Seoul Travels Part 2

I was told off! Ok, maybe that is a bit too harsh, but apparently my posts are super lengthy, and you know what? I agree! The last thing I want to do is to kill my audience as opposed to entertain them.

So ladies and gents, good news! From now on I am trying a new approach based on the above feedback! I will be aiming for more digestible snippets as opposed to trying to compete with the writings of Marcel Proust in length.

Would be interested to hear your feedback on it, but for now let’s continue with Seoul, shall we?

I thought that in this post I would burst the bubble of Korean cosmetics and guide you through the underground malls of Seoul, or at least the ones I came across. Don’t shy away from them, they are serious sourcing locations for music geeks, craft and food lovers… Read along to find out more!

When it comes to South Korea, the one thing you will read everywhere is about their cosmetics; the greatness of it, the variety of it and not to mention the abundance of it. And it is true! At least the last one, but I am sure many swear for the others too. Personally, I was mostly amazed by the number of cosmetic shops located on tiny streets or in fact on any streets. At one point I think I counted seven adjacent cosmetics shops. It seems like a never-ending opportunity for them with girls standing outside and trying to get you in the shop by handing out free promotional stuff. But how much you can actually buy, or should you buy?

Well, let’s look at the positives of this cosmetics heaven;

Price: Competition creates lower prices, and it is definitely the case in Seoul. You can stock up on reasonably priced creams, foundation and face masks. Oh the face masks…. I think one could write a full book on them, the variety is just crazy, you can find some with avocado, aloe vera, coconut, clay, enriching minerals…. You get the picture…really, with everything.

Location: Think about it this way… if you can’t find it in the first shop, you will in the second, third, fourth… or the ninth and you still only walked 500 metres. Win-win situation.

Promotion: You should really watch out for the promotions in the shops as you can get some good value for money. Like the buy one get one free (my personal favourite!) or get a free gift with the purchase offers.

 

Now the downside…

I mean do you really need any of these items? It is a frank conversation that you need to have with yourself as it is soooooo easy to get weak and you will end up buying things that you will never ever use. Trust me, I know! It happened to me before, but to add to my tragic, I was seriously jet lagged after a 16 hours flight to Los Angeles, and I thought it would be a good idea to go shopping. I went into this mall where they had all these stalls with free samples and 24k gold face mask and much worse. They lure you into a conversation on how pretty you are, how nice your hair is and from that it is downside if you show any weakness. And I must have, as I ended up buying loads, that you have rightfully guessed, never ever used. The funny thing is that these products all seem to work when they try it on you, and as soon as you get home and try them; you no longer see the miracle difference about your wrinkles or the softness of your skin. I wonder how they do it…

So ladies, one piece of advice, be strong and fierce and have a budget that you will be happy to pour down the drain. Otherwise you will end up like me, and would not even admit it to your own sister how much you actually spent on creams!

Now, in Seoul I managed to stay strong and reasonable… well, at least I think… Let me share with you the goodies I left with… and I was very happy with them, no regrets whatsoever! (unlike after my Los Angeles trip!!)

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My Bioderma gift set

Bioderma… I mean can you beat this? I needed some make up remover anyway and knew that it was one of the best brands. Watsons (one of the cosmetic shops where they actually don’t try to lure you into anything) had an offer on where the 500ml bottle came with a 250ml sibling. Price is 38USD. I am currently using the blue bottle that is for dehydrated sensitive skin. I love the smell and my skin afterwards, though yes, with my mascara it struggles a bit, but after the second wipe, it is OK.

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Snail cream, made in Korea. They had regular and intensive

Snail cream… well, my sister and mum are always going on about them, that they are supposed to be great, so I wanted to surprise them with these. They also had a great variety, so you will most certainly find something that will suit your needs and budget. 10USD and above.

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My Vichy twin set

Now, my old time favourite is the mineral mist! I mean give me something else that in 34C degrees will cool your red face down and will refresh you in public without you making a clown out of yourself. You can’t! It is so refreshing, I normally spray on my face, hair, neck and cleavage and no, it will not smudge your make up. Best used after popping it in the fridge for a while. They had offers on various brands, but I opted for the travel-sized Vichy buy one get one free pack; 16USD for the double pack. The bigger size was actually even more economical; the only problem with that is carrying around such a huge bottle!

Fun fact….

If your make up, deodorant, mineral face spray needs retouching whilst you are on the go in Seoul do not be ashamed to pop into one of the stores and refresh yourself. It is normal, don’t be shy, everyone does it, well, at least the locals, and no, they don’t even get a look ( ok, maybe I looked at them a bit surprised, but the first time only, after that I was like, hah, give me a bit of that as well to try!)

So I managed not to go overboard this time on cosmetics and only bought the things I know I would use. Although I am going to share with you my old time favourite product, the one, which I cannot live without, and as you can see I have a substantial amount of it stocked up in my bathroom. Luckily, they sell this originally Australian beauty in Hong Kong… as before, I had to beg people to bring some for me whenever they travelled to Australia.

I prefer the travel size option and I always carry one in my bag. When I use it as a lip balm, fine, no reaction from people, the fun part begins when I start using it on mosquito bites or burns so basically on the rest of my body. Then I normally get the look, followed by the question of ‘what the hell is that?!’ Well, it is my miracle cream, that I pretty much use for everything. From, as you have guessed my lips to dry skin on my feet to all face moisturisers in the evenings, but it is also good for boils, burns, chafing, cuts, cracked skin, gravel rash, splinters, open wounds, insect bites and nappy rash. I just love this cream, great for so many things and it is all-natural       (fermented papaya). My love for  Luca’s Papaw ointment is forever!

 

What else is worth getting in Seoul… Well, I am sure many things, but the ones I came across were these

Vinyls….

I stumbled across this underground shopping mall near my hotel and even though I am not a collector I was still amazed by the sheer volume of vinyls that I came across. The price from 5 USD also seemed reasonable. So if you are a real music geek or at least you know one, don’t forget to drop by this place.

Where to go: Head to the Hoehyun Shopping Centre in Myeongdong, just opposite of the Shinsegae Food Market

Craft material

From beads to ribbons to wood and much more! This underground shopping mall is a heaven for the crafts and hobby lovers. In many of the tiny shops they also do workshops. Happy crafting…

Where to go: Head to Namdaemunno Underground Shopping Centre

And for the serious food lovers

This underground arcade will bring tears in your eyes if you love your cakes, pastries, meat and basically all the good stuff that you can eat. Plus it may provide you with a great alternative to the local cuisine. We all have days when we want some comfort food or something that we are familiar with, and seriously who could say no to some nice jamón?

