Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Tokyo, Japan - My #1 City

 There is no doubt that Tokyo is filled with dazzling lights and fantastic food.  It is a crowded but surprisingly calm city.  Though it wasn't on my list of cities when a friend moved there in 2005, I went to visit her and immediately fell in love. It is ideal if you have children because there is so much for them to see - the Japanese do childlike (not childish) like no other nation on earth - and because it is so safe.  And even though I cannot speak or read a word of  Japanese, I never felt lost or intimidated.  I cannot get enough of Tokyo and Japan by default.  I try to visit every year -- in 2014 we are going to Sapporo Snow Festival.

Five Things I Love About Tokyo

1. Distance.  It is within a day's flight from Brisbane - so I can leave my house at 6am and be in Tokyo at 4pm.  For an Aussie traveller this is a dream come true ie no jet lag.

Robot Restaurant
2.  It is "different".  Everything Tokyo (Japan) does, it remains similar but develops that unique Japanese Robot Restaurant.  We loved visiting a darts bar where you can drink and smoke--but nope it's definitely not a pub.  Visit a games arcade.  We played the huge Taiko Drums and I fell in love with them.  This year I might bring a set home.  Great for pounding out that aggression and and it's musical (well not when I play, but you know what I mean). Visit Ghibli Museum - for manga/anime lovers and for the kids - but you must book ahead of time (we had to book in Australia - thank you JBT).  For manga lovers, I enjoy prowling around Shibuya's Mandarake shop -- it has cosplay, more manga than anyone could ever read, and plenty of manga merchandise (toys etc). Some of it might be X-rated so be aware when you take the kids.  Though they probably are too busy to notice. In 2014 I'll be trying a taiko drum workshop--in Asakusa.  So more on that later.

3.  The food.  I have never had a bad meal in Japan.  I think it is their philosophy - do things right; have pride in what you do.  Mind you, I love Japanese food and I love fresh food, and I love fish.  I love visiting little bars and trying what's on their menu--I've had deep fried corn (delicious) and all sorts of odd things.  One restaurant we visited had spaghetti with cooked lettuce and salad - surprisingly delicious and I felt quite virtuous and it had green in it :)  Try a fast food restaurant, yes a Maccas, and try one of their Japanese dishes. There is so much more to Japan though than sushi -- it has a range of Michelin Star restaurants that will really drain the pocket, but if you have a couple of hundred dollars and want to experience the best in food then visit one.  We visited Roppongi's L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.   Read up on some food manga - my favourite series include Oshinbo, Addicted to Curry, Antique Bakery but here are some other great ones too.  And don't be afraid to step into an izakaya.  those hole in the wall bar/food places where you can sometimes eat and drink all you like for a set price (around AUD40 each) - for 90 minutes.  It is prbably going to me filled with smokers but somehow the smoke didn't bother me - do the Japanese have different kinds of cigarettes?

4.  Transport.  Japanese trains are the best I've ever travelled on.  They are fast, clean and always arrive on time.  Buy a Japan Rail Pass before you leave -- the trains are expensive in Japan -- no need to get first class but we always like to treat ourselves but economy is just as impressive.  If you go in the winter -- you get to see a snow dripped countryside and feel warm and cosy inside.  Airports are uber efficient.  It takes us about 1/2 hour from getting off the plane in Narita to sitting on a bus or a train into the city.  They open up Immigration lines to accommodate the incoming passengers as soon as they hit the immigration hall -- take note other countries.  The trip into the city takes about an hour but it's a fun trip -- splash out and buy something from the hostesses on the train -- even if it's just a beer.  The taxis -- well where else does a driver wear white gloves?

5. Shopping.  Now I hate shopping but when you're in a country that is sooo different, it is great fun.  I love cosmetics and a visit to a Japanese pharmacy is filled with wonder.  There is a great one in Shibuya opposite -- you'll know it because it's loud and right at a cross street at the 'top' of the town opposite Toku Dept store about 5 mins walk away from Shibuya station (same side) past 109.  It is about four floors and has food, alcohol, cosmetics and teeshirts.  I spend hours there.  So forget the toothbrush and toothpaste - buy some Japanese ones.  On your way stop at a fabric shop on the corner--cheap and wonderful patterns and cheaper than material in Australia and the new electronics stores for the latest gadgetry but be aware games won't play on Aussie Wii (I learned the hard way). Kimono - we have bought some spectacular wedding ones in Askusa for less than AUD200. 

