Tokyo ~ Japan

Tokyo was once known as Tokyo City but now it has been broken up into twenty-three different wards. Our first stop in Tokyo is Shinjuku. The train from the airport  to the city rolled out at ninety-nine miles per hour, and that wasn’t even the fast train. I just sat there in awe. Not to mention how clean the train station is. In America if you can get past the street performers, beggars and smells then just maybe you’ll get to the platform on time without the chance of getting mugged.

Restaurant in Tokyo

Walking around town I saw a man who looked like the alcoholic version of Mr. Miyagi from the movie the Karate Kid.  Despite him sleeping on the sidewalk,  I was still impressed he resembled a Hollywood star.

Gyukatsu is  breaded deep fried steak served extremely rare with three different sauces and white rice.  We were told not to miss out on this Japanese specialty.  First step to eat this dish is to grill the meat on the hot stone provided at each table. You have to appreciate how one could bread and deep fry a piece of raw meat and leaving the inside entirely rare.  Another moment of being impressed in Japan, crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. How did they do that?

Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the streets of Tokyo unless it’s a designated area. There’s no trash around, no seedy elements lurking in the corners and no loitering. Everyone seems to be really relaxed and aren’t pushing or rushing to get places. Imagine if an entire city took a chill pill.

Queuing up in line is also something I’ve noticed throughout Tokyo. People calmly wait in long lines for restaurants without making a sound or complaining. The difference here is the lines move relatively fast.  A few times we went to a restaurant, saw the line and thought oh no, this is going to be forever. It always worked out and I’m glad we waited because the food or whatever you’re waiting for is always worth it.

Japanese women are the most stylish I’ve seen during my travels. The women dress beautifully with a style I’ve only seen here. Most of the younger women in Tokyo wear very baggy pants with dressy shirts. Not the mention they have the prettiest hair and skin.

Tokyo has to be the most visually stimulating city in all of my travels. Everything is colorful and electrifying.

When the sun goes down this entire city lights up so much that it feels like were indoors under a dome. Being from Las Vegas I always thought that was the city of lights but as usual I was wrong. Some intersections are so bright from the buildings lights you would swear your indoors rather than outside.

Tokyo has many alleyways that are dedicated to tiny eateries, some of them dating back to early postwar years. Today they have become trendy places to find affordable dishes in a very casual setting. The alleys are narrow and always crowded with people sitting in small areas eating Japanese specialties.

Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), or as it is known among the locals, “Piss Alley” is a very narrow alley in Tokyo filled with yakitori restaurants. Most of the menus are in Japanese and filled with locals but with Google translate it was easy to find something to eat.

Piss Alley restaurant

I wasn’t excited about eating in an area called Piss Alley but as it turns out the name has nothing to do with pissing in an alley. Instead it’s an older area of Tokyo that has been preserved and filled with small hole in the wall restaurants serving grilled skewers.

Around the corner from Piss Alley is Golden Gai.  This area host  257 bars and some fit no more than 5 guests. Such a strange way to drink but cool. I only peeped inside these tiny places. They were so small, everyone was staring back at me while I was peeping. They had a look of confusion and interest as too why I was staring. I ended up just smiling and waving which caused even more confusion.  I quit drinking long ago so all I can do is peep inside now.

Game rooms are very popular here and yes I’m talking about video games and the one arm machine that grabs prizes. This is something adults and kids are fond of.  At first it seemed a bit corny but after trying them out, they are very entertaining.

I spent a Saturday night in at least three of these places and had the time of my life. Between the lights, loud sounds of the games and the high pitched voice recording encouraging players to play more over the loudspeaker, this is a place that cannot be missed while visiting Tokyo.

Game room in Tokyo

Pachinko is the game of choice for Japanese to unwind. Pachinko is a small upright pinball machine that rewards the player with more balls.

Pachinko Parlour

In exchange for the balls, prizes are awarded. The prizes range from drinks, cup of noodles, toys and household appliances. The hardcore players don’t redeem their winnings and just play them out.

One thing that stands out are the vending machines set up literally everywhere. Most of them are selling cold drinks including water, tea, coffee and fruit juice. I haven’t really seen any soda being sold but did run into one selling a Pepsi product I’ve never seen before.   

Another strange thing is the obsession with animation and doll-like characters. I still don’t understand it but I see it everywhere here. Adults are just as into it as kids. The most popular animation in Japan is called Anime. I always thought this was geared towards children but I was wrong (again). Anime in Japan is for all ages.

Anime figurines

Strangely I don’t understand the obsession with this but these pricey figurines range from childlike to full Pamela Anderson type adults.  Anime has videos, books and figurines for all ages.

Taxi drivers in Japan dress up as chauffeurs in suits and ties. The doors open and close automatically and it’s considered extremely rude to shut the door when you leave. Taxis are very expensive to take so most people use the public transportation system which is phenomenal in Tokyo. Japan is also known for the Shinkansen (bullet train). This high speed train travels throughout Japan at speeds ranging from 140mph to 200 mph. Tourist have the option to buy a JR Rail pass which allows them to travel freely throughout Japan via Shinkansen, metro train or bus. This is only available to foreign visitors and only makes sense to purchase if you plan to travel throughout Japan in a short period of time. Our passes were good for twenty one days and must be purchased prior to visiting Japan.

HARIJUKU

Harijuku is a neighboring area from Shinjuku. To get here from Shinjuku is by train.  Sundays are the day all of the young people come out in full swing.

As soon as we got off the train and turned the corner from the station we arrived at the famous Takeshita Street. The street was so crowded but it still flows.

Takeshita Street

Harijuku is popular among teens and most of the stores are geared towards teenagers.  Girls dress up in cosplay (characters from movies and cartoons)  and come here to shop and hang out on the weekends. 

Store on Takeshita Street featuring Cosplay clothing

The foods being sold looked like something from a carnival or fair. Extra long french fries, crepes with colorful fruits, extra large rainbow cotton candy and drinks served in large plastic light bulbs.

One of the most popular places in Harijuku on Sunday is Yogogi Park. On one side of the park is the famous Meiji Shrine.

Entrance to Yogogi Park

Along the path was a huge display of sake barrels. Some of the barrels were old school wooden barrels similar to what wine and whiskey are used for aging and some were decorated with colorful packaging. Japanese people love their sake and whiskey. Besides beer most of the people drinking alcohol are drinking whiskey. Highballs are the drink of choice on most of the menus and it’s served in large glasses.   

Anyway, back to the shrine.  It was big and beautiful. The other side of the park is where the locals hang out and chill on Sundays. Everyone is there from street performers, lovers, groups of friends, pets and kids. Its fun to see all the action.  My favorites were the dog skateboarding next to his owner, the dog walker with ten dogs and the bubble guy blowing huge bubbles for everyone to chase and pop.

I was excited about seeing the Rockabillys which are a group of adults dressed like the 1950s in the movie Grease. From the internet pictures, they looked like a cool dance group.  Watch the video and see for yourself.   

The great thing about enjoying the street performers in this park is the no tipping rule in Japan. This means we could actually enjoy what the performers were doing without feeling guilty or bailing out before the end to avoid the pressure of tipping. Just people watching was the highlight of being there.

Omotesandō is a short walk from Takeshita Street and the scene changes drastically. The streets are lined with trees and the buildings were modernized compared to the pop shops on Takeshita. While we were there, an outdoor festival was going on with performers and a parade.   

Cat Street (which strangely has nothing to do with cats) in Harijuku is a trendy and hip shopping street  filled with upscale shops. This is where we walked in on another  parade that came and went as fast as we saw it. 

Shibuya

Shibuya is known for the busiest crosswalk in the world. All of the lights turn red at once giving the signal for everyone to cross the street in all different directions. Tourists, locals, film crews and selfie enthusiast fill the streets trying to get videos of this crosswalk. We ended up crossing the street several times just for the fun of it.

There are street entertainers, activist and promotional events happening all around the corner areas of the streets. Even with all of these things going on, the vibe is still quiet and peaceful but electric.

