Japan – a mix of the ultra-modern and traditional. One of the most intriguing countries I’ve been to, with a very unique culture and a fantastic food scene. I had the chance to visit Japan last year during Thanksgiving.
We reached Tokyo mid afternoon. As soon as we landed I noticed how everything was extremely clean and people moved politely in queues following the rules. We took a train to our hotel in Shinagawa and it was noticeable that no one in the train made eye contact with others or conversed loudly. There was no touching and even to hand money to cab drivers, one is asked to put it on a tray (and this is in the pre corona world ;)).
Our hotel in Shinagawa was right by the train station and well connected to the rest of the city and was very comfortable. In the room they had provisions for everything – from different kinds of day and night robes to all sorts of charging cables, towels and other amenities. After settling in, we ventured out to explore the city. Since this was late November, it was quite cold and we bundled up as well as we could.
Note: Location and proximity to public transportation was a big factor in hotel selection – Tokyo is huge, distances can be long, taxis can be expensive and so relying on the excellent and inexpensive subway system is key. I recommend getting the 72 hour tourist train pass (available at select Subway station offices) to get around the city. Bring your passport to purchase it and download the train routes on your phone. The train routes are daunting and confusing at first, but are a very convenient way to explore the city once you get the hang of it.
Here is my rough guide of things to do / see in Tokyo, based on our itinerary.
Day 1 (Tokyo):
1) Shibuya Crossing
We started by exploring the Shibuya Crossing (the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world). Apparently, up to 3,000 people can cross the street at the same time during peak hours. Crazy, right!?
2) Omotesando Street
Then we walked from Shibuya to Golden Gai, on Omotesando street, full of fancy designer stores, as well as Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian street full of colorful tourist shops
3) Golden Gai
By night, we explored Golden Gai and it’s narrow streets. Golden Gai, in Shinjuku, is an area famous for both its architecture and nightlife. It is a lovely neighbourhood packed with tiny bars within six narrow alleys all filled with down-to-earth people. We enjoyed going to all the tiny little packed bars that can seat 10-12 people at a time. Had cocktails at a fun place called the Albatross. They have many spots here for whiskey tasting as well.
We then had dinner at Ramen Nagi – literally the best ramen I’ve tasted in my life. You have to wait in a line outside as it only seats about 10 people at a time, but it is absolutely worth the wait. The Ramen broth is fish-based, with sardines which smell a bit pungent at the outset but tasted delicious. Niboshi Ramen is another popular Ramen spot here.
Day 2 (Tokyo):
After getting some much needed sleep, it was time to explore another part of the city.
1) Meiji Shrine
Started the day by exploring the Meiji Shrine. It’s beautifully done and we were also fortunate to spot a traditional Japanese bride and wedding.
2) Takeshita Dori
Next we walked through Takeshita Dori by day, (after our quick stroll through it the previous night) – A pedestrian street full of small shops and restaurants. We saw a lot of Japanese teenage fashion . New fashion trends can be first spotted here.
Along with clothes, you will also find the famous Calbee potato chips, pink, cute crepe stores galore and pretty much any dress up and Halloween outfit needed.
3) Tokyo Tower and Lunch
We visited the top of the Tokyo Tower next. You can get some wonderful views of the city from here and learn a lot about the Tower’s history via the audio guide. You can also catch distant glimpses of Mount Fuji . I recommend buying the tickets to the top observation deck to get the most value for your money.
This was followed by lunch at Sazanka, on the 41st floor of the Okura Hotel , with gorgeous panoramic views. Sazanka used to be a 2 Michelin star restaurant, but after re-opening at this new spot, they apparently need to wait until they achieve Michelin star status again. This was a traditional Japanese Teppankyaki meal with multiple courses including seafood, Wagyu steak, vegetables and a pairing of Krug . The meal was delicious, but if you do go here, be warned that it is on the pricier end of the scale. It was fun watching the chef chop and prepare the meal.
4) Zozoji Temple
Right by the Tokyo Tower, is the Zozoji temple (Japanese Buddhist) that was destroyed during World War 2 and reconstructed later.
Outside we saw rows of statues dressed up to mourn unborn children.
5) Naka Meguro
After resting up for a bit, later at night , we went to Cabin (small speakeasy style bar by the river) in Naka Meguro for some nice handcrafted cocktails and whiskey tasting 🥃 and then had dinner at a local sushi joint nearby. Almost all the local spots had great food. This was the best part about Tokyo, even the Ramen from the vending machines was delicious.
Day 3 (Tokyo):
1) Asakusa Area and Sensoji Temple
After breakfast we headed to the Asakusa area. This is the spiritual and historical center of the city . Started by exploring the Senso-ji temple. When you first enter the big gates you will see 2 statues on both sides. They are the Gods of thunder and wind .
The walkways from the gates to the Temple is lined with shops , and we sampled some of the local snacks and bought souvenirs.
The bright red inner gate of the temple has a beautiful red lantern hanging in the center with 2 large straw sandals (o-waraji) on the sides. Those are offered to pray for safe travels.
If you’re feeling up to it, try the Omikuji (Japanese paper fortune). You put a 100 yen coin in a slot, shake a canister until a wooden stick falls out. The stick contains a number written in Kanji. Find the drawer that corresponds to the number on your stick. Pull out a paper fortune from the drawer.
2) Imperial Palace
After that we went to check out the Imperial Palace – home of the emperor. We were fortunate to be present for a rare weekend with public access allowed, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by the gardens, which is the only area we were allowed to see.
Next stop, Ginza, starting out with a traditional Japanese lunch at Tofuro. The handmade Soba noodles and Yakitori was delicious.
Ginza, Tokyo’s biggest shopping area, is home to many upscale shops, restaurants, and cafes. Ginza real estate is some of the most expensive in the world. Historically during the Edo period, a silver-coin mint was located there, hence the name Ginza, which means “silver mint”.We didn’t have time for this ourselves, but Ginza’s Kabuki theater is also a well known attraction. Kabuki is Japan’s traditional dance-drama performance. The stories are historical dramas and comedies set in old Japan. They center around samurai, geisha, and the common people of Japan and involve tales of ambition, betrayal, revenge, and broken hearts.
Next we went to Akihabara to walk around and explore the neighborhood. This entire area feels like an immersive video game , full of bright neon lights and music at every corner. Another interesting aspect was the variety of strange cafes – from owl, hedgehog and cat cafes to food cafes where women dressed as French maids, treat customers like their masters and serve tea and pastries.
Day 4 (Hakone)
On Day 4, we decided to venture out of Tokyo to Hakone, famed for it’s hot springs and stunning views of Mt. Fuji.
1) Hakone Cable Car
Hakone is famous for its views of Mount Fuji and it’s Onsen’s (Japanese Hot Springs). Our journey involved taking the “Romance Car” train from Shinjuku to the town of Hakone-Yumoto, then the bus to Gora and then the funicular railto Sounzan, where the ropeway begins. Then you can take the ropeway and go to the top of the mountain. The first stop is “Owakudani” where you see the sulphuric volcanic vents .
Here you will find the “Kuro Tamago” (black eggs) that are boiled in the natural hot springs.
2) Lake Ashi Cruise
After this we descended down to lake Ashi and took the lake cruise that had panoramic views of the majestic Mount Fuji.
We ate lunch at a Japanese tea house – Ashinoko Chaya. I had a combination of all things delicious and some sake .
3) Tenzan Onsen
Thereafter, we took the bus to go to the Tenzan Onsen. This was amazingly refreshing. There are multiple pools with varying water temperatures all in a natural setting. However there are no signs in English, so read up beforehand so you can respect the local etiquette and rituals. Men and women are separated here. You can bring your own towels or buy them from the front desk. You are supposed to wash yourself with soap and water before entering the baths, be respectful of your surroundings and maintain silence while you soak in the hot baths.
Day 5 (Tokyo)
We only had half a day before our flight and we decided to use it by going to one of the local food markets.
1) Tsukiji Fish Market
would definitely recommend going to the Tsukiji Fish Market to try some local delicacies and also trying the standing sushi counters that are all over the city.
Kyushu Jangara in Ginza was another local gem we discovered for really good quality Ramen for lunch.
Although this was a short trip mainly to Tokyo and a few neighboring cities, next time I visit Japan I also want to go to Kyoto, Osaka and other places. We stayed in a very modern hotel, but next time I would love to spend a night or two in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese housing). Japan is such an intriguing country with a very unique culture. For now, Sayonara.
Here are a few more pictures: