A first experience of Shibuya, Harajuku & Shinjuku
Our second day in Tokyo, Japan. We woke up early, around 8AM and despite the jet lag, to enjoy the breakfast served at the Knot Hotel Shinjuku and plan the day ahead. I had already a rough idea of what we were going to do, I actually prepared the trip beforehand, but checking current envies with my family was a must. That day, we were also going to experience for the first time the public transports...
We first exited the hotel and walked through the Shinjuku Chūō Kōen (central park) to reach the business district. You'll see a bunch of towers that host government activities and banks like the Tokyo Metropolis, Hyakujūshi Bank Shinjuku Branch, Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, Shinjuku NS Building and more. In the morning, it's unmistakable :) You see waves of salary-men walking/running to work. If the weather is too cold or rainy for you, make sure to use the underground passages, they will get you to the metro stations, just follow the signage...or people!
On this day, we walked on the surface because we wanted to explore and discover the life in Japan. We also needed to reach Shinjuku Station which is located right after the business district and 16 min away from the hotel (by foot). A geographical landmark for us was the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (educational facility) which looks like a cocoon and is the second tallest educational building in the world. It's easy to spot and you will always know where you are if you find it in the landscape. Right after it, you'll find Shinjuku Station: the biggest and most used station in the world, and also were we'd take for the first time public transports in Japan.
Shinjuku Station scared me a bit at first. It is indeed the main connecting hub for rail traffic in Tokyo which means that millions of commuters pass by Shinjuku Station every day. The station is so big that you can easily get lost if you don't know where you are going. It has no less than 200 exits and 36 platforms serving for the railway and subway but you can also reach 17 extra platforms using various halls...You can even reach the Tocho-Mae station using underground passages. In Shinjuku Stations you can expect to find the following operators: JR East, Keio Corporation, Odakuy Electric Railway, Toei subway and Tokyo Metro...Let's just say that you can get anywhere from this station :)
Note: We had a 72h Metro Pass that allowed us to use the entire subway system (all operators included) as many time as we wanted within 72h after the first use. This means that we could travel on the Metro lines but not on the JR lines. I had not planned this, I actually wanted to use the Yamanote Line but we found our way nonetheless :) This pass is useful and cannot be purchased in stations so make sure to buy it online (and to get it delivered to your hotel) or get it at the airport. This kind of pass typically sold to tourists only.
We were going to Shibuya, so not too far away but still, in such a huge station you need to know where you are going. I had downloaded an app called "City Rail Map" and I used it to know which line and which exit to take, it really made this trip easy! We arrived quickly at Shibuya station, ready to visit this district more extensively.
When we stepped out of the wagon, we followed the wave of people to the escalator and looked for an exit that led to Hachiko Square. We ended up finding an awesome food court (depachika) along the way, it was actually part of a shopping mall which has its lower floors connected to the station. We stopped at a Dorayaki seller (because I really love these sweets and had to get some), we also discovered that fruits are crazy expensive in Japan... We decided to visit the higher floors of this shopping mall to get an idea of what Shibuya had to offer besides Fashion.
I must say that everything was extremely cute and well presented but the building we were in actually had a lot of traditional stores. I found the cutest chopsticks in there for example but they also had tea services, dish wares, outfits, stuffed toys and more. We spent over half an hour in this shopping mall before heading to Hachiko Square. Funny enough, people were lining up to take pictures with Hachiko that day...After snapping a few pictures of the statue, we headed to the crossing and wandered the streets of Shibuya, stumbling on Love Hotels, game centers and sometimes on cool shops or restaurants.
Shibuya was really our first walk into a Japanese district, free to explore and to stop whenever we wanted, nobody was waiting on us. We had the time to absorb every detail, to marvel at some aspects of the Japanese lifestyle but also to notice how different it can be from ours. After this first morning of getting acquainted with our new city (for the holiday), we decided to head by foot to Harajuku, located next to Shibuya.
Getting from Shibuya to Harajuku didn't take long and having a pocket WiFi saved us the trouble to have to find our way: Google Map was there to help us! Along the way, I stopped at many shops to check which Kit Kat flavors they sold but also to buy some typical Japanese products like: heated eye masks, pocket warmers, souvenirs, etc.
Our first stop in Harajuku was at Takeshita Dori, yes again, in order to see it and enjoy a crowd-free tour :) This time, we stopped at Marion Crêpe and ordered 2 different flavors: Banana-Nutella and tuna salad. We ate in the street and discovered that a temple was located right behind the pancake store! We finished our food quickly and decided to visit it ASAP. The day before, we were at Senso-Ji which is well-known and usually crowded so finding a less-visited temple was a real chance!
