48 Hours in Tokyo
After a rough start to my trip, I was determined to make the most of the rest of my time.
As evening fell, I jumped onto the next Shinkansen, bound for Tokyo. And what better way to experience quintessential Tokyo than to start at Shinjuku, right? I immediately micro-regretted 20 minutes after arrival. Getting to Shinjuku station is one thing. Getting out is another. I mean, this station is huge. Like 3.5 million commuters a day huge. It feels like people are charging towards you. You would think having lived in Hong Kong, I would be used to crowds by now. But this was next level. And it was Friday evening, so likely, the entire Tokyo is out and about. Fortunately, people in Tokyo don't push about aggressively. I can't quite explain it. There is an effortless fluidity in the way people move here. You don’t bump into strangers much, if at all. It's almost like a dance, like the entire city is actually doing a flash mob for the unsuspecting tourist.
When I finally decide to just pick an exit, I found myself on the opposite side of the station towards my capsule hotel. Meaning, I had to go around the already ginormous station. Which, took me another 20 minutes. In hindsight, I could have just re-entered the station and cut through to the other side since the Japan Rail Pass allows me unlimited entry into JR stations! I must have been really disoriented.
Tired with sore feet by this time, I finally found the street that led to my capsule hotel. The moment I entered the street, I was surrounded by a plethora of bars with loud music escaping every other nook and crevice, with touters lining every shop front canvassing for business. You immediately get a sense of sleaze. I looked around anxiously to locate the entrance to my capsule hotel, only to be approached by a dark-skinned stocky man in a black beanie and leather jacket. Instinctively, I waved my hand firmly to indicate that I don't want whatever (sleaze) he was selling.
'What do you think I'm doing? You looking for capsule hotel? It's here,' pointing to the lift lobby with signs to said hotel.
'Oh, sorry I didn't know, I thought you were touting for business,' I apologized, 'but how did you know what I was looking for?'
'You got a backpack man, I am security, I see people like you everyday, I'm not selling anything buddy, just helping you...' he replied with a light indian-british accent, complete with a look of disapproval, ever so slightly shaking his head.
My face turned red, flushed with embarrassment. Did I just judge this man by his skin colour? Oh man, I am an idiot. Clumsily, I got into the lift to escape further awkwardness.
After checking in to my capsule hotel, I decided to head out to explore the town a little. Plus, I was feeling so guilty about that exchange earlier, that I thought I should apologise properly. Fortunately, he turned out to be rather gracious After a spot of obligatory small talk and handshakes, I headed out onto the bright neon and dynamic streets of Shinjuku.
It is well-known that Shinjuku is home to some sleazy pockets of personalities and characters. Being my first time in Tokyo, I didn't know what to expect. And sometimes our instincts and anxieties can get the better of us. Especially when you are travelling alone, defenses tend to be a little more heightened than usual.
Walking about the area was what one would expect. Loud, dynamic and by this time of the night, drunk and spirited folks already making the street their dance floor. Shops, eateries, bars of every kind were as bright and attention grabbing as they come. After a few hour's walk, gathering some footage and grabbing something to eat at a fast food joint (at Matsuya), I decided it was time to call it night.
But not without making a pit stop to pick up donuts for a night snack from Mister Donut around the corner. I have a soft spot for donuts and having tried them the first time in Okinawa several months ago, fond memories have been imprinted in my heart and soul.
As I returned to the building with donuts in hand, I spotted the same security dude earlier. He waved and stretched out his hand, which I reciprocated with mine for a friendly handshake.
'Done for the night?' he chimed,
'Hey,'holding my hand firmly pulling me closer to him, 'you want entertainment buddy. I know good place. Good sex. Cheap. You want sex happy times...'
I WAS RIGHT! I KNEW YOU WERE A SLEAZEBAG!
No, I didn't say that to his face. But in my head I totally did. I was quite literally laughing out loud at his proposal, immediately retracting my hand and said, 'Nah, not interested!' and bolted for the lift. Fortunately the lift door opened in time for a quick escape.
Good lord, I need a shower. And a donut to rock me to sleep now.
The next morning was another episode of 'lost in japanese train stations'. There are just too many exits and entrances that bear similar sounding names. Shinjuku is the biggest culprit. Last I counted there are 5 train stations in Shinjuku. That's just crazy.
After much determination, I did get myself to Sensoji Temple.
Sensoji is known to be the oldest buddhist temple built in the 7th century. I learned a while later that Sensoji is a shrine dedicated to the Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Which, is the Guan Yin, goddess of mercy in chinese folklore. The temple during the day is pretty much overrun with tourists. With everyone holding a camera, doing selfies, facetiming even. It is exacerbated by the fact that the famous Nakamise Dori, a food and souvenir street, appends the front of the temple. The temple is a beautiful sight to behold. Despite the number of tourists and worshippers, the temple is very well kept and un-chaotic. It just gets very hard to get proper pictures without the crowd. Because everyone is doing the same, trying to do selfies. Including, er, me.
In contrast, the Meiji Shrine was a much more pleasant experience. The shrine is inside a massive 70 hectares forest filled with different species of trees donated by people from all over Japan when the shrine was built. Right next to Yoyogi Park, this is a massive park within the city of Shibuya, right next door to Harajuku. The air is fresh and crisp and indeed a lovely place to escape from the busy city life. Online travel guides reveal that some days, one might be lucky to witness a traditional Japanese wedding, as the shrine is a popular wedding venue for locals.
