necessary after all the dumplings!).
Our first weekend we set out to do as much site seeing as possible. Here’s what we got up to.
Saturday June 3
We took the subway to Uguisudani Station and walked to the top of the park. Inside the park, there are several museums and shrines. We skipped the museums but visited the Ueno Toshogu Shrine and Shinobazunoike Bentendo. We also walked around the pond, which was covered in pretty lily pads. We paid to go into the Ueno Toshogu Shrine but seeing the free part would have been enough for us.
Just south of the park, there’s a large outdoor market that sells all sorts of random stuff, from food, to clothing, to souvenirs. We browsed around a bit and found a food stand selling takoyaki, or octopus balls, which were delicious.
Tokyo Kappabashi Shopping Street
There’s a street about a 20 minute walk from the market that is the restaurant supply street. There are blocks and blocks of stores selling everything restaurants could need: furniture, pots, pans, signs, chopsticks, sushi sets, and more. In Japan, many restaurants have plastic food in the window so customers know what the restaurant serves, and there are stores filled with plastic food as well. We had a really fun time browsing in the shops and buying some fun kitchen accessories.
From the kitchen street, we walked another 20 minutes towards the Senso-ji Temple. Just outside the temple area, we stumbled upon a massive street performance, where people were balancing massive balloon structures on their heads. It was really cool to watch, and then we carried on into the temple grounds. It’s a massive complex, and it was packed with tourists. This temple was much more impressive than the shrines we’d seen earlier that morning. We got a delicious meat skewer with rice from a street vendor, and then walked down Nakamise, a touristy shopping street adjacent to the temple complex, which was crowded but fun.
Despite our ongoing snacking all morning, by this point we were starving. We took the subway down to the fish market, but we arrived around 2:30 and many of the stalls were closing down. There are a bunch of restaurants inside the market, so we found one and got delicious, fresh sushi bowls. Everyone recommends you get to the market at 4am for the famous tuna auction, but it’s unlikely we’ll venture out that early.
From the market, it was about a 30-minute walk through Ginza back to our hotel. Ginza is a fancy shopping district, and the main road was closed to traffic, which made for an enjoyable walk home.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
After resting and showering, we ventured back out to Shinjuku. We got a little lost but finally found our way to the the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which has a free observatory on the 45th floor. We got there around 8 and only waited about 15 minutes to get up there, but when we got off the elevator there was a massive line to go back down snaked around the entire observation area. The view was nice, but knowing we’d have to wait a long time to get down kind of ruined the experience. The view was nice, but we didn’t think it was worth it (especially since Josh’s first hotel had a higher, better view with no wait). When we did finally get back down, there was a massive line to go up, so we’re glad we got there earlier.
Memory Lane/ Yakitori Alley
Adjacent to the Shinjuku subway station, there is a narrow alleyway with a ton of tiny yakitori (meat skewer) restaurants. We just picked a random one that had seats available. We ended up sitting upstairs but wish we had sat at the bar in front of the grill.
Shinjuku at Night
Shinjuku is known to be a great area for nightlife, so we walked around east of the station to take in the atmosphere. Even at 10:30 on a Saturday night, all the shops are open, there are lights and people everywhere. We also walked through Kabukicho, which is Tokyo’s red light district, which was fun to see as well.
There’s an area of a few narrow streets with tons of tiny bars that’s right adjacent to Kabukicho. Some of them are known for being not very foreigner friendly, and we were pretty tired from the day of touring so we just walked through and didn’t stay for drinks.
Sunday June 4
Becca’s always been a big fan of lululemon’s free Sunday morning yoga, so she decided to check out the Tokyo experience. There are two lululemon stores in Tokyo, but currently only the one in Harajuku has in-store classes. It got completely full, so arriving 20 minutes early is essential to guarantee a mat. The class was mostly in Japanese, but since there were a few foreigners in the room, the instructor gave a few English queues. It was a lot of fun and a great way to start the day!
A few people and several blogs recommended this gyoza (dumpling) spot, so we decided to give it a try. We were lucky that we only waited in line for about ten minutes before we were seated. The cucumber salad with miso dressing was amazing and the gyoza were pretty good as well (the pan fried are much better than the steamed). We sat at the bar, so we got to watch them make the food, which was fun.
Harajuku is teen pop culture heaven, and it’s also known for its shopping. Becca had been a few days before and had a blast exploring the side streets and funny “only in Tokyo” shops, like KiddyLand and Line Friends. On Sunday, we walked down Takeshita Street where there are tons of crazy, colorful shops and people everywhere. We were excited to try the frozen popcorn store, but it wasn’t anything that special.
Yoyogi Park and Meji-jingu Shrine
From Harajuku, we walked up through Yoyogi Park to Megi-jingu shrine, another one of Tokyo’s “must see” shrines. It was under construction, which was a bit of a bummer, but the park and walk up to it is beautiful and so peaceful. It’s hard to believe the craziness of Harajuku is just a few minutes away when you’re in this massive, serene forest. We were lucky that a traditional Japanese wedding was going on at the shrine, and we got to see them process out of the ceremony.
We took the subway a couple of stops to Shibuya for lunch at a restaurant that came highly recommended by our friends Norman and Jodi. We got bowls of rice with chicken and raw egg, which freaked Becca out at first but ended up being delicious. #wheninTokyo
After lunch we walked over to Daikanyama which is a cute, quiet, leafy shopping area. It feels more residential and there were a lot of signs and restaurants in English, which isn’t typical for Tokyo. We finally found a full-sized grocery store, so we stocked up on some food for the week before getting on the subway to go to home.
Mucho Modern Mexicano
We felt like we needed a break from Japanese food, so we found a Mexican restaurant near our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at how good it was (especially the guac!). We didn’t expect to be back there so soon, but the following Thursday night we came back with Josh’s co-workers and can now vouch for the margaritas as well.
We’ve been trying to fit in some mid-week adventures as well. Here’s are some of the highlights:
This is the famous intersection that everyone’s seen pictures of. We went on a Friday night and were told to go up to the second floor of the Starbucks to watch. It is pretty crazy and definitely great to check out.
This neighborhood is famous for electronics shops and anime. For several blocks, those are the only shops you see. It was cool to check out, but some of it was lost on me since I don’t understand anime culture. This isn’t far from Ueno Park and could be done in the same outing.
East Gardens of the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is right next to Josh’s office. It’s only open to the public on select days in the year. You can request tickets to enter the grounds, but it needs to be done far in advance and the whole month is already booked up. However, the East Gardens are free, open to the public and beautiful. It’s known to be a good spot for cherry blossoms in the spring, and in June the irises are in bloom. There’s an app with a free audio-guide that’s GPS based and made the walk around the park much more interesting. The whole audio guide took about ninety minutes.
Stay tuned for more adventures in Japan and our trip to Kyoto!