Saturday, 3 August 2013

One Week in Tokyo, Japan

Before June this year, I had never been overseas. I've always been the kind of person who's far too elated to cross any state border and whose experience with holidays haven't extended far beyond Schoolies or long weekends.

Choosing Japan as my first adventure abroad was a perfect introduction to exploring new cultures. Even former Getaway present Jules Lund has remarked that although he’s travelled there so many times, Japan is the one place where he still gets hit by culture shock every time. I was blown away by every new sensation – the colours, the bright lights, the baffling technology and the unique cuisine. Although I'm usually very health-conscious at home, I had hesitation letting go and trying every morsel of food and drink that came my way.

Seeing Koi for the first time.
Two months before I boarded the plane I didn’t even know I was going on this trip – it was planned pretty spontaneously after my boyfriend proposed it to me and flights coincidentally were available at $500 return. I am the kind of person who loves to be organised, but at the same time I’m plagued with the terrible curse of being a little lazy (clashing traits, obviously). I did lots of reading before our trip to plan our itinerary, but didn’t invest a lot of time learning much Japanese.

Trying new cultures means embracing different toileting habits. Enter my very first futuristic Japanese toilet,.
I was like any over-prepared inexperienced traveler who had read Trip Advisor to exhaustion. I had a super-detailed itinerary planned, both my own suitcase and my boyfriend’s perfectly packed, and I was even walking around with a dorky travel pillow around my neck. (I learnt quickly that when you travel, you will gladly replace looking good with feeling comfortable). But regardless of how much I tried to prepare myself – I didn’t really know what to expect and I guess that’s one of the intoxicating, albeit daunting, things about travel.

When we walked across the tarmac to the biggest plane I’ve been on, my giddiness really kicked in and I kept turning to my boyfriend to repeat annoying lines like, “We’re going to Japan!” or “This is my first time overseas!”. In comparison my fellow traveler was pretty nonchalant, finding my childish excitement amusing and maybe a little exhausting.

The flight with Jetstar was surprisingly good; I was very comfortable, the entertainment was adequate and the food was, as to be expected, quite average (but hey, I knew I wasn’t flying Emirates).

I don’t know what this meal was, but it was an Asian-inspired dish with a cheese sauce. (Is this actually a thing?)
We caught the N’EX (Narita Express) train to Shinagawa station and walked about 10/15 minutes to where we were staying with my boyfriend’s lovely family. I think there are probably cheaper options than the Narita Express, but it was comfortable and spacious, plus it’s included in the Japan Rail Pass. On our way to our short stay abode, I had my first visit to a Japanese convenience store where I was awed by the wacky array of foods and products to be tested. Any ambitions I had to be health-conscious on the trip were quickly abandoned when I discovered Salted Caramel Kit Kat balls.

Unlike Australia, in Japan convenience stores are super cheap and if you’re on a budget or just can’t wait to eat, they have heaps of options for every meal. There was always an unlimited selection of delicious pastries, sushis, salads and drinks. We frequented the 7/11, Lawson stores & Family Marts regularly, binging on a different snack every time. One particular morning my breakfast consisted of a packaged Acai smoothie, Melon Bread (a popular Japanese sweet bread) and two macaroons.

On every corner are huge vending machines, filled with colourful cans of softdrinks, cordials and milk drinks. Similarly to the convenience stores, every time I felt even a hint of thirst I was eagerly slotting a few hundred yen into a new machine excited to try a new flavour of iced coffee or vitamin drink.

I endeavoured to try a different drink every time. This is only a small selection!
The Senso-ji temple was one of my favourites. (Can you tell I saw a lot of temples?)
On our first day we headed out to Asakusa to see the grand Senso-ji temple. By the end of our week in Japan, visiting temples and shrines had almost become second nature to me. I couldn’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to life there, despite how different it is to home.
The Senso-ji temple is only a short walk from the station, past a strip of eccletic markets targeted at tourists. I inhaled this Soy Bean ice cream sandwich.
There were quite a few people around – tourists, locals and even hospital patients on stretchers. We washed our hands and I watched on as some Japanese people drank the water and then spat it out. At every shrine or temple in Japan there’s some opportune touristic moments if you’re willing to spend a dollar or two. We paid a few yen to light some incense and also to discover our fortunes.
My Bad Fortune. Apparently it's actually a good thing, because it means things can only get better. I like your thinking, Japan.
Akihabara - a great shopping excursion to men and women alike. Here's an unrelated photo - because, you know, Kirby.
Later that day we ventured to Akihabara – the famous electrical district of Tokyo – home to cheap electronics, adult stores and enough anime merchandise to send a Weeabu into a coma. We also sampled Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain, for the first time, even though it’s now available in Brisbane.