 

Where to go: Head Shinsegae Food Market in Myeongdong,  Business hours; Department store 10:30-20:00, Restaurant 11:00-21:30, Duty Free 09:30-21:00

I hope you enjoyed Seoul Travels Part 2, yes, as you may have guessed; there will be a Part 3. So visit back soon! Love_intentionally blonde

Seoul Travels Part 1

I think I am going to break some rules here and post an entry on my most recent trip. I have just returned from Seoul, South Korea a few days ago, and have so many things in my head, which I want share with you. Even though I promised more on Japan (yes really, I have more about it) and a birthday special in my following entries, I have no choice, but let this beast roar first.

Let me start with a summary of things I learnt during this trip;

Number One, I cannot eat with thin metal chopsticks!

Number Two, Korean and Hungarian cuisine share some similarities (I know, who would have thought?!)

Number Three, Thai people know something about South Korea that I failed to establish!

I guess the first one speaks for itself, and some of you may be even able to relate to my struggle. Not so much fun, when you try to look like that you have the whole Asian food customs under your belt, and can’t even pick up some rice! Embarrassing!

The explanation of number two and three shall follow together with some usual tips on eating, shopping, sightseeing and anything else that was fun during my trip… Happy reading, though yet again, I am sharing my thoughts and ideas in a few parts, as not sure who has time and patience for marathon reading sessions these days.

I had this image in my head that Seoul will be very similar to Japan, and I will make some amazing discoveries similarly to Tokyo. Or maybe it was Antoine who kept saying that to me, and just as any couples would do, I took his thought, and with time, I thought it was actually mine!

Regardless of the fact that the daily average temperature was 34  degrees Celsius, and there were times I really thought I am going to faint and had to seek shelter in air conditioned shops or cafeterias, I really did try and explore the city. So naturally, I walked a lot! And when I say a lot, I mean an average 18km a day , and this is not a typo, I really mean eighteen.

The trick is that you alternate shoes every day, as my good friend Marita told me once, when we were on our feet all day helping at the Abu Dhabi F1 race. As each shoe affects different pressure points on your sole, wearing a different pair everyday will reduce the pain and fatigue in your legs. And no, this doesn’t mean that if I go on a trip for a week, I take 7 different pairs of shoes; ok, maybe sometimes I do, but it is not because of the pressure points, but because of all eventualities. For you ladies out there, I guess I do not have to explain this further.

So, yes I tried all my usual things in Seoul; explore, discover and try to blend in and really find the cool and unique stuff that I could share with Antoine and of course with you guys.

Well, did I succeed? Yes and no, but I guess, I let you be the judge of that…

Where I stayed:

Really unlike me, this time, I left the hotel booking 3 days prior to my departure, but I guess overall this was not surprising as Seoul was a last minute alternative after me joining Antoine on his Vietnamese trip, didn’t quite work out. So I guess some of the places were already fully booked, and the choices were slightly limited.

I did what I normally do, and went through a website called trivago.com. The reason why I always start with this one as it compares all the sites that sell hotel rooms, so you get a quick overview of the hotels available and some of the best rates at the same time.Very often booking.com has the best offer, but sometimes agoda or other sites take the trophy for the lowest price. So be sure to go via trivago.com first.

In Seoul I wanted to stay somewhere central but quiet, and the reviews for Shinshin Hotel Myeongdong were good, and the room rate was also reasonable. Now finding the hotel for the first time might be a bit tricky, but I was lucky that my taxi driver knew the place, despite it being a smallish boutique hotel, I think all together they have 55 rooms. But if you tell your driver that it is behind the Bank of Korea, right next to the Hotel Golden Tulip, it should be no problem locating it.

Ok, so let’s start with the positives; I liked the location, central though still quiet, plenty of convenience stores and restaurants nearby, and you also have metro stations in walking distance. They say the City Hall station is the closest, but I normally opted for Euljiro 1-ga (Line 2), as I found that one quite convenient to walk to. Also in walking distance to the hotel there was the Lotte department and two of the markets; Myeongdong and Namdaemun Market. The Airport Limousine bus also stops at the end of the hotel street. Charges for it to Incheon Airport is the equivalent of 15USD otherwise, in a fixed price taxi it will cost you 65USD.

The room was also clean and spacious ;I got upgraded on arrival so I had a king bed and all the pillows just to myself. The bed was also very comfortable, which can definitely be a deal breaker. The service I also liked, and the staff on reception was polite and approachable with great English. Two bottles of water was also provided each day.

Now, the things I would change if I could… the bathroom arrangement. I mean if you are alone or not a shy person then I guess it is not a big problem that the bathroom is only partially separated from your bedroom, and therefore privacy is rather questionable. But on the brighter side the toilet was located separately with a door! So not all was lost.

The room had two big windows one of which had a blind instead of the regular black out curtain, so every morning around 6-7am, as the sun was coming up, my room was also getting brighter and brighter with the sun light peaking through each side of the shade. I also love my morning coffee, actually morning Nescafe (please don’t judge!) so as a regular traveller I bought a small cartoon of milk the night I arrived, and put it in the fridge so I wouldn’t need to rely on the minuscule milk jiggers in the morning. Only to find in the morning that there were no coffee sticks in the room. So the next day I had to remedy that as well, so I bought some coffee in the convenient shop nearby, but guess what, there was no sugar or teaspoon in the room either. But hey, I managed to adjust, and who needs that extra sugar anyway!

Now, the question one may ask is whether I would go back and stay in this hotel? Probably… but I would take eyeshades, coffee, sugar and a teaspoon with me, and preferably a person that I am not shy in front of…

View from the room at night, and the inside of the room

Where to eat:

Before I start with the restaurants in Seoul, I would quickly like to share my experience on the flight. I actually flew with Korean Air from Hong Kong to Seoul Incheon airport, and was very pleased with the service and the flight in general. Trust me on this; I worked in aviation for over 10 years.

Knowing how on-board food can be I had a sandwich in my bag, but sometimes, when the on-board service reaches my row I get a bit indicesive, and I give in and take the airline food instead (or as well- to be more precise). So this time I was offered the seafood western and the Korean style dish. Well, I am not a fan of seafood and I was going to start my adventure on the plane anyway, so of course I opted for the Korean version. So I got my tray and the next thing the cabin crew asks me is whether I know how to eat Korean food. Hmmm, I really wanted to say that well, I think you put it in your mouth and chew on it before swallowing, but not sure if she would have understood my light hearted banter, so instead I opted for a polite, I am not sure.

