Last year, Jeff and I got to tick one more long-overdue destination off our travel bucket list, and took a trip to the amazing metropolis of Tokyo, Japan. Jeff spent two weeks there on business with Canon, after which I would join him for an unforgettable cultural experience, delicious food, and of course, amazing photography opportunities! I knew that Jeff was already loving it, so I was excited to join him, yet a little unsure of what to expect. After just a few days in this incredible country, feeling absolutely enamoured, I arrived at the only logical conclusion—that I was definitely, most certainly a Japanese person in a past life. Even though your language and many aspects of your culture are naturally unfamiliar to me, I feel like I just get you, Japan. You obsess over flowering trees, fine food, attention to detail, really hot hot springs (onsen), cool fashion and style, organisation and appealing design, shiny new things, and the perfect cup of tea. You have super fast trains, and you all walk just as fast as me! You love your perfectly manicured gardens, and they make me want to take up meditation. You have cat cafes, and I think I need a yearly membership. Japan, if I wasn’t a member of your club in a past life, can I please join now?
I have never felt more interested in learning the local language of a place that I have visited. I could hardly believe how welcome, respected and even appreciated I felt, by complete strangers—and in this place, Tokyo, which is definitely the largest, most overwhelmingly huge, dense urban landscape I have seen. I wouldn’t even say city. Tokyo is a landscape, a three-dimensional maze that was a joy to get lost in. And people, this is coming from a city girl who used to live in Los Angeles, one of the most notorious examples of urban sprawl that exists on our little planet. I’m sorry L.A., you’re just a medium-sized country town in the true global perspective. New York once amazed me, then was surpassed by Hong Kong. But Tokyo, you got ‘em all beat, my friend.
On a clear day, a sea of skyscrapers can be seen stretching almost endlessly toward the horizon, seemingly impeded only by a majestic mountain range. Yes, that’s the famed Mount Fuji in the distance.
Jeff and I had heard people say that visiting Tokyo was like stepping into the future. There is no place where this vision is more startling than the Blade Runner-esque ward of Shinjuku. Here, every skyscraper is illuminated by a glowing wallpaper of neon lights, in an arms race to capture the fleeting attention of Tokyo’s residents. Indeed, Tokyoites are the biggest technophiles anywhere; they’ve embraced technology in almost every aspect of their daily lives, while still holding strong to their own cultural identity.
The one thing that struck me the most, though, was just the sheer number of people. I have never seen so many people in one place. On every footpath, every alleyway, every train, filling every cavernous subway station down to every hole-in-the-wall sushi bar, were people. It was impossible to walk anywhere without bumping shoulders, elbows, or handbags with someone else. This felt like a glimpse into an overpopulated future Earth, heads bobbing down the streets in an undulating wave, lapping against the urban terraformed landscape.
Above is the highly-recognizeable scramble crossing near Shibuya Station, Tokyo’s answer to Times Square. Below, you can see a street overflowing with shoppers in nearby Harajuku.
Yet the flow of crowds never seemed too suffocating. With a sprawling metro system that runs like clockwork, and a culture that highly values politeness, the city’s population of over 35 million people coexist harmoniously. It was mesmerizing just to watch the endless commuters ebb and flow from the train stations, as seen here from a cafe in Shinagawa Station.
Stashed amongst all the huge, luminescent buildings, were these incredible tiny laneways, a glimpse of what Tokyo was like before the rise of its skyscrapers. These miniature mazes within a maze contained endless tiny bars and restaurants, many with seating only available for four or five people at a time. Our guidebook mentioned a few places to try, but forget trying to locate a needle in this haystack. Not unlike the narrow laneways of Venice, you just have to lose yourself amongst them and wander, and see what you happen upon. And this was, of course, a part of the fun!
Above, you can see one of the tiny bars in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku. The nearby area of Omoide Yokocho, pictured below, can get chock-a-block with salarymen (and women) grabbing a quick bite of yakitori and a few rounds of sake on their way home from work. Fun Fact: in Japanese culture, it is traditional to bring a gift to your spouse if you plan to stumble home drunk!
In a few of the alleyways, we happened upon some alley cats! This sushi shop was closing up, and the manager’s cat looked awfully satisfied. I can’t really imagine a better place (from a cat’s perspective) to live than near a sushi bar!
Tokyo is heaven for foodies. It boasts of having more Michelin-rated restaurants than London, Paris, New York, and San Francisco… combined! As you’ll see, we were a bit obsessed with food on this trip. Jeff and I have long been huge fans of the Japanese food that has made it to the West (sushi, ramen, udon, tempura, etc). What we got so excited over in Japan was the discovery of so many more sub-cuisines we were yet unfamiliar with, like Motsunabe and Okonomiyaki (more on that in Part 2), and the endless array of dessert carts and kiosks dotted throughout the city.
