I visited Japan many many years ago, when I was 3 or 4, with my family. Of course, I don't remember any of it other than my mom getting me ice cream for behaving well on the flight. I've been looking forward to going back for a while. It's a place that has been at the top of my travel bucket list and Samuel's, too.
When we decided to come on this long trip to China, one thing that we agreed on was that we would take full advantage of being on a different continent, especially one that is not exactly easy to get to. I hope we'll be able to cross off at least a few places that I've been dreaming of visiting while we are here.
Well, we finally made a short trip to Japan last week! I've always admired Japanese culture because is so incredibly beautiful. So much is considered an art form, from origami to kimonos to even mochi. They are so meticulous with everything, striving to make everything as presentable and perfect as possible. My favorite part about Japan and its people? They take timeliness and politeness seriously.
While I'm not exactly the most prompt person, I despise being late. It gives me major anxiety. I especially don't appreciate when others are very late or flake. It's refreshing to be in a place where people are respectful of each other's time. And speaking of politeness, the Japanese take the cake. They're so soft spoken and friendly. What we didn't expect while taking the train was that people were let off the train first before anyone dared step foot in the train. I've never seen that back home or in Europe, and certainly not China. Having spent weeks and weeks in a crazily disorganized city with over 10 million people, having some space to myself and not getting shoved and cut in line was so nice.
This was a short trip -- Samuel didn't want to be in Tokyo for Christmas, so we settled for a few days before the holiday. We both enjoyed the city, but definitely didn't get to see very much of it. We barely crossed anything off our list. My migraines and nausea cut our trip even shorter, but Samuel has already promised that we would go back, so I'll just enjoy all the special Kit-Kats that I picked up in the meantime.
Once we dropped everything off at our hotel, we rushed over to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We had known that the market was moved to Toyosu Market, but we still wanted to see this famous spot. Since it was around 4 PM, most of the restaurants were closed. We stopped in to Sushi Zan Mai for a few pieces of sushi, which then turned into a few more, before continuing on. Satiated after our first sushi meal in Japan, we settled on just walking around Chūō, where we sampled matcha shaved ice and various matcha-flavored treats. I even stumbled across a tea shop and was discovered some unique artisanal Japanese teas.
One thing that I noticed while researching restaurants in Tokyo was that they didn't have clear-cut addresses. After visiting, we totally understood why. Most restaurants are located in alleys and it isn't simple or convenient to get around. We went with the flow and found ourselves in the center of town, on Chuo Dori. Think: every single designer store lining this street and a Times Square-esque intersection speckled with handfuls of shops. Samuel spotted a Ladurée (my favorite) and we popped in to pick up some flavors exclusive to Japan, like matcha and yuzu, which we munched on while shopping around for more Japanese souvenirs.
Then, on a quest to track down some udon to warm up, we found ourselves in yet another alley. Surprisingly, udon wasn't as widespread as we thought it would be. 9/10 restaurants only offered sushi and sashimi. We went into to this unassuming place, Kitamura, hoping to find some udon (we were not successful in that regard), got seated, and before we knew it, it was too late to back out. They didn't have a menu, so we settled for the omakase, which basically means that the chef will prepare whatever is fresh and you just have to trust his judgement. He was the sweetest sushi chef who accommodated our odd sushi choices (we weren't bold enough to try raw shellfish). It ended up being quite a memorable meal -- we had the entire restaurant to ourselves and the personal one-on-one interaction with the chef was something that we had never experienced before. That being said, getting stared down with every bite and having to produce a reaction to everything that was given to me was rather intimidating. I totally understand why they do so and why it's common -- becoming a sushi chef requires an insane amount of training and it is a complex art to perfect. They just want to witness how their creation is perceived. Samuel said I was beet-red by the end of the meal!
We ended our day exactly how I like, with plenty of desserts. After feasting in strawberry cake, soufflé pancakes, and red bean mochi, we headed back to our room for a good night's rest. Having tackled a migraine since the early afternoon, all I needed was some sleep.
I uncharacteristically woke up at 9 AM (I forgot about the time difference, making it 8 AM in China) and went out with Samuel for some breakfast mochi before making our way to Shibuya crossing. At first, I thought we had arrived in the wrong place because it was nowhere near as busy as I had expected. That proved to be true our entire time in Tokyo -- for a large city, it was extremely quiet and spread out.
We had read that standing sushi bars were something to experience. We found one while exploring the depths of Shibuya crossing. The sushi was average, but speedy -- definitely the fast food of Japan. And like I said, we were unable to decipher the addresses, so we spent the next 20 minutes trying to seek out an udon place. Eventually, we found Udon Hanamaru and we each enjoyed a a toasty bowl of noodles. I thought it was nice, but not exceptional.
