As you saw on Facebook, I ended January with another trip, this time to Tokyo. I always liked Japan, I even learned the language a few years ago and yet I had never traveled to this destination. A while ago, my parents told me that they were going for a week to Japan and suggested that I tagged along. I did and I am glad.
The adventure started on January 26th when we headed to Brussels airport to catch our flight operated by ANA (All Nippon Airways). The plane was actually Star Wars themed which was a first surprise and got me in the Japan spirit: the plane was painted as R2D2, the theme song was playing during boarding, I could see Yoda stuffed toys in the cupboards and R2D2 aprons for the staff. I was in for a fun 12 hour straight flight, no stopover.
We landed the next day (Jan 27th) at Narita Airport, a bit tired but ready to explore. We got our luggage and headed to the arrival hall to find our shuttle to the city. We found our driver rather easily, the place isn't big, but we waited more than 30 min for the other family that would join us in the van. Once we boarded the van, we drove for 2 hours to and around Tokyo in order to drop everyone at their respective hotels. We were staying in Shinjuku in a hotel called The Knot Hotel Shinjuku and arrived around 7PM.
The hotel looked really nice and modern even from the lobby. We did our check-in on the dedicated machines and got our PIN codes to unlock our rooms (you can either get a PIN or a Card) on the 11th floor. The rooms themselves were well-equipped and had a nice vibe: grey carpet on the floor, a wooden wall, cream colors and dark headboard. The bathroom was small but practical, a very Japanese set-up, and had the infamous Japanese WC :p
We didn't stay long in our rooms since we needed to have dinner. Considering we didn't know yet the neighborhood, we ate at a curry chain named CoCo Ichibanya. The food was decent, a chain is sort of a safe value when you don't know where to go, and cheap (<8€). It was my first meal in Japan and also my first experience chatting in Japanese. It was fun so far but also time to sleep because the jet lag was catching up.
Day 2 arrived really fast, I couldn't sleep properly but I didn't feel too tired. We ate our breakfast and were on our way! We had a driver to explore the city and get a first impression of the main attractions in 1 day. The itinerary was the following: Senso-ji temple, the SkyTree Tower, Tsukiji outer market, Meiji Shrine, Takeshita street (Harajuku) and the Shibuya crossing. The car arrived on time, a brand new BMW full options, and our driver for the day was British and really talkative.
Our first stop was at the Senso-Ji temple located in Asakusa. We drove for a good while to arrive there but the ride wasn't boring because we received a bunch of explanations about Tokyo. Guy, our driver, wasn't coming with us during our stops but he would give us as many info as possible about what we were going to see and where he'd pick us up. The particularity of this tour was that we didn't have a time limit per stop, we would just text Guy when we were ready to go.
Senso-Ji is the oldest temple of the city and it is very impressive. You will enter by the Kaminarimon which is the main access to the temple, and you'll walk through Nakamise-dori. This street is full of little shops selling a wide range of souvenirs, crafts and food and it will lead you to the Hozomon door. The walk took a while since we stopped regularly for pictures, to visit shops and to try some of the food. I actually bought a bunch of Ningyo Yaki (10 pieces for 500 yen), little cakes filled with red bean paste that come in various shapes like lanterns and birds. You'll find also sweets, crackers, chopsticks, magnets, and much more!
Once you pass the Hozomon, you'll hear the sound of the Omikuji coming from your right: people drawing their fortune. You basically need to shake a box until a wooden stick with a number on it comes out. You'll then need to find the drawer with the same number and get your fortune. If it's good, take it with you but if it is bad then make sure to tie it in the temple and to pray the divinity for a better luck :)
In front of you you'll see the temple and on the left the rest of the complex and a pagoda. We explored, cleansed ourselves and prayed before heading back. On the way we saw an arcade with more shops and actually, we found a vendor selling the biggest Melon Pan I've ever seen! I smelled them from afar and couldn't resist! They were coming from the oven and seemed so perfect! 1 cost 220 yen and 3 are sold for 600 yen. You really need to try this when you visit this site :)
I believe these melon pan are the biggest, crunchiest and most delicious ones that I have found in Tokyo and that's saying something! It's a really good address and each piece is served still warm in paper bag. If you'd like to keep them for later, buy a box then. You can also get a Melon Pan filled with matcha cream or custard, it's also really good!
Once we were done with the temple and Nakamise dori, we met up with Guy and headed to the Tokyo SkyTree Tower to admire the city from above. This tower is the highest in Tokyo and the second tallest after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The drive took only a few minutes since it is also located in Asakusa, not far form the Senso-Ji temple...
We had booked express tickets on GetYourGuide in order to avoid lines and to get faster to the observation decks. Once we entered, we went to the ticket office to get our tickets and took an elevator to our first stop: 350m. It might seem stupid but the elevator was awesome ^^' decorated with style (and based on the seasons!) and the mechanics behind it was impressive, we move 15m/s! In only a few moments, we were able to wander into the observation deck and to watch Tokyo from a distance. We could even see Mount Fuji!
If the view from 350m was awesome, the next level was even better. It really allowed us to see how the city had been designed but also to locate some touristic attractions like the Tokyo Tower and a few shrines/temples that stand out among the other buildings. Shinjuku was also easy to spot with its high towers. The ride upstairs was actually enjoyable with the glass door and ceiling :) There was also an exposition on the video game Kingdom Hearts, you'll actually see either animes or games everywhere in the city, even in touristic spots ^^'
We stayed for about an hour, looking down, getting some information about the tower and sometimes catching Pokemons (if you still play Pokemon Go)! Tokyo is the perfect city to catch Pokémons, they're everywhere and arenas too!
We then slowly went downstairs and decided to visit the shops located in the lower floors of the Tokyo SkyTree (5th floor > down). You'll find anime shops, cafés, souvenirs stores and more! There is even a pet store selling a bunch of attires for dogs and cats. We then met with our driver before heading to another destination: Tsukiji Market!
As you might have heard, the "auction" and inner fish market from Tsukiji changed location last October and can now be found in Toyosu. I actually didn't go to Toyosu Market because it looks way to modern for my taste: huge modern buildings, observation windows, almost no fish smell... I would have loved to see the old Tsukiji Market and how you could really see everything and fully enjoy the experience. But hey, that's how it is and so we decided to focus on the outer market (still located in Tsukiji) and to stop there for lunch.
The Tsukiji district is composed of a few blocks full of wholesale and retail fish/seafood shops, you'll also find a bunch of restaurants hidden in alleys like for example sushi train restaurants. Usually the streets are pedestrians-only and rather crowded but on the day of our visit it was actually enjoyable. We were able to look at the shops with ease, to try some seafood and even some fresh tamago-yaki. Note that the Tsukiji outer market is full of charm but still rather expensive compared to other districts, some of the dry food can be found cheaper in Korea town for example...But hey, if you're in Tsukiji it is to visit a popular touristic spot so it makes sense to pay a bit more.
Now, if you are in Tsukiji you absolutely must try sushi and sashimi! Restaurants are legions and offer a variety of menus and prices. An advice though is to visit Tsukiji in the morning, when shops and restaurants gets their daily fish delivery. That's when the fish and seafood are at their freshest, it would make a perfect breakfast! We arrived for lunch but the food was still delicious.
After this fun break we were supposed to get closer to our departure point: Shinjuku. We had the choice between starting at Takeshita street in Harajuku or visiting the Meiji Shrine. To be honest, we really wanted to see the shrine during the day so we picked that visit over Takeshita street. Guy dropped us in front of the main entrance of the shrine and told us to text him when we were done, we would then head to Harajuku and Shibuya.
After only a few steps, we found the first "torii", the gate that separates the mundane world from the sacred sanctuary. Meiji Jingu is actually a shinto shrines dedicates to the deified spirits of the Emporor Meiji and his wife (Emperess Shoken) which explains the name of this site. After passing the torii, you'll find yourself in a different world...Away from the city. The shrine is indeed located in a forest, in the middle of Tokyo, which makes you feel like you are somewhere else entirely.
