Tokyo for a First-Timer Part II
Tokyo (東京), like any other metropolis in the world, offers activities diverse enough to satiate the voracious appetite of any type of traveller. Eating, marathon running, shopping, sightseeing, trekking… you name it, Tokyo offers it. At this point, I’m just going to address the situation in Tokyo right now with respect to the possible effects of radiation following the Fukushima (福島) nuclear disaster. Nobody outside of the people intimately involved truly knows what is happening, but if you are worried then my advice is, don’t go. Tokyo is in actuality pretty close to Fukushima, and if we base it on the assumption that the official reports also downplay the actual situation, I would say that the situation is not looking up at this point in time. Furthermore why go on a trip carrying such burden? If it’s not going to be fun, it ain’t worth it.
Things to Do in Tokyo
I don’t know how other travellers to Tokyo do it, but when I plan for our own trips to Tokyo, I usually go according to areas rather than types of activities for efficiency’s sake because Tokyo is big, unlike Singapore, and it takes time to travel from one part of the metropolis to another. This is in part due to the fact that we don’t particularly like or dislike any of the usual touristy activities so we tend to accord time for all including eating, shopping and sightseeing.
To the East
To the eastern side of Tokyo, these are some of the more notable train/metro stations with interesting places to visit – Ueno (上野駅), Asakusa (浅草駅), Akihabara (秋葉原駅), Tokyo (東京駅), Ginza (銀座駅) and Tsukiji (築地駅). I don’t know how best to present all the information there is to share so I’m just going to list the things that can be done at these places and then touch on how we usually link these places together.
Ueno Station: The vast Ueno Park (上野公園) is within a short walking distance, and this park is purported to be the best place in Tokyo to view the cherry blossoms in Spring. I have no way of verifying that claim because due to my sensitive bronchial system, I have not tried viewing cherry blossoms. Think flower pollen and you would probably understand why. However, I can most certainly support the claim that Ueno Park is very scenic. It even houses a zoo (the first in Tokyo, at that!), 4 museums, a cultural hall and a couple of shrines. Just be very careful when walking under trees. I don’t know if it was just him, but during the few hours we were strolling in Ueno, the mister had bird droppings descend upon him twice. TWICE, while everyone else around him had no problems keeping clean, myself included. To say that he was annoyed and frustrated would be a gross understatement. 😆
Nearby is Ameyoko (short form for Ameya-Yokocho Market), which used to be a thriving flea market shortly after WWII and it got famous by selling second-hand merchandise from American soldiers. However over the years it has morphed into a local market of sorts selling mainly cheap foodstuffs. Some years back the mister and I visited the market on Christmas Day (not a festival widely celebrated in Japan) and it was really crowded. Quite a sight to behold and a very unique experience jostling with largely a local crowd but honestly, there wasn’t much to buy from a tourist’s perspective. I think we ended up buying 4 packs of nuts for ¥1,000 because we found the whole auction system so intriguing. The system is kind of hard to explain (actually I don’t think the mister and I fully understood how it worked) but essentially the store owner just kept adding packs of nuts onto a stack to sell at ¥1,000 till the stack was sold (although the stack never got more than 4-5 packs).
And while in the vicinity of Ueno, you really have to make time to visit Izuei Honten (伊豆栄本店), a 260-year old restaurant serving delish Unagi (鰻). All 7 storeys of the restaurant building. The mister, though not a fan of Unagi, readily went into the restaurant with me and ordered a simple set that included some Vegetables Tempura (野菜天ぷら). You have to take my word for it when I say the Unagi at Izuei Honten is as good as it gets. Probably the best Unagi I’ve ever tasted before. It was juicy and succulent. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Because we visited when it was past the usual lunch-time the restaurant was not exceedingly busy and we were shown to our table on the 1st storey almost without any delay. So if you happen to be the type that doesn’t like to queue for your food, then visiting way before or after meal times is the way to go.
