Experiencing Tokyo, the world’s most populous city, a melting pot of old and new, tradition and business, temples and neon lights, was one of the primary reasons why we travelled to Japan. When we were looking at accommodation (two months in advance) we almost cut down our days in the city due to the high prices and lack of availability. But we stuck to our plan of spending a week there and booked a small, cute and modern private apartment conveniently located by the largest JR station. We used credit card reward points to offset the price and justified it due to the fact that our trip was nearing it’s end and we were running short on places to splurge.
Our Airbnb apartment turned out to be great and our host even left us an entire bag of treats (such as matcha flavoured KitKat bars!) with a ‘welcome to Japan‘ note: such a warm welcome! It also included the use of a portable WiFi device meaning we could bring it out with us and have internet everywhere.
By the time we arrived in Tokyo we had been in Japan for almost two weeks and were somewhat accustomed to the unexpected difficulties of traveling Japan (more on that later) and we were able to enjoy the city. We walked and wandered a lot. We went to parks and temples, department stores and markets. With a seemingly unlimited choice of shopping, entertainment, culture and dining, we never got bored. I couldn’t get enough of people-watching. On one hand, Tokyo is diverse, filled with unique new fashion trends and storefronts selling anything imaginable. On the other hand, Tokyo’s population is very uniform – less than 3% of residents are foreigners and almost every man we saw was wearing a business suit and smoking; everyone smoked. As far as I could tell, more people smoke in Tokyo than any other city in the world that we visited. Most bars and restaurants still allow smoking and people are often required to go inside due to rules that prohibit smoking on the street!!
Shinjuku is one of the 23 city wards of Tokyo, and where our apartment was located. Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station and handles over two million passengers every day! Everyday we walked by two beautiful mosaics made from flowers on the sidewalk.
Northeast of the station is Kabukicho, the entertainment and red light district. The district is home to many love hotels which offer nightly rates as well as short ‘rest’ rates!
In the same district, almost right in the centre of the action are two batting cages. You’ll know you’re getting close when you hear them. Dan and I stopped by for an hour of batting and pitching and had tons of fun!
The area around Shinjuku station is packed with department stores, underground malls and electronic shops. Similar to Korea, Japan has amazing department stores that carry just about everything. Two of the largest and most famous department stores, Isetan and Tokyu Hands, are where we spent the majority of our shopping time. Isetan boasts over 100 years of history and it’s flagship store in Shinjuku consists of ten floors, including restaurants on the top floors and a food department (similar but not quite the same as a food court) in the basement. Tokyu Hands is promoted as a “Creative Life Store” and a bit lower-end but carries many of the same items as Isetan, with better prices. Both department stores offered tax free shopping for tourists and Tokyu Hands gave an extra 5% off to foreigners. It’s a good thing Tokyo was nearly our last stop as our luggage’s were at capacity by the time we left.
Southeast of the station between Shinjuku and Shibuya is Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens, a gorgeous place to visit on a sunny day. There is a 200 yen admission fee which is well worth it. The garden has a long history and was originally a residence of the Naitō family in the Edo period. There’s plenty of large grassy areas where families picnic and a few walking paths to wander admiringly through the different gardens. What I loved most was the hundreds of cherry trees of more than a dozen varieties. The blooming trees were absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t help from taking hundreds of photos. It’s no wonder cherry blossom season is Japan’s busiest tourist season!
Just to prove that I wasn’t the only one taking photos of the cherry trees:
Shibuyu, another ward in Tokyo, is known as being the centre for youth fashion and culture as well as a popular entertainment district.
Just outside the main exit from Shibuya Station is a large intersection heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens that are reminiscent of Time Square. The multi-directional intersection (which are common in Japan) gets flooded by pedestrians each time the crossing light turns green. It’s often referred to as the busiest crosswalk in the world and during rush hour as many as 2500 people cross the street at the same time. The Starbucks overlooking the crossing is also one of the busiest in the world – likely due to it’s windows being an excellent viewing platform of the crosswalk.
After crossing the street a few times, and watching from Starbucks, we headed to the futuristic Uobei Genki Sushi for dinner. Essentially, the restaurant is the high-tech version of a regular sushi-train restaurant (the ones where plates go around on a conveyor belt). At Uobei, you order up to three plates at a time via a multi-language touch-screen. Minutes after you place the order, the food comes whizzing out from the kitchen on a triple level belt train system, and stops right in front of you! Made fresh to order dishes beat plates that have been going around on a conveyor belt for who knows how long any day. Everything else (soy sauce, unlimited wasabi and ginger, instant green tea and hot water, chopsticks and moist towels) is right next to you – no need to wait for a server. The restaurant attracts long queues at lunch and dinner time, but luckily we arrived right before peak hours and were seated right away. The sushi may not have been the best I’ve ever had but it was pretty darn good and for a mere ¥108 ($1.00 USD) a plate it ended up being our funnest and cheapest meal in Tokyo!
