“How did you end up in Tokyo,” you asked? Well, we were researching places to travel between Christmas and New Years and found ridiculously low airfares to Tokyo. In Matt and Michelle fashion, we booked. I mean, why not?! It helped that Tokyo is a major city and most things would be open through the Christmas Holiday Season (unlike most of Europe). Since we were leaving on the 31st, we didn’t have to worry about everything shutting down for New Year’s, which is their biggest holiday. It was perfect!
We left Stuttgart early on Christmas Day and landed in Tokyo mid-morning on the 26th. It was a 3 hour flight to Istanbul, a 5 hour layover (there was a delay), and then as 12 hour flight to Tokyo. We were in Istanbul for “lunch” on Christmas and managed to find a British pub playing Christmas carols, so we hung out there for most of the delay.
We landed in Narita (the town about an hour away) and took a fast train to our train stop in the city. Walking out of Shinagawa station and making our way to the hotel was very surreal. We’re used to being tourists, but this experience was completely different. In Europe, we know enough German to figure out most things, even in other languages, you start getting the hang of what things mean. Here, the characters really threw a wrench into our jet-lagged minds. We found our hotel easily enough and passed a TGI Friday’s and an Outback on the way. We knew we’d be fine.
After a much needed nap, we wandered through our neighborhood to get the lay of the land and grab dinner. We found a restaurant that looked good, from what other people had on the table in front of them, but there was no English on the menu. I did recognize one thing- Chankonabe. Chankonabe is a Japanese stew traditionally eaten by Sumo Wrestlers on a weight gaining diet. I mean, on vacation, go big or go home big (that’s how it goes, right?). It was on the “list” of things to do, it served two people, and it was easy to point to, so I ordered it.
We waited, feeling a little uncomfortable. The tables were really close together and we couldn’t understand anything. We were also so tired. Two big Kiran beers made it to the table and then the meal- a big bowl of uncooked veggies, raw chicken, some sausage/fat mix, and water. The server left, she didn’t speak English, and Matt and I just looked at each other and laughed. I mean, when do you get raw chicken delivered to your table? It even crossed my mind, “do we eat this, do they serve raw chicken in Japan?” Finally, the server came back and turned the stove on our table on and mimed what to do. We just nodded as more people sat down closer and closer to us. Between trying to figure out how to cook our dinner and me like a toddler with chopsticks, this was the most hysterical dining experience we have had, ever, by a landslide.
After the jet-lagged-cook-your-own-sumo-dinner we knew what we had to do- and where to get free wifi. Enter, TGI Fridays. Yes, the neon lights served as a beacon home and even managed to come through the rest of Tokyo’s neon. We sat down, Matt ordered a Guinness, and ordered me a Zima. I mean, ZIMA! Talk about underage memories. A friend on Facebook asked, “did you take a plane or a time machine?” It was as good as you remember.
Thanks to jet-lag, it took about the same number of bottles of this deliciousness to make me ready to pass out. We headed back to the hotel and slept forever.
Our second day in Tokyo was epic. We must have walked a marathon. It was gorgeous, blue skies and weather in the high 40’s-mid-50’s. Just perfect. We walked from our hotel in Shinagawa, up to the Shibuya Crossing, ate breakfast at a 7-11 (don’t knock 7-11 sushi for breakfast in Tokyo unless you’ve tried it) saw the Shrine, and then headed to the Harajuku area to do some shopping.
A little about the Meiji Jingu Shrine, it’s a Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji was instrumental in opening Japan to the outside world after a long period of self-imposed isolation. It is Tokyo’s largest and most famous Shinto shrine. The white cylinders are sake barrels. They are called kazaridaru in Japanese. These sake barrels are offered every year to the enshrined deities at the Shrine. They have been donated by sake brewers from around Japan to the shrine with the sake being used for shrine ceremonies and festivals. There were even barrels of French wine!
After the Shrine, we headed over to the Harajuku area for a little shopping and to find some of the craft beer bars. After wandering through the crowded shopping street of Takeshiti-dori, we settled down and found a great bar. It was tucked up in the second story of a building. It had everything Matt and I could have ever wanted while wandering through a big city, it was practically empty, it had great beer, amazing food (the wasabi mashed potatoes were the best thing I’ve ever eaten), and it has sports on the TV! I mean, it was figure skating, so I was in heaven!
We tucked in for awhile, and then decided to keep going. I mean, we’d already walked up here, we might was well double it and walk on up to the other major shopping area, Shinjuku, grab dinner, and then have some drinks in Golden Gai. Golden Gai is one of the most interesting little places ever. We found it through watching Anthony Bourdain- you know it has to be good. It’s basically over 200 shanty-style bars, clubs, and food stands squeezed into an area that has 6 alleys and many other narrower passages. We found some Aussies and chatted with a local guy who lived in Germany for a while. It was fun! Since we were miles from home, we hopped on the train to get back to our hotel.
We woke up late the next day, sore, and tired. We opted for an easier walk, or so we thought… it always ends up like that for us. The first stop we made it to was the Tokyo Tower. The tower is the second largest structure in Japan and it modeled after the Eiffel Tower. We could even see it from our hotel room!
After the Tower, we walked over to the Zojoji Temple. This temple is a Buddhist temple and the head of the Jodo sect in the Kanto Region. It dates back to the 14th century. The temple was damaged in WWII so most of the buildings are reconstructions. It’s surrounded by a forest that is incredibly serene despite being in the heart of the city! This temple has one of the saddest and beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen. The Unborn Children Garden has rows of beautiful stone statues that represent unborn babies (perhaps miscarried, aborted, or stillborn). These statues are decorated with baby clothes. The windmills are said to help the children transition to the afterlife.
By the time we finished wandering the temple grounds, it was time for lunch so we walked over to the Roppongi district where I’d seen there was a Cali-Mex restaurant. We walked all the way there and it was closed. Lame. Instead, we ate lunch at another 7-11 and trekked farther down the street to where there was a rumored huge Godzilla statue. We made it down to the alleged garden, and it was nowhere to be found. We looked online and saw where it was supposed to be (based on pictures) but it appears it was just a temporary exhibition. It was getting close to dinnertime, the sun was setting, and it was getting cold. We thought that long walk was for nothing until I turned my head and saw it… the Hard Rock! Woo hoo! Hell, we’ve just started embracing it. We stopped in because we had to. I mean, the Hard Rock Cafe always appears when we need it most. It’s like an oasis for our walking and weather weary feet. Since we had literally covered 2/3 of the city by foot and wanted to save the Sky Tree for our last day, we found we had an open day. We started scouring the internet for tours that we could hop on the next day. They were all so expensive. Super-Matt did some research and found we could recreate one of the $100pp tours for $9 and go to Kamakura ourselves. I was going to get to see the big Buddha. Day=Made. We immediately left and walked back home so we could be up early for the adventures to come.
Tuesday was my favorite day in Tokyo, rather the greater Tokyo region. We hopped on the train and made our way down to Kamakura. It was only about an hour or so outside the city. We made our way down the street and found the beach. It was gorgeous. It was still cool outside but there were surfers and beach bars everywhere. It was heaven!
After taking too many pictures of the beach, we walked over to the Kōtoku-in Temple to see the bronze statue of the Amitabha Buddha. The statues dates from around 1252. It used to be made of wood but was damaged in a storm in 1243. It’s been damaged and rebuilt time after time. The last time was done in bronze. The statue is 43.8 ft tall and weighs 93 tons. It’s hollow and you can go inside!
Later, we wandered around the Ginza area, found another craft beer bar, and actually found Godzilla.
For those of you scanning through, you may have missed the roller coaster- yeah- there’s a theme park nearby… so weird to see Mt. Fuji with roller coasters in the foreground!
After spending 45 minutes at the station, we headed back to the bus to go to Lake Ashi. I got to play a Taiko Drum video game- I was really good, I know, shocking.
There was a pirate ship on the lake and the water was so clear you could see the fish. We went to a resort area and took a cable car up to the top where there was another little temple. We got some beautiful pictures.
On the way back to the city we got to take the Shinkansen- a bullet train. It reaches speeds up to 320 km/hr!! We got back to the city in no time. We even found an oyster bar on the way home and had some of the best oysters of our lives (with an accidental detour through a red-light district- oops, but typical).
Our last day, or so we thought- more on that later- was New Year’s Eve so we saved some “wandering” activities for the day. We took the train up to see our last Buddhist Temple: sens0-ji. We also planned to walk through the street of plastic food, Kappabashi Street, and the Sky Tree (the tallest structure in Japan). On the way to Senso-Ji I looked at Matt and said, “I smell Burger Ki— NO- WAIT-HARD ROCK” and sure enough, we turned around and saw another Hard Rock. What can I say, I have a rare gift.
Senso-ji was crowded as it was New Year’s Eve, but it was still beautiful.
Kappabashi Street was closed, and we marveled at the Sky Tree from afar…
We popped into a great place for lunch….
…and decided that since we were going to be on a plane leaving that night and not landing for quite some time…that we should walk the 8 miles back to Shinigawa. File that under “it sounded good at the time….”.
Actually, it was quite fun! With so many things closing on NYE, we got to enjoy seeing another part of the city, wandering, stumbling into an Irish Bar for refreshment, and taking our time getting back to the hotel. We got our bags, took the train to the airport, and then found our our flight was delayed 12 hours.
We had a fancy NYE dinner of Kiran and Kit Kats and made our way to some random hotel.
The next morning we made it to the airport very early where we were 5th in line for the flight debacle. Long story short, 1 hour and 45 minutes later of negotiating millions of ways to NOT have to spend the night sitting on the floor of the Istanbul airport, we were on our way to Stuttgart with another airline. Here’s a big round of applause for Austrian Air. Just sayin’.
All in all, this was a great trip. I’m so glad we did it. The temples and shrines set in the backdrop of a bustling city was something so awesome to see. I have to say that the food wasn’t all everyone talked it up to be. I think if we were there with someone who spoke the language or knew places to go that it would have been different, but just as a general traveler, if you’re a foodie, do your research and get reservations for places you want to eat. Since we’re so wandering based, we frequently ended up in areas where there was no English and, although there was plastic food to point to, it wasn’t easy or intuitive to order. So, if you’re looking for a food-heaven like the famous chefs talk about, PLAN AHEAD, or you end up with raw chicken in front of you and you’re looking at your companion saying “what in the actual f*** do we do with this?” Of course, that’s fun too.
This couldn’t have been a better way to say good-bye to 2015 and welcome 2016! If you go to Tokyo, get out of the city when you can, and for goodness sake, walk everywhere! We saw so much and felt so safe. This city is fantastic!