We found a large path of gravel with a paved sidewalk on each side. You'll realize quickly that to go to Meiji Jingu, you need to walk on the left side of the path because the right side is for people getting out. Stay out of the gravel path (middle section), you won't see Japanese people walking it out of respect for the deities. We walked for a few minutes, enjoying the quietness and the very special atmosphere around us before seeing Sake and Burgundy barrels. It looks like these barrels are donated each year by producers to Meiji Jingu as offering to the deities. If you like the sake barrels, you can buy miniatures at any Don Quijote store for about 1500~1800 yen. Note that if you buy one, it's for decorative purposes, the sake itself isn't awesome ^^'
We then arrived quickly to the second torii which lead to the shrine. Meiji Jingu is constructed in wood and is less colorful than Senso-ji but it's impressive nonetheless. Upon entering, you will immediately see the "wish" corner (where you write a wish/prayer on a piece of paper or an tablet and hang it) and the entrance of the main building where people head to pray to the deities. You'll see also counters selling omamori (protection amulets) as well prayer tablets and more blessed items.
I really liked visiting this shrine, it was a lovely break for busy Tokyo! I guess we spent a good hour in total visiting the Meiji Shrine and we still enjoyed a lot of sunshine. The weather was actually warmer and sunnier than in Brussels! Once we arrived back the entrance, our driver picked us up quickly and drove us to Harajuku, located almost right next to the shrine. He dropped us at Takeshita street and we were off for something quite different!
Takeshita Dori, is a street full of fashion stores, restaurants and trendy shops. It's actually one of the districts where you'll find the teenage culture at its most extreme. If you look at fashion stores, designs are extremely colorful and a bit punk ^^' You'll find also some cosplayers, a lot of colorful hairstyles and thrift shops. The street itself isn't the most interesting one but it's nice to walk it at least once, stop for a crêpe (=pancake) and then visit the rest of the neighborhood.
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, Takeshita Dori is just the tip of the iceberg.
You will find on this street a lot of pancake vendors (=crêpes), it's actually a specialty in Harajuku. They sell sweet and salted fillings and there is a lot of choice: tuna, nutella/banana, strawberry ice-cream parfait, crême brulée, etc. It's not too expensive and fun to try. If you find the vendor called Marion Crêpes, located on a street corner, make sure to visit the temple (Togo-Jinja) located right behind it!
After this little tour of the district, we found our driver and headed to our last destination: Shibuya. This was the final stop on our itinerary and we were planning to see the crossing as well as the Hachiko's statue. I had planned to visit more extensively Shibuya on another day and it was almost 6PM when we arrived so we focused our visit.
Guy managed to drop us right in front of the crossing and next to Mag's Park, a café located on the rooftop of a shopping tower and offering a perfect view from the crossing...For free! There were not as many people as in movies using the infamous crossing but it was impressive nonetheless! I like the idea that in Japan, you can cross also diagonally ^^ Note that finding the view point is tricky, pay close attention to signage in the building and don't be surprised to have to walk through restaurants to get to the rooftop! The other good viewpoint is at the Starbucks located on the opposite side of the crossing, inside Tatsuya.
After this, you can go to the Hachiko Square located 50 meters away from Mag's Park and admire the statue of this extremely loyal dog. The story says that after the death of his owner, Hachiko still waited every day at the Shibuya station for his human to return...for 9 years! That definitely deserves to be remembered, it is a lovely example of why we say that animals will never abandon you.
From the Hachiko Square, you will see a lot of shopping towers, including the famous Shibuya 109 that appears in movies and series. Being in this district is the perfect opportunity to do some shopping and to get accustomed with Tokyo's unique fashion style. It's unlike anything you have seen before so make sure to take some time to explore the many shops around you. I actually visited the 8 floors that make the Shibuya 109 tower and damn...That was something!
I also visited Don Quijote, located a few hundred meters away from Hachiko Square, which is literally a mega store selling anything and everything: sweets, toys, food, costumes, sex toys, make up... If you are looking for a specific item, you're likely to find it at Don Quijote. After this tour, it was sadly time to meet up with Guy and to go back to our hotel.
I must say that this tour was fun and allowed us to see a lot of Tokyo in just 8 hours. If you are in Tokyo for a short period of time, I would definitely suggest to book this service. It does cost a lot (prices start at 300€ on GetYourGuide) but I think it is worth it if you lack time. In our case, we were in Tokyo for a week so I don't think we really needed this tour but since the parents wanted it, why not :)