Uminomiya was indeed empty and sold omamori at half the price compared to Senso-ji, I managed to get one for overall protection. The priest didn't speak English too well but I managed to explain what I wanted in Japanese, I was so proud! The temple was quiet and so peaceful, I could have stayed there for a good while, especially with the sunny weather from that day! However I wanted to find out more about Harajuku. On my way out, I found a passage to another quiet spot in the middle of the city...Togo Shrine & the gardens in front of Club Suikō! These gardens are often privatized for wedding ceremonies.
I found my way back the Takeshita dori but I didn't stay on it. The side streets/alleys are actually the most interesting ones because you get out of the noise and the crowd and discover the real Harajuku and its culture. The cutest cafes and shops are actually out of sight so do not hesitate to wander deeper into the district, Takesita Dori is just the tip of the iceberg. I found some awesome thrift shops and craftsmen while I was exploring the invisible side of Harajuku and I loved it!
I then headed back the noisy side of Tokyo to get closer to Shinjuku and more specially, Kabukicho and Omoide Yokocho. There was just 3 km between us and our destination, but the metro was a lot faster and easier! In under 10 minutes, the parents and I were at Shinjuku Station, actively looking for Godzilla! Yes you read well, you can find Godzilla in Shinjuku and more specifically in Kabukicho.
We exited the station almost next to Omoide Yokocho and headed Kabukicho, the hot district where you'll find night clubs and bars. Just as I entered the main street of Kabukicho, I saw Godzilla lurking on top of a building, it was a fun sight! We walked towards the beast while checking our surroundings and spotting our dinner location from that night: Teppan Baby. Trust me, you'll have to pay attention to find it but once you're there...Oh my! Your taste buds will thank you! They make a really good Okonomiyaki.
I think the hot district can be quite lovely to walk into at night, especially with all the neon lights shining bright in the dark. It's a big change from Brussels, which in the end is a quiet city compared to Tokyo. During our little walk in this district we visited a few shops, game centers and cafés but we also found a little temple. Around 5 PM, I must admit that we were starving and headed back to Teppan Baby to have an awesome dinner!
Finding Teppan Baby was a mix of simple yet difficult. First of all, you need to look for the logo of the restaurant at the beginning of Kabukicho and then figure out where to go. A lot of restaurants are located in the basement of buildings and it was the case for our dinner provider. The place was small but cozy and had a huge teppanyaki hotplate. Like in most Japanese restaurants, the entire staff greeted us when we entered and our waiter announced out-loud our drinks and food order. They tend to shout a lot to say "hi!" "thank you!" and so on but it is part of the experience :)
We immediately saw the chef gathering ingredients and starting the preparation of our okonomiyakis. It was quite interesting to see because every time I make one the outcome isn't what I expected... And somehow they manage to leave the batter cook for a long time without burning it. Slowly, as our food started to take form, the restaurant got more crowded. Everyone seemed to order the same food, with a few extra starters, which comforted me in my choice. When the food arrived, I loved the visual but even more the first bite. It was everything I wanted an okonomiyaki to be and more! I can definitely recommend Teppan Baby!
We finished our food rather fast, it was so good, and were on our way to see Shinjuku by night and more specifically Omoide Yokocho. When we exited Teppan Baby, the sky was dark and the neon lights were bright. We wandered on the main boulevard and closer to the station we arrived at, I remembered that Omoide Yokocho was nearby. And indeed, we found the entrance almost right away, probably because we knew what to look for.
Omoide Yokocho is the name given to a few streets full of little bars (izakayas) were you eat appetizers and drink beer after-work. Sometimes they'll charge you a 500 yen fee just to sit in, sometimes they won't but usually it's written in English, be careful. People come here because it's a top 10 attraction to visit in Shinjuku but I would recommend to actually sit in one of these little izakayas (bars) and to have a bite, the food is surprisingly fresh and the grill/stove is cleaner than you'd expect.
I believe we stayed in Omoide Yokocho for an hour or so but it was refreshing and so different from what we had seen previously. You can easily eat at more than one izakaya if you feel like trying different foods however be patient, you won't always find a seat.
On our way back, we explored the rest of the streets surrounding Omoide Yokocho as well as enjoyed the view on the boulevard for the last time. The next day, we would be visiting another side of Tokyo, another unforgettable one...
Did you visit Shinjuku, Shibuya or Harajuku? Let me know how it went and what liked best! Here is roughly the tour that we've made: