After spending two months in Bangkok with a couple visa-runs, we were heading to Manila with Andrew for a quick work trip. Peter needed to relay what he had learned during his Singapore training to his staff. Then we were off to Japan.
We did our usual spaghetti bolognese family dinners in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Manila with Tod in our hearts and on our minds.
A few days later we said our good-byes for now to Andrew. He was heading back to the US. Peter and I were heading to our first place on our Japanese tour…Tokyo. I was admittedly a little sad because we all had had such a fun time traveling and living in Bangkok together. But I knew our crew would have more adventures in the future.
I was thrilled that Japan was our next stop. I had heard so many wonderful things about the country. I was particularly intrigued because a handful of people had told me how truly foreign it would feel. I loved that. The more challenging to the “comfort zone” the better.
Check out our flight there.
That definitely looks pretty different from a flight from LAX to just about anywhere in the US.
The moment we landed I couldn’t stop taking pictures. I was like Peter “look at this vending machine.”
“Peter look at that taxi cab. How cute is that?”
That look means ‘put the camera away, I’m trying to get us organized’. I got that look a lot in Japan. Why? Because there are so many things to take pictures of, but it’s really challenging finding your way around. I was constantly taking photos while Peter was constantly trying to get us from point A to B.
Ultimately, Peter was able to maneuver us to our hotel that first night via Airport Express Train, thru Shinjuku Station and then into a taxi-queue to our hotel. We were staying at the Citadines Shinjuku. We checked in and immediately, fueled by the excitement of being in Tokyo, headed out to explore the neighborhood of Shinjuku.
Shinjuku provides some of the most electric energy in all of Tokyo. Specifically the area of Kabukicho, the red light district, which is full of restaurants, bars, bright neon billboards, and… Love Hotels??
We strolled the streets while taking in the intoxicating energy surrounding us.
Our first night we were set on grabbing some ramen for dinner which proved to be super challenging. We didn’t realize it at the time but withdrawing money from ATM’s as a foreigner is not so easy. Especially late at night. Only ATM’s at 7-Eleven’s and Post Offices allow foreigners to take out money with foreign cards. On top of this, none of the simple street-side restaurants accepted cards. So we walked around aimlessly for a long time attempting to get money while simultaneously being turned away by every restaurant due to our lack of Japanese Yen. Needless to say, this was pretty frustrating but at times comes the territory when traveling to new places. We were hungry, irritated, and tired.
In the end we settled on Family Mart because they accepted our credit card. Peter grabbed himself a cup of chili tomato instant noodle soup. I picked out an assortment of sushi. Japan even does good sushi in a minimart. We each grabbed a large Asahi beer and sat on the curb outside the store where we suddenly felt relaxed and laughed about our failed attempt to find money and food. If you aren’t adaptable while traveling, you probably aren’t going to have a good time.
Just like that our attitude turned around.
The next day we started early to begin exploring some of the different neighborhoods in Tokyo. We walked back to Shinjuku station which is the busiest in the world. The station is manic in a calm, quiet and organized way. Four million people a day sift through carousels and trains in harmonious fashion. Just being there is an experience in and of itself. Peter assumed the subway maps were some sort of joke.
As always I was super impressed with Peter’s ability to tackle such a challenging task and decode what I considered indecipherable maps. I’d be lost without him. Literally and figuratively. Not only are there hundreds of stations in Tokyo, there are multiple train companies and tickets are not transferable. So you need to find where you are going (which is like finding a needle in a haystack on the map) and then figure out which company supplies the route and then determine the fare price. Finally, with ticket in hand, you must swiftly walk through the station to avoid getting trampled by the endless stream of movement of passengers walking, find the right train/color and hope you are going the right direction. Needless to say, it’s a challenge finding ones way in Tokyo.
We started off in Yoyogi Park. Since Tokyo is so crowded and housing is small, parks are known for hosting a myriad of activities and so of course – great for people watching. Groups of people come to practice their hip hop routines, music talents, acting, fantasy fights, amongst other things. Additionally the park has a quiet and peaceful side and is beautiful.
Next up we walked over to the neighboring area of Harajuku—known as the fashion center and culture for Japanese youth. Which brings me to something I could not keep my eyes and camera off of—the FASHION. Oh me oh my. I have never seen anything like it. It is a style that I think for the most part you can only pull off in Harajuku/Tokyo. I absolutely LOVE how inhibited it is. Anything goes.
The best for last.
While in Harajuku I did a bit of shopping at Toyu Plaza and came out with one important question —why can’t all retail sales people be like the Japanese?
It was the best shopping experience of my life.
The cutest and loveliest Japanese women helped me at each store. I would pick something out to try on and then they would speak to me in the softest and sweetest tone. I had know clue what they were saying because it was all in Japanese. Think ‘Lost in Translation.’ I would shake my head yes and smile. I would then be escorted to a dressing room where I was instructed with smiles, hand motions, and Japanese language to take off my shoes before entering the dressing room. I would walk inside and try on the garment then be motioned to come out to show off what I was wearing.