While we didn’t visit many temples in Tokyo, we did make a point of seeing Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The popular Buddhist temple was completed in 645 and is located in Asakusa.
Tsukiji Market // TOKYO Fish market
The world’s largest wholesale fish market, Tsukiji Market, is on almost every tourists ‘must-see’ list for Tokyo. The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood – did you even know there were that many edible things in the sea?! Over 2000 tons of marine products are handled there everyday. The mere sight of that many kinds of seafood is an obvious tourist draw. Throw in the busy atmosphere, the chance of being part of locals’ day-to-day activities and the craze of a tuna auction and you have a yourself a major tourist attraction. The number of visitors is ever increasing and it’s becoming a problem as people interferes with the course of business and old market wasn’t built to serve as a tourist attraction. This is likely one of the reasons why the market is relocating to a larger and more inconvenient location in November of 2016 in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. But for now, the market is still open and all we had to do was decide whether or not to wake up at 3:00 AM and try to make it for the Tuna Auction or just attend during off-peak hours after 9:00 AM.
Only 120 people are allowed to watch the Tuna Auction each day. Two groups of 60 are rotated through and entry is first-come, first-serve. Officially, you have to sign up at 4:30 AM; however, lines often form much earlier. And then there’s the chance they won’t even allow any people in that day. Entrance is free but getting there before the metro lines are running can be somewhat expensive… you also have to wake up at 3:00 AM just for the chance to see the auctions. While it would have been really cool to see, we decided against it.
When you first arrive at the market, you’ll be in the outer market and navigating through to the inner market can be a little tricky. The outer market is full of retail shops and restaurants open to the public. It’s quite lively and while some shops have fresh seafood for sale, it’s not the market that Tsukiji is famous for. The inner market of Tsukiji is where all the action happens. Other than as described above, the inner market doesn’t open to tourists until 9:00 AM after peak hours are over. We ended up asking at the information desk and they directed us to the inner market but I wonder how many people spend a couple hours at the outer market thinking they’ve seen it all?
The inner market is essentially the wholesale area of the market and consists of hundreds of small stands in a large, crowded hall. Motorized carts loaded with fresh and/or frozen seafood, buckets of fish guts and stacks of Styrofoam boxes all speed down the narrow lanes. The cart drivers clearly find the overload of tourists an annoyance and don’t slow down for anyone. Some vendors also clearly take a certain disdain to tourists, some going as far as posting signs saying “no photos, this isn’t a tourist attraction.” However, most vendors are very friendly and were happy to have photos taken of their products and even of themselves. I always asked before taking pictures (more with my eyes and smile than with words) and we had a great time. Just remember to stand out of the way, be constantly alert and keep in mind that people are actually trying to conduct business here. I’d also recommend wearing clothes and shoes that can handle getting a little seafood [gut splatter] on them….
We ended up seeing quite a few big tunas while visiting the inner market and didn’t feel like we missed out much by skipping the Tuna Auction.
Near the back of the inner market we stumbled upon a cart filled with massive, frozen tuna about to be cut up. We set up across the aisle to watch. The deep-freeze fish was likely bought at the Tuna Auction earlier that morning and moved within the market to a shop where it could be cut and prepared for retail sale to other buyers such as restaurants and supermarkets. The fish showed no signs of thawing, and it became clear that the deep-freeze tuna is much easier to transport, handle, store and cut (it also kills many harmful bacteria and parasites).
Given the insane amount of seafood that passes through the market, it should come as no surprise that there is also an insane amount of waste. I have no idea what gets done with all the waste and can only hope it is dealt with responsibly. We did see vendors picking through the piles of Styrofoam boxes picking out ones that could be used again, but comparatively, not many of them were saved.
Ippodo Tea Co.
One of our final goals in Tokyo was to load up on green tea to take home with us. We researched the best place to buy from and found Ippodo’s Tokyo Marunouchi Store. It was conveniently located within walking distance from the Tsukiji Market. The shop allows customers to smell as well as sample a large variety of Japanese green teas. We learned a lot about our likes and dislikes for certain types of tea and it really opened our eyes to how many types of green tea exist. We happily purchased a few bags to take back with us.