I have talked about going to Japan for no less than ten years and finally, in March 2015 the pilgrimage was completed. Being the complete over planner that I am I had spent months organising the trip and even brushed up on a bit of Japanese after having a 6 year break from studying the language. That was a wise move. I hadn’t fully appreciated just how much of a barrier the language was going to be while we were away. Thankfully, I could read quite well and could (almost) always make sense of where we were and where we were meant to be (and in most cases what we were eating). Before leaving Australia, I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to speak the language a little, but that confidence was completely shot when we landed in Tokyo. Even when the locals could understand what I was asking, I had no hope of understanding their response which was much faster than any taught Japanese and sounds completely different when spoken with a native tongue.
Despite the language barrier we managed to find our way to our Airbnb apartment in Harajyuku. This was not without incident however and may have involved a bit of a panic attack when the phone battery (with the directions) was reduced to 3% and my inability to ask for directions effectively resulted in my disappearing on Damian through fear of returning without knowing where I was going. The apartment was great, albeit small, but hey, it’s Japan. The quality of the accommodation was much higher for the price than staying at a hotel and given it was part of a residential complex allowed us to really feel like we were staying in an authentic Japanese apartment.
After relaxing for a couple of hours in the apartment in the afternoon, recuperating from our overnight flight from Australia without much sleep we headed out to explore the nearby area. We decided not to venture too far from the apartment on our first night and went for a wander around the iconic Takeshita Street in Harajyuku. The sheer volume of people in Takeshita Street was mind blowing. Harajyuku girls, anime cosplay costumes and the simply bizarre litter the streets and could keep a camera wielding tourist happy for hours. Everywhere we looked were girls eating ice creams, donuts, waffles – anything you could possibly think of that you could top with cream and sugar.
We got a variety of chicken skewers for dinner and had a beer in a little restaurant called Kushisuke. I think it was here that it became clear that in terms of alcoholic beverage there was not going to be much around for Damian who doesn’t drink beer; here we renamed Asahi “Japanese Cider” and were happy to indulge – regularly.
A couple of cocktails at Bill’s Omotesando and a view of the city at night from the rooftop garden was a perfect way to cap off our first experience of Tokyo and Japan.
Our first full day in Tokyo was a massive day of walking and exploring. Walking became a bit of a theme for the holiday, my pedometer tracked upwards of 20,000 steps most days that we were in the country. First on our list of places to see was the nearby Yoyogi Park, conveniently located within walking distance of Harajyuku Station.
Walking into Yoyogi Park we saw a fashion shoot taking place by the gates and some Japanese teenagers practicing a street dance routine. It became quickly evident that Japanese people, young and old have a great respect for their environment and really appreciate the availability of inner city parks to get outside and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.
Here in Yoyogi Park we saw our first cherry blossoms, which was a huge relief as I’d been getting concerned that we were going to completely miss the season altogether and there would be no colour in any of the trees. Even in the early stages of the cherry blossom season in Japan there is such reverence for nature and awe of the beauty that could so easily be taken for granted.
After wandering the grounds of Yoyogi Park, which included checking out the local dogs in the dog run, we headed to the first of what would be our many shrine viewings in Japan – Meiji Shrine.
The Meiji Shrine was a short walk from the entrance to Yoyogi Park and looked to be a popular destination. We must have just missed some kind of ceremony there as there were quite a number of traditionally dressed Japanese women walking back from the shrine as we were walking there. I washed my hands at the purification fountain and following the locals threw a coin into the offering box and clapped and bowed as they did.
On the way back we paid 500¥ each to wander around the Meiji Shrine Garden. It was quite beautiful with a teahouse overlooking a still body of water full of carp. The gardens themselves were beautiful and offered a few good photo opportunities.
We had our first experience ordering from a vending machine in Akihabara where we selected our ramen order and waited for the chef to cook for us. The streets of Akihbara were quite confronting in how busy they were and the number of young girls in school girl or maid costumes was a little disturbing.
