We continued our adventure through Japan by getting some hotel rooms in the middle of Tokyo, ideally positioned for checking out all that this humungous city has to offer.
Day 1 – Thursday, April 9, 2015
Jon, Samrat, and I slowly packed up Thursday morning and made our way to Tokyo. We took the Japan Railway (JR) trains most of the way there. By this time we all considered ourselves experts on the various Japan railway systems and the trains that seemed confusing at first now made a lot of sense to us. The only debates we had were about which rapid and express trains would be the best to switch onto. Our hotels were in the Akasaka district, where Kevin had recommended that we stay. Akasaka seemed cool right away and consisted of small streets, heavy pedestrian traffic, noodle shops, and bars. We weren’t able to check into our hotel, but did drop off our luggage. Samrat and Kevin (who was joining us that night) were staying at a hotel a few blocks away.
For the afternoon we went to the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace is a landmark most tourists try to visit, but Kevin (who has been there before) suggested we do that without him. The palace is on a large government and park area, most of which is enclosed by a moat and large stone walls and not accessible to the public. There is one area where the palace can be viewed from across the moat and where we stopped for pictures.
There is also a public garden on the other side of the palace, so we walked there. Luckily, Thursday was also one of the nicest days of our visit so being outside wasn’t difficult. On our way we stopped at a square of fountains (Wadakura Fountain Park) where we killed a bit of time. The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace required an admission ticket, but it was free. We walked around a bit and I enjoyed seeing all of the people outside, but there wasn’t much we were impressed with.
After the Imperial Palace we made our way back to Akasaka to wait for Kevin to join us. Shortly after picking a bar to wait at, we got a call form Kevin saying he was 10 minutes away. When we met Kevin, he already had friends at a nearby restaurant, so we walked to Yonayona Beer Kitchen to join them. Beer Kitchen was a microbrewery and the food was pretty good too. Kevin’s friends eventually decided to move on, so we joined them for another bar called The Beer Horn. The menu selection was small, but beers were served in large horn shaped glasses that needed special stands. We had a fun time hanging out and playing games.
Day 2 – Friday, April 10, 2015
Having decent wifi access at the hotels allowed us to sleep in and contact our friends later about when to meet up. We decided to meet at Starbucks for hot drinks while we figured out what to do for the day. It was pushing noon and we were already hungry, so we stayed in Akasaka to get something to eat. We found a small ramen restaurant that had only about 10 seats along a bar. This was the first restaurant we had been to where you pay for your order at a machine that prints a ticket stub to be handed to the chef. Apparently this is common in Japan and we saw more later in our trip. The ramen was good and we were lucky to have gotten there before noon because once the lunch hour began for the salarymen, the line was out the door.
We took a train from Akasaka to Harajuku to visit Yoyogi park which houses a Meiji Jingu shrine. We took lots of photos and enjoyed walking through the park to the treasure museum. While we were there, a small wedding procession passed through the temple area.
Nearby was Takeshita Street (didn’t smell as bad as we thought), which is a hub for the Japanese subculture. Stores mostly sold specialty clothing like babydoll dresses or anime merchandise. We had been hoping to see people dressed in Japanese pop-fashion and costumes, but it was Friday so we mostly were surrounded by black suits and trench coats.
On the way back, we walked to a shrine that was near our metro stop. Before dinner we wanted to get off of our feet and relax so we headed back to Akasaka. Jon and Kevin went to a camera store to look at lenses while Samrat and I found a darts bar. Eventually the other guys made their way to the darts room where we had fun playing some unbelievably close matches of cricket that went down to the final round each time.
Dinner was at Ninja. Ninja is an ninja/edo themed restaurant. The restaurant itself is a chain (I had been to the New York location) and is designed to look like a ninja village with dojos and cells. The wait staff are dressed for the theme and the food is designed to have specialty ‘ninja’ items. On weekend nights there is no ala carte menu and food is ordered from set courses. The most impressive dishes we ate were the shurkin shaped bread, turban smoke bombs (served with a display of fire), and salads with swords which emit dry ice once the sword is removed. Overall each course was small we thought the meal was a bit too pricey considering we could have eaten more.
After dinner we headed across town to a sake bar that Kevin had heard about. On the way we stopped at Shibuya, a large intersection famously known for being crowded (think Times Square). It was rainy when we were there, and the intersection wasn’t as busy as Kevin said he’d seen it before, but all the umbrellas allowed us to take more unique photos. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the sake bar, a lot of people must have seen the same article that Kevin had seen because the bar was full and wasn’t taking anyone without a reservation. Instead we found a cool little whiskey bar called Libre Bar that we enjoyed. We headed back to Akasaka but stayed out at another whiskey bar which had free nuts and crackers on the tables.
Day 3 – Saturday, April 11, 2015
After waking at our hotel we connected Kevin and Samrat to meet for coffee at 11am. One of the priority items on our sightseeing list was to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We had read that the fish market is not open on Sunday, so we had to go today or we would miss it. The fish market is an early morning market for the industry; fishermen, produce companies, and restauranteurs. The market doesn’t even allow the public in until 9am when the real business is finished. The highlight is the daily blue fin tuna auction that occurs at the crack of dawn and of which only a handful of tourists are allowed to attend.
Because of our late start, we missed most of the venders. Tables were empty and being hosed down as we walked through the huge warehouse-like market building. Nearby are rows of small shops and sushi restaurants. These restaurants are considered to have the freshest, and therefore the best, possible fish for their sushi and the lines to get in reflected this. We walked around for a bit, but the only shopping in the area we were interested in were the chef’s knives. The Japanese knives are known for their high quality and are cheaper near the market than in other places.
After a little shopping we walked to Tsukiji Sushi, a sushi restaurant just down the street from the market because it was less crowded. The nigiri was very good, but our table also ordered a wasabi roll which literally brought a few of our group to tears.
We had visited most of the highlights we wanted to see, so we headed back towards Yoyoji Park and Takeshita Street. We figured we could do a little souvenir shopping on Takeshita and look for more of the Japanese sub-culture out now that it was a weekend. Takeshita street was very crowded. Occasionally girls dressed as dolls in frilly dresses, ribbons, and with blush pink cheeks would walk by, but overall most of the crowded was dressed normally. No one was dressed like a cartoon or cosplayer.
Yoyoji Park was also crowded, but mostly with picnickers. There also seemed to be a lot of dance groups in the park practicing routines which ranged from cheerleading to hip-hop. The highlight of the park was one street performer who was making art as he DJ’d music using a boombox he was wearing. He changed the beats and tempos as he first cut paper shapes out to create a stencil and then as he painted over it.
Before dinner we rested at the hotels for a while and then regrouped. Kevin led us to Andy’s Fish restaurant where we had a reservation with some of his coworkers. We ordered large beers when we entered and soon had liters in front of us instead of the pints we expected. Kevin’s friend Jasper, who had been in Japan 3 years and was preparing to leave, ordered for the table in Japanese much better than the two words we knew. The first dish to arrive was a giant platter of steamed king crab legs. The crab was huge and the meat just fell out. It was one of the best crabs I’ve eaten. Our other dishes included stuffed chicken, tempura, scallops, and sashimi. We ordered bottles of sake before the meal was over and even witnessed Samrat eat fish!
When dinner was finished, Kevin’s friends had to take the train back to Yokosuka. We metro’d to a different area and stopped at a few more bars before catching a cab back to Akasaka.
Day 4 – Sunday, April 12, 2015
We met Kevin and Samrat around 11am and before finding a restaurant to eat at, we decided to visit the Myogonji Temple (Toyokawa Inari Shrine). This shrine was across the street and we had walked by it several times. One blooming cherry blossom tree greeted us at the entrance to the shrine. Inside the temple we found many statues of dogs, all adored with the red bib-like clothes we had seen on statues at other temples. Several of the dogs had offerings, coins, balanced on their heads and between their ears. The temple also had many flags and small niches with shrines tucked into them. For us it was a photographers delight and we took many photographs.
For lunch we walked to the Coco Curry in Akasaka which had been tempting us ever since we had eaten at a Coco Curry in Yokosuka. Once again the meal was good and everyone enjoyed it.
Sunday was one of our clearer days in Tokyo, so we decided to visit one of the many view points that have a view of the city skyline. Our ultimate hope was to see Mount Fuji, but we knew it probably wasn’t going to be clear enough for that. Kevin knew of a few viewpoints, but we choice one that Jon had read about online which was free and claimed a better view of Fuji than most. The tower was the 25th floor of the Bunkyo Civic Center building. We took the subway there and then walked to the closest elevator. The 25th floor was dedicated to a public viewpoint which faces three directions while a cafe faced the remaining direction. The view of the city was clear. We couldn’t see Mt. Fuji, but knowing where to look, some of us thought we could make out a slight outline of its base.