A little something I found in a multi-level department store in Akihabara. Apparently it has something to do with anti-ageing!
Eating Mos Burger in Japan - discovering fast food is fast food no matter the country you're in.
Later that night we Googled our options for dinner and settled upon the popular Ninja Asakusa restaurant in Chiyoda. It's a Ninja themed restaurant and if you're visiting Tokyo - don't miss out! I won't spoil it - but it involved following our assigned Ninja through secret passages and over a drawbridge, dipping into exotic meals and watching our very own magic show. Make sure you reserve a healthy amount of cash to indulge in the sumptuous cocktails and impressive dishes.

Can you believe this is actually a salad?
On our second day we visited the controversial Yasakuni shrine. It quite often features in Japanese and even International news when politicians even consider visiting it, given that it pays homage to, among 2.5 million lives lost in World War II, 14 war criminals as well.

Prayers at the Yasakuni Shrine.
Afterwards we became a little lost trying to find a vantage point for the Imperial Palace which we thought was nearby. Eventually we conceded defeat and headed to its cultural polar opposite – the famous hubs of Shibuya and Harajuku.

The moat surrounding the Imperial Palace gardens.
Although nearly every inch of Tokyo is packed with people and skyscrapers, walking through the central district of Shibuya was a whole new experience.  We crossed the world’s busiest intersection and mindlessly wandered through the backstreets through hoards of people.

The world's busiest intersection - made all the more hectic by a nearby demonstation.
We returned home to rest, before hitting the famous night life district of Shinjuku to watch the Robot Restaurant show. Built in a multi-millionaire dollar pimped-out basement in the Red Light District, The Robot Restaurant cannot be missed! It's also essential that you book beforehand, which can be done over phone during your stay (just ask if they speak English as soon as they answer). Think Cabaret meets Godzilla meets Pacific Rim... on steroids. It's definitely worth the high price tag. The provided dinner was less than mediocre  but the heavy alcoholic drinks on hand distinguished the awful taste. When my boyfriend suspected that the cold sausage and chicken he had eaten might've made him ill, I was thankful in that moment for being vegetarian.

Pre-mixed alcohol in Japan is both cheap and strong. 
Words canot describe the things we saw that night.
Bright lights, loud music and some of the craziest visual displays.
 On the subject on being vegetarian, it's not easy going meat-free in Japan. The concept is a little difficult for many Japanese people to understand, and they'll quite often mistakenly thinks it's OK to sneak bonito flakes, animal stock or even bacon into your "vegetarian dish". (I should point out Japanese people are very polite and eager to please, but it's just a cultural barrier). Needless to say I ate a lot of edamame – green beans at restaurants when faced with few meat-free options. I was happy to discover there were a lot of Indian restaurants in Tokyo, which always had multiple vegetarian options. Afterwards the Robot Restaurant we needed real food, so I mopped up a delicious platter of curries with thick Naan bread.

After a few drinks, this really hit the spot.
On my third day in Japan, I parted ways with my boyfriend for 24 hours to visit my cousin in Osaka. It's about 2-3 hours by bullet train, the Shinkansen, depending on what line you find yourself on.

In a few short days we had become seasoned veterans of the Japanese railway system. Originally I was a little anxious about getting about and even more worried about navigating to Osaka from Tokyo on my lonesome (that’s 500km away!). 

A Totoro mural painted by local school kids in Osaka.
My cousin showed me around her neighbourhood and I got a feel for what it's like to be a white-Australian in real Japan. There was a few double takes in my direction, let's just say. We visited the oldest shrine in Japan, indulged in crepes and then later that night dined in the city at a Turkish restaurant. We were thrilled when we realised we had an English-speaking waiter, as if your Japanese skills are scarce outside of capital city Tokyo, eating out can be a challenge.
You can't go to Japan and not adopt the signature photo pose.
The most delicious cream I've ever tasted, courtesy of an obscure Crepe place in downtown Osaka.
The view from the Mori Tower.
I returned the next day and ventured out to the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi - the cultural district of Tokyo. It's sky-high in one of the tallest buildings in Japan and at the time we were lucky enough to be visiting during an exhibition on Love.

