Japan trip 2014 – Part 1/4: Tokyo

Japan 2014 - Mt. Fuji

A day’s worth of climbing all for this picture.

こんにちは. This post is probably 4 months late but better late than never, right?

After years of dreaming, I finally made the pilgrimage to the holy land this summer! Three busy weeks filled with ramen, temples and otaku goods. I took this trip with some of my best friends. It’s already a miracle we could go together (money-wise and time-wise). I’ll try to make the post both personal and informative, but for those who want to skim there should be a good amount of photos too.

The first week was dedicated to Tokyo. After an exhausting flight, we landed around 2300. After grabbing our luggage and heading for the monorail the first thing we noticed… it’s hot and humid! This is the infamous summer in Tokyo. We were pretty sweaty and sticky during most of the trip. We marched towards Asakusa station to stop near our hostel… except the subway stops running after midnight. So a cab it is and cabs are fairly expensive (a 15 minute drive, about ¥2500).

Most hostels seem to be in the 下町 (shitamachi) area, located in the eastern part of Tokyo, with little high-rise or night life. You can spend a night in a dormitory for around ¥2000-2500 per person. Hostels in Japan are generally very clean and staff is friendly, a big step up compared to their European counterpart.

Japan 2014 - 浅草寺

Picture of the 宝蔵門 (houzou gate) taken from the 浅草寺 (sensou temple)

The first day we spent the day in Asakusa, wandering around and exploring the area. The 浅草寺 (sensou temple) was a good point to start our route. From here you can head through 仲見世通り (nakamise street), a long shopping street where they sell everything stereotypically Japanese. Japanese confectionery, (fake) katana, yukata, hair accessories, chopsticks, cucumbers. You can do a lot of souvenir shopping here, so it might’ve been better to save this area for the last day.

For lunch we grabbed a bowl of ramen! Good Japanese food is impossible to come by where I live so this was my first time eating ramen. It was simply amazing. A rich broth, firm noodles, tender pork that nearly falls apart when you pick it up and a perfect soft-boiled egg to top it off. Later I would learn that ramen comes in a lot of different forms and that there’s good ramen and bad ramen. You should definitely ask around for good places.

Japan trip 2014 - Gattsun!

The stuff of legend.

For the evening we met up with some locals. They led us through some roads and alleys into an 居酒屋 (izakaya). Although you can dine well in these places, the main point is still drinking. The beer in Japan is ok, but I was mostly interested in typically Japanese alcohol, 日本酒 (nihonshu) and 焼酎 (shouchuu). Nihonshu is what we in the west refer to as sake, sometimes called rice wine. The brewing process of shouchuu makes it more akin to whisky. There are various types of shouchuu, based on grains or potatoes or other such starch containing items. This means there are a lot of different types of shouchuu with many flavours and ways to drink (pure, on the rocks, mixed). For alcoholics like myself, it’s a lot of fun to try out different types and manners.

The next day we took a small detour to 神田まつや (kanda matsuya) for lunch. This place is mainly renowned for its soba. It’s also the first time we encountered a line in Japan (there would be many more to come). Lines are helpful indicators in Japan: when there’s a line for something, it’s probably good. That was certainly true for this restaurant. The soba is freshly made and there’s a good variety of dishes available. I went for some cold soba with sesame sauce. It was very delicious!

 Japan trip 2014 - 神田まつや Japan trip 2014 - 神田まつや2

(I didn’t make a good picture of the actual soba itself OTL)

We spent the rest of the day shopping! We headed towards 表参道 (omotesando), a famous shopping street with mostly flagship stores from big brands. Which is a bit boring as far as shopping is concerned. Harajuku, famous for its fashion, is close by so we went walking around the various fashion shops. I didn’t actually buy anything, but spent a lot of time looking at how people here clothe themselves. Compared to where I live, men definitely dress a lot more… metro? Tight pants, weird shirts, ear rings. The women wore a lot of easy colours, a lot of dresses. They also put a accessories on their bags, badges, key chains and such. You can find this in a lot of manga too. Neither Tokyo nor Harajuku is representative for the rest of Japan, but elements of what you see here show up around the country. The general style is cute and more feminine than what I’m used to seeing and I really like it.

For dinner, we entered a random, cheap looking establishment and had our first カツ丼 (katsudon) in Japan (the first of many to come). I went with the カツカレー (katsukare) so it was my first curry in Japan too! Katsudon is fairly famous in Japan, but it’s really just breaded pork and not that special. Curries in Japan are very light and personally I prefer the original spicier Indian version. Still, both are cheap, widely available, and yummy so we would eat both dishes quite a bit on our trip.

Japan trip 2014 - カツカレー

You get miso soup with a lot of dishes. It’s a really good taste break between bites.

The next morning I went to Akiba! I did a lot of book shopping here. I actually wanted to get some figures too, but transport is a pain so I stuck to books. There’s a lot of Love Live and Shingeki no Kyojin merchandise hanging around. Maids are everywhere advertising their cafe. You’re walking in another world entirely. For otaku like us it’s a very special experience. I have few anime otaku friends in real life, most of my hobby happens behind a screen and keyboard. That’s why it feels weird but good walking around a place like Akiba. I would’ve liked to go on a pedestrian Sunday too, but unfortunately the tight schedule wouldn’t allow for it.

For some reason I don't have a picture of the main street, 中央通り, so this'll have to do.

For some reason I don’t have a picture of the main street, 中央通り, so this’ll have to do.

In the afternoon, we rented some bikes and went to Ueno park. Definitely not the prettiest park you can go to, but it was relatively close by. The bikes made it fun. It’s still 30C and humid, so having the breeze of the ride helped lift our spirits. Renting a bike is very affordable and a decent way to get around, provided you avoid busy side walks or car roads.

The fountains in front of the Tokyo National Museum

The fountains in front of the Tokyo National Museum

We liked Ueno park so much, we went there the following two days! Okay, maybe not for Ueno park itself, but for its two museums: the National Museum of Nature and Science and the Tokyo National Museum. The former is, as its name implies, a nature and science museum. I personally would advise against visiting it as hopefully such museums are also available in your neighbourhood. Being quite the geek myself, I already knew most of what was displayed here. There’s nothing particularly Japanese about this museum. It’s a pretty fun place for kids though (dinosaurs!).

The Tokyo National Museum is different and an experience I would recommend. It hosts a lot of Japanese antiques and art. You’ll learn a lot about Japan’s history by taking your time strolling its many halls. Honestly, my knowledge on Japanese history is limited to WWII navy and gender bent Oda Nobunaga series. Getting a complete run from the prehistoric age to modern day was interesting and very insightful.

In the evenings we went for our first round of conveyor belt sushi! 回転寿司 (kaitenzushi) is the cheap variant of this Japanese delicacy. Where I come from, sushi is both expensive and the quality is so-so. Although conveyor belt sushi is cheap, its quality is still higher than what I’m used to at home. ¥1000-1500 leaves you pretty satisfied. Another shocker was how good the tuna is. Tuna is of course a staple fish in Japan and it’s somehow much tastier than at home. At home, the king of sushi is of course the salmon. But here, it’s without a doubt the fatty tuna.

(now I’m hungry)

Another way to spend your 100-yen coins is to visit an arcade! Arcades are a lot of fun and I wish I had some nearby. There are usually a few standard areas, each with a certain type of machine: UFO catchers, fighting games, rhythm games, card games, etc. I mostly visited the rhythm games and fighting game sections. I got wrecked so hard in Street Fighter I took my loser ass to the rhythm games and then I got wrecked at bemani. Bemani is way too hardcore for me so I mostly stuck with easy games like Groove Coaster. The easier rhythm games are a lot of fun with your friends, especially when you kick their ass because you’re the only one who’s played a few too many taiko games… Interestingly, the most popular fighting game was a Gundam fighter, of which I forgot the title. Overall, it’s really amazing how much goes into the entire arcade experience. In many ways it reminds me of a casino: getting hypnotized by the flashy lights and keeping the 100-yen coins flowing. Actually, some arcades have a casino section with pachinkos with an age restriction. Smoking is allowed in some arcades or parts of the arcade. If you can’t stand that, there’re enough other arcades to go to (in Tokyo at least).

(rare footage of easy mode rhythm game)

That about wraps up the Tokyo part. Well, not exactly, since the next two days in Tokyo are spent at comiket! But I’ll put that up in the next post. Overall, Tokyo was a really vibrant experience. Most of the stories you’ve heard about Tokyo are probably true. A week is enough to visit the highlights and then some, but I still feel like there’s a lot to discover and I would love to come back for more.

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One thought on “Japan trip 2014 – Part 1/4: Tokyo

  1. Pingback: Japan trip 2014 – Part 2: comiket 86 (+ odaiba) | Numbers and space

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