Whilst writing this post I decided to publish the Tokyo entry in two, maybe three posts, as it turned out, I had so much to share with you. So in your best interest, and so you don’t already get overwhelmed by reading my first entry (would be a real shame for both of us), here comes my Tokyo recommendation in smaller chunks:
In Part 1 you can read about:
Where to stay…
What to do; the usual spots but with a twist, which you will not find by reading traditional tourist books and websites
Early summer special; what not to miss if you are in Japan at end of May to mid-June
Yet to come in the following Tokyo posts:
Where to eat…
A bit of culture… aka where to hang out when you feel like being a kid and when you don’t mind acting like an adult (the second part will also work for sweeping ladies off their feet)
Where else to shop… ladies and gentlemen it is bargain hunting time
My best find during this visit…
For the couples and the romantic hearts out there…
So, Part 1 here we go!
I never really felt a thing about Asia, and knew a very little about Japan. Then two years ago I thought I would visit Hong Kong for my birthday and do a joint trip either combined with China or Japan. Apparently Antoine always had a thing about Japan and persuaded me to visit Japan instead of China. He was planning to tag along and what can I say, I gave in… Since then I also turned into an enthusiast; had my first sake and explored the so many great and crazy things that Japan has to offer. This must have been my seventh trip and I hope there will be many more.
From Dubai, it was still a bit far, but from Hong Kong, it is only 4 hours, so give me a middle seat on the plane any time, I am on my way!
Where to stay:
Ask Antoine and he will tell you that I am a creature of habits, but so is he, actually, aren’t we all? So, in Tokyo, I stay in the Mitsui Garden Shiodome Italia Gai every time I visit. The rooms are probably the standard sized Tokyo hotel rooms, so don’t expect a mansion, but the rates are good, the place is clean and has a Japanese bath on the top floor (sorry I haven’t tried that one yet, too busy with exploring the city). Plus, I love the location. It is very convenient for Haneda airport, you can get there in less than 20 minutes on the monorail without changing lines, which can be a lifesaver if you are with big bags not to mention it will only cost you ¥490 and of course you can use your Suica card! Oh, and the monorail station is actually in the airport terminal, not bad, right?
Plus this area has great metro and train connections as has two stations 5 minutes walk away from the hotel (Hamamatsucho and Daimon stations); so you are linked with the JR Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines and the Tokyo Metro Asakusa and Oedo lines.
I also love the narrow quiet streets and the mostly residential area with some great places to eat and drink out. There are also plenty of 7/11’s, Lawsons’ and coffee shops around to help you out in the mornings or late at night. Although Antoine would be slightly more knowledgeable on the nearby coffee shops as he is normally on breakfast duties. Also, on your doorsteps and walking distance from the hotel are the Hamarikyu Gardens, the Tsukiji fish market, the Ginza shopping area and the World Trade Centre Building, which has a great observatory. So thanks Daniela for recommending me this hotel 2 years ago, I think I must have become one of their best returning customers.
One notion of advice though, there is an on-going construction next to one of the hotel wings that will be on until November 2016 however, it is okay, they start at 7-8 am in the mornings and Sundays are off for the workers.
I also recommended this place to my friends, who loved the place. (and yes, they also stayed there whilst the construction was on.)
What to do in Tokyo:
I will not bore you with the usual things that you can find on Google in no time, though I will tell you those places where I always go back regardless how many times I am visiting Tokyo, and what I have newly discovered about them.
Senso-ji – I like the atmosphere of the place, minus the crowd that can be found there. Try to approach the area from the Matsugaya side, less touristy and you should come across a small market too. They sell good quality and good priced samue; the traditional work clothing of Japanese Zen Buddhist monks, which is a set of trousers and top made from linen or cotton. Your male friends and relatives might appreciate that more than a kimono as a present. I know Antoine did!
One thing I also discovered this time in this area, after a lot of research for a great anniversary present, is the Kappabashi kitchen town. It is amazing! A long street of kitchen supplies you would ever need and beyond! The selection of chopping boards, glasses and ceramics are beyond your imagination and those colours and shapes! Shame about the luggage allowance, I sighed, and looked away.
What I ended up buying was hopefully a great present for my personal French chef. A 63 layered Damascus blade Gyuto (210mm) and a Santoku (175mm). They are not only beautiful, but also comfortable to handle, even for people with larger hands, and cut everything through as if it was butter. See?
The trick, as I read, was not to buy the knives on the high street. So true! There is a considerable difference in the prices. The two shops I have visited and considered to purchase from was Union Commerce and Tsubaya. They both have over a 1000 knives to select from, so do your research before you step in the shop. I ended up purchasing from Union Commerce at the end, and thank you to the shop owner for his patience and detailed information. If you are unsure what to get, the great thing is that the two shops are opposite to each other, so you can just go back and forth until you make your decision.
Oh, and I also bought these for a bit of fun! I love Christmas and gingerbread man on the Christmas tree, and since we now have two shelter dogs as part of our family (Biscuit and Coco(pops)) I thought they also deserve to be represented on the tree this year.