The minute I walked outside the room I was generously given gasps of approval followed by the loveliest tone of language I have ever heard. It was given with, what I felt, a genuine admiration. Even if I didn’t purchase something they enthusiastically fond over, I wasn’t made to feel like I was making a mistake or letting them down.
Peter happened to walk up and watch from afar this scenario unravel and he too was taken by the loveliness that these women treated me with. The whole experience was one of many highlights from our time in Tokyo. What fun.
Our next stop was one of the hipster neighborhoods of Tokyo —Nakameguro. It is filled with charming cafes, bars, and restaurants. It’s highlighted by its tree-lined river.
Although the highlight for us was that we finally got a bowl of ramen. We spotted a restaurant that looked inviting and went for it. The trick is that you have to order on your own from a vending machine outside the restaurant that is it entirely in Japanese. It spits you out a ticket which you then give to the cook in the restaurant
With our best efforts, we ordered, but weren’t exacly sure what was going to be delivered to our table.
Not to fear. About 10 minutes later two bowls of deliciousness were brought to us which sparked a budding love with ramen.
Early evening we headed over to Shibuya crossing. This iconic intersection is located right next to Shibuya station. All street lights turn red at the same time bringing a halt to all traffic and then a flooding of pedestrians unravels from all directions. It’s controlled chaos. Right above the crossing is a Starbucks located on the second floor of the Tsutaya building. It’s a perfect spot to observe from above.
Bonus for me, Shibuya 109, which is a multi level shopping center is located right at the crossing. I popped in for some browsing and friendly saleswomen. I also mistook a woman for a mannequin. If I’m going to be honest, this happened a lot. The Japanese having amazing skin.
Up next we headed to the neighborhood of Ginza. Ginza is one of the most expensive and upscale neighborhoods in Tokyo. You will find every high fashion, luxury brand store here and a cup of coffee will cost you $10. We went there after sundown because it’s known for being photogenic at night due to all the neon lights and signs. If I was a photographer, which I’m clearly not, we would have much better pictures.
After a bit of a bust in Ginza due to most things being closed by the time we got there, we headed back to the neighborhood we were staying in—Shinjuku. Peter’s friend, Kim, who lives in Tokyo had recommended a ramen spot near our hotel by the name Ichiran.
Dining here, like many aspects of our time in Tokyo was a unique experience.
Like other ramen places there is the typical vending machine to order from. Then you wait in a queue where you are handed a menu where you can then customize your noodles.
The seating chart is available on the wall in electronic form allowing the staff to have as little as interaction as possible. Once we were taken back we realized that the seating design isn’t optimal for patron interaction as well.
Everyone is sat at an individual counter with partitions. In order to receive your ramen you place the customized sheet on the edge of the counter until a mystery person comes by to pick it up.
A little while later we were delivered our ramen and a cold beer. The ramen was to die for and the best we had on our entire trip. The elusive dining experience made it even more memorable.
The next day we met up with Peter’s friend Kim. We made plans to meet in the trendy neighborhood of Shimokitizawa at Bear Pond Espresso. Kim is a delight and the two of us ended up talking non-stop which did not surprise Peter at all since he already knew our energies together would certainly get along. His only complaint was that he was over-powered by our collective girl-talk and couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.
One of the things I was really excited about in Japan was checking out the Japanese beauty products because it is all the rage in skin care. I had done quite a bit of research and Kim knew of a nearby store that she and I could go explore. Peter shook his head in despair at this notion, but off Kim and I went.
One of the best things I picked up that day were these facial sheet masks.
Kim then took us for lunch to get Soba noodles at an all Japanese restaurant. No sort of English menu and not a place Peter and I could have figured out very easily. So nice to have a local show us around. With these dishes you are delivered broth with cold noodles then you place individual noodles via chopsticks inside the broth. As per usual—delicious.
After several hours with Kim we were off to our next adventure. We kept things moving in Tokyo. There is so much to see.
We were finally on our way for a sushi dinner!
Surprisingly getting sushi in Japan isn’t as easy as you would think. You can’t just walk up to a restaurant and hope for an open seat. Sushi dining is a bit of a serious event. A reservation is necessary because the sushi chef goes to Tsukiji Fish Market (the market that sources/export the world’s best sushi) that morning to prepare for that days reservations. Sure you can go to places that are run with a conveyer belt, but true dining needs to be thought of ahead of time. Also, sushi is pricey. Oh and if you are a sushi roll lover, you won’t find that as regularly in Tokyo. This is the real traditional deal.
By recommendation we had made reservations in the Ebisu neighborhood at Matsue. I was so excited I could barely contain myself when we walked up. I was actually a bit nervous. I felt like I was about to meet someone famous that I have a strong admiration for.
We were escorted to the sushi bar where we informed the chef we both wanted, “Omakase,” which in Japanese means —I’ll leave it up to you, or chef’s choice.