I was quickly explained that the rice goes on the top of the minced meat and the vegetables and you put the sesame oil and hot chilli paste in, and mix it until you get a well-mixed messy mixture. I was closely observing my neighbours and I think I did just fine. The next time I came across this dish, I was already confident in my skills, and when the waitress turned up with my plate, I was even at liberty to say that she had forgotten my chilli paste.

Later on I learnt that the name of this dish was bibimbap, which I think sounds hilarious, and I can’t get enough saying it. This dish also shows a lot of resemblances with the Hungarian “rizses hús ( aka mixed rice with meat). So try the Korean or Hungarian version, or both, you will not be disappointed.

The Bibimbap as it is served, once mixed and the choices ( no, not the boys…)

Menmusha

I actually ate at this place twice. And you know what, the funny thing is that I was not the only one! Let me tell you this little story… On my second night in Seoul I was very hungry and being alone I guess I am a bit more cautious and less adventurous about where I eat. Close to my hotel I came across this little restaurant with photo menu on display. I guess this always helps when you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.   So I entered and was not disappointed, there were quite a few guests with two of the tables being  occupied by foreigners; one French family with kids and an Asian family. I probably arrived around 8 o’clock. Two days after this, I was planning an early dinner as I had no real food all day, so I thought okay, I know this place already, so I headed back to Menmusha at around 6pm. I was sitting at my table when an Asian man walked through the door who looked familiar, which I thought was rather strange on my second day ever in Seoul. Then the son followed, then the mother, then I quickly realised it was the same Asian family from two nights ago. I was wondering if they also recognised me. So I guess this should be a good proof of the food quality; two returning customers in two days.

Having said that, as I was ordering my dinner the first night, I was most surprised to find that the menu had our favourite sake on offer and they also served Asahi. I guess after seeing the little samurai statues and the ramen soup choice, it was slowly sinking in that I actually had picked a Japanese restaurant in Seoul! Oh well, the ramen soup was very nice and it was a huge portion, and I had my fried pork cutlet with cabbage salad, which was lean and crispy! Price was also reasonable as I paid 10000 Korean won (around 10USD) for my combo meal. Though if you make the mistake of ordering a glass of Asahi beer, you may be just as surprised to see as I was, that it costs 8000 won! So maybe stick to the water that comes free with each meal, and enjoy your beer somewhere else.

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The reason why I returned twice

Where to go:

I ate at the one that was located near my hotel on Sejong-daero 18-gil, but looking at their website they have more than one shops in Seoul.

http://menmusha.co.kr

 

Chon

My best find was the Chon restaurant in the Bukchon area. The plan for the day was to visit Bukchon village together with Gyeongbokgung palace….( I will talk about this area  more in my next posts) I walked from my hotel all the way to Insa-dong Street, and was heading to the palace via some small streets that promised some cute galleries and good potentials for lunch or early diner later on. I took some pictures of the places so I can remember where to go back to, when I actually gave in, as it was lunchtime and at that stage I haven’t even had breakfast yet. From the window tables and what I could gather from the outside I was ready for a small day time no special restaurant, only to find a huge indoor space, great lightings and ambience as I entered. Needless to say that I was the only foreigner, what I don’t necessarily take as a bad sign, though they had an English menu and the restaurant staff spoke some English. There was a set lunch menu available though it could be only ordered for a minimum of two people, so I opted for some soup and was considering some fried pork as well. Luckily, the waiter told me it was a lot to order for one, so I settled for the reasonable soup option. The portion anyway was set for 1-2 person and I can confirm that even if Antoine had been around it would have been still enough.

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The ambience; with lot of wood and gentle lighting

I don’t mind eating alone, but what I miss is sharing and trying out different things, as really when it is just you, it looks slightly odd ordering four different dishes.

So my pickles and some tiny dried fish arrived first. It seemed these came with every order. I tried a few, and I really liked the green chive salad and the pickled radish. Coming from “Pickle-land aka Hungary”, I guess the latter should not come as a surprise. Then, my huge bowl of uncooked soup arrived on the top of a portable cooker. The waiter left, and I really hoped that he would come back and give me some instructions, as I had no clue what I was supposed to do. My cooker was eventually turned on and the soup started cooking. I was sitting patiently to start with then, I got a bit uncomfortable as the soup was heavily boiling and I still didn’t know what to do! Luckily the waiter came back and I took my chance to clarify my role in the cooking process. It turned out he was there to cook the soup for me, cut the meat and assist with anything else, and no, this was not for the ‘no clue tourists’ only, but for all the guests. I was looked after well and was attended regularly with precise countdown given to me when I could actually start eating my soup.

And the soup itself was so delicious; full of Asian style mushrooms and almost sweet flavoured beef, so it is not a surprise that I ate more than I should have. Still, I was very proud of myself, as by the end of the dish my white dress, despite my chopstick manoeuvre and glass noodle handling and slurping, was still not showing any stains!

So please go to this place, I have every confidence that you will love it!

My gorgeous Korean soup from start to finish, 28USD for two

Where to go: 

The business card of the restaurant and the street I took from Insa-dong street, which was the first street on the left (from the Anguk station end)

Oh and one for the road…

I only bought this sweet from vendors on the street, but I was not disappointed on either of the occasions. Ok, I know it is full of sugar, but the doughnut just tasted so so good, and for me, this, any time beats the usually overly sweet Dunkin’ Donuts. Sorry fans out there! Again, if you are in Hungary, watch out for its twin, called the ‘csavart fánk’ aka twisted doughnut.

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My guilty pleasure

Where to shop:

I think I ought to start with a summary of where I didn’t shop. I know it sounds strange, but as much as I tried to find something good at a reasonable price, I think I failed. And I had high hopes for Korea. Why? Almost every time I went to Bangkok and found a cute little dress, or something unique and trendy as per the clothes tag, it was always a Korean brand! So I thought why go via a distributor, when I can go to Korea myself and pick it up cheaper, haha, yes, dream on….

So, women of Seoul who are into fashion, where do you shop that doesn’t break your bank account?!

Now the list of my failed attempts and the reason for that; Believe me, if you are in Seoul, it will be difficult for you to avoid these places as it is on all blogs and travel sites, but maybe like this, I can save you a trip.

