Part 11: Tokyo — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 10: Beijing

Why Tokyo?

I had a fascination with the Japanese culture. But since I grew up near Japan and was more familiar with Japanese culture than most Westerners were, my fascination was more on the orderliness of the people and way of doing things, especially when compared to the Chinese. Relatedly, there’s a particular design sensibility that also aligned with mine.

And since Tokyo was the largest and most well-known city in Japan, I thought it would be the best place to experience what Japan had to offer.

Itinerary

  • Sunday, 9 Nov: Arrive in Tokyo.
  • Monday, 10 Nov: Visited Tokyo SkyTree and Asakusa Shrine, Ate Ramen, and Checked out Shinjuku streets.
  • Tuesday, 11 Nov: Visited Edo-Tokyo Museum, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku area, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Tower.
  • Wednesday, 12 Nov: Visited Roppongi Tower’s Observation Floor and Imperial Palace East Garden, and Departed Tokyo.

My Impression

On the whole, Tokyo to me was a hardworking, bustling city like any other. There were pockets of unique qualities in the different wards, and it was fun exploring and checking out a few of them. But Tokyo was too large to fully experience in three days.

I knew about the Japanese being known for being organized and tidy, but it was kind of shocking to see in person how true it was. Usually, in major cities, there would be random areas that would be filthy with trash or unpleasant smells. This occurred in some cities more often than others. But in Tokyo, every street and alley was practically spotless. It actually almost felt sterile.

With Tokyo being a seemingly nice place to be in, I thought for a moment about living in Japan. But I quickly realized that in my profession, I would probably become the well-known Japanese salaryman working extra hard, be obligated to to go out drinking with the boss, and be very subservient to people above me in a very structured hierarchy. There would be trade-offs to consider.

Getting There

I flew from Beijing to Narita Airport. At the Narita airport, I tried to figure out by myself how to buy a train ticket to the city, but I was confused by all the different options and route splits, so I asked someone at the ticket counter which line I should take. The lady knew extremely limited English, so I repeated many times what I thought she said and what she pointed at on the train map just to make sure.

Tokyo subway map from the airport.

About half way on my train ride, I started getting nervous about whether I was on the right train or if it was one of the routes that split off to a different destination. I couldn’t match the station names with the ones on the train map anymore, so instead of having faith and being patient like I normally would, I got off the train and figured out where I was.

Perhaps I was more willing to take the risk because I was in Japan and felt more safe than other places I had been. Still, once I realized I actually was on right train, I had to pick out the next right train from the wrong trains to continue my journey.

Accommodations

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Hostel - LBT 2014

I booked my stay at Nui. Hostel, which was in the Taitō ward, fairly close to the Kuramae station. It’s been said to be a “hipster hostel”, which made me feel less worthy to stay. Regardless, it was a nice hostel.

Staff

The ground level was a restaurant/lounge open to the public. I knew this going in, so when I entered, I looked around at the front desk until a worker greeted me. She could tell from my luggage that I was staying at the hostel instead of getting food. I made a reservation online but did not mention it. I didn’t see a computer so I wasn’t sure if my reservation mattered. She made a copy of my passport and I filled out the registration form. The worker shuffled some paperwork and got me checked in.

Map for the Nui. Hostel. (Front)

Info for the Nui. Hostel. Back.

She handed me the guest information and went over it with me. As she was starting, I tried to respond in Japanese with simple phrases like “はい” (Yes). But when she asked me if I knew Japanese, I quickly shifted and said “すごし” (Little), “Very すごし”. She knew some English and it was enough to communicate.

The rest of the guest-interacting staff also knew a little bit of English, and they were very nice and accommodating when I needed assistance.

Room

I booked an eight-person dorm. It had four wooden bunk beds, two on each side of the room with an aisle in the middle, leading to the window. Near the door were small wooden lockers with small metal loops for small locks.

My bunk is at far upper right. Nui. Hostel.

