A Small Taste of Tokyo
The biggest regret I have from my Japan 2016 trip is that I didn't have enough time to spend in Tokyo. There is just so much to explore, and I barely skimmed the surface. I suppose that just means I'll need to return! I essentially only had 2 full days in Tokyo, arriving around 2pm on a Sunday, and then taking an afternoon train to Osaka on Tuesday.
While planning my trip to Japan, I emailed an old colleague who has lived in Tokyo for years, asking his advice on what area of Tokyo to stay in, etc. He told me, "there's no bad area to stay in, Tokyo has a very low crime rate." He further suggested to pick an area of the city that was most central to the sites I wanted to see and where I could find a good deal on a hotel.
I ended up selecting the Ginza area, known as the high-end shopping district. I liked that it was close to Tokyo station, Tsukiji Market, and the Imperial Palace. I found a good deal at the Hotel Sunroute Ginza (http://www.sunroute.jp/english/hotelinfo/tokyo_kanagawa/ginza/index.html), like the hotel of the same chain I stayed at in Hiroshima, it was modern, clean, and small. Since the accommodations were nice, and the location convenient for my needs...I'd stay there again. It was a short taxi ride from Tokyo station. While I wouldn't recommend walking because of the highways you'd have to attempt to cross, there is a subway station nearby that we utilized as well.
After checking into the hotel, we were famished...and decided to hit up the famous "Ramen Street" in the Tokyo station before proceeding on with some site-seeing. We struggled to find it, even following the signs, but we eventually arrived and made our selection using a vending machine looking apparatus and handed the ticket to the server at the door. This was a unique experience, but we did not choose wisely. The broth was way too fishy for our liking, so I'm ashamed to say, we then hit up the nearby McDonald's. While it's sad to report that I caved to Western food...I did have my very first Big Mac.
We then caught a train to the Ueno Park area to see the cherry blossoms in all their glory. While I didn't see a park in Tokyo that I didn't like, I thought Ueno was breathtaking when I turned down one walkway and saw trees in full bloom with some petals gently floating in the breeze as they made their way to the ground or the ones that got trapped in my hair.
After fully enjoying the beautiful moment in Ueno Park, we caught a train to a station nearby Senso-ji, the most visited Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The giant gate held a massive lantern and there were rows and rows of stalls selling souvenirs. The contrast between the very historical architecture of the temple and the modern skyscrapers surrounding it was very surreal.
From Senso-ji, it's a good walk over to the Tokyo Sky Tree. Another site I did not want to miss in Tokyo. It probably took us 20 minutes, but we got to see more of the city (above ground) and make a stop at Mister Donut (I highly recommend the cream-filled or the ones that look like a ring of circles topped with a strawberry glaze).
Tokyo Sky Tree is a free-standing tower with observation decks that provide 360 degree views of the city. On clear days, they say you can see Mt. Fuji. We opted to go at night to see the city lit up. The ticket counter is on the 4th floor, and signs are in English so it's easy to navigate. Once purchasing your ticket, you'll wait in line for an elevator.
Occasionally on the observation deck, employees will perform song and dance numbers. They shouldn't last long, and then you'll be able to enjoy the views of Tokyo. I was just blown away when seeing how endless the city seemed. I knew Tokyo was the largest city in the world, but wow. The view was spectacular.
The next day was a full-day to explore Tokyo. My previously mentioned colleague and his wife were meeting us for lunch, so in the morning we decided to first visit the famous Tsukiji fish market. It's best to visit in the early morning, and that was our intention...but we slept in and didn't make it for the tuna auction. We still did get there in time to wander through the stalls looking at the colorful sea creatures and have a fresh sushi "brunch."
I'm not a big fan of seafood, I usually avoid it at most times. However, I was in Japan at the world's most famous fish market (in it's original location before it was relocated for the Olympic construction) so I was going to be brave and try a few things. We stood in a very long line, that while was a decent wait...it seemed to move fairly quickly. The sushi chefs were masters at efficiency, and their counters were not a place to linger. The two most popular locations at the market for a sushi meal is Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi. Because the line to Sushi Dai was cut off, we chose Daiwa Sushi by default.
After we were seated, my travel buddy chose the set course. Knowing I wouldn't be able to stomach all of that raw fish, I just ordered a la cart, knowing that I wanted to try Otoro tuna (the most desired part of the tuna belly) and sea urchin. I appreciated the smooth texture and how the fatty tuna melted in your mouth, but the serving sizes were so large! It was hard for this non-fish lover to get it all down. I surprisingly enjoyed the sea urchin, despite how scary it looked. I thought it was almost buttery. My friend however, hated it.
By the time we had waited in line for our sushi, it was time to meet up with my friend and his wife. We met his wife first, and she showed us around the neighborhood, taking us into fancy shops and showing us a famous paper company and store.
For a late lunch, they took us to one of their nearby favorites, Shabusen. It's difficult to give directions to the location, but it's on the basement floor of Ginza core, 5 Chome-8-20. I was excited to try the meal there as the restaurant was known for their shabu-shabu. When you "shabu-shabu" a boiling pot of water is placed in front of you and you're provided with many different vegetables that you can add to the water as desired to flavor it. Then you take the thinly sliced meat (I chose beef) with your chopsticks, dip it in the pot of boiling (broth now), and swish it back and forth until it's cooked to your desired doneness. Rice and a few different dipping sauces are provided, so it's a real "as you like it" kind of meal.
After lunch, my friends took us to their "club." A restaurant type space in a top floor of a nearby building. They explained that because apartment homes are so small, the Japanese do their entertaining at clubs. Usually drinks and some food are available for ordering. As we enjoyed the view, we ate ice cream and caught up since it had been a few years since working with each other.
Once we departed their company, we decided to take the walk over to the Imperial Palace grounds. You can take a tour of some of the grounds, but the most photographed location, is the view with the stone bridges on the Southwest corner.
It was dark now and our evening in Tokyo was going by way too quickly. We took a train to the Shibuya area so we could experience the giant neon screens and that famous intersection that was incredibly busy! It's insane to think about how many people cross that intersection with each light! We also tried to get some Japanese fashionista sightings in the Harajuku neighborhood before it go too late.
In the morning, we checked out of our hotel and went back to Tokyo station to store our luggage in lockers. We planned on taking an afternoon train to Osaka, and decided that for our morning adventures, we'd take a train out of the city to Kamakura, a seaside city known for it's Great Buddha.
The train ride was about 30 minutes and from the train station, Daibutsu or Kotoku-in (the great Buddha) is 2.5 kilometers. Trying to optimize our time, we took the bus for a few Yen.
There is an entrance fee to enter the monument grounds which are open from 8:30am-5pm. The bronze Buddha sits out in the open providing some great photographs weather cooperating.
The time was short in Kamakura, but a nice little side trip from Tokyo. Our time ran out and we needed to return to the city to catch our train on to Osaka!