Ultra modern. Super conservative. Foodasagms. Cuteness overload. Tokyo. Japan’s bustling capital city. Easily one of my favourite cities in the world. I would not hesitate to come back here. It’s one of those places where polar opposites have found a way to coexist harmoniously.
What I also found interesting was seeing how keen tourists were to adapt to local practices and etiquette, more so here than in other Asian countries. I feel like when people come to Japan, they’re very conscious that everything is different here. The call to respect local practices is understated, but powerful.
People, throughout their wanderlust-ing lives, coming back to Tokyo again, and again, and again, used to baffle me. Now I know why. Food. Culture. Efficiency. History. Technology. What’s not to love? I’ve merrily jumped on the “Fans of Japan” bandwagon.
Because Tokyo holds a special place in my heart, I have made the exception for this list. Ten just isn’t enough.
(12) Tokyo Tower
The views from Tokyo Tower were pretty good (Although hardly nothing beats the New York skyline). Located in the Minato district, this 333 meter communications tower was built in 1958. Fun fact: this tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower!
What’s to see up there? Quite a few skyscrapers crowned with their tiny red dots. As expected there were queues to get up the first observatory deck, and another queue for the higher view.
(11) Meiji Shrine
Completed in 1920, this Shinto shrine was dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It was interesting visiting this place during New Year’s, and the Japanese holiday. There were throngs of people wanting to pay homage and discover their luck for the year of the monkey. We were lucky because there also was lots of ‘street food’ type market stalls, selling local favourites.
Cute finds in Harajuku, discreet shops selling second-hand luxury items, five floors of Don Quixote goodies! Ceramic bowls and plates from Asakusa. Bottles of Hibiki Japanese whiskey. I’ve only recently come to know the shopping Mecca that is Tokyo. Muji, Gu, Uniqlo, and Onitsuka are obvious favourites. The new year sale also encouraged a few impulse buys. As usual, local sales peeps were very courteous and patient.
I am not easily lured by cutesy stuff. Hello kitty and Little twin stars? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m 36 and I’ve outgrown those. Puh-leease. But then again… I left Don Quixote with not one, not two, but three stuffed pillows of these cute characters. Begin swallowing of words.
(9) Shinjuku Golden Gai
In the middle of the busy Shinjuku district, we found the very charming Golden Gai (“Golden District”). Just behind our hotel was a small alleyway which led us to these cozy bars. How cozy you might ask? Some bars only have 5-7 seats. Some only welcome regulars (guests and tourists are not allowed).The ambience is great. Very hygge. Very cozy. We got up close and personal with the bartender. We stumbled into a jazz themed one, speak-easy-ish place where we actually had some good conversation over a glass of Hibiki on the rocks.
(8) Food & Japanese sweets
Thank you new year food market at the Meiji Shrine for giving us our best takoyaki (octopus balls) experience. Round, mushy, with a hint of crispiness. The bonito flakes feebly waved as it sat on top of the mix of toppings. It was warm,savoury, and sweet. Other favourites (also available for purchase at the airport): Tokyo milk cheese crackers, croissant taiyoko, Royce chocolates, and custard puffs.
The Japanese have elevated the quality of these pastries and sweets to another level. Most of them are meant to be enjoyed individually, and not devoured in great quantities. My personal favourite are the cheesecakes from Pablo. Light, airy, and just the right balance of salty and sweet. The crust is flakey and buttery as well. Lovely!
(7) Ikinari steak – so good we went twice!
Could this be the best steak I’ve ever had?? Certainly in most recent memory. Tonton (my brother) played this one up pre-trip and it lived up to expectations. The dining experience was quite unique. You start by telling them what type of steak you want, how much in grams, and how you want it cooked. Then you wait and watch as sizzling plates of steak come out of the kitchen and into the welcoming arms of the salivating diner. You eat these babies standing up. I can probably describe Ikinari steak as a premium fast food steak place. Not really a place for post meal lingering! I had the tenderloin, medium rare. My knife cut through the tender meat so easily! Yummmmm!!
(6) Asakusa & Ebisuya rickshaw ride
Asakusa. Home of the Senjosi temple, ladies in kimonos, and a great view of Tokyo Sky Tree. We saw this part of town via an extremely enjoyable rickshaw ride (Thank you Ebisuya). In pairs we settled comfortably in our rickshaws, wondering how this could be easy for our rickshaw man. The Ebisuya driver/guide was humorous and had photo skills to boot. They took us around Asukusa, making the requisite photo stops in front of an old comedy place, a geisha school, Tokyo sky tree and finally, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo
(5) Sushi and sashimi
Japan. The land of sushi and sashimi. We expected no less than top quality raw fish. I recently discovered fatty tuna sashimi and how extremely indulgent and delicious it was (Gracias, Eat Tokyo London). Of all the days we had sashimi in japan, the best one we had was at a tempura shop. We ordered maguro tuna and it was delightful. We savoured each one to the very last bite. Melted in our mouths like butter. The proper way to eat sashimi, we learned, was to smear a bit of wasabi on the it, then dip it in the soy sauce. I wish we could’ve had more sushi. We did the whole high tech dining experience. Sushi train to the next level, with the help of an iPad ordering system.
(4) Mt fuji
She is glorious. A dormant volcano rises nearly four thousand feet above sea level. Mt Fuji is an iconic symbol of Japan and is said to be a perfect volcano. We went up to the 5th station where it was damn freezing. The strong winds did it for us. The windchill made my hands hurt. We then took a cruise along river Ashi and then a cable car up to see the mountain. We were extremely lucky she didn’t shy away from view.
(3) Modern conveniences
My favourite modern conveniences: The Japanese toilet, vending machines, and transport!
I want to write a love song for the Japanese toilet. Genius. What’s not to love about it? Cleans your bum. Male or female settings. Options for water pressure. Sometimes, air-dries too! These peeps are pretty serious about good hygiene.
Vending machines left and right. There were vending machines for practically everything. Drinks. Quick snacks. Electronics. Flowers. Ramen. Sake! On a related serving machine note, sushi trains are elevated to new level with the added feature of automated order taking and sushi service!
The Tokyo metro…Speedy, on-time, and more spacious than the London Underground. Everyone patiently queued. The carriages were quiet, with commuters reading or engrossed with their mobile. The metro lines took us everywhere.The stations themselves were commuter friendly, with signs and directions in English.
Tokyofooddrink took us around Tsukiji market, Tokyo’s oldest fish market, where we sampled some Japanese food offerings: omelette on a stick, fish cakes, fresh scallops, sake, and of course some sushi! We loved the local insights about really expensive melons, how the size of the fish’s eyes tell you how deep in the water they live (bigger eyes mean bottom dwellers). The market itself, outer and inner parts, was super clean for a fish market. No flies or foul smell. Even the veg looked immaculate in their boxes and containers. Our guides from Tokyofooddrink were exceptional! They were super accommodating, polite, spoke perfect English, and as expected, refused to receive our tip. (Lesson for us: Do not tip in Japan).
(1) The locals
Food is outstanding , but locals, I must say, take the cake for my numero uno favourite thing about Tokyo. Nearly everyone was super courteous, respectful, helpful, and took pride in their work.
In public transport, commuters were quiet. There were a few muted conversations from tourists mostly. In some crowded areas, the local authorities used practical crowd control techniques. Everyone queues everywhere. No questions asked.
Sumimasen (すみません) is said to be the most useful word in the Japanese language. It could mean “Excuse me”, “Pardon me”, or “Sorry”. It is probably uttered at least 20 times each day by most locals, and used in a variety of situations (like calling a restaurant server, casually apologising for bumping into somebody, to name a few).
I love these guys!