With the concrete walls and brown wood bed frames, the room was somewhat dark, especially towards the door. I supposed that helped with sleep and keeping things quiet. Lighting in the room was also limited, but each bed had its own lamp. Also, since each bed had curtains, the space felt a little tight when all the curtains were closed. The dorm was really just a place to sleep.

On my side of the room, I met my roommates. One was a Japanese guy around my age from Seattle traveling to Japan to see family. One was a white American but was living and working in Shanghai. Another one was French. Throughout my stay, the two from the States just talked about different things, from places to check out in Tokyo and traveling to movies and international politics. I talked about my obsession of mochi and green tea, and they seemed amused by it.

On the other side of the room was an older Japanese man staying in a hostel for the first time, a Chinese (man?) who mostly kept to himself, maybe coming in late at night drunk?, and a French couple who unfortunately had bed bugs or something and asked to switch rooms and washed all their clothes the next day. They seemed to be the only ones affected, and they were in the corner of the room farthest from me, so I was a little less concerned.

Bed

I was on the top bunk for the last time of the trip. It included power outlet next to the bed, curtains for privacy (similar to St. Christopher’s Inn in Paris). Sheets and light duvet were included but I had to set it up myself (with instructions given in the check-in info sheet).

Top bunk at Nui. Hostel.

There were two metal loops in the ceiling with hangers, which was such a simple but genius idea.

At the foot of my bed was a straw or bamboo blinds separating me from the other top bunk. At night, when the other guest had his lamp turned on, I could kind of see into his bed, which was kind of weird.

Bathroom

The bathroom was dorm style and shared with other dorm guests on the floor. It had a few individual shower rooms and toilet rooms, including one just for ladies. The toilets were not the fancy Japanese kinds with bidets and whatnot, so I didn’t get a chance to try the different settings.

The shower room had a space to change/dry off, and a space for the actual shower. The shower had a two-pane folding door on a track that must be closed completely for the shower to turn on. It was a neat design and a pleasure to shower, thought it could get a bit claustrophobic. The shower also included soap and shampoo dispenser.

Nui. Hostel dorm bathrooms.

Near the entrance to the bathroom was a counter of sinks with mirrors. It was the first time using a co-ed dorm bathroom, and it felt kind of weird brushing my teeth next to ladies doing their make up or blowdrying their hair, but I just stayed cool and minded my own business. Such a noob moment.

Common Area

There was a restaurant/lounge area on the ground floor for the public and a guest-only lounge on the top (6th) floor. I only hung out at the restaurant for breakfast on my last day. It seemed to always have a lot of people, but it was really laid back.

Nui. Hostel ground floor lounge in the morning. Jack Johnson playing.

Aside from sleeping, I spent most of my time at the hostel in the guest-only lounge. It was a good-sized space with a large dining table near the elevator entrance. There were two long desks along the walls, with a bench on the far side. There were outlets and lamps at the desk for people to work at. Plenty of windows on one side provided pretty good light. There were many reading materials, including magazines and city guides.

Guest-only lounge area at hostel.

There was also a small kitchen area near the dining table but I wasn’t sure if it was for guest use. Between the kitchen and the elevator was the laundry room, with a few coin-operated washing and drying machines. I used the washing machine but dried the clothes at my bed.

I usually brought breakfast from outside back to the lounge to eat before starting my day. There weren’t that many people using it, probably because it was on the top floor and felt secluded from everything else. It was still a nice place to just relax; though it could get boring.

Wi-Fi/Internet

The Wi-Fi was good. It was not hyper fast but it was quite sufficient for looking up stuff on websites and maps. It worked in the room as well as the lounge area.

Food

The restaurant offered breakfast for sale in the morning, with different breads and pastries. I had a croissant and ordered a cup of tea from the kitchen. The food was decent.

Breakfast at Nui. Hostel.

On my first night, I noticed that they had a full dinner menu, but it was too late to order anything and I never got a chance to try the dinner.

Getting Around

Japan was a huge city, and it has a complicated subway system owned by three companies. I took the subway to go from one area to another, then walked within that area and got on the subway to head to another area.