Namdaemun Market: Opening hours 11-18pm

Well, what to expect from this market; a lot of shops and maize like arrangements. There are some covered malls where at least you can get some air conditioning, in case you visit in the summer heat like I did, but generally prices were not even that low.I think if I was going to recommend an area for shopping to my grandma, this would be it! I also found a wholesale silver shop in one of the covered little malls, but the jewellery looked very similar to me and reminded me of my favourite silver shop in Bangkok in the MBK mall. I nearly asked where the items were coming from when I spotted the label on the packages, made in Thailand.

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The little alleys can get quite crowded, the market is popular with locals

So final score based on price and products: 2/10

Lotte Outlet by Seoul Station KTX

I didn’t actually plan for this shop, but at 1pm it was so hot outside, that I thought OK lets just do some exploration, maybe I will find something cool here.

The price range was just hilarious with most of the items of 200USD or above and the sales assistant was rather rudely explaining to me that yes these are all on sale so it is not 195USD only 158USD for a pair of leather sandals that was not even special.

The funny thing was seeing all these people getting excited and rummaging through the rails of sale items up to 60 -70% mark down, only to find that the items were still around 300USD. And no, these were not even designer items, or at least not that I know of. And yes, I saw some cool stuff that I would have been happy with, but for this price, I said no, thank you! Lotte Department next door, actually turned out to have better prices than the outlet with all the sale signs!

So overall experience is a 5/10

Hyundae Department store in Gangnam, at Apgujeong station (Line 3)

This was another mistake of mine, but next time I will know better. Only high-end fashion items with a huge food court upstairs where everything was overpriced. So if you fancy some stylish dumplings and posh noodles, please head this way. I decided I am not old enough for this yet.

Final score is a sad 2/10

Hongdae

This area was supposed to be a good shopping quarter according to many sites. I have to admit I struggled again. Cheap quality items targeting teenagers. They might have fun here, but seriously I did not. The only thing I would say is that there are a number of cool looking bars and restaurants as you come off the main shopping street, and I even came across a cool silver jewellery shop specialising in handmade rings just right opposite to the Danish restaurant on the picture. The guy was nice and was telling me he had a French wife, so we exchanged some anecdotes on how it is to live with a French. So maybe head to this area for the food in the evening?

 

But for shopping I would give this area a 1/10 (gosh, I am harsh but! I also had an ‘ade'(sparkling drink) here that was supposed to be done with real grapefruit and when the girl in the kitchen reached for the plastic bottle and squirted two portions of orange something in my glass, all my hopes were gone)

Dongdaemun Shopping Area

So in case you haven’t heard this is the shopping area where the malls open at 10am and close at 5am, yes, that is the following morning. Ok not all of them, as some close at 1am already, but I would really like to see who is in their right mind goes there and shops at that time? Maybe next time, I go and check, just for fun.

So there are at least 7 big shopping malls here where you can shop until you drop, literally. I sampled three of them. Here is their review;

Doota (opening hours 10am- 5am (the following morning)

It is true that this was the best mall for trendy and quality products, and I nearly bought a couple of dresses here. However, most of the price tags again were rather harsh. The shoe selection was also a bit disappointing as it was mainly Valentino and Mahnolo Blahnik knock offs, often with not even a fixed price tag on them, and when I asked, there was a different price quoted for cash and for card payment. So just be careful here with this concept.

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Overall it was not too bad and given I nearly bought something here I give a 6/10

Migliore

I visited this store after Doota and after the nice little boutiques, the almost market feeling was rather disappointing. And yes, items were cheap, but so was quality too.

Overall I give a 2/10

GOODMORNING CITY

My third attempt in the Dongdaemun shopping area was this mall, after which, I gave up. Many of the shops were already closed here, even though I must have got there around 9pm. Again a lot of cheap quality, but it seems they had a variety of items like bags and suitcase, cosmetics and souvenirs, so if this is what you need, come here.

Overall 2/10

 

Overall Migliore and GoodMorningCity were quite similar, top right picture was taken at Migliore, bottom right at GMC

Lotte Young

So where I actually bought something was this department store. I have to say it was very busy and there were a good number of brands here that I have never heard of. Overall I was not that much impressed, quickly browsed through the shops and left, though as it seemed it was a popular spot with the locals.

Although at the entrance of the department store I spotted a cute little jewellery shop, you will come across a lot of them in Seoul, many of them selling 925 Sterling Silver.

I am normally into bigger, statement pieces, but for some reason I had an idea of wearing the very thin band of rings. It is classy, subtle and versatile in wearing, so I actually bought two silver ones. They also had it in darker colour and in rose gold option with matching necklace available. I really like them and thinking that maybe I should have stocked up on it a bit more. So if you are into this type of jewellery, visit this stall at the entrance.

 

Overall, due to my purchase 6/10

 

Thanks for reading! Come back for Seoul Travels Part 2, where you can read about tips on the markets, what to do and where to go in the city, the big craze about Korean cosmetics and Korean Pop and more!

Tokyo Travels Part 3

In my final post on Tokyo (for now! as I am sure I will be back to Tokyo again and will be happy to share my tips with you) you can read about the following:

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…

Happy reading! I hope you will find something that interest and inspire you, and you will take up some of my recommendations the next time you are in Tokyo.

…and Dear Park Authority, if you read this entry I hope you will find the beauty of my story. Dear Reader, by the end of this post, the above will all make sense!

Where else to shop… ladies and gentlemen it is bargain hunting time

I covered the basics of Shibuya and mentioned Seria, Uniqlo and GÜ already in my first entry, though I will go on about Uniqlo a bit more here. Promise, solely for your benefit. Even if the brand is available in your country make sure that you check out the flagship store in Ginza. It is the largest in the world and has 12 floors, so guaranteed you will find something either for yourself or as a present. Bear in mind that this shop gets quite busy especially with the Chinese tourists who come on coaches for shopping trips. This area is is considered the Ginza shopping district, so can easily spend a day or two here shop hopping and bargain hunting.

Just remember that Uniqlo and some of the bigger stores also do a VAT exclusion for tourists. The Uniqlo offer is valid for any purchase over ¥5000, but you must have your passport with you, as they staple the receipt in there. Then all you need to do is to hand that slip in at a desk, just before you proceed to immigration at the airport. Ok, the VAT is not that much maybe around 8%, but if you are considering purchasing a few items then it all adds up.