The funny thing is you can buy all shapes and sizes, not just animals. I was also considering a frog for my Frenchman and an octopus for me ( as apparently my grumpiness can resemble one) but had to draw a line somewhere. Although I bought an extra set for my friend who adores dogs and have a cocker spaniel and a rescued dog as well. She is yet to receive the little gift, but I am sure she will be touched, not to mention that I think I nailed a unique and personal gift for her.
So, I am not even the cook in the house (with a Frenchman on the side it is probably not surprising), but I think I am in love with this area, and everyone will be, you can find everything here, even the plastic food samples that the Japanese are quite obsessed with, and consider it as a form of art. Happy kitchen equipment exploring and don’t forget to buy some small sake or teacups sets.
How to get there: (you can approach the area from three metro stations, Asakusa (Tokyo metro Asakusa and Ginza line), Tawaramachi (Ginza line) and Inaricho (Ginza line). If you are not the best navigator and not comfortable deciding which metro exit to take out of the twelve options that is on offer (people visiting and living in Asia, I am sure you can relate to this) then go for your safest bet and go for Inaricho, which has only one exit! Once you are on the day light cross the road and carry on straight, Kappabashi will be sign posted on your left after about 5 minutes walk, oh and on the way there is a very pretty papyrus shop, not cheap, but really beautiful. Worth just popping your head in the shop, even if you don’t buy anything. (sorry, probably worth mentioning that I was coming from Ginza, so if you are coming from Asakusa on the metro, you will be on the opposite side of the road, so bear that in mind).
And Asakusa continues – so much to see and do here, maybe I should have done a separate post just for this!
I was researching shops to see where I can get some good bargains. I have to admit I like my bargain hunts. Of course I knew Daiso, a Japanese shop where everything is a set price of around ¥100 (plus tax) as we had it in Dubai as well, and I also came across the 3 coins shop before, which means everything is ¥300 (plus tax). But the new discovery was Seria. Again a ¥100 shop, aka everything costs ¥100 plus tax, and I just loved it. You can buy everything from ceramics, kitchen supplies to stationary and gardening gadgets. Ok, you will probably end up buying more things that you originally opted for, but there are a lot of cool things, and being in Japan mean you have a lot of gizmos that you didn’t know existed and are there to make your life more comfortable. This shop is also huge and not as crowded or tourist filled. Next door there is a shop where you can buy Studio Ghibli souvenirs.
I also popped into the ¥300 shop, one floor down, on the sixth floor. They have a smaller selection and variety than Seria, but they seem to be big on the decorative items and some of the items were better quality than in Seria. I ended up buying us another picnic blanket there. I couldn’t find the cute French bulldog pattern that I had previously seen in the 3 coins shop in Sunshine city, but was happy with this design. They are so durable, and so light. We take our picnic blanket on all our trips, as you never know when you find the perfect spot to have a royal spread out in the nature. Oh, read my next Tokyo entry for finding the best picnic spot in Tokyo. Again, trialled and tested.
Another shop that I discovered in this department store, just by poor luck, again on the 6th floor, was a mini train and model shop. For those of you with the inner child in them or with a model enthusiast in the family, don’t forget to visit this shop. They seemed to have a great selection of everything that is needed for this hobby and by paying a small amount you can sit by the live mini rail and press some buttons (I guess some control buttons). I am not a keen mini rail enthusiast myself ( you can probably tell), but I know someone who is, haha, of course it is Antoine, so I couldn’t past this shop without taking a few pictures. He was impressed with the variety, and told me he needed the HQ version, not that I know what that means, but I added it to my list of gift ideas for the future. Oh yes, I have this list. Whenever I have an idea what he might like, or he actually says something he would like, I add it to this list. So when it comes Christmas or any other occasion, I don’t have a nervous breakdown what I should get for him. Do I sound like a geek or a well-organised grandma? Please, don’t answer!
I ended up with these from Seria; my second picnic blanket with a cute black and white design and some bags for the kitchen
Where to go: MISE EKIMISE Asakusa department store; Seria is on the 7th floor. In the department store there is a Uniqlo as well. Within the same building, on the 2nd floor, there is the train station, whilst in the basement you can find the Tokyo Metro, both the Asakusa and Ginza line. Super convenient.
I always go back to Shibuya and of course stop by Shibuya 109 to check out the latest craze and fashion in Japan. Not sure, if I have ever bought anything in there, as it tends to be a bit too young for me, but I just love the atmosphere. By accident, I also discovered the best background for crazy selfies. On this occasion, I had the time, so went up to the top floor (8th floor) and there by the toilet I found this mural. Happy picture taking 🙂
There is also a Uniqlo behind Shibuya 109,in case you need to do some more shopping. In this area, what I also found last time was a cat café. It was a bit crazy, as there are strict rules to follow once you enter, and most of the cats were wearing a collar already, meaning that they had their daily petting already. Others, of course, were asleep, which meant again that we couldn’t touch them, but there are no regrets on my or Antoine’s side that we did it and invested a couple of thousand yen in the process. The owner is a strict lady, so watch out to follow all the rules, as otherwise you may end up getting into trouble. But the tea/coffee that is included in the price were nice, and seriously, if not in Japan, where else you are going to do such a crazy thing?! Maybe go in the morning, cats might be more active then, or at least they are not going to wear the collars yet.
From Shibuya 109, I normally stop by the huge Forever21 and there is a Zara nearby as well. It is then easy to walk towards Harajuku. I have a usual route, which has some funky shops that I always like to check out like niko and … TOKYO , where you can also grab a coffee and relax and a t-shirt shop with a huge collection of original designs for men, ladies and kids.
This time I also came across a shop called Wednesday Alice Tokyo and I wish I had gone inside. It looked very cool from the outside and just like in the Alice in Wonderland story, you had to go through a door that was much smaller and required you to bend down a bit. Apparently they sell quirky accessories and sweets, and probably no surprise to you if I say that the inside of the shop also follows the Alice in Wonderland theme. So there is already something on the ‘to do list’ for me, for the next time I am in Tokyo.
If you carry on the same street you will get to the crossing of Meijijingu-Mae Tokyo metro station, a few more shops to check out here, including some vintage clothes stores on the corner of the main crossing. If you are interested in Harajuku and the Yoyogi Park including the Meiji Shrine, I would leave that for another day. There is so much to see and discover in that area.
Ueno is also an area where I normally go back to. I usually get off at Okachimachi station (Yamanote line) and start my journey in Uniqlo and GÜ ( two clothing stores where you can get some cotton and linen basics for good price for ladies/men and kids as well). So once I tackled these two shops I take the small roads parallel to the metro line and walk along the market. You can buy anything from sports shoes, cosmetics to food here. I think there are also a couple of Kebab shops on the way, in case you cannot handle any more raw fish. This time I opted for a Tempura chain, though I pointed at the wrong picture and ended with more fishy stuff than I bargained for. Would I go back? Probably not, but was worth trying it once, not to mention it was super cheap.
So once I get to the Ueno end I cross the road and go to the Ueno Park. There is the Tokyo Zoo, together with some museums in the park itself. Apparently, it is also one of the best spots to see the cherry blossoming, but I have to admit I have never made it that time of the year, even though this was probably my fifth visit to the place. Regardless, it is a nice area to walk around, see some of the shrines and some beautiful hydrangea. Or you can do what I did this time, just sit along the road on the curb, soak in some sunshine and watch the Japanese and some of the tourist enjoying their walks.
On my way back I opted for a route that I have never taken before and ended up at the Shinobazu pond. You can rent a boat here and enjoy the water lilies. Ok, I missed the full blossoming time, but can you imagine going there when the whole pond is covered with the beautiful green leaves and the pink flowers. Definitely worth a visit! So if you are in Tokyo any time between May to September, try this spot for a breath-taking view.
Best picnic spot:
I have this thing about doing a picnic pretty much on all our trips. It is great; you stop rushing around, take a break from the hours of walking, and enjoy some nice food and sunshine, of course, if you pick the right day. Although the issue with Japanese parks is that most of the time you are not allowed to sit on the grass, and a picnic on the bench, is not the same in my book. One place we found where you can sit and relax in the grass was the Imperial Palace, so if you plan to visit, pack some snacks and take something to sit on.
During this visit I also came across a nice and quiet spot by the riverbank. It was great, there were hardly any people around, so felt very relaxing and special with our little spread that we improvised from the 7/11 nearby the hotel, together with the indispensable Veuve Clicquot that Antoine got at the airport.
How to get there: From Hamamatsucho station take the monorail towards Haneda airport and get off at Oi Keibajo Mae, though be careful as the rapid trains may not stop at this station. Once you are out of the station turn right and cross the Katsushima bridge, and voilà, you got yourself a cute little picnic spot for the day. There are also areas for barbecuing and fishing, though I don’t assume you have packed your kit with you. Still, I enjoy watching people doing some fishing, and we have seen plenty of fish coming to the surface.
Oi Racecourse, is also visible from the platform, so if you are into horse racing, check out their schedule and come back for more.
What not to miss if you are in Japan early summer:
I was browsing about what to do in Tokyo and I came across the programme of watching the fireflies (hotaru) at night. I had no idea what they were, as it is not common in any of the countries I lived before. Then Antoine remembered me that we saw it in some of the Studio Ghibli, Japanese cartoons.
It was a truly unique experience, and it seems it was also an activity that was highly ranked by the locals, as there was so many people there. We actually opted to see the fireflies in the Sankeien garden in Yokohama. Yokohama is the second biggest city in Japan, and from the hotel we managed to get there in about 40 minutes on the JR Keihin-Tohoku/ Negishi Rapid Line. You can board the train at Hamamatsucho station. The park was lovely, and we ended up spending a good few hours walking around and even having dinner at the kiosk there. Sorry, no pictures of the actual fireflies, as you have to have very good cameras to show them, but please Google them: you will not be disappointed. It was a truly unique and magical experience. Apparently the arrival of the fireflies marks the beginning of the summer, so your best bet to see them is around end of May and beginning to mid June. (entry cost: ¥500 per person) Closest stations are Yamate and Negishi, approximately 40 minutes from Hamamatsucho station.
That is it for now, happy exploring! For more on Tokyo, please visit back in a week time.