Because the subway had too many options, and that I was only going to be in Tokyo for about 3 days, and that I had planned very little with my time in Tokyo, I opted to just buy tickets as I went.

The fares were determined by distance, so I had to decide where I wanted to go when I bought the tickets at the machine. At first, the machine was kind of confusing with so many choices, even when I toggled to English. It had really specific options so I had to know exactly where I wanted to go.

The ticket design was kind of utilitarian with a hint of Japanese sensibility. It was a rectangular piece of paper with a hole and custom-printed text. Either the machine could scan the text on the ticket or the tickets had an RFID chips in them.

Transfer ticket for subway.

Japanese trains were known for being on time. Some stations had digital boards listing upcoming trains and times. For the most part, the trains came frequently enough that missing one would be fine, at least for a traveler with little regard for time.

The subway map was really confusing but it was relatively easy to understand after taking the subway a few times. It was still frustrating to find that the shortest route across town would still take thirty minutes or more.

Tokyo Subway map. English.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Mid-November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

Tokyo was mostly cool throughout the day. But when the sun came out, it got a little warm and I only had a T-shirt.

At night, or when the weather was gloomy, I had a long-sleeve shirt and/or a light jacket on.

It also rained a little bit at certain times.

People

The people were very friendly. I think they were just trained and also grew up that way. Even if they didn’t speak English, they would smile to hide their embarrassment and either tried to get help or did their best.

But sometimes, their smiles and bows did little to help me and left me wondering if 1) they had accepted my request and were continue to help me or 2) I was asking for something they could not comply so they nonverbally ended the interaction. I would then have to pursue further to confirm either case, or that I would suggest doing something else if I asked for an undeliverable request.

Nonetheless, the people were nice and would do as much as they can to help me. For example, I was heading to the airport and wasn’t sure which ticket to buy because it wasn’t on the usual subway menu. I asked the station attendant but he couldn’t speak English. He pointed at route maps on a counter and at ticket machines, but I couldn’t understand him. I walked to the ticket machine trying to do what I thought he wanted me to do. But the attendant eventually came out and pressed the buttons for me.

From my limited experience reading people, he was a young man who seemed to have held the attendant job for only a short time. He didn’t seem to care a whole lot about the job, but his sense to serve seemed to have driven him to continue to help me. And I was glad he did, because I really didn’t know what to do. I probably would’ve figured it out myself or took my best guess after poking around on the screen a few times, but it was very nice of the attendant to help me.

Language

I took one semester of Japanese in college, and I became mildly interested in it ever since. It may have been because my Chinese language background made learning Japanese easier, or that I was naturally interested in learning languages.

I had learned the Japanese alphabet, both hiragana and katakana, and could still recognize most of them.

For the trip, I took a course of the audio tapes like I did for the other languages, and it was nice to get a refresher but also good to learn new basic actions, like eat, drink, go, etc., even though, like the other languages, I didn’t have enough confidence to use or the sufficient practice to understand.

Tours/Sightseeing

Tokyo Skytree (Shopping Center)

When I checked in to my hostel, I noticed the Tokyo Skytree in the near distance. So I walked up to the river near the hostel and tried to get a good shot of it, even though it was sort of raining. At first I did not know it was called Skytree; I thought it was called Tokyo Tower!

The next morning I figure it would be a good way to get my bearings by walking to the Skytree. I crossed the Asakusabashi bridge and had a direct view of the Asahi building.

Tokyo Skytree and Asahi building.

Near the Skytree center, I went to a convenient store to get some snacks. I noticed these Skytree shaped bottles, which was not surprising at all.

Sky tree water bottles.

The terrace outside of the Skytree center already had some sort of Christmas decorations and booths set up with Christmas trees and polar bears.

Christmas scene around Tokyo Skytree.

I looked up ahead of time that going up the Skytree required some sort of reservation, so I already gave up on doing that. Instead, I roamed around the shopping center for a little bit.

A restaurant around green tea!

I noticed a green tea restaurant, and my eyes lit up. I wasn’t sure about having a full meal inside, so I asked to just get a green tea ice cream to go. There were so many choices I had trouble picking just one. Finally, I choice the green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean. It was really cold but delicious.