Where to go for the Ginza shopping day out and for the largest Uniqlo in the world just head to Ginza’s main street Chuo Dori

Or cut and paste this into your Google map: Japan, 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座 ギンザコマツ 6−9−5 ギンザコマツ東館 1F-12F

Sunshine City – this is one of the department stores I visit every time I am in Tokyo, and is located in Ikebukuro. I used to get off at the main subway station at Ikebukuro, and fight my way through the crazy amount of people both under and over ground, but I must be getting subway savvy, or just got lucky this time (either way it works me). I was taking the Ginza line and noticed that the Y10 station aka Higashi Ikebukuro (just one station before Ikebukuro) had some signposts for Sunshine City. So off I jumped the metro and followed the signs. I was in the mall in less than 5 minutes, no big crowd, no hassle, just pure satisfaction! I think I nailed it, just as good as a local!

Now, I will tell you how on earth I ended up in this mall the first time, as it was not down to coincidence, but careful research and map reading. Believe me, you would probably not find this mall by luck! It is rather a mission in itself!

If you read my previous post on Tokyo, you might have gathered that in the family we have a thing going on for Studio Ghibli, and I really wanted to get some authentic souvenirs for Antoine. However, I read that the Ghibli museum was quite far out of the city, so was very happy when I came across a shop that was specialising in Studio Ghibli items. Since the first trip, we got a few more gismos, but still my favourite are these chopsticks. But even if you don’t buy anything, the shop worth a visit, not to mention, you can get a picture taken with Totoro waiting at the bust stop. Always fun 🙂     ( I know you probably wonder what the hell… )

You can find all Studio Ghibli characters here and the shop also sell Moomins gadgets

Our favourite chopsticks. I own the pair with Jiji, aka the black cat from Kiki’s delivery service.

The mall itself is not that known to tourists, or at least I have not seen a lot of them here, so you will mainly come across locals, which is also reflected in some of the fashion and items that are on offer. My favourite area though is the market hall within the mall, which is located at the far end on the lower level. I found some real gems in this area, though not every time I get lucky. The brand is called archives and is a tiny boutique within the market hall as you enter. Not everything is great here, but I found the best tulle skirt (yes the ballerina type tutus) here. I started off with a navy blue and I liked them so much that since I bought a khaki green and an off white during the follow up visits. So basically, I bought the skirt in every colour that it has been ever made in! I get so many compliments and the skirts are really nicely done, you have two layers of soft tulle and finally an underskirt that is not 20 cm shorter than your actual skirt!

Even if you are not a girlie girl, you will love these tulle ballerina skirts. I wear my navy blue with a navy blue top and a black leopard ankle boots, just to rock it up a bit, or wear the khaki one with my gold top for a more dress up look.

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Who said only little girls get to wear tutu skirts?

This time unfortunately the shop did not have anything exciting, but this will not prevent me from returning and checking the stock next time I am in Tokyo. And to my luck I stumbled across archives’ outlet store, where I managed to get some shopping done. Read along if you are interested.

Another shop that is also worth checking out and is in the market hall area is the retro girl. I got this top there for ¥1800 in May, well before the off shoulder craze hit the stores. Anyhow, the pattern and style is classic, so I am sure I will use it for a good few years.

What else is in Sunshine City… You have a 3 coins store, where everything is ¥300, and right next to it there is a shop with cute home decoration items. The variety of ladies accessories is also endless here, and they are normally a great bargain. The place is also great for getting everything you may need for a Halloween or fancy dress party. Although I am talking about the actual clothes and accessories and not the cheap mock off that you can order online or find in fancy dress shops. The price and the selection could not be compared to what you would find back at home, not to mention that your outfit would be unique. Once, I was planning to dress up as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, believe me finding the right things for it in Dubai, was not easy or cheap, and was very much cursing myself why I was not thinking of this idea whilst I was in Japan!!!

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So you could end up rocking an outfit similar to this stylish Japanese tiny teen. Be brave, I am with you!

Two more things about this place…

Make sure you wonder around the stage area in the middle of the mall. They seem to have always something on. This time I came across a traditional drum show, which I really enjoyed.

Secondly… Have you ever had a bubble tea or any variation of it? Well, if you are in Asia, it is a must, and this cute little Moomins bubble teashop makes a great selection. I opted for the strawberry milk version! Happy slurping! Now you feel like blending in, right?

 

Where to go for Sunshine City: 3 Chome-1 Higashiikebukuro, 豊島区 Tokyo 170-0013, Japan . And don’t forget my tip on getting off at Higashi Ikebukuro. Believe me, it will make your life so much easier. Once you are done with Sunshine City, check out Tokyu Hands that is next to the mall. It is a bit hard to explain what to expect from this department store, lets just say you can buy everything here from hobby and craft materials to travel gadgets and magic trick accessories. So chances of you finding what you need ( and don’t need ) is very very high!

OIOI – at Ueno. This department store would be my other recommendation for shopping. It is one of my new discoveries and I was very happy with myself. Go there if you are interested in more grown up and sophisticated fashion, and also for shoes!!! My big problem with Japanese shoes has always been that they seemed to be catering either for the youngsters made out of PVC with rocket high platforms, or the grandmothers with comfortable and ugly design. I always felt a bit sad that I could not get any nice and unique design combined with leather material. But good news, this store finally understands my needs! Not saying it is cheap, but for once my eyes could have a feast on the display.

This department store is also the home of the archives outlet. Sorry ladies, can’t remember which floor it was on, but at least you have an excuse to check out the whole place. I ended up with this peach beauty for a ¥1900 and even though this skirt is lacking the same drama effect compared to my others due to the fact that it has only one layer of tulle, the colour compensates for a lot.

 

I left the best shopping find last, hopefully that was not a mistake, and you are still reading the article.

So here it goes, the best bargain I’ve found in the city.Tokyo City Flea Market – apart from my picnics I am also a practicing enthusiast when it comes to flea markets. I think I just love a good old bargain hunt and the market experience. Unfortunately some vendors have a ‘special’ price for the tourists so please be sceptical about that; still, you can find some good buys.

First I was a bit disappointed as I missed out on a good few markets as they are either organised on the first or last weekend of each month, and of course I ended up being in Tokyo on the middle two. C’est la vie, and I just did some more research, then persistence just payed off. So this beauty is held every Saturday and Sunday. Apparently it is only cancelled in case of rain. It opens at 9am and even though the official closing hour is 3pm, I found that lot of the vendors were gone by 2pm. On Saturday I had a nice stroll around the market bought a pre-loved gorgeous silk kimono, which I just love, especially the colours, and if you know how much a kimono cost new in a shop, you will love the prices here.

