Tag Archives: Tokyo

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 3)

TOKYO (Part 3)
02 January 2015

Jetlag had set in and all of us were rustling and stirring by 4am. Way too early to do anything constructive though, so everyone stayed nestled with Kindles, phones and tablets for entertainment, dozing on and off until 7.30.

Our shower rotation was less traumatic than anticipated and actually helped prevent our pinhead living area from becoming too crowded (with our mountain of electronics on chargers, let alone our 5 Western bodies).

RoRo whipped us up some heavenly scrambled eggs for a light brekkie and we hit the road just after 9 – almost an hour ahead of schedule.

The roads were quiet and nothing was open yet – a surprise to us seeing as we’d only yet surfaced into the Tokyo afternoon.

We’d plotted and planned the day’s itinerary the previous evening (at – yet another – Hub pub) while we were out, so we had a good idea of what we wanted to do and how to get there. We did however change course on our first stop, Kappabashi, which is famous for being where all the plastic food displays (commonly found outside most restaurants to illustrate their menu) are made. Challenge was that we didn’t know *exactly* where to go and feared getting disheartened if the first sight was a wild goose chase.

Directions in Tokyo are fun at the best of times with a complicated address notation system thanks largely to buildings having been numbered as they were built, rather than having predefined numbers. This has resulted in an awkward retro-fitted address format allocating 3 numbers to each address: block, building, residence. For example, the address for our digs is 3-4-7 Yanaka, Taito.

We caught the Asakusa Line to Higashi-ginza where Exit 3 surfaced us directly outside the Kazibuka-za Kabuki Theatre. Our plan was to get short tickets, which allow access for a single act. Unfortunately, it would appear that half of Tokyo (plentiful donning traditional kimonos, socks and slippers, and umpteen in fur coats) had the same idea so the first act was already sold out and it would be an hour’s wait in the queue to get tickets for the 13h00 act. We satisfied ourselves with taking photos of the building and promising to take in a show in Kyoto instead.

We were just around the corner from the famous Tsujiki Fish Market, where we’d planned to lunch after Kabuki. No problem though, lunch at 11am was game on!

Most of the market was closed for the holiday, but we still got to see some shop owners preparing fresh seafood for their customers – some quite elaborate, like one involving grilling a fresh scallop in the shell, topping it with tuna strips a d salmon roe and then blowtorching it to lightly sear it. Not expensive, but too much of a wait for the make-one-at-a time chef to get to us.

By pure chance we stumbled in Sushi Sen, which had been recommended to us by a local at The World’s End pub on New Years. No queue, so we were in and seated at the counter in no time. We opted for a few platters so we could sample more things. Everything was so fresh! And the soy sauce (like all of them we’ve had so far) so light and tasty you can practically drink it on its own! Sadly, a few of the things we ordered didn’t come, but we chalked it up to “lost in translation” and wrote it off as not to be.

Getting the hang of the spaghetti of subway lines, next stop was digital town in Akihabara, known for it’s megastores of electronic goods. All we wanted was a portable speaker to use with the party iPod we’d brought (and clearly not been able to use anyway in our complete-silence holiday house), but we were unprepared for the FOUR AISLES of options! Luckily it was Christian’s choice or I’d still be there!

We’d been rotating our shopping, having commandeered a table at Starbucks to combat the fatigue from our unintentional early rising but decided that, since we’d done almost everything on the list for the day, we’d head back home for an afternoon nap before dinner (planned to be at Ninja restaurant, themed as just that, where you get ambushed at the door and served by chaps in ninja suits).

When we got back home, Michele and I decided to forego the nap in favour of a quick walking tour instead. We loaded Kappabashi (the plastic food place) into Google Maps and headed off.

We had no trouble finding it at all – clearly easier on foot than by underground as it’s easier to get your bearings. Pity though, when we got there, most of it was closed. A few kitchenware stores were open but, while the Japanese are pretty famous for their quality knives, it held little interest for us. Still, the walk had been worthwhile and even I – navigationally challenged as I am – was starting to recognise landmarks and find my way around.

When we got back, the others were ready to head out – and we’d worked up quite an appetite with all the walking on only a few bits of sushi – so first order of business was dinner, at Ninja in Akasaka.

The restaurant lived up to its name, being quite elusive to find… and then (allegedly?) closed for the holidays. Not the end of the world though; there were so many options around the station.

We had a false start at a tempura restaurant, which looked amazing from the illustrated menu in the window. The restaurants are so small and narrow that it’s not uncommon not to be able to get a single table that seats our group of 5. We ended up having a leisurely dinner at a restaurant that very possibly could’ve been more Chinese than Japanese, but the food was great and plentiful (we ordered about 10 different things – including tempura prawns to assuage our initial disappointment) and really cheap at R900 for all the food and beers for all of us!

Kenny had made contact stating interest in meeting up with us, so the rest of the evening was easy for us, leaving him to play tourguide again.

Kenny did a masterful job of showing us how diverse Tokyo is. We connected at an English pub called Hobgoblin in Rappongi, changed atmosphere with a hip-hop style dark ‘n dingy pub called Geronimo’s, popped in for a beer at a fancy supper club lounge bar and eventually parted ways again when he deposited us at an awesome place called The Train Bar, not so imaginatively named as it is literally a bar in a refurbished train caboose.

The last was the coolest by far – small and fun, excellent staff and a wall of CDs which you could give to the bartender to play. We had a raucous time there entertaining ourselves and others until all hours… and felt compelled to literally get the t-shirt to commemorate the experience!

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 2)

TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo travel card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our inaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through Roppongi – the really upmarket area – past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hordes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

The pub gave every table a bowl of (cold) noodles on the house to welcome in the new year. A nice touch, but an awkward dish to share.

We left World’s End to go TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our unaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through the really upmarket areas, past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hoardes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

We left World’s End to go to The Hub, one of a chain of English pubs… but we must’ve gotten our wires crossed as the bartender was cashing up when we got there. Ever-courteous though, a waiter escorted us the few hundred metres to the next branch, which he obviously knew to still be open. It was still full-scale pumping!

A few nightcaps, some bleated classics and a handful of new friends later, we called it a night.

Last stop in at our trusty 7Eleven for supplies for the morning. The bread is so funny – packed as “loaves” of 2, 4 or 8 slices. Presumably this is because space is such an issue with little to no storage room. Kenny had been telling us that there is a very strong culture for eating (almost all) meals out because restaurants are cheap and excellent, and groceries are relatively expensive (and bulky to store).

It was easily 5am by the time we got in – and we were likely not as quiet as we should’ve been, crinkling crisp packets, giggling and stage-whispering.

It didn’t last long though and we were all off to bed very soon.

Where we stayed until mid-afternoon on New Years Day.

Poor RoRo was man-down with his cold, so we left him sleeping and went off to our usual Taito area around Ueno Station for a spot of dinner.

We decided to try something (else) authentic so did a barbecue restaurant. Each table is fitted with a chimney and the waitress brings a small circular braai with fitted grid ready coals to the table along with whatever raw ingredients you’ve ordered.

We struggled with the Japanese menu as the pictures were small and blurry, but the English one wasn’t much more helpful as there were no pictures and the descriptions were unfamiliar (like yagan and urate). We ended up ordering by pointing at the pictures on the Japanese menu and did a pretty good job, ending up with some pleasant cuts of beef, pork and chicken. We did have one fail in a portion of chicken cartilage that looked suspiciously like coccyx and had no meat at all. Clearly a delicacy that we don’t understand. We’d also ordered a soup hotpot to share, which was a delicious rich broth with cubes of beef, ramen, egg and sprouty things in it. Delicious.

But quite small, so we ended up at McDonald’s about a half hour later ordering a Quarter Pounder.

Most of the shops were still open so we spent a few hours wandering up and down the rows of stalls, prodding and browsing and buying all sorts of stuff. We’d thought Japan was going to be really expensive, but it’s turning out to be a trove of bargains! We bought ski gloves for under R90, Adidas track tops for R100, Chris got 2 pairs of Adidas crosstrainers for R230 each… we’d probably still be shopping if it wasn’t for luggage concerns!

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 1)

TOKYO
30 Dec 2014 – 03 Jan 2015

After a disproportionately exuberant farewell gathering at the Baron all afternoon on Sunday, there was the usual up-at-4am dash to the finish line to get last minute ducks in rows – and perform other essential activities like packing (which had been procrastinated over for days because of the complexity of the warm vs bulk trade-off of winter- and ski-wear options).

Miraculously, everything was done and ready by our agreed-upon 10.30 collection time. Michele, accompanying us to Japan, was to leave her car at the airport while we’re away, which made life very simple thanks to the long-term carport parking across the road from ORT International Departure entrance.

Coup de gras was the radio dedication of Turning Japanese by The Vapours (“I really think so!”) and Big In Japan by Alphaville, that Michele had smsed in to her DJ mate to wish us a bon voyage on-air.

Both of our (Emirates, obviously) flights were very full and our online check-in the day before had warned us that we weren’t sitting together on either flight. We managed to negotiate to be in a row of 3 together on the flight to Dubai, but only Christian and I were together on the second flight (a minor detail since most of that 11 hour flight was spent sleeping, thanks in some part to our Dubai Airport splurge on R130 pints of Heineken).

Arriving in Tokyo, Narita International Airport was a bit overwhelming… especially since Lixi and Roro’s flight from London had been delayed so they’d missed their connection to Tokyo – and it was Lixi who’d done all the major prep (including a 38-page itinerary!) thereby earning unofficial Group Leader status.

Nonetheless, English and helpful people were aplenty so we soon had a plan and a train ticket for the Airport Express that would take us to Ueno Station where we could catch a taxi for the short ride to our digs.

Except we managed to get on the wrong train!

Fortunately, our error only had minor consequences as the train we were on did the same route as the Express, but stopped. At. Every. Station.