We went from Akhibara to the Tokyo Sky Tree for a view of the city from the height of the tower. It was absolutely mind blowing, buildings as far as the eye could see in every direction. I’ve never seen anything like it, it was up here that I truly got an appreciation for just how big Tokyo is and what a city of 20 million people actually means.
The day didn’t stop there though! After the Sky Tree we went in search of the Golden Asahi Foam (Giant Turd) which we had spotted from the top of the tower. We snapped a few photos and then I demanded a beer stop.
The walk from the Sky Tower to the Golden Turd and then around Asakusa was potentially one of my favourites in Tokyo. It was really great to walk around a very residential area of the city and see the way the inner city dwellers live. The use of every available space to grow plants, on footsteps, window sills, anywhere and everywhere is just something you don’t see in Australia.
We had dinner in Asakusa in a little restauarant where we cooked our own Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki on hot plates insert into our table. We were the terrible westerners who forgot to take our shoes off before heading up to the tatami room and then when the table next to us sparked up a little conversation I decided to try and use my Japanese a bit… they were Vietnamese… but they were good sports.
In hindsight, we should have called it a day there but we tried to squeeze a visit to Shinjuku in at the end of the night and really we should have left it for an evening where we weren’t so exhausted. The flashing lights, the noise, the number of people, the spruikers for strip bars, it was all just way too much for us by the end of the day. We decided we would come back and make a night of it another night but unfortunately our schedule never allowed it.
Part by deisgn, part by necessity our third day in Tokyo was a little more relaxed than day two, which had tried to fit so much into it. We started day three with a garden again as we discovered this was a nice relaxing way to start a day of sightseeing. This time we headed to Shinjuku Garden which was larger and more visually stimulating than Yoyogi Park.
Again it was so nice to be able to take a break from the city and be around such serenity without having to take half a day to get there. Shinjuku Park was great. We saw a number of cherry blossoms starting to bud and there were crowds of people milling about the newly opening flowers. The colour of the grass, which was surprisingly yellow/brown (I expected a lush green) made for a beautiful contrast of colours between the pinks of the cherry blossom and the yellow of the ground.
We headed to Ginza next which in all honesty I could have left out of the itinerary. It was fascinating to see the high society folk milling about in their designer brands and flaunting their style, but there was no way I had the budget to shop in the area and there wasn’t that much else to see up there.
We headed into Shibuya to catch up with a friend of Damian’s for dinner. We had to stop and get photos at the iconic Shibuya crossing. I have never seen something so busy in my life. The fact that the intersection fills up every 90 seconds or so is simply astounding. We had a few drinks in Shibuya that night, but kept a lid on it to get the most out of our last day in Tokyo the next day.
Our final day in Tokyo was spent heading to the north end of the city to have a look at (wait for it) Ueno Park. I think the park would have been more impressive if we’d have been there two weeks later when the blossoms were in full bloom, as it was most of the trees were quite barren. We wandered around the Tokyo National Museum which was worth the visit being in the area, but I probably wouldn’t make a special trip for it.
By the time we headed back towards Harajyuku the sun was setting. It made for a beautiful walk back to our apartment and showed us the area in a completely different light. We could not have been happier with the apartment. It was just perfectly located and made such a fantastic base for our four day exploration of Tokyo.
For our final night we headed back in the direction of Shinjuku to have a wander around Roppongi Hills, a giant shopping centre encompassing a number of blocks. The developer slowly acquired all the land over the course of a number of years, it was very impressive. After a sushi based dinner (and more Japanese ciders) in a little sushi restaurant by the name of Edome Gatton Sushi we wandered back to our apartment to pack our things and prepare to head off on the shinkansen in the morning to discover Nagoya.
We could have stayed a week, but I think we managed to get a great tour of Tokyo into our four day itinerary. I think if we went back we would definitely try and see a bit more of Shinjuku by night, and perhaps do a day trip to Hakone. Next time!