 

I was hesitating about a leather bag, but at the end I left it. Had some street foods they sold at the market and headed back to the city for some strolling around.

Of course the following day I still had the leather bag on my mind, and when I popped into Zara and saw all the fake leather bags for ridiculous amount, I knew I had a new mission of returning and finding that leather bag! I think it was good job that I was all by myself as I raced through the whole town, being the market at the opposite end of the city to where I had just experienced this moment of enlightenment, as I could have appeared slightly obsessive to anyone experiencing these moments with me. But as they say, need is a must!

Don’t want to create suspension for too long, so let’s just say I found THE BAG, even though the vendor was at a different spot on Sunday, plus bought three more! Among which I had a vintage Nina Ricci handbag and a Loui Gioune cute little doctors bag. Well, they are pre loved and the Loui Gioune may not have years in left in it, but as long as it is holding together I will cherish every moment with it and wear it proudly. Oh, and did I mention that I paid ¥200 each, minus my leather satchel bag, that was a ¥1000.

So ladies, I think we can conclude that listening to our intuition pays off, literally, on this occasion. The bags from left to right, the vintage Nina Ricci, the Loui Gioune and super soft leather satchel that I had to go back for.

After my Sunday market visit I am now also a proud owner of this very heavy and quite unpractical to carry, but regardless, beautiful glass plate. Sold and bought for ¥100 at the moment of everyone packing up! I think in technical terms, this is what you might literally call a closing deal! And apart from Antoine having nearly a heart attack for having to carry this heavy beauty all over the airport, it is now a nice central piece in our kitchen.

Overall I think it was lucky that I returned on Sunday as there were much more vendors compared to Saturday, and I think I managed to bag some great bargains. But I let you be the judge of that. Antoine also got some souvenirs, a grey summer scarf and a vintage Apollo lighter from the 1960’ s that turned out to have a tiny fault as the gas valve leaks, but we (I am) not giving up on it yet, and will try to get it fixed.

The lighter and the famous glass plate; let the picture not fool you about the size of our 4kgs plate!

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 left and carry on walking until you walk past the Oi Racecourse on your left. Then you should arrive in a couple of minutes.

Watch out for this sign, and just to prove that it wasn’t only me obsessed with the bags!

My best find during this visit must be a hidden oasis in this big city; the Hibuya park. I love to visit parks during city breaks, especially to rest my aching legs in between doing an average 10km walks every day, soak in a bit of sunshine and watch the world go by.

Hibuya is actually the best park I came across in Tokyo. It is hidden among the office buildings in the area, and as tourists normally opt for the Imperial Palace next door, Hibuya Park does rarely get discovered and enjoyed. However, it is a popular site with the local people especially during lunch hours from the nearby offices, so expect bench sharing between the hours of 12pm and 2pm. The park is well maintained and has a number of different areas you can enjoy. On day 1 I only strolled around the water fountain section and spent a good few hours enjoying my strawberry milk and writing a nice letter to Antoine for our anniversary by using the traditional Japanese pen, and no I did not get  funny looks, or at least I did not notice! The same day I also discovered the Western style rose garden, and a tiny little pub where you can enjoy a cold Asahi close to the exit on the Imperial Palace side.

The second time I’ve visited the park that week, I also found the corner lake with the turtles and raised sidewalk with benches overlooking the park. This became really my favourite spot. Once Antoine arrived, I also introduced him to this place, where we enjoyed a nice al fresco lunch from Lawson with a small bottle of champagne to compensate for the slightly stale bread we had to put up with.

What I also found out that on the outdoor stage next to the fountain area the Tokyo Police Orchestra was giving a free concert between the hours of 12pm- 1pm on a Wednesday. I was planning to go back the following week to see if this was a regular event, but missed out on it. So if you are there, please go and check and let me know if it is definitely a weekly programme. The stage is quite big and I expect that there is a lot of good programmes organised here for free.Enjoy the cultural experience and the blending in with the locals!

The best spot in the park together with the heart shape cut out on the tree trunk that only noticeable from a certain angle.

For the couples and the romantic hearts out there…

My last item is going to be on a rather personal and sloppy topic, though I feel the need to tell you this, if I had already shared so much about Tokyo. Let me explain… I was in Tokyo in May 2015 with Antoine, and we spent the day separately. Not sure what Antoine was doing, I was probably doing some shop hopping. Either way, I fully support the idea of some ‘me time’ even on our holidays together. Plus it is also nice to return home aka to the hotel room in a different country and knowing that someone is waiting for you. Well, this time, Antoine just did that, but with a huge pot of beautiful blue hydrangea. It is really my favourite flower and was very surprised to see a live plant on the bedside table in the hotel room as I entered. Although the issue of what we were going to do with the plant arose quickly, as we could not take live plants to our next destination.

So Antoine suggested that he would plant it. He walked forever, but finally found a great spot in the middle of Tokyo. He used a spoon and dag a new home to our plant. And this is how we ended up with a little part of us living now in Tokyo.

I was actually shocked to see how busy the spot was that Antoine had found! Even to take picture with our plant I feel sometimes embarrassed about, and Antoine was kneeling there and digging with a spoon probably for hours! So really, all my respect goes to him. He may not get an A for practicality, but for being a romantic soul, definitely. Every time we return to Tokyo, we visit our plant. We were glad to see that it survived the winter, and the park attendants did not remove it either. In fact it has turned into a big and happy plant by now, as Antoine says, it represents our love!

I am not saying that you should all plant things on your holiday; I am purely sharing our story with you and how new traditions, even if fairly unconventional ones may develop, in the name of love and travelling.

2015 and then in 2016. The beautiful blue has turned into beautiful lilac due to the soil composition.

 

-THE END-

 

So what is next you may rightly ask? Well, I have more on Japan, but before you cry out loud, let me just say that only a couple of short entries on Osaka and Kyoto. After that, I am planning Thailand and Bali, and the rest is surprise for now, but luckily my travel schedule is looking busy! So plenty of exciting destinations are coming up not to mention a birthday special. Hence I hope to see you back here!

Tokyo Travels Part 2

As promised after my first entry, in this post you will read about my following Tokyo discoveries

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)

 Happy reading, planning and daydreaming!

