New York, Paris, London, Tokyo. Four major capitals, bustling cities, and cultural hubs that are revered for their commerce, tourism, and culture. After having extraordinary sushi in the alleyways of Osaka, seeing ancient temples in Kyoto, and climbing Mount Fuji, Tokyo was our last stop on the Japan leg of our tour.
When we arrived after a two hour bus ride from Kawaguchiko to Shinjuku, we looked around the metropolis at the sky-high buildings and billboards advertising everything from matcha to skin-whitening cream and realized that Tokyo was extremely similar to every other big city. The only thing that separated it from the likes of New York or London was the language and food. The shops, underground system, and day-to-day life was exactly the same, which gave us comfort, in a way.
Feeling like experts, we settled our backpacks and grabbed our trusty suitcase to walk the quick mile from Shinjuku Station to the Tokyo Stay Hotel in Shinjuku. Whenever we asked for recommendations on places to eat or stay, the ‘burb of Shinjuku constantly came up, and once we rolled up, we saw exactly why. There were restaurants in every doorway, clubs spilling into the third, fourth, and fifth floors of the tall surrounding buildings, and the definite feeling of being “in it.”
Tokyo in the summer more than sizzles; it downright bakes. In the short, exhausting mile from the station to the hotel, we were covered in sweat. But it was barely noon, so we quickly dropped our bags in our tiny, but perfect hotel (complete with a washer/dryer inside our room). After a change of clothes, we laughed at ourselves at the more convenient proximity of the underground station barely half a block from the hotel, and headed straight to the Meiji Shrine.
Located near the famous Shibuya crossroads (which, yes, we did cross the street in full-on elbow and shoulder throwing fashion), the relatively young shrine sits on a massive compound that spans 170 acres of tall trees and dense forest. It was quite strange to see the highway in the distance as we ventured into a green, protected area with many small museums and sites dotted along the pathway. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to see a few of the side huts and museums, but we were there for the shrine.
Greeted by massive stacks of old sake barrels, we turned a corner and were met with our old and familiar foe: scaffolding. The whole shrine entrance was covered in it. I thought it had become a joke many months ago, but now it was downright irritating. We sighed and walked through the metal poles holding up black mesh and breezed through the complex. I’m certain that if we could have seen more of the structure, we would have been more floored..
The shrine was built in 1920 after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912. It was the top rank for government-sponsored shrines until 1946, but during WWII, the shrine was all-but destroyed. What stands today is a reconstruction from 1958. Considering some of the other structures we’ve seen, it was surprising to see such a young building needing such invasive restoration work, but alas.
Determined to see a gorgeous park and bask in it, we found the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. For just 200 yen, you can enter the massive green with beautiful bridges, massive green spaces, and in-season flowers in bloom. As we walked through the gardens, we noticed something that had nothing to do with flora or fauna.
About 90% of everyone was playing Pokemon Go. Apparently, it had launched in Japan the weekend we arrived, and everyone from business men fanning themselves to women wearing stilettos holding umbrellas were playing. Groups huddled together with their extended battery packs and “caught ’em all” as we meandered through the pathways.
One location inside the gardens I will highly recommend is the greenhouse. This beautiful building had a waterfall and some gorgeous, tropical plants and foliage we had never seen before. Walking around the area, we were just so floored that such a manufactured and chrome-lined city has the space and care for huge green and natural spaces.
A dear friend of ours had just come back from a trip to Tokyo, and said “Piss Alley” or “Memory Lane” was the place to get cheap and fantastic food. We had to navigate the streets a bit to find this hidden and tiny alley where every three feet or so is a different restaurant full of smoke and people sweating over BBQ’d food. It was absolutely packed when we got there, so we picked the only cubbie that had two remaining seats and quickly ordered a beer and sake. I sat next to a very inebriated man who was yammering on and on to a family from New Zealand seated across the small space.
At one point, the man swayed toward me and said, “Isn’t this funny? I’m the only Japanese person in here.” I hadn’t noticed until he said something, but sure enough, the 10 seat place had only one true local. A few minutes later, he carefully stood up and buckled his briefcase laughing at the fact that he was fulfilling the drunk Japanese man stereotype we must have known about.
When his cigarette smoke dissipated, we ordered a range of different meats on sticks. I was thrilled to finally see a vegetable as I had been surviving on seaweed as my green for the last week. I ordered bell peppers, tofu, bacon-wrapped leeks, and chicken hearts. All of that together cost us about 4500 yen, so it wasn’t the cheapest meal, but it sure was “local,” and we certainly enjoyed it.
Since it took us a while to find this particular, well-known Piss Alley (yes, there are a few dotted around the city), I have included a map of where we were.
The next morning, food was still on the brain as we made our way to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We had little to no interest in getting up at 3 am to see the tuna auction, but they do not open the market itself to tourists until 10 am. However, if you arrive any later than that, you run the risk of not seeing anything at all, so you have to play with the clock. We decided to get there at 9 am to have breakfast and then see the interior.
On the grounds for the fish market are some world-renowned restaurants including Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai, but the wait for these coveted restaurants can range from 15 minutes to three hours. It occurred to us that just because we didn’t eat at the number one place didn’t mean we were getting subpar sushi. Anything in throwing distance of the market would be invariably top-notch.
