I actually was slightly panicky about arriving in Tokyo at Narita Airport. Having heard stories about the complex rail system in Tokyo, I was sure we would be totally bamboozled by the whole thing. Turns out there was nothing to worry about because Japan operates like a well oiled machine with complete efficiency and officialness.
When choosing our hotel in Tokyo I was mindfull of several things. Closeness to a rail or subway system was high on the priority list. Secondly, which district to choose? Yes we wanted the highlife but 24/7…..
Tokyo is also widely spread, so whilst I loved the sound of staying in the more traditional area of Asakusa, it was located quite some distance from the hub of the vibrant nightlife. Cost was also a factor as staying right in the ‘vibrant hubs’ did come at a price.
So I went for a midpriced “Business Hotel” in the more residential area of Akasaka which was a midway point between all we wanted to see. It turned out to be a great choice.
The great thing about Akasaka, apart from the gentle descent to the Subway, was the more provincial feeling of the town centre with it’s many homely restaurants. We spent a couple of nights, after some very hectic days sightseeing, just relaxing on an outside bar drinking jugs of Aasahi whilst chowing down on fried chicken and bowls of bottomless Ramen whilst people watching. Families out late late at night strolling the near empty streets, wizened old men taking their nightly jaunt, bicycles trundling past …. There is something to be said about experiencing local life.
One of my favorite dining experiences was actually in Akasaka. Right opposite our fried chicken joint was this tiny tiny glass front restaurant with all these handwritten signs in Japanese. It was a simple but elegant place, and each night it was religiously packed with diners. Of course I wanted to go, even if I couldn’t read the menu.
It turned out to be a Sashimi Restaurant and to be honest, Sashimi is not my favorite thing. However that was before I had had Sashimi cut and prepared by a master craftsman who had honed his craft for many many years routinely doing the same thing. That’s the thing with Japanese food – it takes years to master just one thing – whether it be making noodles or ramen broth or sashimi. Lucky for me he was a master as when you go to a Sashimi Restaurant that’s all there will be on the menu.
Our days were spent discovering the various districts within Tokyo. To start we decided upon Harajuku to experience the famous Takeshita Street and the outrageous fashion styles adopted by the swarms of teenagers. You know you’re in the right place when you are just swallowed into the abyss of fashionistas parading in and out of the array of outlandish fashion shops available.
Harajuku is also home to every second hand clothing store imaginable displaying endless racks of the latest fashion and vintage labels. Harajuku is a spectator sport – it’s outrageous, pushy and shovey, it’s loud and vibrant and young, hip and gothic all wrapped up in one big, bright, pink, exhausting bubble.
Obviously after such an eye opening day, we relaxed over bowls of Ramen love and downed pints of Aasahi in Akasaka whilst trying to clear the head of such rainbow concoctions.
Obviousy there are the many temples and shrines to be visited and Tokyo has many but as we have visited so many churches and religious monuments in our past travels I was mindful that I would need to choose carefully. Doug was not going to want to be dragged around temple hopping.
I decided upon The Meiji Shrine and nearby Yoyogi Park for our spiritual destination in Tokyo. Being very near to Harajuku meant we could knock them both off in one day. It’s almost like a pilgrimage to the Japanese people. The shrines are a place to give thanks and to pray to the various deities or gods for certain things. Maybe education, maybe health, maybe longetivity, maybe for marriage and it’s a very serious undertaking. Rituals such as washing the hands from a water well, cleansing the mouth, ringing the bell a certain way and paying for your wish all add to the sacredness of the visit. I still carry with me today the fortune I recieved from the Meiji Shrine.
Save another whole day for Asakusa as it’s quite distant from the other districts. Asakusa represents the more traditional history of Japan. Yes it’s definitely a tourist trap adding little other value to it’s existence other than to supply the throng of tourists with Japanese souvenirs and traditional products but it’s still worth the trip. As you get off the train you can’t miss the Sensoji Buddhist Temple. Another thing that will strike you is the crowds of girls and women and occasional men dressed up in full traditional costume and makeup. Sensoji is an Instagram hit. It is lovely to see effort to dress up rather than down that our culture has adopted.
I will save the rest of Tokyo for the the next post and try not to overwhelm you with too much detail in one go. For me Shinjuku is the beating heart of Tokyo, it beats so loud and fast that it threatens to burst out from it”s body. I guess I’m saving the best of Tokyo till last.