1 March 2015

Tokyo - Day 2

Our Tokyo adventure continued with what was - thankfully - a much drier day. Still bitterly cold but minus the relentless rain of the day before. It made doing the whole tourist thing so much more pleasant!

No Tokyo guide or recommendation I encountered came without a mention of Tsukiji Fish Market. It's one of the world's biggest, handling over two-thousand tons of marine products each day. While the fish market used to be somewhat of a tourist secret, it's now such a huge attraction that new rules had to be put in place - tourists are not allowed to enter the premises until after 9am when the wholesale business of the market is winding down.

The array of fish and seafood on display was fascinating as well as rather mind-boggling (and smelly)

There were lots of stalls in the outer market offering samples. It may have been as early as 10.30am but I had to give some of this fresh fish a try! When in Rome and all that.

The majority of the time I had no idea what I was eating.

Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few unusual sights. Fried whale for example. Packaged blubber. Even what appeared to be a real stuffed panda wrapped in plastic! Not cool.

Our next port of call was the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in the Asakusa neighbourhood. It's Tokyo's oldest temple, dedicated to the bodhisattva (someone who devotes their life to Buddha) Kannon. According to legend, a statue of the Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628AD by two fishermen. The chief of their village recognised the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple so that the villagers could worship Kannon.

When you visit temples and shrines in Japan you will usually notice a small stone fountain with ladles perched on top. These are called Chozuya and visitors use them to "purify" themselves with water before entering the temple to worship.

The street leading up to the temple is called Nakamise-dori; one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan. There are many stalls and shops offering all sorts of food and souvenirs. These themselves are part of a living tradition of selling to pilgrims who walked to Senso-ji.

There were so many sweet treats there to sample. Having watched them being freshly baked, I couldn't resist trying a ningyo yaki - little pancake-like pastries filled with sweet anko bean paste.

We spent a good hour or two, just wandering around, taking it all in. You can do a lot of that on the streets of Tokyo. 

But regularly I was lead astray by sweet temptations! There was warm sweet sake...

...and croissant-taiyaki fish!

Taiyaki is a traditional fish-shaped cake. Normally they're made with a kind of pancake or waffle batter but the "cronuts" are made with sheets of croissant dough. Inside the croissant-taiyaki is the traditional azuki sweet beans. Rather yummy!

Onto Shibuya. We had to take a stroll across the famous Shibuya crossing! When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge onto the crossing from all sides!

Good old organised chaos!

That evening we headed to a restaurant that specialises in some of the finest Kobe beef Tokyo has to offer - 511 Kobe Beef Kaiseki.

I indulged in my new-found love of sake...

...and decided upon one of their seven-course tasting menus.

Each course was stunningly presented. The beef was exceptional - especially the little piece of Kobe sushi in course two - and the food was generally very good.

Well, all except for course four - the steamed egg in a tea bowl - which I thought was so unpleasant it had to be rejected completely!

A few of you may be aware of my love for karaoke. Singing my heart out (reasonably badly) in a booth with my nearest and dearest is one of my very favourite things to do on a night out and a karaoke queen such as I could not possibly come to Tokyo and not partake!

And finding a place to do it in this city is no hard feat; you can find a karaoke box chain on almost any street corner.

Let's just say the set-up at Big Echo wasn't quite as sleek and modern as Lucky Voice! But it was still a lot of fun and at least the song choice wasn't too shabby.

Also, the ridiculously cheesy videos that accompanied the songs kept me highly amused for the full two hours!

Ah, good old karaoke. It was the perfect ending to day two of our Tokyo travels.

Day three, coming soon! (ish)


22 February 2015

Tokyo - Day 1

I took the photograph above in the Park Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo. It may just look like teaware next to a window but funnily enough, it actually reflects one of my most memorable moments from my visit to the city. Sipping Japanese green tea in the bath as the sun set on that breath-taking view was something special.

And I thought it would be a nice picture to start on.

The view from our room on the 48th floor of this huge skyscraper in Shinjuku was much more than I'd expected.

Although on day one of our visit the heavy rain and fog restricted the view somewhat, on the following much brighter/blue sky days, we could clearly see Mount Fuji in the distance...


I have very good things to say about this hotel. Trip Advisor contributors have put it in the top five and quite rightly so. We had great service, our room was modern and spotless, the view speaks for itself and the food was excellent. 

For that last reason, we ate our breakfast at the hotel buffet in their Girandole restaurant each morning.

And one night dined at their dynamic New York Grill.

Fear not people; I am going to get out and about and see real Tokyo and its local food. It won't all be steak and scrambled egg! I just thought I'd show you what this renowned hotel has to offer first. Also, Alex isn't a fan of fish, sushi and seafood (why did we come to Japan again?) so our evening restaurant choices were made accordingly.