From Bunkyo Civic Center we went to the Shinjuku neighborhood where we had reservations for a show that night. The area was crowded and filled with skyscrapers. It was the type of Tokyo we expected. We walked around for a while getting a sense of that part of town. At 3:15 we headed towards the Robot Restaurant to pick up our tickets for the 4pm show. Kevin had been to the Robot Restaurant previously and didn’t tell us anything about it except that it was ‘the most quintessential Japanese thing’ we could do. The free lounge opened at 3:20 and Kevin told us to be there early to see it. We got our tickets (7000Y but coupons for 6000Y are widely available) from the booth across the street and entered the building. Just the entrance to the elevator was gaudy. It didn’t seem like the restaurant could get any sparklier, but the lounge proved that wrong.
The lounge was completely mirror and crystal from ceiling to floor. Large gold seashell chairs were placed throughout the room. In one area was a stage adored with a crystal harp. For a while a band came out. The band featured one girl playing the violin accompanied by 4 other musicians wearing robot costumes reminisce of storm troopers.
Not very long later we were asked to walk downstairs and take our seats for the show. I had been expecting to see a theater stage, but instead three rows of seats surrounded the center of the room creating a small amphitheater. The show started with three large mechanical floats of performers playing the drums moving around the room. The show was a cabaret of types featuring dancers, anime like battles, and robots. There were several different segments after the drumming segment. First there was a quick boxing robots skit then a much more interesting and elaborate performance of alien forest and sea creatures uniting to defend their planet from invaders that talked like 1980’s cartoon villains. Another segment was two singers riding a large robot, and later a large assortment of silver robots encircled the floor. If you enjoyed what we had to say about The House on the Rock, WI, then this show was the house on the rock come to life.
When the show ended we sadly had to say goodbye to Kevin, who had been an amazing tour guide for us while in Tokyo. We joined him as far as the Shibuya station, where we stopped to watch the famous intersection on a dryer day. We even walked across ourselves. Samrat wanted to look for a restaurant he had heard about which which shares his name. After a little bit of walking we found the Samrat Curry Plaza and stayed for dinner there. The food was okay, but bland by typical standards of Indian food. After eating, the Shibuya area was still busy, and we decided to stay in the crowds so we went to a few different bars. The bars ranged from empty whiskey joints, to crowded pubs, to darts rooms; but nothing that seemed special enough to stay at for more than one drink. When we emerged from darts it was late and the street was much emptier. We walked around for a while longer, and several promoters approached us about nightclubs in the area, but we decided to call it a night and go back to the hotels.
Day 5 – Monday, April 13, 2015
Our last morning in Tokyo was grey and rainy. Samrat met us at our hotel and we found a coffee shop for a final breakfast together. After eating we said goodbye to Samrat and he headed towards the Narita Express and his flight back to the states. We went to our hotel to finish packing and made our way to the Tokyo train station where we caught our first bullet train.
Trains and Subways: Japan has an extensive train system. Trains are convenient and relatively easy to ride and figure out, however you may have to switch lines several times.
In Tokyo our travel was limited to two systems; the Japan Railway (JR) and the Tokyo subway, although there are a few other lines too. We found that the easiest way to navigate the train schedules was by using Google Maps and the public transit option, which looks at the schedules and finds the fastest route for the time you wish to travel. Trains are very prompt in Japan.
Most ticket machines have an English option. You can buy a single fare paper ticket for travel between stops. We found purchasing a PASMO card to be a better option. The Pasmo card is a plastic card which can be loaded with cash and used on both train systems as well as buses and costs a 500Y deposit. Most rides on the Tokyo subway system were 165Y.
If you plan to be traveling throughout the country, you will likely be on the JR lines. JR rail passes are available, including a tourist pass. The tourist pass offers unlimited travel on JR lines for 7, 14, or 21 days. However, the tourist pass cannot be purchased in Japan. The tourist pass is usually issued by travel agency in our home country. We purchased ours from a travel agency in Australia.
Table charge: We were surprised to find that many bars had ‘table charges’ of 300Y – 500Y per person. Sometimes these table charges included happy hour prices, but many times they did not.