We were lucky enough to catch up with an old college friend on the trip, our buddy Tad from our uni days back in California. Tad speaks Japanese (and clearly has great taste in restaurants) and dragged us to some amazing hidden establishments that we, without a doubt, would never have found had we been on our own. We have to say that Tad’s local expertise really added to our enjoyment of the city and made our most memorable meals. (Thank you, Tad!) On my first night in town, Tad took us to this hidden little Izakaya (basically a Japanese pub). In addition to some of the usual suspects, he ordered one of his favourite dishes, a Japanese delicacy. What is it about the word “delicacy” that usually means a bit more than just “delicate” flavours? Here it is, can you guess what it might be?
We asked Tad what it was and he said hesitantly, “Uhhh… you might not want to know.” We thought we would probably agree with him and decided to try it first. To me it looked like a weird kind of macaroni noodle salad. The thought crossed my mind that it could be brains of some kind (shudder) but it looked actually more appetising than I would imagine brains to be. The texture was a bit different, but the flavour was actually pretty good. Then Jeff and I made him tell us what it was: shirako. Translation? Cod sperm sac. We both thought it was a bit tastier before we knew what it was, but it wasn’t bad!
Tokyo is amazing and overwhelming by night, but it is also beautiful by day. Despite the crazy urban sprawl, the city is dotted with a number of gardens and parks (some of them quite vast).
And they still hang on to their cultural past. Japanese architecture of old is just stunning. This is the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which unfortunately is only available to tour two days per year, but it looks impressive even from the outside.
We visited just prior to the Sakura season (the time of spring when the cherry blossom trees all bloom in synchrony). We were two weeks or so too early for the main cherry blossom bloom, but to our delight we were lucky enough to see a handful of trees that were starting the party early. The Japanese seem to be pretty obsessed with their flowering trees (as are many of the tourists who come from far and wide to see them in full bloom) and I certainly share their obsession. They are absolutely beautiful!
Tokyo’s many temples and shrines are also quite the sight. It may sound cliche to say it, but Tokyo is truly a city of contrasts of old and new. Here is the Asakusa Shrine juxtaposed with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building:
We visited Harajuku in the hopes of seeing the crowds of young people that appear there in all kinds of colourful and outrageous costumes. Sadly though, none were to be found on the day we visited. But we took a walk through the nearby Yoyogi Park surrounding Meiji Shrine. This park was so huge it felt like walking through a forest in the middle of Tokyo.
In addition to the parks, Tokyo has other little escapes from the maze of the skyscrapers. You can hop acrosss this bridge via monorail to the suburb of Odaiba, which offers a bit more breathing space and some nice views back over Tokyo.
To my delight, in Odaiba we found a row of “cherry blossom” trees in full bloom! We were later informed that they were more likely plum blossoms, but to me they were just as beautiful! Lots of little birds were out enjoying the springtime sunshine too.
Above you can see Tokyo from Odaiba in the East, while below is the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Tokyo’s West.
It was hard to believe that in all 360 degrees, as far as the eye could see, was urban concrete jungle.
In addition to their Sakura trees, the other icon of Japan is the omni-present peak of Mount Fuji, visible from just about everywhere in Tokyo on a clear day. Here is the view from across the Tama River in Tokyo’s South, and from the World Trade Center in Tokyo’s central Minato Ward. It is a place of huge significance in Japanese culture, and is even considered a semi-deity in Shintoism.
In response to our desire to sample more unique Japanese cuisine, Tad took us to this stylish spot in the trendy district of Roppongi. I just loved these kinds of places! Not a word of English was spoken and all of the menus were in Japanese. We tended to steer clear of places catering to foreigners, which meant that without Tad we’d usually resort to picking things at random from the cryptic menus, or to just kindly ask for the chef’s recommendation. But despite the fact that we were obvious tourists, every establishment from the fancy restaurants down to the “fast food” stand-while-you-eat noodle shops, not to mention every other shop in Japan, would welcome us in classic Japanese tradition. When you open the door, the entire staff erupt in a chorus of “Irasshaimase!” meaning “Welcome!” It did the trick. I have never felt so absolutely welcome in any city.
At this particular restaurant, we tried a delicious burnt-ramen broth. If your exposure to ramen is limited to Cup O Noodles, you are missing out! Ramen of all flavours is a staple of Japanese cuisine and can be found in every nook and cranny in Tokyo. It was perfect for the cold nights experienced during our trip.
We also got to try this new twist on a traditional noodle soup: Abura Soba. YUM!
Many restaurants in Tokyo specialise in just one specific type of Japanese food. Many of these restaurants are miniature establishments like the one below, with bar-style seating only. Something about this really excited me—so many tiny restaurants, each a potential new little gem waiting to be discovered! Jeff and I felt like we needed to try them all. Still completely full of noodles from lunch, we’d see some new sub-cuisine we’d never heard of before, and think “Well, we have to try that!” Here we are at a kushiyaki joint, where everything is served on a skewer! The chef just keeps bringing them out until you’re full, and you pay based on the number of sticks left in the fish’s mouth.