Where to eat:

One thing we noticed in Tokyo was that restaurants close quite early everywhere, some at 10pm, others at 11pm, so bear that in mind when you are planning your evening. Also, on Sundays, most of the traditional Japanese restaurants and bars will be closed, so you may need to opt for a chain or a hotel restaurant.

Of course, there is no shortage in restaurants in Tokyo and it is great for exploring. Some will have English menu, at others you can choose from a picture selection, though you will come across a fair amount where you need to improvise. I remember our first time in Japan; we weren’t really prepared with Japanese expressions for pork, octopus and the rest, so after the first few restaurants where we had to randomly point at Japanese characters on the menu, we ended up drawing some animals on a piece of paper. You should have seen Antoine’s first attempt to draw a cow! Not that my chicken was that much better! So our ‘Pictionary’ attempts have eventually developed into what we named as our survivor card. Here it is for a bit of laugh.

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The one and only Japan survivor card from 2014

Nowadays we speak the basic food language so we can order chicken, beef, tuna and octopus, though we often are (ok mainly Antoine is) adventurous enough and just select a few things randomly on the menu, and hope (especially me) that it is not beef tongue or chicken skin that will follow.

But, when in Japan, you have to go with the flow and one thing you should do is to be brave enough to venture into the little traditional restaurants that are often filled with local people only. At first, it can be a bit intimidating, but once you downed your first cold sake, you will become more and more relaxed and will enjoy the experience. I have to admit, when I am on my own, I am slightly less brave, though with Antoine it is funny, as he doesn’t mind doing the initial assessment of the places and peeking through the little curtains and windows to check the places out. I follow him to most of the places…though I hold the veto power.

Japanese people are also very friendly, so if you show some willingness to communicate; a smile or a hand gesture could get you far. They also enjoy a brief conversation, and normally ask where you come from. This was the case in Yuki’s bar as well. We were actually going back to Shimbashi to try to find a restaurant that we enjoyed very much, back in January 2016, but unfortunately the place was closed. So we carried on with our search and ventured into the tiny streets, away from the crowds of Shimbashi. Yuki’s bar had a great entrance with huge stone steps and the ambience was a mixture of western and eastern charm. Was definitely a great spot for some cold sake, and as it turned out, also a place to start a new friendship.

We were offered to try at least 7 different types of sake, before settling for the one we liked the best, of course this was all on an empty stomach. But fear not, as some very delicious food followed… We ordered our usual sashimi plate, which was great, but despite me eating raw fish now, I have a tolerance level and once I reach that, I need something cooked! So luckily we got some baby grilled corns, followed by some pork slices with grilled peppers and shiitake. I just loved it. So much actually, that I wanted to come back and eat the same things again and again. Hence we told Yuki that we would be back.

Yes, that is me in the below mentioned devil horns, and I am very glad that the picture is so dark and blurry 🙂

In a couple of days time we returned as promised, but we only got to the bar as it was closing and we found Yuki in his boxers behind the bar, changing back from his work clothes. I was gutted as all day I was picturing myself having the pork and my grilled pimiento again, plus I was sooo hungry!

Yuki apparently had to meet his mum or that was what we understood, and he gestured that we should go with him. That was my chance gone of having a proper dinner that night, so I thought, and I pictured the 7/11 shelves and what might be left on it when we finally get around to eat. Sulk!

Before the rest of the story, you have to know that under no circumstances I do karaoke, and despite much encouragement from friends I still deny participation and just quietly and very quickly disappear from the scene. So to my luck Yuki took us to this private Japanese whisky/karaoke club that was run by his 70 years old mum, and as it seemed it also functioned as the family and friend-entertaining venue after the regular closing times. The evening turned out to be hilarious with a lot of sake and karaoke, and of course, us not singing was out of the question! I don’t think I’ve ever had such a crazy night; a room full of strangers being so welcoming and despite of us not understanding each other by words, the singing, the dancing and the hand signals did the job. And guess what, Yuki made some phone calls at the night, and shortly after we got our (my!!!) favourite dishes delivered and the same sake we had selected the other day. At one point I had an devil headpiece put on me by Yuki’s mother, who was also wearing one, and we danced and sang as if there was no tomorrow, until 1 am. Antoine had to get up that day at 6 am for his meeting. Oops.

We always planned to have a Japanese karaoke experience in those private rooms with Antoine, but never got around it, or just never had enough sake to build up the courage. I guess life had enough of our indecisiveness and arranged it for us!

Yuki, very sweetly, sent a message the following day in his broken English. “Yesterday thank you, September see you. “ As we were leaving that night we said that we were hoping to return to Tokyo for a few days in September.

Screenshots of our Google map entry and the bar found on Google. Just type this address in to locate the place; Japan, 〒105-0004 Tōkyō-to, Minato-ku, Shinbashi, 2 Chome−13−13-3

So if you are Tokyo, and want to enjoy a great bar with great sake selection and food, please visit Yuki’s bar. Can’t guarantee the karaoke craze afterwards, but you will not be disappointed even with the standard experience, I promise. And please mention that you are there due to Tony’s and Adrienn’s recommendation and pass our regards onto Yuki.

A bit of culture

Akihabara: Anime nails and video games. Of course you must have read about the vide games in this area, but did you know that you can get super cool anime nails done here?! I went for some Studio Ghibli options; Totoro, Mae, Kiki and Jiji. Studio Ghibli fans out there, I know you will truly appreciate this! I loved it so much and it lasted for a good few weeks. Some things to consider though before you sit down in the nail salon chair. They are made from scratch, these are not stickers, but a truly amazing form of art and you can watch the whole process. It was actually pretty cool, even though to get one nail done was approximately 30-40 minutes and not that cheap as I recall it was ¥2000 per nail.

Pros to get it down here, amazing quality, lasts weeks and boyfriend can be occupied with the video games in the same building or nearby. Win- win situations, isn’t just?

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Must be at the beginning of the 2 hours sitting still 😉 though was very happy to watch the artist working

Some tips: don’t get base colour under the figure, only a see through coat, as once your nail grows it will be too obvious and you would need to get rid of the figure as well quite quickly.

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TADAM, the final result! Let me introduce you to Totoro, Kiki, Mae and Jiji ( from left to right) all painted from scratch, and I promise in reality my fingers are less sausage looking

You can take pictures with you as communications in English can be quite limited, though I mentioned the figure name, she Googled it, and I picked the image I most liked! Oh, and it is gel nail polish, so once you are done with it, you need to get is scraped off. Happy painting!

