Tokyo (Japan, part 3)

Tokyo

May 11-18

Oh boy. Where to start with Tokyo?! We took a bus from Hirayu to Tokyo—probably the nicest bus ride we will ever take (Japanese rest stops are amazing!!! With really good food and pristine bathrooms that have maps showing you which stalls are open!)—and got our requisite view of Mt Fuji along the way. 

Like much of Asia that we visited, Tokyo was incredibly crowded and overwhelmed all of our senses. Unlike the other places we went to, though, Tokyo’s chaos and overwhelmingness feel much more controlled and orderly; we could let ourselves give in to the sensory overload because we weren’t also having to watch out for motor scooters on the sidewalks, or being approached by street vendors. It was great!

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Tokyo was the last stop of our adventures and we were able to ease ourselves back into the reality of coming home because we had some familiar faces to see there: Our friend Diane came out from Washington, DC to meet us for the week that we were in Tokyo, and our first days in town happened to overlap with Martin’s old coworker and her husband. I think being able to spend time with friends after being just the two of us for so long helped make the eventual transition back home easier. And it was great to have someone else to share our experiences with!

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We had a cute tiny little Airbnb in the upscale residential neighborhood of Maguro (and where the pizza place from Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” is!) which provided a nice quiet respite from the bustle of the city, and plenty of exercise as we were about a mile away from the closest subway station and we were doing the walk at least 2-4 times every day.

Since Tokyo is another big (and expensive!) city, we spent most of our time just wandering around immaculate gardens and finding interesting neighborhoods to explore.

Some of our favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo include:

  • Shinjuku –– A bustling commercial district with tall buildings and a busy nightlife, we checked out at cool bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai neighborhood on our first night in town, and on our last night we found an incredible bar with just one bar tender who made bespoke drinks for the clientele. 
  • Asakusa –– This area feels like an older Tokyo, with traditional crafts shops and food stalls lining the street to the ancient Senso-ji temple. It was fun to wander around the streets and peek in the windows of the traditional knife-makers and other craftsmen. As we were leaving Asakusa to find our way to the Tokyo National Museum, we stumbled across some kind of neighborhood celebration with different groups parading through their streets in traditional outfits and carrying floats.

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  • Harajuku –– Known mostly for its quirky fashion scene and cosplay shops, this was a fun area to just people-watch and marvel at all the costume paraphernalia available to buy. It’s also home to upscale and trendy boutiques which provided Diane and me with some good window-shopping, and lots of hipster cafes to get a good cup of coffee.

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  • Shibuya –– Home to the busiest crosswalk in the world! We didn’t want to face it in rush hour so we missed seeing it at its busiest, but we still got quite a good view of the chaos from the window at the Starbucks (along with many other tourists there for the same purpose). 

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  • Tsukiji –– We went to this area only to visit the famed fish market. The market was closed the first time we went so we spent some time wandering through the more touristy external stalls on the outside of the market itself. We went back a few days later when the fish market was open and got lost in the aisles among the fish vendors, marveling at the variety of the offerings and the size of the tunas. (We missed the most exciting part of the market–the tuna auction–because it happens at 3 or 4am.) We are lucky that we visited Tokyo when we did as the fish market has moved to the manmade island of Toyosu in the Bay of Tokyo, and is now much harder for visitors to access!

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  • Akihabara –– Also called Electric Town and what you might picture when you think of stereotypical Tokyo, this neighborhood is full of bright lights, anime and cosplay shops, young women dressed as movie and comic-book characters, video game arcades, and more bright lights on tall buildings. We went mostly for the experience of having been there, and turned around to get out of the mayhem pretty quickly.
  • Ginza –– The best part of wandering through this upscale shopping district (other than the impeccably dressed people) were all of the fancy sweets shops! The shop windows displayed all sorts of intricate and perfectly prepared treats, from mochi to French pastries to sugary confections. Unfortunately, everything was pretty far out of our price range, so we limited ourselves to window-shopping.

Of course, we managed to eat very well in Tokyo and seeking out good food was definitely part of our daily agenda. Some of our culinary highlights include:

  • Breakfast of sashimi over rice by the Tsukiji fish market (so good, we went back twice!)

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  • One of the cheapest Michelin-starred meals we will probably ever have in our lives: incredibly rich and delicious ramen (with truffles!) that required getting to the restaurant at 8am to get a ticket to come back later in the day and wait in line to place our order through a vending machine before finally being seated and enjoying our delicious ramen. The experience and the food were well worth the effort!
  • Conveyor-belt sushi in Shibuya –– you order whatever you like from an iPad-like screen at your seat and then a little train car zooms out with your order and stops right in front of you. So much fun! And actually quite good food, and not very expensive!
  • Udon lunch at a locals’ spot, with fresh handmade noodles and light-as-air tempura. Martin also had to use his Japanese skills to ask a passerby which button to press on the ordering system to get the type of udon we were looking for. 
  • We got our dumpling fix in at a casual gyoza restaurant in Harajuku, where the only menu items were steamed or fried gyoza (of course we tried multiple rounds of each). It was well-worth the wait in a long line to have probably our cheapest meal in Tokyo, especially since the country’s lack of open-container laws meant that we could enjoy canned whiskey hi-balls while we waited.

A couple other highlights from Tokyo include (most of which were on the way to or from, or while waiting for, good food):

  • The Tokyo National Museum where we got to see a large selection of samurai swords and marvel at their craftsmanship.

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  • Wandering around the forest and temple of the Meiji Shrine.

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  • Spending an evening at Tokyo DisneySea!! In addition to its own Disneyland, Tokyo has this second Disney park with a nautical exploration theme. It was a lot of fun to just wander around and see the details in everything, and we even got to go on a few rides. I felt like a little kid, and Martin and Diane were very nice to humor me. 🙂 And I’d argue that this was still a very quintessential Tokyo experience, as we joined throngs of teenagers and children going to the park after school.

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  • Stumbling across a rose garden in bloom and strolling the grounds with all of the little old Japanese ladies.
  • Getting to wander the halls (in our stocking feet, of course!) of Kyu Asakura House, a beautifully-preserved historic house that was built in 1919 and survived WWII.

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  • Having dinner with Martin’s cousin Karl and his family at their home in Tokyo.
  • And going to see a sumo wrestling tournament! 

Probably one of the most interesting parts of our Tokyo visit, we lucked out and happened to be in town for one of the semi-annual sumo tournaments. Martin’s friends had conveniently done the research so we were able to get day-of tickets (which involved getting up before 5am to take the metro to be in the line at 6am), and came back later in the afternoon to catch the professional part of the tournament after the teens and amateurs in the morning.

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We were seated in the very last row of the stadium (which is a square around the circular wrestling ring) and so had a great view of the action and all of the pomp and circumstance. Each bout was mostly just ritual and posturing, with very little actual wrestling: Once the two wrestlers actually engaged with each other, the fight would only last 10-20 seconds! We got a kick out of the “advertisements” between bouts where young men trotted medieval-looking banners with the names modern companies (like Asahi) around the ring. Rooted in ritual and tradition, it was a great snapshot of Japanese culture and a fitting end to the Japan portion of our adventures.

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We finished off our stay in Tokyo with a wonderful dinner at a cozy izakaya (Cocoro Musubi) that we stumbled upon in Shinjuku. Martin put our new knowledge to good use and ordered some excellent sake to enjoy with our dinner (I ogled over the amazingly perfect glass pitcher that it was served in), and over dinner we chatted with Diane about our travels over the past year, mentally preparing ourselves to return back to the real world.

We ended the evening at a tiny bar in Shinjuku with one bar tender who made unique cocktails for each customer based on his/her tastes. The next morning Martin and I said goodbye to our tiny Airbnb and found our last ramen lunch before jumping on the train to the airport.

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Our time in Tokyo was a whirlwind and it seemed like it was over before it had even begun. It was a celebratory end to our adventures, and we got swept up in the hustle and bustle of the enormous city. We were excited to be back among our friends and family, but not yet ready to end our travels. We boarded the plane back to San Francisco, and just like that it was over.

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Check out more photos from Tokyo here, including some sumo videos!

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