The New York Grill fit the bill and was certainly no letdown. A professional service, wonderful food and spectacular night time views.

Latched on to the side of the restaurant is the New York Bar; the location for many smouldering scenes in Lost In Translation. A jazz band performs there every Sunday night and we were lucky enough to grab a table in the bar after dinner to catch the performance. It was certainly a cool and stylish place to sip a cocktail pre or post meal.

With the help of the internet, my Rough Guide guidebook and lovely blogger Pheebz, I had come up with a half decent tourist itinerary. Day one, unfortunately, was a total wash-out from around noon onwards which did make the whole wandering around thing a little less enjoyable but we still managed to cover some intriguing bases!

Before the rain blessed us with its arrival, we headed to Chiyoda to see the Imperial Palace as well as have a  mooch around the huge and bustling Tokyo Station.

It may have been rather early in the morning for strong food smells but the station's food hall was a must see. In Japan, the department stores have seen plummeting sales over the last decade but one area of constant popularity is the basement food hall. Busy commuters flock here to pick up a last minute meal but for us outsiders, it was a feast for the eyes! There was all kinds of meat and seafood, luxurious bento boxes, tempura, miso and packaged sweets. Much of the food was being prepared freshly by the chefs in tiny kitchens behind the counters.

There was the more unusual stuff too. Chocolate cream sandwich anyone?

Having craved avocado all holiday, I decided to try one of these interesting little items

Quite pretty in a weird way, aren't they? The taste was an unusual combination of savoury avocado with the sweet gel-like coating. I'll be honest with you; I had no idea what I was eating!

As we all know, the Japanese love their ultra cute cartoon characters. Hello Kitty, Moomins and various other cute, big-eyed brands are everywhere!

Alex and I mainly used the subway system to get around the city. Although the tube map is a little intimidating on first inspection, it's actually reasonably simple to get around.

Also, you can use your phone and the internet down there! Great!

It had already started to drizzle by late morning but a slow walk through Chiyoda to the Imperial Palace and through its park was still very pleasant.

The Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. It's a large park-like area containing lots of beautiful trees, water, high walls and of course the main Palace.

Next we moved onto the shopping district of Ginza - an area where you can find copious world class designer boutiques and department stores - then onwards to Akihabara.

Akihabara is known as Tokyo's "electric town". The buildings are towering and colourful with gaming characters slapped all over them.

As Alex went browsing for a new laptop, I had one eye in the guidebook to find us somewhere interesting to have something to eat and drink.

We ended up in Maidreamin.

In hindsight, I'm unsure whether this was a ill-advised idea or pure genius!

Maid cafes are popular in Japan. Waitresses dress in maid costumes and act as servants, treating visitors as masters (and mistresses!) in a private home rather than customers. Sounds a bit odd, right? Well, Maidreamin is just plain bizarre! On arrival we were greeted by several over-excited girls, giggling and trying to talk to us - loudly - in Japanese as they guided us to our table inside a very pink parlour.

 The girls were so funny; we could not stop laughing at the bizarreness of it all! They were running around, shouting into the microphone on a small stage, doing dance routines, taking photos and generally acting like kids on a sugar high!

We spent quite some time trying to make some sense of the mainly indecipherable menu...

After being guided through a short choreographed routine by one of the maids - this included rabbit ears, weeping eyes and love heart actions - Alex and I eventually managed to put an order in for an ice-cream. The food didn't look amazing but we concluded we'd be safe with ice-cream.

And this was it. Unsurprisingly, cute bear-shaped!

Maidreamin walks a thin line between being totally cute and a little bit on the creepy side. It's a bit of a culture shock! But if you arrive with an open mind and fancy a belly laugh at these crazy maid's antics, then it's just a really fun experience.

As if nothing could be any more confusing than that, not long afterwards we ended up (thanks to Alex) in a Pachinko parlour.

Pachinko is an incredibly noisy (almost deafening!) and repetitive form of gambling that plays a big part in the Japanese economy. It involves small steel balls that are shot into a vertical playing field by gripping a round knob on the lower right hand corner of the machines. If a ball enters the 'start' hole, some kind of crazy game starts. Again, we had no idea what was going on or what we had to do. We even had to ask someone where to put our money following twenty minutes of trying to figure it out! But despite our failure to be charmed, the locals sit in lines playing this game for hours and hours. They are totally gripped by it! There was even a shower in the parlour in case you were there so long you needed to freshen up! 

We moved on, still trying to avoid the pounding rain outside.

A darts bar caught our eye. Darts! We could totally do that without too much confusion!

A few beers and several rounds later (I won! woohoo!), we were ready to head back to the hotel.

Day one may be have been a wash out but it had still been utterly fascinating!