Peter and I sat there for the next hour or so and had delicious piece of fresh fish, one after the other, delivered to us in such excruciatingly perfect detail. It was a bit intimidating because the chef would at times stop and wait for our reactions to gauge our palate. Then adjust accordingly. They take their profession so seriously and do it with such confidence and swagger.
I had a profound moment with a piece of toro or fatty tuna.
Sometimes while traveling or in life in general you have certain moments of perfection. For me, it was sitting there in Tokyo with my husband eating my favorite cuisine. I was living so much in that moment that when I ate the piece of sushi, which was the best I had ever had, it literally sent chills throughout my body and even brought a tear to my eye. It was utter bliss.
Here are some of the other pieces of sushi we indulged in.
As if our day could get any better after that, our next stop was back in Shinjuku to attend a Robot Cabaret.
I honestly don’t know what to say about the show, because there is nothing quite like it.
Before the show even begins, sensory overload starts in the lounge area.
Here’s the lounge.
Here’s the lounge band who played hit songs from Maroon 5 and an amazing rendition of “Isn’t she lovely” by Stevie Wonder.
With my love of anything performance art related I was already in sheer joy before the show even began.
Next we were instructed to the basement where the robot cabaret takes place. Everyone is filed in and shown to their assigned seats.
The show is kick started by taiko drumming performed by a group of women in rainbow wigs and sequin attire.
From then on out it was a frenzy of energy, lights, dancing, techno, and robots. Mixed in were some dinosaurs, giant fembots, a woman eating snake. Scarcely dressed women all attempt to fight off the oversize robots while dancing in heels. There wasn’t a particular storyline to follow or a method to the madness. We just sat back and took in the silliness, hilarity, and at times oddness of it all. Just another thing to love about Tokyo.
Check the box for yet another unique experience in Japan. This country rocks.
We night capped it in the Golden Gai area. Golden Gai is known for it’s nightlife and architecture. It’s made up of six small alleys that are connected by narrow passageways comprised of 200 tiny shanty-like bars filled with an overabundance of character. The architecture is significant because it represents what Tokyo use to look like. It’s an area mainly for locals, but if you spot a bar with an English sign outside of it then it’s probably open to foreigners. Each of the small drinking dens seat anywhere from 6-10 people only. Some of the more famous establishments only allow regulars and entrance is granted by very selective bartenders. Our goal was to visit the public-friendly establishments.
We started with a drink at a bar named Albatross. It had a quiet mystic feel with eccentric decor. This included chandeliers, animal heads, crucifixes, and mirrors. We quietly sipped our cocktails while feeling we had entered an ultra hipster Japanese zone.
Then were off to try out another place when we were waved in my a friendly bartender to am establishment that didn’t appear to have a name. We attempted to speak with him in broken English and hand gestures which resulted in the bartender handing a cord to Peter. Said cord was for his phone and connected to the surround sound so we could play DJ. Peter of course slammed hip-hop. We had the place to ourselves where we sat, smiled, and chatted about the past couple days of Tokyo exploration. It had been busy and really, really fabulous.
The next afternoon we were taking the bullet train to Kyoto, but not before one last stop.
We woke up early and headed to Tsukiji Fish Market so we could experience straight-from-the-sea table sushi. The market holds the worlds largest tuna auction which occurs daily before sunrise. Over 1000 food establishments go there each morning to buy fresh fish. A small number tourists are allowed to watch the auction but you have to get there around 3 AM to ensure a spot so we passed on that.
I had done a good amount of research on where to go and there were two restaurants that were highly reviewed, Daiwa and Dai. We had out sights set on either one, but quickly realized after looking at the queues if you want to eat at either establishment you should probably get there around 5 AM. Especially Dai; I just read on a blog that one person waited 3 hours after arriving at 5:20 AM. We hadn’t received the memo so while Peter went looking for a Post Office to get money, I waited in a line at the restaurant next to Daiwa. I mean all these places are getting the fish from the same place, right?
I can’t speak to the other top rated restaurants but we ended up at Yamazaki and it was incredible. I’ve read that there is no need to queue for the more popular places and you won’t go wrong at any of the establishments in the market. The reviews on TripAdvisor for Yamazaki are through the roof.
While here I selected from a menu my sushi choices by fish and quantity. Peter and I both delighted in the toro with a few pieces each. Sushi for breakfast—a fantastic idea. So healthy and light and we were eating the freshest from the sea. It was another one of those perfect travel moments.
After an extraordinary breakfast experience we headed over to the train station. Our next destination was Kyoto where we would arrive by bullet train.
Tokyo remains one of my top favorite destinations in all of our travels. When one place offers so many unique experiences at once, especially one that runs goosebumps throughout my body, it’s a place that will leave a lasting imprint. It certainly did on me. There were so many things I was taken with from the people to the food to the fashion to the mind blowing efficiency in which everything is run. I can’t wait to go back.
And now I’m hungry for sushi…and ramen.
Thanks for reading!