One evening, while walking down the streets of Shinjuku, we suddenly caught a glimpse of this interesting sandwich board (below). Considering the overwhelming signage everywhere, I’m somewhat surprised I even noticed it. But we paused, I saw the cat photos, the word “Open” and “Close”, the red arrow with “Entrance is 6F”, and the emphatic “OK!!!” I turned to Jeff and said, “Do you think they really have cats that you can go see on the sixth floor of this building?” There was so much to see in the exterior of Tokyo’s streets that I hadn’t even thought of venturing into the bowels of an unknown building to see what might be inside… but we just had to check this out. Once we walked down a narrow hallway and found a tiny elevator, we pushed the number six and headed up. The lift stopped on other floors where customers got in and out. Suddenly we started to realise how many other tiny, unknown businesses are tucked away in each and every one of these huge buildings, on each and every floor, in a huge three-dimensional maze.
Once the doors opened to the sixth floor, my eyes lit up: a cat cafe! It was a clean, two-storey cat mansion, with an entry area and a wall of lockers. For about $10 per hour, you could remove your shoes and don a pair of Japanese slippers, enter with a visitor badge, order a milk tea or a snack, and sit with the cafe’s 52 cats. Jeff knew that there was no way we weren’t going in to this cafe (well, he wanted to go in too, but I was a bit obsessed with the idea)! There were tourists and locals alike in the cafe, including city dwellers who did not have enough space to keep a cat in their own home. What a brilliant idea, I thought! These seemed like very happy, well-groomed, and well-cared for felines. There were 25 different breeds!
OK, maybe I look a little bit like a crazy cat lady in these photos, but I couldn’t get over what a cool business idea this was! It seemed to make so much sense in a city like Tokyo, where living space is so limited for its residents.
After another day of sightseeing, Tad took us to another hidden restaurant on a nondescript floor of some random skyscraper that we will never be able to find again. How many more of these hidden establishments were there, windowless and hidden from the outside world, waiting to be discovered? This place was one of our most memorable meals of the trip! In typical Japanese fashion, we had the opportunity to choose our sake cup, and preview the range of vegetables that were to be prepared so meticulously for our enjoyment.
I was slightly perplexed as to why the wait staff showed us the raw brown onion and the plain raw mushrooms before we finalised our order. Previewing the seafood? Sure, that made sense to me… but the brown onion? But when this onion came out, served on its own, roasted to perfection with a dash of sea salt, I got it. This is how seriously the Japanese take their craft, even if they are only cooking a lowly brown onion. The onion received as much respect as the premium seafood. It deserved an introduction, and the process of cooking it turned it into art. I swear it was the best onion I’ve ever had.
Shirako was again on the menu, but we also tried a new mysterious delicacy: liver of the weird-looking deep-sea Angler Fish!
Japanese plum wine, or umeshu, quickly became another favourite drink with our meals.
We continued to explore the numerous and varied neighborhoods of Tokyo. Here is Kappabashi, also known as Kitchen Town, the place you go for anything and everything kitchen-related, including the kitchen sink.
Nearby at the Asakusa Kannon Temple, we were seduced by a large number of street vendors cooking up delicious desserts! One thing we appreciated about Japan was how serious everyone is about their craft, including this red-bean pastry chef along the street.
In contrast to the shops along the temples and in the outer neighborhoods, here is the modern high-end shopping district of Ginza, in central Tokyo:
And no visit to Japan is complete without a stop at the notorious “Electric Town” of Akiharbara:
Another must-see was the Tokyo Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market. We followed advice and arrived at 4:00am, only to discover that we were just a little too late to view the famous tuna auction! Though we missed out on the spectacle of giant tuna selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, we did get to see lots of action in the general market:
We were rightly advised that a visit to the fish market would not be complete without a sushi breakfast! We had heard about the legendary Daiwa-Sushi restaurant, but when we showed up around 8am, there was already a queue around the block with a three hour wait. Three hours! After a bit of debate, we decided to join a much shorter queue for one of the other popular sushi restaurants.
We waited a “mere” 40 minutes or so before sitting down in this tiny sushi bar with about six other customers. If Daiwa-Sushi is the best restaurant there, I can’t imagine how good it must be—because what we ate at this place was, no doubt, the best and freshest sushi meal we’ve ever had!
We really enjoyed watching the chef up close and personal.
With one night left in Tokyo, we had to celebrate with another huge dinner and sake fest. Jeff and I became quite accustomed to enjoying a bottle or two of sake with every meal. Somehow, it perfectly suited the food, the weather, and the customs. Kanpai!!
Well, what more can I say. Tokyo overwhelmed us, excited and amazed us, and left a lasting impression. We have never stuffed our faces with so much amazing food. We did get to venture beyond Tokyo and see more of Japan, which continued to amaze us—we can’t wait to share the photos in the next part! If you’ve never been, we hope we’ve inspired you to visit. Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think! Arigatō gozaimasu! :)