Green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean in a cone!

After that, I went to a stationery/office store and got some stickers for my travel log as well as for my nephews as souvenirs. Then as I was about to leave, I noticed a Studio Ghibli store, and I had to check it out.

Totora is sleeping. Studio Ghibli Store at Tokyo Skytree shopping center.

It was very tough narrowing down the number of souvenirs I wanted to get. Because of my limited storage, I ultimately got small Totoro figures for my nephews.

Asakusa Shrine and Tori-no-ichi Festival

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Asakusa and Tori-no-Ichi - LBT 2014

I made my way back to the other side of the river and headed to the Asakusa Shrine. I knew very little about the shrine or the temple, but I remained respectful and I took pictures and videos of what I felt was the important stuff.

Asakusa Shrine.

I saw people at the chozuya cleaning their hands with a ladle of water.I wanted to do what they did but I didn’t know if it was appropriate. Even with illustrated instructions, I was a little confused.

People using the Chozuya to purify themselves.

Instructions for how to use Chozuya.

There were also a wall of wooden plaques (called Ema) and they supposedly had wishes and whatnot.

Ema plaques at Asakusa Shrine.

I left the shrine area and went out to where the temple and other structures were. The shrine was a relatively low-key quiet place, but the temple area was much more popular and crowded with people.

Scene at Asakusa.

I noticed one section had people shaking tin cans, letting a stick fall out, and then taking a fortune from one of the many drawers. I had seen this in Chinese temples so I wanted to get my for fun.

Getting an o-mikuji fortune.

The o-mikuji fortune has an English translation.

My o-mikuji fortune.

I then made my way to the main entrance of the temple grounds, through the shops and to the “Thunder Gate” with a giant lantern.

Looking down the shops at Asakusa

"Thunder Gate" at Asakusa.

I thought it was neat how popular this temple was, even with young people, because in Chinese culture, this types of stuff mainly interested the older generation.

After Asakusa Shrine and Temple, I made my way to the Tori-no-ichi Festival, which I learned was happening while I was in town. I still had little understanding of what it was, but I just knew it was something that the locals celebrated.

As I was getting closer to Washi Shrine, I noticed people walking away holding large sticks with shiny decorative elements and a semi-creepy-looking mask-face. Apparently, these were rakes and people get them for good luck.

Decorated rakes at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa.

I noticed a line to enter the shrine area, but I didn’t get on it because I didn’t know what it was for exactly and I was not interested in the festival enough to wait in a long line. What I did notice was that next to the line was regular pedestrians passing by, only distinguished by colored tape on the ground. I was quite impressed at the level of order this piece of tape provided to the festival goers. In other countries, people would undoubtedly cut in line, or that tall barricades would be required to separate the queue from passerby.

Orderly Japanese people waiting to enter Tori-no-ichi Festival

Also, the line apparently was to ring some sort of bell.

People waiting to ring the bell at Tori-no-ichi Festival.

I managed to find another entrance to the general festival area. But all it had were vendors that sold practically the same things: rakes.

Inside Tori-no-ichi Festival.

After realizing that that was all there was, I started walking farther away from the main area and noticed street food vendors catering to any people checking out the festival.

Street Food at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa

Toasted Fish at Tori-no-ichi Festival in Asakusa.

I didn’t get any food at the time because I wasn’t sure what some of the things were, and I didn’t feel like going through the trouble with the language barrier and ask.

Shinjuku

My hostel roommate mentioned a street food festival happening in Shinjuku, and since I wanted to see Shinjuku anyway, I figured I should check out the street food as well.

It took me a while to find the street food, I walked in a large circle around the Shinjuku area before finding it. It was mainly a long strip on one side of the street where there were vendors set up and people walk along the sidewalk and picked the things they liked.

Walking on the sidewalk next to street food vendors in Shinjuku.

There were plenty of the “usual” Japanese street food, including that one where the cook flipped little balls of food from a mold of semispheres.

Shinjuku street food.

