How should I even start this. Well, we knew Japan was a great country to visit, but that it is SO amazing… We are still recovering from a 9-day trip (end of October-beginning November). We tried to get the best of it as always: 6am – 11pm (or later) on foot every day, around 265km in total, nearly 30k steps each day, covered mostly in Tokyo but also climbing (crawling/squating up and down) in Nikko National Park. I was limping on my last day.
It was our first time in Japan, and we didn’t know what to expect. We arrived scared that we will get lost in the complicated transport system, with pages of metro and trail routes printed out, and not knowing the language a tiny bit. That worry got killed right away as upon arriving to the airport and leaving for Narita express train we were kindly shown the way by (old) people and signs, in English. The process of the ticket purchase itself (Narita express and Suica travel card) was impressive – the guy at the counter did everything as if he were a robot, calm and systematic. That was basically the sign of what most people are in Japan, very organized and in control of emotions. And very polite – extremely polite. We thus also eventually learned to bow everywhere we go, saying “thank you/arigato”.
Second thing that surprised us upon arrival (I will leave out high-tech toilets we tried while waiting for luggage – those were kind of expected ;)) – was how clean the city was. When we exited the Tokyo station the first reaction was: wow, it is so clean, not a single stain on the pavements, not a single bit of rubbish! In fact, on the way to the hotel (we stayed in a small cozy Niwa Hotel Tokyo) we saw one peace of rubbish, which was promptly picked up by a passer-by, a Japanese. My guess is that they are just educated to be that way from early childhood. (Before coming to Japan we watched a few videos how kids clean their schools – I suppose, that is part of the culture.)
We planned the trip a few months in advance, reading online and watching videos, so we kind of knew what we wanted to do. It was a diverse range of things – see the main architectural highlights, discover the different areas of the city, try as many as we can local foods, try 1 – 3 star Michelin restaurants, go to nature – Nikko national park – and hike its 2.5km peak. I would need a book to describe it all, so I will just summarize key impressions from top of my head.
The city. It is very diverse. Best to discover it by walking. You walk 2-3km in one direction, and you hit a different neighborhood.
We started on our first evening by visiting Akihabara – so-called electronic city, where one can find a lot of anime things. We visited one multi-storey building where each floor was dedicated to anime things, everything from tiny kitties to huge size manga posters. I must say, me and my husband got surprised (and shocked) by the amount of local men piling in those shops looking to buy rather provocative dolls and different visualizations of anime women who do not look like Japanese women at all. Another half were stuck playing video games, which we tried to understand – but we couldn’t! Thus not played. Another peculiarity of the area: it was packed with Maid cafes. Literally young girls dressed as maids serving food in a girl-like environment (lots of pink). It was soo weird! 🙂 But fun. We like more though more conventional cafes – visited Mocha cat cafe. But we were even more excited to visit an owl cafe. I got really inspired to get one 😉
Taito. The “old” part of the city to which we came back a few times during our stay. In Asakusa district, it hosts city’s famous Senso-ji temple and a few other monuments around. We loved the small tiny streets and old houses which felt so authentic, walking all the way to Ueno park, and beyond that to famous Yanaka street. We bought most of our souvenirs there. We found every second shop was packed with cats and cat souvenirs, just what me, a cat lover, needed 🙂 Got 3 t-shirts with cats, and managed to convince my husband to get a few as well. Apart from that, we bought some great Japanese tea, and pottery made in Japan which, quite frankly, wasn’t too expensive. We were impressed how many old people run those small shops with signs saying they have done it for decades. We came across one old guy doing his own caramel, apparently city’s famous, and by his age I would say he started to do it before I was born. We had some street food in this area as well – some of the best street food! But will come back to it later.
Shinjuku/Harajuku/Shibuya. Those areas are built for shopping and entertainment. The initial plan was to spend there more time, but eventually we didn’t, realizing that we liked Taito more. Anyway, Shibuya has the famous pedestrian crossing – we walked it. We tried to visit one large mall, Shibuya 109, but even though the variety of clothes was great, I didn’t like the local style, very much teen clothes. Japanese women are everything what I am not (no offense): short, small feet, flat… So I tried a few shoes but max size was 38 so I had to give up 🙂 plus most of the shoes were on platforms…which me, 177cm, really does not need. Anyway, we popped into a few other stores, including Don Quijote, a famous discount supermarket, were we bought a ton of sweets with matcha tea and a few pieces of electronics, like a hand massage machine which was very handy and timely for our tired legs. 🙂
Further on, in Shinkuju, we popped into a Robot Cabaret – a very weird but amazing show, expressing Japanese culture well. Also saw the amazing small bar area, the so-called Shinjuku Golden Gai. Small, dusty, with fancy doors and decorations – it’s all there. A bit outside, in Harajuku, it’s a teenager heaven. We saw queues to the shops we had never seen before! We saw teenagers eating sugar everything: pancakes, colorful sweets, shakes etc… lots of cats, puppies and bears again. I bumped into one as well 🙂 it is easy to get carried away, so we got a few souvenirs there too.
Tsukiji/Toyosu/Ginza. The food places. We went to Tsukiji, the old fish market, on our second day. We skipped the first day just to get back to time zone in order to be able to eat fish at 6am 🙂 We did it! We even tried sea urchin first thing in the morning, and it was okay. I must say, the whole idea of SUSHI changed in my head after visiting Japan, and the fish market was the first encounter. Now, parts of the old fish market in Tsukiji happened to be moved to Toyosu in October, so we visited that part too, just a 2km walk from Tsukiji. Much larger areas, and this is where wholesale auctions now take place. But we still liked the humming and packed Tsukiji retail market more.
We walked to both fish markets through Ginza area, which is the posh area of the city, with best hotels and restaurants located here, as well as all global brands – Pradas and Guccis – selling their stuff to 24/7 business people. I guess here is time to move to the next section 🙂
Food. We were not familiar with Japanese food before we arrived. Well, we knew sushi, but even that was far from what we tried in Japan. So we ate. We ate a lot of Japanese food. We had a checklist for things to try, and we mentally ticked every time we did. We started with simple street food – soba noodles. We tried more noodles later – udon, ramen – and we really liked it all times, it was cheap and tasty. We tried omurice – omlette with rice. Tastes better than it sounds! We ate sushi a lot of times, one of them in famous Michelin chef’s Sushi Bar Yasuda. The guy told us a lot about different fish and revealed myths of sushi. E.g. best sushi cannot be “fresh” as fresh fish is not the best – it has to mature a few days. We tried many types of tunas – from belly to cheek – which we had never experienced before. From the dessert menu, we ate a lot of sweet mochi with bean paste, especially with green tea. Yummy. Also green tea ice-cream.
We had 3 kaiseki-type Michelin experiences, of which one was 3* Michelin, Ryugin, considered to be one of top restaurants in Japan. I could write a page how much it took me to book that place, starting 2 months in advance! But it was definitely worth it. The other two, Tapas Molecular Bar, and Ise Sueyoshi, were also impressive. Overall we discovered the Japanese food at its best, including the seafood delicacies of abalone, whale meat…even shark fin. But even the simplest thing – rice – itself was amazing just on its own. One chef made rice balls to us for the next breakfast. Apparently Japanese eat them instead of sandwiches. Much more healthy and tastes better, too!
Nature. This is were we left our legs. In nature. We had planned to make one hiking trip outside Tokyo, and we did it. Nikko National park, a 2-hour drive by train from Tokyo by Tobu Nikko Line, and you are in a paradise. Autumn colors reveal themselves (as it is North), and you can see the Lake Chuzenji surrounded by mountains. Us being us, out of all the available hiking routes in the area we went for the “Advanced” one which was climbing Mount Nantai (2.5km) which the guide said was 3.5hrs up and 2.5hrs down. It was a day trip for us, so we decided to go for it from early morning as soon as we arrived 9am. It turned out, the mountain was officially closed for the season just a few days back, but hey, that inspired us even more – we found our way around. And it began. The brutal way up. Tree branches, boulders, narrow pathways… it was the first of the kind. Plus, it was getting colder and colder, and finally when we reached the top (it felt like reaching heaven, literally), it was around zero up there and the trees were covered by ice/snow. We were freezing. But the views! It was the best views I have seen in my life. If not for those I don’t know how we would have come back, which was also far from an easy thing to do. The good thing though, no tourists bothered us on the way up and down, only a few crazy Japanese who seemed born to hike.
Long story short, we descended. And we randomly decided to stay for another day in Nikko, found an amazing villa-hotel room to rent, had an amazing warm local dinner, and amazing local bath. Next day we chose an intermediate hiking route and walked another 15k 🙂 before returning to Tokyo to continue the walk. But to summarize nature: pictures speak louder than words, and even though many people flock to Japan in spring, I think the autumn colors are no less magnificent if not more spectacular!
We were very opportunistic with our trip itinerary, and as you see above – we prolonged our stay in Nikko for two days instead of one. But more surprises waited for us in Tokyo. We met a few nice people, in particular when dining. In Tapas Molecular Bar we met a Korean/American scientist group, who we spent the evening with discussing neuroscience and other things. When we went to Ise Sueyoshi restaurant, we were approached by a couple of Japanese, who invited us to join for a live karaoke, and then the invitation-only weird magic bar. We were singing Mamma Mia and Bohemian Rhapsody… and we were shown unbelievable tricks… we went really Big in Japan 😉 Some things have to be left out from here, sorry. But it was fun. (:
Overall, my bar for Japan was really high before arriving. But what we experienced exceeded that bar by a wide margin. We even started thinking we could retire in Japan one day – this is how much we liked the country! And we are definitely coming back. There is a lot to take in. And out 🙂