It was more than a little romantic strolling through an exhibition on Love..
The exhibition featured somethought-provoking and disturbing works, but also some more romantic and comical displays (including Japanese vocaloid, Hatsune Miku). We had two very aesthetic and tasty cocktails at the pop-up Hatsune Miku café and I couldn't resist posing next to a life-size version of the artificial pop princess.

These cocktails blew my mind.
The Mori Sky Deck provides an unrivalled panorama of Toyko and shouldn't be missed.
We then paid a small fee to head to the observation deck which was an amazing experience and gave us an amazing view of all of Tokyo.

For our forth day, we headed back to Shinjuku to visit the Calico Cat Café. 

The downside of travelling in off-peak season with such cheap flights, was we were unfortunately smack-bang in the middle of Tokyo’s notorious rain season. Luckily it didn’t impede upon our trip too much, but there were perhaps two days when our adventurous efforts were dampened.

Entry to the Café involved paying a small hourly fee & wearing the provided slippers.
However, we conquered the rain and our poor sense of direction (we might’ve gotten a little lost and sought refuge in a Krispy Kreme café for far too long) and eventually located the Cat Café. The cats weren’t all cuddle-friendly, but they were very peculiar creatures to watch and I definitely recommend a visit for the sheer oddity of it all.

So many awesome photo opportunities when surrounded by cats.
But seriously - I have so many great cat photos. I don't know where to stop.
The rain fortunately cleared up and we realised our itinerary had a big blank spot. And so we decided to do one of the best things you can do when travelling – get lost! We hopped off at a random train station and were pleasantly surprised to find it was only within a short walk of the landmark Tokyo Tower. We had a moment of solitude in the busy city in a peaceful park where there was a tiny, unmanned shrine with matches and incense, feasted on the best Japanese vegetarian curry I’ve ever had and stocked up some tourist trinkets. Considering we hadn’t planned for our expedition at all, I certainly look back on our time together exploring fondly.

Planning time to have no plans - I recommend it. The Tokyo Tower.
Fried vegetables and starchy rice, mmm..
On our fifth day, we decided to see more of the main city sights despite the monsoonal weather. We headed back to Harajuku, which sits just next to the majestic Meiji Jingu shrine. We explored the quirky clothing shops and the 100-Yen Daiso store (featuring everything you need in life). In one of the side streets we found a homely American-style burger joint.

Although the rain was proving troublesome and my Vans were already soaked through, we clung together under our single umbrella and made our way to the beautiful Meiji Jingu shrine where we partook in some people watching as we sheltered from the weather. 

I don't regret visiting in the rain season - most of the time it only intensified the beauty of the city.
On our last day we visited the Studio Ghibli Museum. I was a little disappointed by the crowds which affected our visit slightly, but was so overjoyed to be visiting the home of some of my favourite films. I even became teary at one point.

As a note for anyone travelling to Japan in the future – do not been overwhelmed if you do not know the language. My boyfriend and I got by with the essentials, “where is ___?”, “thank you” and “excuse me”. I honestly don’t know how we did it, but we survived and miraculously made it home every night. And I only accidentally ate meat three times (I even stopped to take a selfie of my disgusted face on one occasion).

I returned home with a sudden urge to abandon everything and take up a job in Japan teaching English. Although my dreams have subsequently diminished since then, I will forever hold a really fond place in my heart for this beautiful country. It's just the beginning of my travel and I can't wait to see what weird and wonderful things lay ahead of me - getting lost, meeting new people and eating and photographing my way through different places.

My next adventure is just in 19 days - I'll be exploring Europe on my lonesome for a week, before joining a Contiki tour to see some of the highlights. Although I'm anxious about travelling alone and I will certainly miss having someone to share the memories with, I can't wait to prove to myself that I am capable of adventuring unaccompanied. 

I have a lot more exploring to do!

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