Where to go: Don Quijote shopping mall, Akihabara, ground floor – don’t expect a big shop, it is a couple of chairs in the corner. But look at the result! I went to the lady with purple hair, though she could have green hair by now!

Yes, as you have probably guessed this was the tip about where to hang out when you feel like being a kid. Before we move onto the slightly more grown up and serious ambience one final advice for the ladies out there who has never really been into video games (like me!!!). Do not shy away from the game parlours in Tokyo, they are certainly a unique experience, and I would have never thought I will say this, but also so much fun! I ended up trying out some dancing and drumming games to start with, and I loved the ones where they test your reflexes as you hit each illuminating character. We also tried some adventure and shooting games together, which were a lot of fun! Needless to say that Antoine beat me 19 games out of 20, and yes I won one!!!, but I loved it and am very glad I gave in. Some advise though: If you aim for the Pachinko floor, don’t forget about the noise and the smoke! Having said that there is never a queue at the ladies toilet here 😉 Who said I am not an optimist?!

So if the above didn’t rock your boat how about some amazing view of Tokyo city instead, a cold glass of Boulanger rose champagne and some smooth jazz music? If this is more like your thing then read along.

The first time we went to the New York Grill Bar at the Tokyo Park Hyatt was for last year’s New Year’s Eve. It was a surprise organised by me marking Antoine’s special birthday, yes, it was one of the big ones.We actually flew on the 31st and landed at Tokyo Narita airport after 7pm. Our reservation was for after 9pm and I knew we had to race through the city, locate our Airbnb for the night (wanted to stay walking distance of the hotel in case of public transport disaster on the night, who would have thought that on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo it is as easy to find a taxi on the street as finding a 7/11 in Asia. Lesson learnt!)

So, just as most of the time, me, stressing about the time and hoping we will have 10 minutes in the flat to actually get ready for a super posh night, whilst Antoine is casually strolling through Shinjuku station admiring anything that is Japanese. This was the point when I thought, OK let’s break the silence about the surprise appointment, though according to Antoine, no issues, we can just stroll around in the city and pop into a bar, yeah, good luck with that on the 31st of December! Anyhow, eventually we located our tiny apartment, got ready in 10 minutes, I think Antoine even had time to smoke a cigarillo, we hailed a taxi off the street and headed for the big surprise.

I loved the whole experience, it was a bit of a splurge, and needless to say that after the 5 courses of set menu we ended up locating a McDonalds at 3am, as the size of the meals were rather questionable. But we had gorgeous cold champagne, a bottle of cold sake, some amazing ambience and smooth live jazz in the background.

So this time in Tokyo Antoine had a business dinner (men only I guess) so I decided that instead of sitting alone in the hotel room, I shall find some entertainment for myself. Googled the Park Hyatt again, and it turned out that they have the jazz performance every night. Wohoooo, I thought, though the fact that I would be sitting alone in a bar made me a tiny bit uncomfortable, I still got my black little dress ready, found the one pair of heels I had packed just in case, put my Lady Danger lipstick on, and headed to the hotel.

There is jazz performance every day starting at 8pm, except on Sundays when it starts at 7pm. I managed to get there a bit after 8 and offered me a nice table. I ordered a glass of Boulanger and soaked in the jazz.

Not bad for a regular weekday, right?

Now lets talk about prices, ok, not cheap, as a glass of champagne starts at ¥2000, and it is easy to have more than one, but cocktails are slightly cheaper and they have some more reasonably priced drinks as well. If you are not a hotel guest, they also charge you ¥2400 cover charge from the time the concert begins, but think about it as a concert ticket price for a 3 hours jazz concert!

By the way if you have not seen the movie of Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, check out the hotel bar scene, as you might find it familiar.

Snaps of the hotel bar and its amazing murals

And finally, something in between, aka the golden middle… Ex-Theatre Roppongi

I really like the music of Damien Rice. So when I learnt that he was coming to play in Hong Kong naturally, I got very excited, then very annoyed. Unfortunately the tickets sold out a month prior to the concert and the one available ticket, that was originally 500HKD, was put on a resale website for 12000HKD!!! I don’t even know how that was legal!

So as it turned out Damien Rice was doing an Asian tour and he was going to be in Tokyo at the same time of our travel. We booked the tickets via Viagogo.com, which was fairy pleasant, though I suggest you get smart on the delivery options. Originally we opted for the tickets to be delivered to Hong Kong, but as nothing seemed to happen a week prior to the concert, we changed the delivery location to the hotel in Tokyo, which eventually worked.

The venue, Ex- Theatre Roppongi, was great. I loved the seating arrangement, with plenty of legroom, great lighting system during the show and well arranged exits and washrooms on each floor. We got there quite early, and formed a queue obediently. They operate on a drink chip system, where you pay ¥500 for a person and get one chip that you can exchange at the bar for any drinks. My suggestion would be to get a couple of chips at least (each), as when Antoine tried to go back for another set of Rum and Coke before the concert began (yes, even the drink choices will take you back a few years into your youth) a queue has developed that was going through 2 floor levels. Having said that, I’ve seen others bringing their own drinks in their backpacks.

In the Ex-Theatre Roppongi waiting for Damien Rice

So next time I am back in Tokyo, I will definitely check who plays there, as they seemed to have a good international selection with a comfortable and airy venue. In case you get unlucky, and nothing is on that would rock your boat, the venue has a rooftop bar that you can also enjoy, regardless.

Address: Ex-Theatre Roppongi 1-2-9 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, 1060031,Tokyo, Japan

 

Thanks for reading; this is the end of Tokyo Travels Part 2. More to follow in the next entry:

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…

 

 

 

Tokyo travels Part 1

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.)

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Little streets around the hotel with plenty of traditional Japanese restaurants and bars to explore, be brave!

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.

Asakusa area:

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!

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Asakusa, Sensoji, large incense burner in front of the main hall of the temple

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?

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After hours of research on knife types and blades it was a close call between some fine Powder steel and Damascus blade chef knives. Tamahagane Damascus won. Top knife is the Gyuto and bottom one is the popular Santoku shape.

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.

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I went for a standard dog shape and a cocker spaniel. Can’t wait for Christmas to use them.

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.

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Japanese girls shopping for 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.

Shibuya:

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:

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.

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Water lily field on Shinobazu pond

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.

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Picnic is over, Antoine is ready to feed the fish

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.

 

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The garden was so pretty with the lights at night, the photos really do not do justice to it

That is it for now, happy exploring! For more on Tokyo, please visit back in a week time.