Our mistake had been pointed out to us by a lady sitting next to us on the train, who then asked to see our travel arrangements and gave advice on the subway vs taxi options for getting us from Ueno to our local subway stop (from where we had on-foot directions on our accommodation booking itinerary). Thinking we’d reduce our risk by taking a taxi, the lady guided us to the taxi stop and hailed a driver for us.

I’d been warned by our host that our (“truly Authentic! Live as the traditional Japanese do!”) house was off the grid when I’d asked (on Lix’s instruction) for Google coordinates for our Awesome Itinerary, but hadn’t considered that our driver wouldn’t be able to find it either. Plugging the address into his GPS got us close enough, but we ended up trawling the neighbourhood with his Japanese GPS lady sounding increasingly frustrated as she tried to convince us our destination was a park!

500 Yen later and no closer to home, we decided to get him to drop us at the local subway and call our host to come and get us. Turns out we were only a couple of hundred metres from the station, and located in a small alley parallel to the park.

Relieved to be nested, we happily removed our shoes (on instruction) in the little entrance hall and bowed to enter through the small sliding door and into the house. The small lounge is spartanly furnished with straw floor mats, a low coffee table, several cushions and a floor lamp. The lounge leads onto a tiny kitchen with barfridge, single utility table, double hotplate, small sink and, entertainingly, the house’s only shower! …which made more sense when we discovered that the “bathroom” (a loo with a basin cleverly designed on top of the cistern so that water used in the basin automatically gets used to flush the toilet) was also in the kitchen! The whole living area is about the size of my dining room at home and you can touch the ceiling on flat feet.

Up the steep and narrow staircase took us to the sleeping area: a long room with 5 futon mattresses laid out in a row. The room could be subdivided into 3 rooms using the curtain between bed 1 and 2 and the shoulder-height sliding door between bed 3 and 4. Most walls had the same sliding doors, so it was fun sliding them to see what hidey-hole treasures lay beyond. Interestingly the house is an almost 1:1ratio of living:cupboard space. Disappointingly, most were cupboards with bedware or empty for us to store our stuff.

Our host – whose name we’d already forgotten so we’ve renamed him Jeff – lived in a small room off the lounge and reminded us that we were to be very quiet in the house. The house’s owner had told me that several times on Airbnb,  which I’d interpreted as “no loud parties”, but Jeff advised that we were to keep so quiet that in fact pure silence was to be observed upstairs. Turns out that the authentic Japanese paperthin walls combined with the authentic Japanese grumpy old man neighbour and the very-real prohibition on subletting in this traditional Japanese neighbourhood had gotten out landlord into some hot water already.

We assured Jeff that our intention was to use the house for little more than sleeping and to illustrate told him we were heading straight out to experience Tokyo. He gave us advice, directions and a map, setting us off toward Ueno, where we were apparently destined to find food and drink aplenty. So, feeling rebellious at our flagrant disregard for the no-strangers-in-our-hood rule, we hit our streets and discovered that it was an easy walk to all the action.

We kicked off with a celebratory beer (“The Brew”) from our local 7Eleven, next to the subway station entrance where we’d met Jeff. The challenge was juggling the icy cold beer between hands so as not to get either hand too cold, since it was a crisp 3 degrees Celsius out. Easy task for us, so we rewarded ourselves with another from the next 7Eleven, trying a Kirin this time.

Jeff had certainly advised us well; there was loads of life in the few blocks he’d pointed out. We had a bit of a wander, pouring over the big pictureboard menus outside most of the eateries, considering our dinner options… and, predictably, were lured into an Irish rock bar (The World’s End, opposite Ueno Station) for a Guinness (and a tot of Japanese whiskey for Christian and Michele). Great pub, bigger than many we’d passed but still little more than an inflated passage with about 50 seats.

We ended up only eating at around midnight, having struggled to choose what and where to eat among the countless little restaurants that were still open and pumping. Deciding to try lots of things, we ordered shrimp dumplings, fried basil dumplings, barbecued pork and a noodle hotpot. Everything was amazing! Christian ordered a second round of dumplings and Michele a “Magic Pudding” creme caramel dessert and, with drinks, the whole lot came to R328!

Delighted at our feeding, we went on the hunt for a celebratory Jagermeister. Beside the road-level restaurants and bars, there were loads more upstairs, with stacked neon sign markers outside the stairwells to indicate what was where. We soon learned that, presumably since space is at such a premium, “sitting charges” often apply, which will act as good as any other filter to help us narrow the options moving forward in a city where we’re so overwhelmingly spoilt for choice.

We found the Jager – at a ball-busting 1000 Yen (R100) each, (sort of) softened when it turned out to be a veritable tumblerful, easily a triple or quadruple shot each! A good nail in the fun coffin of an unintentionally extended welcome night in Japan, we started heading for home and (one more nightcap en route later) were in bed by 4am (a very respectable 9pm home-time), with many stories under our belt for our travelmates’ arrival, due for around lunchtime.