There were other vendors that sold practically a meal, with meat and potatoes and a fried egg. I would’ve gotten it if I were more hungry and that it didn’t feel greasy.

Practically a meal. Shinjuku street food.

Then there were the desserts. For the novelty, I had a chocolate-covered banana with Koala March cookie, which was disappointingly more healthy than I thought (it was just a banana inside).

Covered bananas with Koala March cookie. Shinjuku.

I ate a fish-shaped cake with caramel filling before I saw a green tea version, so I had that as well. They were also disappointing in that there was more cake than filling.

Fish-shaped cakes with different fillings. Shinjuku.

Caramel filling inside fish-shaped cake. Shinjuku.

Fish-shaped cake with a dot of green tea filling.

I then saw boba drinks that was available in green tea. It was very milky and watered down.

Matcha boba.

Out of cash and full on sweets, I continued walking around Shinjuku and was mesmerized by the lighted signs.

Crossing the street in Shinjuku.

The lights of Shinjuku.

There were plenty of karaoke bars and night clubs in Shinjuku; it was clearly a place for a good night life, but I was just not in the mood, especially by myself. There was an American-English speaking guy trying to get me in to come in to one of the clubs, and I could tell it was probably not a good idea.

After seeing all that I needed to see, I headed back to the hostel for the night.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Edo-Tokyo Museum - LBT 2014

With little on my agenda, I decided to check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida, which was near my hostel. It was a really interesting visit. Edo was the original name of Tokyo, and the museum pretty much went through the history of old Tokyo to today. It had a lot of amazing large, detailed diorama models illustrating different eras in Tokyo’s history.

Model of old Tokyo town. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Figures on bridge model and beyond. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Everything was organized and relatively easy to understand, especially if I could fully understand Japanese.

Woodblock printing process. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Old currencies. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

It even had a special exhibition on the 1964 Olympics to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary, displaying the clothing, posters, relay torch, and other materials from the time.

1964 Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay torch. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

It also went through the Westernization of Japan as well as Japanese involvement in World War II.

Unexploded bomb.

Bombing of Tokyo geographically visualized. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

The museum had a lot of very fascinating information about Tokyo’s history that I felt would be even more useful if I understood Japanese. Many but not all of the signs had English translation, so I could only understand some of the materials.

Meiji Shrine/Yoyogi Park

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Meiji/Yoyogi Park - LBT 2014

Knowing that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics in 2020, I wanted to check out the progress on the Olympic Stadium. However, I didn’t realized construction had yet to begin, and all I could find was a boring-looking entrance to a stadium that was closed. Disappointed, I moved on to the Meiji Shrine, which was in the area.

The park around Meiji Shrine was totally secluded. I could only see tall trees and wide gravel paths, and I could only hear birds chirping and insects buzzing, and maybe the faint sound of continuous traffic in the distance. It was a really nice change.

Peace of nature at Yoyogi Park.

The shrine area was a big open space, with a small number of visitors. It rained a little bit, so may that led to fewer visitors than it could accommodate. There were Chozuya stations and Ema boards, just like in Asakusa.

Meiji Shrine area, near Ema plaques.

Chozuya outside of Meiji Shrine.

The main shrine was closed off for visitors, so we could only peek from the distance. The place where visitors could peak into the shrine had a pit for people to throw coins in and pray. There were instructions in many languages for how to pay respects, but I wasn’t sure if I should do it, so I just watched others do it.

There were also signs asking visitors not to take any photos, so I didn’t. But I noticed others who may not have seen the sign taking photos.

I arrived at Meiji Shrine just before closing time at 4pm. As the staff was escorting visitors out of the park, I managed to get a selfie with a torii gate.

Selfie with Torii gate at Meiji Shrine.

Harajuku

Harajuku was made famous in the States by Gwen Stefani. All I knew they had a unique sense of style. I figured it was worth checking out.

I actually wasn’t sure where exactly I could find the essence of Harajuku, but I did stumble upon Takeshita Street, which turned out to be popular street in Harajuku.

Clothing store in Harajuku.

I did a quick walk down the street and noticed many boutique shops, along with a crepe shop and a convenience store that sold green tea Kit Kat!

Crepe shop in Harajuku.

I wasn’t sure how good a Japanese crepe shop would be so I didn’t try it, but I did get the green tea Kit Kat.

Green tea Kit Kats!

Shibuya

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Shibuya - LBT 2014

After some research, I found out the place where swarms of pedestrians cross an intersection in Tokyo was in Shibuya. So I headed there and tried to see it for myself.

The Shibuya station was huge, with sixteen exits. There were walkways after walkways with exit number posting throughout the station to redirect patrons to the right place. I got lost a couple times because some exit numbers stopped appearing after following the directed paths.

Many exits at Shibuya station.

Shibuya station maps.

I asked a station worker in English about the intersection. She either understood English well or knew/assumed that I was just another tourist asking about it, because she was very prepared to point me in the right direction.

Shibuya Crossing.

The intersection, called Shibuya Crossing, had a lot of large lighted signs, not as densely overwhelming as shinjuku, and nowhere like Times Square, but it almost had that atmosphere. Also, it may not have been the best time of day or day of the week because there were about half as many people crossing the intersection as I had seen on TV.

Pedestrians crossing Shibuya Crossing.

But it was still nice to experience it in person.

Another reason I went to Shibuya was to continue my quest for the best mochi/daifuku in Tokyo. I learned about the shop Ginza Akebono, which had few stores throughout Tokyo, one of which was in Shibuya. I could see it on a map, but it took more probably twenty to thirty minutes of walking around and clamoring for the free Wi-Fi at the subway station to finally find it. It turned out that instead of a store, it was a counter in the underground department-store-style supermarket.

Daifuku at Ginza Akebono counter in Shibuya.

I got one or two of the different kinds of daifuku on display, which they boxed up in a nice, simple packaging.

Ginza Akebono daifuku packaging.

I was told I had to eat them within a day, which honestly wouldn’t be a problem. I waited until I was back in the hostel to eat them, but honestly, the texture was a little tougher than I’d like. They were totally fine, but I expected really fresh and soft mochi, but it was a little underwhelming.

Ginza Akebono daifuku with red bean paste.

At the underground supermarket, I also saw a counter with large cute breads/cakes on display. I couldn’t even.

Cute baked goods at Shibuya.

Tokyo Tower

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Tokyo Tower - LBT 2014

For some reason, the Tokyo Tower became the symbol for Tokyo for me. With all the documenting I was doing and all the collages and compilations I was going to put together, I needed something to represent Tokyo. The city had very few landmarks, and with the Skytree being fairly new and still lesser-known, I figured Tokyo Tower was the closest thing.

So I spent a lot time walking around Tokyo Tower trying to get a good clean photo. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, however, where it was largely open space all around, Tokyo Tower had a lot of buildings around it, obstructing views almost everywhere.

I must have spent at least an hour one night walking to different areas around the tower trying to get good full-height shots.

Tokyo Tower at night.

I also tried to get shots of it from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower observation floor, but it was cloudy and visibility was limited.

View of Tokyo and Tokyo Tower from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower Observation Floor.

I returned to the area again in afternoon before my flight for one more session.

View of Tokyo Tower from Akabanebashi station.

I believed I had done what I could.

Imperial Palace East Garden

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Imperial Palace East Garden - LBT 2014

In my quest to get good photos of the Tokyo Tower from a distance, I inadvertently moved closer and closer to the Imperial Palace. So I decided I might as well visit it anyway.

As I entered the area, I noticed a large canal separating from the outside, much like the the canal outside of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.

Outside of Imperial Palace
The canal surround the Imperial Palace.

Outside of Forbidden Palace
The canal between the Forbidden Palace and the outside.

Then there was a field of trees there were evenly spaced far apart, and walking by made the scene a little mystical.

Seemingly endless tree field outside Imperial Palace.

Once inside, there were wide walkways surrounded by square stone walls stacked very neatly. It sort of reminded me of old Inca structures in Cusco, Peru.

Imperial Palace:
Soon after entering Imperial Palace East Garden.

Walls in Saqsayhuamán, outside of Cuzco, Peru:
In front of Inca wall in Saqsayhuamán

Admission was free, but every visitor was handed a plastic chip as a visitor counter to be returned on exit.

Admission ticket/token for entering Imperial Palace East Garden. Japanese.

Admission ticket/token for Imperial Palace East Garden. English

It turned out that I was only visiting the East Garden, and the entrance to the palace was somewhere else. Without the energy, time, nor resources to find where that would be, I stayed in the East Garden, trying to enjoy the scene a little bit on my last day in Tokyo.

View from Imperial Palace East Garden watch platform.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Photo Slideshow:
Tokyo - Food - LBT 2014

Daifuku/Mochi

I love mochi and daifuku. The soft, pillowy, chewy treat is one of my favorite dessert. I often go to the supermarket in Japantown in San Francisco to get the fresh mochi and daifuku and eat them by myself.

I wasn’t expecting to pig out on mochi and daifuku while I was in Tokyo, but when in Tokyo… “Fresh” daifuku were commonly sold in convenient stores, so I knew I had to take advantage of that.

Two of many daifuku (mochi with red bean) I had.

They also sold prepackaged ones, which, honestly was the best ones I had in Japan. They had the perfect balance of softness, chewiness, and mochi-to-bean-paste ratio.

Daifuku. So soft.

I also seeked out supposedly the best daifuku, which was Ginza Akebono. As I explained my experience in the Shibuya section, the mochi was tough and not at all soft. And it had too much red bean paste, although that wasn’t bad by itself.

Daifuku at Ginza Akebono counter in Shibuya.

I also had mochi ice cream, which I had risen above long ago, but it was green tea ice cream, so I had to have it. The ice cream was too hard to really enjoy the flavor or the experience.

Mochi green tea ice cream.

Green Tea Everything

An obsession I somehow began in Tokyo was green-tea flavored foods. I think it derived from my general preference for green tea flavored foods as well as a subculture obsession with green-tea everything. I figured I should become a green tea fanboy to see how it fit me.

I had fancy green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean paste from Nana’s Green Tea at Tokyo Skytree center. Good but very cold.

Green tea ice cream with mochi and red bean in a cone!

Fish-shaped cake with a drop of green tea filling. It needed a lot more green tea filling.

Fish-shaped cake with a dot of green tea filling.

Green tea boba drink. Too much milk watering down the green tea flavor.

Matcha boba.

Green tea mochi ice cream (see mochi section above).

Then at the airport, I had my last chance to get green tea-flavored things.

I got a green tea mochi kit, which I didn’t realize was a kit; I thought it was already prepared and I was going to eat at the airport. But I realized I wouldn’t have a way to make it so I had to throw it away.

Make your own green tea mochi kit.

Inside green tea mochi kit.

Green Tea pocky sticks. They tasted like sweet green-tea-flavored cream. Decent snack.

Green tea pocky.

And green tea chocolate covered macadamia nuts. These were actually a souvenir so I didn’t get a chance to eat them.

Green tea chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.

O-nigiri

I saw these commonly sold at the convenience stores like the daifuku, so I figured I should be like a local and eat as many of these as I could. I probably had about five to six of these in the three days I was in Tokyo.

Onigiri (Rice, seaweed, fish).

Most of them had some sort of fish or help inside, which added some flavor to the rice. But it was still mostly rice inside, which was fine.

Onigiri.

Ramen

I went to Ichiran near Ueno station for my ramen. It was my first time ordering food on a machine in a Japanese restaurant, and it was sort of confusing. It only took cash so I actually had to find an ATM to withdraw money before I could order.

After ordering, the host directed me to one of the booths with partition from others. The experience felt a little clinical in that other than the host, everyone was a faceless figure, and there were forms to order seconds and drinks that require me to press a button to get someone to come and process.

Faceless look at working area at Ichiran restaurant. Near Ueno.

Extra food order form at Ueno Ichiran.

But at least the ramen was good. I couldn’t tell good ramen from fantastic ramen, but mine was pretty good. I would want to try other combos in the future to find the right one for me.

I believed I order extra ramen for mine. Ueno Ichiran.

Other things

Japan had so many different type of foods and snacks (as shown by a quick stroll in a convenient store) that it’s practically impossible to try them all. But more likely than not, a lot of them are more or less the same thing, much like American snacks.

Aside from the ramen, the only other time I ate in a restaurant setting was at a “fast food” restaurant near my hostel that served Japanese home-style plates. I got a curry dish with rice and meat, because I also liked Japanese curry.

Curry rice plate at fast food restaurant near the hostel.

It was decent, considering that it was a “fast food” dish. What’s more fascinating was the set up. Even though it was a different set up from the the Ichiran ramen place, it might as well have been the same. The restaurant had an open floor plan, with the server in an aisle in the middle surrounded by booths, sort of like in sushi restaurants. Each seat at the booth had a pictured menu with a button.

Customers would come in, sit down, and order what they wanted. After the customer finished, they would press the button at their seat to get the server’s attention so they could pay, and then they would leave. Many of the customers were in business attire, so I assumed they were salarymen catching a quick, cheap dinner after a long day at work before heading home.

Getting out

I took the airport train from the city; pretty much the same way as I had arrived. It took about an hour, like before. However, this time there were a lot of people on the train in the beginning, probably because it was rush hour in the evening and people were heading back home from the city. It was also really warm and humid so the windows were beading with water.

On the train to the airport.

Thanks

  • Lady at reception and guy who helped me check into hostel and whom I confessed I know only “very すごし” Japanese.
  • Bennett (dorm mate)
  • Vilman (sp?) (dormmate)
  • Sho (dorm mate)
  • Old man who’s staying in hostel for first time
  • Chinese dude who stayed in the bed in front of me
  • French couple who got bed bugs
  • Staff from practically every store who were really nice
  • Metro station workers who helped me transfer to another line, who led me to the purchase kiosk and press the right buttons for me for buying tickets to the airport, who gave me a map to go across the street to enter the other side of the station, who gave me change back for paying too much for the airport train
  • Girls at Asakusa who helped me pronounce Asakusa Shrine in Japanese
  • Girl from San Diego (?) who helped me film my fortune shaking process
  • Restaurant staff who was nice but a bit awkward for helping me get my ramen
  • Lady who was nice to try to understand I was pointing at green tea, which occurred to me that it’s pronounced “matcha”
  • Weird guy asking me in American English whether I had plans that night in Shinjuku, which I assume he was trying to sell me entry to a karaoke bar
  • Lady at Edo-Tokyo museum ticket counter who explained the difference with the ticket types
  • Museum security who may have tried to tell me to not run down the escalators
  • Security guard who kindly let me go through to enter the Meiji Shrine even though he had understood what I was trying to say with “いきます?” (“I go”, without the question marker か)
  • Lady who may have been speaking Mandarin to the cook at the curry/rice restaurant
  • Ladies who help me figure out the difference between the two daifuku at Ginza Akebono
  • Japanese signage
  • Man who gave out chip to enter Imperial Palace Garden
  • Weird guy who sat next to me on the plane who seemed dodgy about what he’s doing in Hawaii

Tips

  • Download the subway app (see Links) to plan your route before heading to the station.
  • Because Tokyo subway systems are owned by three companies, some stations with the same name may actually be separate stations. Make sure you go to the right one. But even if you get to the wrong one by mistake, an attendant could probably lead you to the right place with hand signals or hand you a map.
  • At the subway station, figure out exactly where you need to go and which line you will take before getting on the ticket machine. The options of the machine will probably confuse you even more if you don’t know ahead of time.
  • When a convenience store cashier gives you change, let them put it in a tray before you grab it.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Tokyo, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

One thought on “Part 11: Tokyo — Little Big Trip 2014

  1. Pingback: Part 12: Hawaii — Little Big Trip 2014 | Ivan W. Lam Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *