It is almost terrifying how much stuff there is to do in Japan. On both my trips to Japan last year, I felt like we hardly scratched the surface of the cities we were in!
On the BrandWorks office last day in Tokyo, we had originally planned for everyone to go to Disneyland; even though I hadn’t been, I decided to opt out. Despite having already spent 4 pretty full days in Japan, we had somehow not gotten around to any cultural sight seeing, with not a temple in sight…and although I had done Tokyo before, rather than stand in lines for rides, I needed my cultural hit, and after Tsukiji had a hankering to really get my trigger happy finger working the camera, so spent the day venturing out on my own and exploring a little more of the eastern side of Tokyo.
I popped out of bed bright and early, I might have left the hotel by about 7:30am or 8am, to some nippy winds and a sleeping Tokyo, with the exception of one or two couples, after a very happy night it seems, staggering down the narrow streets in the red light district in Shinjuku.
Whilst we never got to explore the infamous Golden Gai district in Shinjuku in the evening, during the day, it’s still a curious little space, with more bars than you would think possible crammed into impossibly small spaces, and signs burgeoning out from the wall, trying to out door each other. As I strolled by and snapped a few shots, there were a few lingering sounds of laughter and music in the air, with patrons who clearly decided the night should be carried on into the morning.
I stumbled onto the Hanazono Shrine on the way to the train station, which has a cute little flea market set up at the front, nothing big, but there is one lady who is selling remnants of kimono fabric for a fraction of what it would usually cost (and I can’t help thinking how much my brother would love that!)
The thing I love about Japanese shrines is that they’re hardly static places, with the traditional practices of tying up bad fortunes on wires next to the temple, and ‘Ema’, small wooden plaques with prayers or wishes written on them and hung up by the shrine, always providing something new to look at and see.
And although the Hanazono Shrine was quite nice, I was on my way to one of my favourite temples in Tokyo (and one of the most popular as well)
Oh Senso-ji. The first time I visited Tokyo, my family stayed at a Ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel) right next to the temple, so it certainly stayed imprinted with me.
Located in Asakusa, it’s about a 30 to 40 minute train ride from Shinjuku. It’s a Buddhist temple that is also Tokyo’s oldest and one of it’s most significant.
The best advise I can give you? Get there early. I got to the entrance of the temple, the ‘Thunder Gate’, just before 9am, and was surprised at the number of people around at the time already.
The ‘Thunder Gate’ is quite an impressive visual statement, and it’s worth looking all around, how beautiful is this wooden dragon engraving that’s on the bottom of the lantern? Once I ducked in underneath to start taking pictures, everyone else started noticing and doing the same!
The gate leads to Nakamise-dori, which is a long strip of shops, that eventually ends with the temple at the very end. At this time, Nakamise-dori was just starting to wake up, and is a great time to arrive, a little bit hungry, as you can then stop by all the food stands to eat all the sweets and food while it’s super duper fresh.
There’s nothing better than going to one of the many Ningo-yaki stalls along the Nakamise-dori, and getting a freshly made one put into your hand…that’s still warm. These little fluffy cakes are stuffed with red bean paste, and when you’re bundled up in your leather jacket, scarf and jumper at 9am in the morning? Perfect. I was actually a little hungrier than I planned to be at the time, and these were just the thing to warm the belly up.
It’s great to watch them be made as well, whether it be by more traditional methods, or with automated machinery, which is just as fascinating.
This fried treat, which is a bit like Ningo-yaki as well, with different flavoured batters and filled with red bean paste. I got the black sesame flavour, which again, when freshly fried, was just the thing for a cold tummy.
And speaking of more hot goodness, freshly grilled senbei; rice crackers, are so much better freshly made. So crunchy, and with that delightful slightly charred flavour to it as well.
Although the presentation of these takoyaki impressed me, with sliced baby octopus sticking out of the balls, I was a bit disappointed in flavour, as since the octopus was just added on top, there wasn’t any of the flavour in the batter of the ball itself…so skip these if you see them.
The last thing I accidentally stumbled on to after I had walked around the temple, was Asakusa Kagetsudo. I first was drawn to it, as they had a plethora of model soft serves in a display, showcasing the myriad of flavours they had. But then I noticed, everyone was leaving the shop with these giant ‘melon pan’; melon bread.
Now as I don’t usually go overboard on gluten, I had never had melon bread before, but when I saw the little line of people waiting to get theirs, and a photo board showing off all the celebrities that had visited (I even recognised my brother’s favourite singer, Kyaru Pamyu Pamyu in some of the photos), I knew there had to be something good going on here!
So after a couple of minutes, and 200 yen (or something like that, it was around $2 for one) I was presented with this beautifully aromatic, golden mound the size of my face. And I was not disappointed in the slightest.
So melon bread, isn’t actually made of melons or melon flavoured, it’s just got the shape of one…kind of anyway. And like a good brioche, you really don’t need it with anything. Just take one bite and revel in it’s goodness. Incredibly crusty and crunchy on the outside, indescribably fluffy inside, slightly sweet and incredibly moreish. I would say it does remind me of a brioche, except sweet, and crunchy on the outside. Haha! Not to be missed if you’re in the area (which you should be if you’re visiting Tokyo anyway)!
At the temple building itself, it’s a hub of activity, with tourists snapping away and locals going through their traditional rituals, from incense burning, to having their fortunes drawn.
Don’t forget to wash your hands at the fountains before you go into the temple!
Senso-ji is one of the few temples that have ‘Omikuji’ in English, which are the fortunes that people can get when they visit temples in Japan. Basically you grab the cylindrical or hexagonal (whatever shape it is really) silver container, shake it around a bit, and then tip it so that a single stick can come out of the little hole at the top. On this stick is a number, so you then go to the drawer with the corresponding number, and pull out your fortune!
I did two, one for work, and one for relationship; one was great, and one was okay, so the ‘okay’ one I tied onto the wire that are next to the Omikuji stations to leave the negative luck at the temple and not bring it home with me!
How cute are these little deities dressed up with their red capes? Love it darling.
My last recommendation for Senso-ji, is as you trek back out, don’t go down the main strip of Nakamise-dori again, it’ll have gotten crazy busy in the hour you’ll have spent wandering around, but go down the sides. There are lots of other hidden little things to eat, and some great yakitori restaurants in the area that open at around 11am. The first time I had chicken heart was in a great little shop behind the Nakamise-dori. Happy times.
After romping around Senso-ji, I popped back on the train and a couple of stops later, got out at Ueno station.
Ueno may not be the typical spot most tourists flock to, there’s an authenticity in the area that I really enjoyed, and in the Cherry Blossom Season, this is definitely a hot spot.
There’s lots to do in Ueno, with a park that is home to a multitude of museums and a zoo, but I was here to explore Ameyoko. Ameyoko are a couple of streets that run down the side of the train tracks, with an array of eateries, markets and all sorts of retail shops as well.
Oh, I just found the atmosphere infectious. It's a slice of life around here that's a little bit more rustic and a little less glitzy. I just wanted to eat everything, and almost wished I wasn’t so full…there were so many cute little hole in the wall restaurants, but I just didn’t have the tummy space to try one! But at least there’s plenty to walk around and see, so I could still burn off a little bit and snack my way around Ameyoko.
I couldn’t resist freshly cut fruit, and also a lovely and intense matcha soft serve from a shop that only sold tea…you could smell it from a couple of metres away!
There were lots of great more local style markets, and supermarkets, where I found most of the Kit Kat’s and matcha flavoured Pocky that I wanted to buy as well. Lots of locals doing their regularly shop, and old men trying to hawk their goods. It felt a little like the Queen Victoria Market…but a whole lot bigger, with a lot of produce I can’t imagine finding at home too!
If I had more time? Would definitely hike back to check out some of the museums and chill out in the park a little bit longer.
My second last stop of the day, was Akihabara, also fondly known as ‘Electric Town’, where all things electronic can be bought and anime and video games are king. Basically, nerd central, my heartland.
I won’t spend too long talking about Akihabara, as food-wise there’s not a lot going on here, but it is an interesting side to the Japanese culture that’s worth checking out. I mean where else in the world do you get ‘maid’ cafe’s and cute girls dressed up as maid’s handing out flyers for a cup of coffee? It’s all incredibly innocent really, but to someone who’s not Japanese, it can look quite funny!
On the weekends, the main street is closed in the afternoon, which is both bizarre and wonderful, as the road is absolutely huge and would probably usually be a very main thoroughfare. With the giant buildings of flashing neon, you could almost be on a set of a Kaijyuu or monster movie…
After nerding out at Super Potato on all the retro games, I also massively geeked out on DDR. (Video to come!)
My last day wrapped up in Tokyo with a quick visit to the Pokemon centre, where I continued to geek out; a decadent chocolate mont blanc from Pierre Herme, which is literally one of the best desserts I’ve had in a while and ramen with the rest of the office for dinner at a random vending machine restaurant, when one of the more popular places we went to had an hour long queue at 8pm, thus proving that it really doesn’t matter where you go in Japan, the food is always good.
Ah...writing this post has made me hungry, and sorely miss being in the land of the rising sun. Fortunately I’ve got tickets to go back with Brad this November…which means I have 10 months to prepare...I hope Brad's ready for this!