Just across the street from the fish market is a massive outdoor mall of sorts known as the “outer rim” with food carts, retailers, and produce sellers. We walked up and down the many, many isles looking for a couple of open spots, and we were beckoned into Terrace House. I ordered a donburri bowl that overflowed with perfectly cooked sushi rice and remarkable fish. Each bite was magic from the salmon to the coveted tuna to even the popping salmon roe.
We left perfectly satisfied in fulfilling a bucket list item and headed over to the market. We had such visions of what the market would be, but as we walked in, we were puzzled. It was far from a sterile and majestic space, and it made me think how odd to have random tourists be able to walk through a factory complete with heavy machinery, sharp objects, and puddles of water. Hazards seemed endless.
Then, as we surveyed the post-auction mess, we realized we were standing in a slaughter-house. I don’t know why it never dawned on us, but that’s what it was. Suddenly, I was glad we had breakfast first since eating fish afterwards would have probably put us off. Blood spilled down the open drains, eels swam in cramped cages, and suffocating fish twitched in dry buckets. I realize this is exactly what a fish market is, but for some reason, I had another image in my mind’s eye.
Famous for the high price tuna that come through the doors, the Tsukiji Fish Market has been around since the 17th and 18th centuries as a way for merchants to make some money from their daily catches. Today, the market location has become outdated and cramped, so it was due to move in November 2016. However, the governor has postponed the move due to health concerns of the new location. But, the move must be imminent because the Tokyo Olympics are fast approaching, and the real estate is right where a proposed highway is due to go.
Being in Japan, we were itching to grab some souvenirs, as any good tourist is want to do. But everything we saw was either incredibly expensive or so flimsy, we thought a sneeze would break it. But then, we found the Oriental Bazaar in the Omotesando neighborhood. This massive shop has three floors of goods for decent prices and decent quality. If you’re looking for any kind of gift or trinket, check this place out. And if you bring your passport, you can get a discount.
With the sun beating down on us, we were aching to go inside somewhere. We opted for the Tokyo National Museum. It cost 620 yen per person to go inside, but it was worth every cent when we finally got under some air conditioning and shade. I never thought Japan to be sweltering, but my goodness, we were bathed in sweat as we walked into the space. Out of the six total buildings on the compound, we only walked through the Japanese and Asian Art buildings.
As we walked through the Asian Art building, we laughed as we saw ancient sculptures taken from Angkor Wat to represent Cambodia. We had seen the real thing just days before, but it was interesting to compare the art across the centuries and close-by countries.
We came across a Mongolian woman beckoning us to read our fortunes with sheep’s teeth. I was still a bit nervous about my recent hospital visit and hoping my malady wouldn’t return, so I was relieved when my fortune said I was okay. But then Jeff rolled the teeth and got a not-so-great outcome. The woman looked at him and said gently, “Try to roll again.” He did, and he got the exact same result.
A bit shaken from the fortune, we made plans for our last dinner in Tokyo. We wanted somewhere we could try a variety of different sakes and have them paired with fun food. We saw one place that offers $30 all you can drink sake, but after reading some reviews and seeing it was geared for college kids, we decided to find something a bit more quiet, and we found the perfect place in Nihonshu Stand Moto.
Tucked deep in a basement, this tiny, stand-only restaurant was exactly what we wanted. Our waiter beckoned us in and paired three different sakes with three different dishes. I have no idea what we drank, sadly, as it was all in Japanese, but we indulged in some phenomenal raw mackerel, tomato curry, and smoked red bean with cheese all paired with glorious and delicious sake.
Our last morning in Tokyo took us to the Imperial Palace. This is where our exhaustion and the heat really got to us. We should have looked online ahead of time to see if we could have gone inside because once we arrived, after getting lost through the gardens and having to walk the 3 mile circumference around the entire compound, we found out the Palace is only open through appointments or on specific Saturdays in the month. We took our pictures and did our best to peek at the building through ornate gates and bonsai trees, but we resigned our morning to a very warm city walk instead.
Walking back to the hotel, hunched over from the heat and on the verge of exhaustion tears, we were ready to bid adieu to Japan. But just as we approached the hotel, we heard some music. We turned a corner and found ourselves face-to-face with the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival. We saw some remarkable performances and heard some awesome music. I’ve included a video below of one of the full performances. We later learned the festival is a ritual to the ancestors and to pray for well-being.
After feeling depleted, we suddenly felt thrilled to see such national pride in the streets. We grabbed our bags and hopped on the Narita Express train that would take us to the airport an hour away. We would now be traveling over the International Date Line and landing on American soil, but not quite home.
Stay tuned as we become time lords in Oahu, Hawaii touring Pearl Harbor, climbing craters, and watching the sunset in Waikiki. Arigato, Japan; Aloha Hawaii!
Helpful Hint about the Narita Airport: they have showers and full rooms for changing and refreshment. Let me tell you, after a hot day in Tokyo, the last thing we wanted to do was sit in a plane for 10 hours in our same clothes. For a couple dollars, you have a full bathroom at your disposal with shower, hair dryers, and towels. It was a true godsend.