I was lucky to witness one, which was intriguingly like a solemn procession. The entire wedding party enters into the courtyard of the shrine in a slow march, led by what looks like a priest leading a long line of the wedding procession. These weddings are known as Shinto styled ceremonies held at a shrine. The couple is decked out in traditional kimono, with only family members of the couple in attendance. No one is really smiling and everyone looks very serious and meditative as they enter the shrine for the ceremony.
The Meiji shrine is a significant piece of Japanese history. Built as a dedication to the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, the Japanese believed the spirits of the royal couple turned into deities after their passing. The Emperor presided over the famous Meiji period that saw the revolution of Japan transform from a feudal state into an industrial power. During the time of Emperor Meiji's death, even the New York Times in 1912 had glowing things to say about the late Emperor.
And of course, I had to visit Harajuku and Shibuya and do that iconic crossing. Which, I did several times. Because footage. There is also a good vantage point from the Starbucks overlooking the crossing to sit and people watch. As usual, the viewing point was overrun by tourists.
By nightfall, I made my way to Roppongi Hills, a really bougie district. There was even a Craft Sake festival happening in the atrium of the mall. I was due to meet up with some old friends from Melbourne who happened in Tokyo. By the time we met, it was almost closing time for the festival, so we headed to a Starbucks Reserve Bar in the Roppongi area. According my friend, this bar serves beer as well. And it's really quite fancy, like the kind of bougie but not pretentious bougie only the Japanese can. Starbucks has really reinvented themselves over the years with the new Starbucks Reserve brand but the Japanese ones are next level.
Next we headed for ramen supper at Afuri. I had no idea what this place was, except I was told the Yuzu Tsukumen is quite something. Tsukumen, is basically dry ramen that comes with a warm-ish dipping sauce. And boy was I pleasantly surprised. Sweet tangy dipping sauce goes so well with the chewy noodles with rocket! You don't usually find rocket in ramen but this was such clever pairing. The flavour profile was quite interesting.
Turns out Afuri is opening a store in Singapore, at the new Funan Center. I can't wait to grab a bowl again when I go back to Singapore next.
My last day in Tokyo, also meant checking out of my capsule hotel with my oversized backpack. I left fairly early in the morning to stow away my backpack at a station luggage locker. Even so, everywhere was full. Fortunately, there are plenty of lockers in the massive Tokyo station. It did take me some time to find one, at a very obscure corner, outside the station, in an attached mall, past one of the many exits. Thankfully, I still made it in time for a morning visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market.
Tsukiji Fish Market
As you might know, the famed Tsukiji Fish Market has moved as of October 2018 to a new location in Toyosu and thus also renamed as Toyosu Fish Market. Yet, Tsukiji is still the place to visit for fresh sushi, sashimi and fresh seafood street eats. You wouldn't go to Toyosu as it's really a closed wholesale market. Even when it was at Tsukiji, the public isn't allowed inside anyway.
I'll be honest, it turned out to be an expensive affair. The video probably didn’t show everything I ate. A bunch of sushi here, an oyster there, tamago egg on sticks, meatballs, ice cream and more random eats on sticks later, I spent around ¥3000 in one morning on food. That's almost AUD$40+ just on random street food. Granted, the seafood was amazing. But that's kind of the money you spend eating at a nice mid-tier restaurant. I don't think I ate anything else until my evening bento box train ride into Kyoto!
One of the most unique eats was this freshly made octopus cracker. A giant piece of cracker made from pressure flattening an actual octopus! You gotta check out the video. There was a bit of drama waiting more than 30 minutes for my cracker which kinda dampened the experience. It was also not cheap. But at ¥500, you get to watch it happen before your eyes. The elderly man operating the stall all by himself wasn't having a good day, even with the help of a vending machine ordering system. He forgot my order and I had to wait longer than usual. But it was a delight to watch him at work clamping the octopuses between giant sandwich presses, each machine producing hi-pitched hisses and a steady billow of steam escaping. It almost looks like a torture device but the curated carnival background branded music playing in the stalls helps to add a caricature vibe to the whole experience. Check out the video to see the man in action.
Built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is a high-tech entertainment hub. Apparently the Ferris wheel in Odaiba is the third highest in Japan and one can see Mount Fuji from the Daikanransha Ferris wheel on a clear day. It was a rather clear day that day but I was too chicken to ride one, because vertigo.
The highlight for me was teamLab Borderless. I can't quite describe what it is. It's a digital art installation but I've never experienced anything quite like it. As the name suggests, there are no set routes, directions or signs on where to go. It's an interactive space spanning two floors, inviting you to explore its multiple thematic zones, rooms and halls, and in essence, get quite lost in the immersive borderless chaos of moving images, lights and music. The music soundtrack is beautifully crafted, cinematic, emotive and evocative adding such a powerful dimension to the experience. My senses were totally invaded and baptised in the flood and relentless fury of colour and lights that danced, darted, sweeping across walls teasing for a follow down a rabbit hole. My emotions were heightened and taken on a journey of joy, excitement, sadness, melancholy and inspiration. I must have spent more than 3 hours exploring. I found myself mesmerised and meditating in some of the zones and in another, found myself welling up in uncontrollable tears.
TeamLab Borderless is a permanent exhibition in Odaiba, so if you are in Tokyo, definitely make a beeline for this. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door, tho, I've heard that it might get sold out for certain busier days. I got mine at the door, so I was lucky.
And so my 2 days in Tokyo is done. I think I accomplished quite a bit in these two days. But in hindsight, I feel like I could have squeezed in a bit more activities.
What else do you think I missed out? Send me your recommendations below in the comments section. I need a reason to go back to Tokyo!