Tokyo (and Nikko)

Konichiwa friends,

As I visited Tokyo in two trips, both at the start and end of my journey, this is your last blog update, although a lot of my adventures there happened a few weeks ago now (and much of this was written then too, hence a lot of comments on my impressions of Japan overall!).

As expected, I really like Tokyo, but it came with the expected culture surprises. It is one of the few places I have visited where I felt like a total tourist, largely due to the use of Kanji / Katakana and not the western alphabet! I’m sure it makes even the most mundane of signs interesting to me.

The hostel I stayed in to start was one of the nicest I have visited – the K’s House chain are in several locations in Japan now, and all that I have stayed at have been impressive. The facilities were excellent, I had some great roommates, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, and the location, Asakusa was perfect for an initial introduction to the city. Once making friends there, I changed my plans for the second part of my trip, and returned (but to a hotel this time).

The city is a fascinating mixture of new and old, with skyscrapers and modern architecture laid out right next to old shrines revealing the Japanese past. The one thing I instantly noticed was how clean the streets are, and how conscientious the street cleaners are – have you ever seen someone in London scraping the chewing gum off the road in front of their shop?? This attitude is the same all over Japan, everyone works very hard, and as a consequence things like the service in shops is by far the best I have ever received.

The hostel was only a few moments walk from Sensoji Temple, so I spent my first evening strolling around, grazing on some amazing food from the market. The temple is stunning by day and by night, but there were so many people around I don’t have photos by day.

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I visited Ueno Park the following day to visit the zoo and see the giant pandas. I should have thought this through before paying the entry fee though, as it is mating season so they weren’t on display. The panda excitement is HUGE here though, and there was the most hilarious booth next to the enclosure where people were dressing up as pandas to pay for their photo to be taken. The rest of the zoo was okay, but I was a sad panda (lol).

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I thought this bird was a statue… turns out it was real :)

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The park itself is beautiful, but it’s a shame I was a tiny bit early for cherry blossom here. The walkways are all covered by cherry trees, so the colours here must be incredible when it is in bloom. As expected in Japan, there are several shrines in this park alone, one of which contains a sealed Hiroshima flame (supposedly a fire that was found in the wreckage of the bombing, and has never been allowed to go out).

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Update; I visited Ueno again this afternoon and it was GLORIOUS! Now I understand the full vision of Sakura and the Hanami party, I’m so glad I got to experience it while I was in Japan. The Hanami Party is essentially an opportunity to picnic and drink with friends beneath the cherry blossom… the number of people out today was insane, and such an amazing vibrant atmosphere.

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I spent my afternoon in Akihabara with some friends learning about Japanese culture, and discovering every gadget that you could possibly imagine with a USB connection, and obviously a lot of manga and anime. Before eating my first truly authentic dinner, on recommendation alone. My finishing paragraph will be on food, so all I will say for now is that it was aaaaaaamazing.

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My visit to the Imperial Palace East Gardens was another pretty day out, and a perfect example of the proximity between old and new contrasting. I’m also pretty sure I saw the Emperor that day… I was stopped outside the palace by the police while a convoy of horse drawn carriages, guards on horseback and shiny black cars was passing. In typical Japanese style I figured it was worth taking photos, even though I had no idea who it was until I asked someone a few days later.

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I also checked out the International Forum building while in the area. The architecture is beautiful, but lunch was pricey.

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That evening I watched the sunset from the top of the Sky Tree, a new viewing tower that has two viewing platforms and is over 600m tall. It was one of those experiences that made me realise how vast Tokyo is – all you can see, all directions is life (and if the weather is good, maybe some mountains). The various districts are pretty easily identifiable – Shibuya and Shinjuku stand high above the rest of the city, and Akihabara doesn’t do a bad job either. It’s pretty expensive, but I’m not sure I would have appreciated Tokyo in the same way without it (and I didn’t bother going all the way to the top).

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I had to get a photo of me jumping on the 340m high, glass floor too. :)

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Without a doubt, my best day in the Tokyo area was spent in Mitaka, at the Studio Ghibli Museum. If you don’t know what I’m talking about… I’m not sure we can be friends anymore. It is the craziest, quirkiest and most enchanting building, and the experience from walking through the door to leaving reverts you to childhood and the grin didn’t leave my face. Door ways less than a metre high to crawl through, spiral stair ways encased in metal bars spanning three floors, the most beautiful old projectors and hands down the best animation exhibits I have ever seen. Just wow. That’s before I even mention the full size furry cat bus for children to play on – magical. Obviously you’re not allowed to take photos inside, so you only get a few of the exterior and the rain.

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And I think maybe I spent too much money in the gift shop…

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Next to the museum is a beautiful park, and another temple! :) It’s a pretty nice walk from here to the next station along on the train line though, and there are some nice restaurants if you need to cower from the rain.

By my 3rd night in Tokyo, I was a regular in my friends bar, and was even trusted to supervise while he went out briefly! Welcome to A.S.A.B, one of the few Japanese bars in which you can find Guinness on tap. :P

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On my return to the city I did make a point of visiting Shibuya and people watching from the Starbucks that overlooks the road crossing – where Lost in Translation was filmed. It’s a pretty crazy place, and I am infinitely glad I didn’t choose to stay in this district in the end. It’s just a bit too busy and touristy for me, but it was a must see while I was in town. The Starbucks is something else as well… apparently it is one of their busiest branches in the world, extremely efficient, but hideous to find a seat.

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My final proper day in Tokyo was spent out of town in Nikko, one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Japan. The shrines there were incredible, in particular Tosho-gu. Part of it is currently under renovation, but you are able to walk through and the restoration work is explained. It was fascinating to learn the traditional Japanese building techniques.

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Most importantly, as I said it would have it’s own paragraph… Japanese food. Wow. Just wow. I have eaten anything put in front of me, in a whole host of different establishments. Ramen, sushi, sashimi, katsuya (and every variation of it!) / tonkatsu, tempura / tendon, yakitori, kobe beef, nabe, yakiniku, okonomiyaki, soba / udon, izakaya… and all the bento, miso, and pickles you would expect. I am sure I have eaten more than this, but off the top of my head, that’s as many as I can think of. I have only eaten non-Japanese food twice in my entire time here, and I’m eating at least 2 epic meals a day because it is so damn good.

The only thing I haven’t particularly enjoyed was sea urchin (uni), but oh well!

I am going to miss using chopsticks all the time, and having such a wealth of incredible food at such reasonable prices on my doorstep. I have a long list of things to learn how to cook now!

Unfortunately I am so bad at taking photos of food before I eat it, that you are lacking in photos (or they are half eaten… NOM).

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I also started buying sweets with pandas on… just because I could. Any country with this much panda merchandise is good in my eyes!

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As always when travelling, I found that meeting locals was the best way to experience the area. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have enjoyed Tokyo to the same extent. Seeing the real side of the city, the local bars and restaurants and some real personality adds much more depth than staying in amongst the expensive tourist haunts.

Thanks to everyone I met on my travels, particularly Yu and Katayama. どうもありがとう! :)
I’ll see you guys soon!

Claire x

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~ by pandaclaire on April 2, 2014.

One Response to “Tokyo (and Nikko)”

  1. Hiya Claire, looks amazing. Wish I could have come. See you soon. Katie x

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