At this point, I was basically sleepwalking due to the small time difference and my lack of decent slumber over the past few days. The *very strong* matcha that I had been sipping all morning wasn't doing the trick. Samuel picked up a cup of rose coffee from Balloon Coffee for me so I would wake up, but between you and me, I didn't do so until I had an ice cream cone from Silkream. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the rose coffee that was prepared ever-so-diligently in front of me. It's just a fact that nothing wakes me up like something sweet. While their Cremia ice cream was undeniably creamy and delicate, I was excited to try the cookie cone. For those of you who have never tried Japanese cookies, get yourself to a Japanese supermarket stat. They are unlike American cookies. They crumble as you take a bite and dissolve in your mouth. It's never excruciatingly sweet, rather a buttery symphony. So you can imagine my bliss as I took my first bite of my cookie cone with the velvety soft-serve.
We made our way over to Harajuku, and before we reached the famous Takeshita Street, we headed over to see Meiji Shrine. It's located inside a park, so we had a nice stroll before we reached the shrine. There wasn't much there, so if you're short on time like we were, I think this attraction could be skipped.
Takeshita Street was only a 5-minute walk away and it was everything that I had imagined, minus the Harajuku girls. They were nowhere to be found. There were endless funky shops along this street, everything from costume shops to rainbow food stores to an owl café. And to say that I ate my weight in food while we were there would be an understatement. We tried a rainbow grilled cheese, which was pretty cool and tasted surprisingly normal. I was thrilled that there was a Calbee+ store. Calbee makes delicious chips (they're kind of like the Lay's of Asia) and they even had fresh fries and chips inside the store. Needless to say, I found it necessary to buy multiples of every single item because it's the totally normal thing to do, right? (Ha, I know, I'm a freak when it comes to buying so many food souvenirs).
We picked up some custard-filled cream puffs (the smell wafted into the street -- I couldn't resist!) and a soft-serve dipped in strawberry chocolate and slowly walked back to catch the train back to our hotel. I had passed an owl café on my way down the street, but it didn't pique my interest. A friend of mine had recently visited Tokyo and she went to an owl café, which she loved. They're surprisingly abundant across Tokyo, and though I wasn't dying to visit one, the opportunity came up, so I took it. I ended up going to the wrong floor and went to their owl forest instead. Let's just say that I had never had an interest in owls and now I think they are incredibly fluffy and precious. I definitely recommend stopping in an owl forest or café if you ever have a chance. It's quick and surprisingly fun!
I hadn't felt that exhausted in a long time. I debated crashing early, but I like to make the most out of my trips. I'm already not an early riser, so going to bed early isn't a feasible option for me.
Since we didn't make any dinner reservations, we decided to wing it and just see what was close by. We hadn't been able to eat at any of the restaurants that I had researched, which bummed me out a bit. It just so happened that Sushi Kyubey (on my list) was quite close; it just required walking up and down alleys asking for directions and trying to match up the Japanese characters. Eventually, we found it tucked into an unassuming wall. We walked in, not expecting to get seated because they only had 12 seats and I had no clue that they were such a big deal.
They welcomed our special request to only have fish and we were immediately greeted with a fresh slice of sashimi. I lost track of what we were served and how many items came across our plates. We even met and chatted with the amazing Chef Imada, and didn't register who he was until we got back to the hotel. Each piece of sushi was perfection, painstakingly assembled. I didn't want the meal to end. Curious about the restaurant, I Googled it and couldn't believe that we casually dined at one of the highest rated sushi places in the world. I would most definitely pay another visit to Sushi Kyubey when we return to Tokyo.
Our final day was quite chaotic. We scrambled to pack up all our things and ran all around town trying to find the station to get us to another part of town. I was not impressed with Tokyo's subway system. It's old and not as convenient as it was made out to be. Samuel really wanted to take me to the Moomin House Café, which I had been going on and on about for the longest time.
For those of you who don't know, I love hippos -- they're my favorite animal. I'm not crazy about Moomin (I'd never read the books or seen any of the shows or movies), but just the fact that they were cute little hippos made me weak in the knees. I hate to say this, but the café was lackluster in all aspects: the location, the service, and the food. I thought it'd be all decked out with the characters everywhere. The menu was uninspired, with only four dishes, all of which had meat, so Samuel and I got muffins. We picked out a few gifts from the gift store afterwards and sprinted back to the hotel to grab our suitcases and hastily went to the train station.
It was a mess of a day consisting of switching trains, running around with multiple bags, leaving things behind on the train (goodbye forever, all the cakes and cookies that I had spent so so so much money on), barely missing our flights, all amongst a head-splitting migraine and motion sickness. We arrived back in our apartment after a 10+ hour travel day and I had never been more relieved.
That's it! That was our "3 day" trip to Japan, all boiled down. Overall, I would say that Japan is worth visiting at least once. I didn't feel like we even scratched the surface. The city was nothing like what I'd seen and expected. I thought it would be busy streets and high rises everywhere, but instead found practically empty streets and standalone stores that were spread out pretty widely. Given how pumped I was to go back to Japan, I was a bit disappointed with how it turned out. I expected so much more. You know how some places just connect with you and you feel like you belong there? I thought I would fall head-over-heels in love with Tokyo; instead, I found it underwhelming. But like I said, I don't think our time there did Tokyo justice, and I would like to revisit it once more before I rule it out.
Have you ever visited Tokyo? I would love to hear about your experience and any recommendations you have for us for our next trip.