Asakusa Station: Every single trip to Tokyo, we find ourselves making our way to Asakusa for a visit to Senso-ji (金龍山浅草寺). It’s not for any religious purpose. Rather we revisit the place for Nakamise-dori (仲見世通り), the shopping street right in front of the Buddhist Temple, particularly for the handmade Ningyo-yaki (人形焼) from our favourite stall. Given that Senso-ji is such a huge tourist attraction in Tokyo (now even more so since Tokyo Skytree, the metropolis’ newest attraction, is a short walk away), throngs of people are expected throughout the day but if you are early enough, you could actually avoid the crowd while enjoying a short respite taking in the tranquil milieu amidst the urban jungle that is Tokyo metropolis. This is the way we like to do it – get to the temple early (temples are never really closed so being early is not a problem) to avoid jostling with the crowd, then eat our way down the Nakamise-dori during mid-morning when the stalls start opening, before leaving the area for another.
While Ueno has a 260-year old Unagi Restaurant to boast of, Asakusa too has a 150-year old Tempura (天ぷら) Restaurant Sansada (三定) located just a little to the right of the famous Kamanarimon (雷門, or ‘Thunder Gate’). It has a rather nondescript entrance so much so that the mister and I never took a second look the past few times we walked by. We would have walked right past it again if we weren’t attentively searching for it.
Tempura isn’t exactly my cup of tea amongst Japanese cuisine since we don’t really get very fresh or good ones in Singapore. However I have to declare that I’d never tasted tempura this fresh. The mister, on the other hand, is a much better judge since tempura is usually his staple when we patronise Japanese restaurants. He positively loved the tempura at Sansada. Considering his fussiness, that has to count for something eh? We were at the restaurant 11-ish and had no problems securing a table. You guessed right again. Just go before or after the lunch/dinner crowd and there shouldn’t be a problem of a snaking queue.
Akihabara Station: Also known as Akiba for short, Akihabara is known to be the electronics town of Tokyo. It is also the place where Otaku (お宅) love to gather to feed their anime and manga obsessions. As a result, this area has also seen a surge in the number of Cosplay cafe amongst many other shops devoted to anime and manga. I like visiting Akihabara on Sunday afternoons in part because many of the girls from the ‘maid cafe’ would be hanging around the JR station dressed in their costumes giving out brochures to get the Otaku to visit their cafe. However the one real reason why I love Akihabara is because of Yodabashi Camera. It is several storeys high and other than selling all sorts of stuff for photographers, it also has everything imaginable that a technophobe (read: the mister and I) may get excited over. For fellow Singaporeans, Yodobashi Camera is a little like our Sim Lim Square, only a lot more organised with no rude part-timers thrusting flyers at you, and with much more quality merchandise for sale. Conversely you don’t expect things to be much cheaper than anywhere else in Tokyo. Just more convenient because everything is comprehensively located in one building.
As for the existence of a vibrant Cosplay culture in Akiba, several years back the mister and I, together with friend E, tried visiting one. The more popular cafe (i.e. those with prettier ‘maids’) had insanely long queues of Otaku outside their doors. We had little patience to wait in line since we were merely wanting to visit one in order satisfy our curiosity. We traipsied around the vicinity and finally found one with a manageable queue. After entering the cafe, we completely understood why there was an absence of a queue. Let’s just say the length of a queue corresponds with the beauty index of the ‘maids’ serving in the cafe. It was a really strange experience: everything I knew about Otaku through Japanese media and drama series was playing out right in front of me in the cafe. The awkward shuffle to their seats, the involuntary giggle when the ‘maids’ paid them extra attention, and the obsessive stares… the media was not exaggerating. We were very much left to our own devices at the cafe after we ordered our drinks since having a female in the company meant that we were one of the ‘curious onlookers’ rather than ‘cash cows’ they could milk with games and photography opportunities. Honestly we had more fun observing the Otaku than watching the ‘maids’. No photography was allowed in the maid cafe though hence I have none to share but do try patronising one if you are curious.
Tokyo Station: The facade of the iconic Tokyo Station has just been refurbished a year back or so. I have not seen the newly renovated station for myself but from pictures I’ve come across online, it’s definitely worth a visit. Not that this important train station is less worthy of a visit prior to the refurbishment. Apart from it being a very important intercity rail terminal, it is loaded with an insane number of shops and the likes. There is a Ramen Street, for instance, and an Omiyage (お土産) shop (my personal favourite!) that sells Kit Kat in all imaginable flavours. I’m not a huge chocolate fan but I have a soft spot for the novelty Kit Kat flavours that the Japanese can conjure up with. And of course, I have to mention the palatial Daimaru Shopping Complex just sitting above the station. If you’re a fan of Pierre Hermé’s macarons especially his Ispahans, take note that there is a Pierre Hermé boutique at Daimaru’s basement food hall.