Things You Might Not Like

  1. Crowds.  Yes Tokyo is crowded but I don't mind that at all.  It could bother some people.
  2. Food.  If you're not a sushi fan you might be disappointed.  But don't despair there are plenty of not-sushi places.
  3. Disneyland.  As Tokyo is a huge city, a visit to Disneyland might disappoint as the lines are long.  I don't particularly like Disneyland so I haven't bothered to go.
  4. Railway stations.  Yes Shinjuku has loads of exits and is confusing but I soon found my way around and being lost is part of the fun.  
  5. Ummm ... distances.  it is a big city so be prepared to take an hour to get to where you have to go.  Allow for this in your scheduling.


Manga-Kissa.  If it's a rainy day and  you just wanna kick back then visit a manga cafe.  There you can kick back and read manga (Japanese of course) drink all the soft drink you want, check your emails etc.  Most of them have wee booths and you can do what you like...hubby and I found them a welcome break from the madness above.  They charge by the hour so take an hour's break.
Rockers in Yoyogi

Parks.  On Sundays visit a park.  Yoyogi (my favourite) usually has Elvis/rockers dancing to loud music.  It's not as bad as it sounds.  Also at the top of Yoyogi is Harajuku where the goth, lolitas gather.  The park is wonderfully serene and has the Meiji Temple.  If you're jetlagged then get up early and walk around -- Japan has the neatest homeless in the world.

Kamakura.  A fascinating place that also holds Yabusame - the Japanese archers.  Definitely a must.  Check out the webpage and see if there's
one on while you're there.

Kabuki.  Japanese opera sounds like a drag - not at all.  The Kabuki Theatre in Ginza has been refurbished so I'm dying to see what it's like now.  Be sure to book ahead. 

Sports.  Sumo or Baseball  Now if Kabui sounds too much like culture then visit a Sumo match -- again, the tournaments are only held certain times so check ahead.  Why not try baseball?  The Japanese love it and are enthusiastic.  Really the place to go for atmosphere and team spirit.  And not a hooligan in sight.

Visit 100 Yen stores.  Buy all your souvenirs there ... I get heaps of lip gloss for my female friends -- they're small and great gifts.  I also bought a pile of face washers that I still use.

Izakaya -- a small bar that serves beer and food.  Order from the menu - and suck down some local beers.  There are tons of them around and don't be afraid to go in.  Try the ones around railway stations but be warned there could be smoking :) 

Jazz and Karaoke.  The Satin Doll is a lounge style place and we loved it.  Sip martinis, eat the small offerings (which are surprisingly filling) and kick back.  Karaoke is truly fun, don't be afraid.

Pachinko Parlours.  Yep, they are LOUD and noisy and bright.  Enough to give you a headache but this is the land of glitz and bright lights. Step inside, get a bucket of ball bearings and waste a few minutes.  I have NO idea how they work but it was another experience.

Odaiba.  An artificial island with loads to see: shopping, Fuji TV, AquaCity, Venus Fort (a recreated 18th century shopping mall with a fake dome that has the sky) the National Museum of Emerging Science and dozens of other places to explore.  It will take a whole day so if you have the time get there early.   Now I love a good museum, but generally the Japanese ones lack the verve of our Aussie ones--usually they are fairly dimly lit with glass domes and plenty of good stuff but a little boring especially in such a techno country, but the National Museum of Science was great.  But we lived Fuji TV more.  Go to the top floor for a great view.  And sometimes there are more Elvis/rockers in the forecourt.  

Before you leave your hotel, look at the place you want and get a screen capture on your phone so you know exactly where to go.  Don't be afraid to ask -- people are wonderful and love to try their English - compliment them on their English and you will have a friend for life.

Finally, this is just the surface -- you need years to explore Tokyo -- I loved it for its popular culture kitsch.  Don't be afraid to step into somewhere new -- it's an experience you will never regret.

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