I will admit as much that we have not taken the opportunity to explore the shopping that the vicinity of Tokyo Station offers because I’m much more intimately familiar with Ginza’s layout and prefer shopping there instead. Which brings me to the next station – Ginza.
Ginza Station: Ginza has to be one of my most favourite districts in Tokyo. This is a district that offers almost everything: good food, the brands we like and a little of everything else. We especially love shopping at the Uniqlo branch here because service is always good. This is after having gone to several other branches located in Shinjuku and Shibuya that we come to this conclusion. Also, a branch of our favourite Shabu-Shabu restaurant Nabezo is found in this district. We like to end our pleasant evening in Ginza having Shabu-Shabu there before dropping by Muji followed by Ginza Mitsukoshi (銀座三越) Food Hall. Pastry lovers like myself will be happy to learn that Ladurée is also located on the 2nd storey of Mitsukoshi.
Tsukiji Station: What’s a visit to Tokyo without visiting Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, otherwise known as Tsukiji Market (築地市場)? Typically the market is closed on Sundays but there are exceptions, and at times additional days of closure. So always make sure to check back with the calendar on the market website.
We ever caught the first train out nearby friend E’s apartment to arrive at the market close to 6 am to witness the famous Tuna Auction. It was a very interesting experience but most of the time, we were more preoccupied with getting out of the way of the fishmongers because everything was moving so fast and everyone seemed to be in such a huge rush. I’ve heard reports in recent years that they have been attempting to cut down on the number of tourists who are permitted to witness the Tuna Auction because they keep getting in the way of the workers. Back in 2010 when we visited, there was no such rule in place but I don’t know about now. Fortunately the mister found me a high vantage point for me to watch the whole auction, safely tucked away from all the action.
I’ve also recently read that Tsukiji Market will most likely be moved to another location to make space for some construction in conjunction with Tokyo Olympics 2020. So do try to visit in the next couple of years if you intend to.
And next is the big question – is Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) or Sushi Dai (寿司大) better? If you have researched enough on Tsukiji sushi, these two Sushi joints situated opposite each other on a lane of the numerous in Tsukiji Market must have popped up many times. Some swear that Daiwa Sushi is the best, while the other half will bet their fortune that Sushi Dai is better. I don’t know which side to believe, and I have not had the patience to queue for either. This is what I think (and you do not have to agree with me): sushi found in Tsukiji is as fresh as it gets. I get it that fish different chefs select and cut affects how the sushi will taste, but let’s get real here… not many of us are blessed with the type of palate to be able to really tell the minute difference. If you are one of those who readily orders sashimi from any of the sushi chains in Singapore and finds them acceptable, any other sushi joints in the vicinity of Tsukiji Market is going to blow your mind all the same. I know this for a fact because I do not find sashimi from the chains acceptable (presumably meaning that I have a palate that can somewhat differentiate good and bad sashimi) but I have had no reasons to complain about the sushi I have eaten at 3-4 other Sushi joints in Tsukiji. If you have the patience and time to queue at Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai, by all means, go ahead. I’m just saying I think it’s mostly hype and not worth the wait.
Personally I like visiting Ginza on weekends because from 12 pm to 5 pm every Saturday and Sunday, the main shopping street along Ginza is closed to vehicular traffic turning it into a ‘Pedestrian Paradise’ (歩行者天国). I’m not a very systematic shopper, so zipping from Uniqlo to a favourite cafe across the street and then back to the Burberry building is made much easier with the closure. The way we usually like to do it is spending a Saturday morning at Tsukiji Market, have a sumptuous Sushi breakfast, then head towards Ginza slightly before noontime to walk around till early evening where we will have dinner at our favourite Shabu-Shabu restaurant. If we are not too tired after that, we make a trip down to Tokyo Station to purchase the Kit Kats then walk around Daimaru. Sunday mornings are reserved for a morning stroll at Ueno Park, followed by a visit to Asakusa munching our way down the Nakamise-dori. After this we head towards Akihabara for a glimpse of the girls dressed in their Cosplay costumes, hang out at a cafe and then perhaps head down to Shinjuku or Ikebukuro for some night shopping.
This post is unexpectantly running too long again. Will probably cover the things we like to do to the West, North and South of central Tokyo.