Performer or activist getting a citation

Genki Sushi originated from Japan and now operates nationally. We stopped at one of original restaurants in Shibuya.  What makes this restaurant unique is the ordering system and delivery. Ever since I quit drinking I can’t eat raw fish anymore. I think it was one of those things I had to be buzzed on alcohol to do – ingest raw fish. However, I do love the cooked versions of sushi. Sadly those dishes are harder to find in Japan. Thanks to being in a touristy area, I got lucky here at Genki.  After placing my order on an iPad, minutes later sushi arrived on a train directly to my seat. I don’t know what was more fun, eating the sushi or receiving my order.

Uobei Sushi is a sushi restaurant that combines iPads and sushi delivery on a Shinkansen train direct to you’re seating location. After waiting in a long organized seated line of mostly western foreigners (bad sign), a seat number was assigned to each of us via mini clipboard. We entered the seating area which is arranged in long rows on either side to our assigned seat.

Akihabira

This area of Tokyo is known for their themed cafes & game rooms.  Tokyo is full of themed cafes and part of those feature animals. Cat cafes  have always been famous in Japan but over the years the animal themes have been extended to dog, snake, owl, hedgehog and even goat cafes. As an animal lover I am reluctant to go places that exploit animals and don’t have their best interest or care in mind. With that being said I did extensive research on finding a cafe that keeps the care of the animals in the forefront. Sadly many of the animal cafes in Japan do not. However there are a few that have impeccable reputations and instead of allowing people to pile into small jammed spaces with only a few animals (most are very stressed).   

The Akiba Fukurou fits all the right qualifications. This owl cafe has been featured on CNN and has a perfect rating on TripAdvisor and Yelp (travel review applications).  Making a reservation is step one. The owners take great pride and care with the owls and only allow a limited amount of guest per hour to visit. Once we checked in we were all escorted into the dimly lit room with Mozart playing in the background creating a relaxing atmosphere. Along every wall were individual logs and perches with living owls perched on each one. Their sizes ranged from large to extra small.

Owls at cafe

Each owl is named and his personality is listed on the family chart displayed in the handbook we were given to read before entering. There are many different species of owls but as one they are considered a “family”.  Small leashes are attached to their foot to keep them from flying off while holding them. Admission is 2,000 yen ($19.00 USD) per person.

Asakausa

This is probably most the most touristy spot we’ve been to so far. As soon as we stepped out from the train station, we were approached by a rickshaw driver soliciting a tour of the city. What makes these rickshaw unique  is they are pulled by a human being instead of a horse.

Asakausa is famous for Sensoji (a.k.a Asakusa Kannon Temple). It is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. This alone attracts a lot of tourists.

Asakusa Kannon Temple

Around the temple shops set up selling all kinds of souvenirs and finger foods. It felt very touristy but then again it is touristy.

Shops leading to temple

Omikuji fortune papers are sold at temples and shrines.   At the temple we paid 100 yen and shook a box full of sticks. The stick you draw shows the number of your omikuji. Take a paper from the drawer with the corresponding number to receive your fortune. If the fortune is bad (and mine was), you tie it to the temple and leave it there (hence leaving the bad behind). At first I was really sad about my fortune but once I realize that most of them are bad I felt a little bit better. If the fortune is a good one then take it with you.

Bad Omikuji fortunes

Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa is only a couple stops off the subway station but feels like we were hours away. Think Bohemian sleepy town.

Shimokitazawa

The roads are narrow with next to no traffic and the streets are filled with small restaurants, coffee shops , vintage and consignment stores.  Each store has its own personality and the items range from 1960s to the present.

Young people in Shimokitazawa take couture to another level. Seems like the style for women are baggy high waist pants and vintage blouses. Their style is classic chic with a couture twist. A style that would look ridiculous on myself but it really works here.  In America thugs are known to wear baggy pants but here in Japan its stylist for women to wear baggy pants. The difference is the girls here wear belts to keep the pants up.

The town of Shimokitazawa has to go down in the books as the most quiet place I’ve ever visited. Even when the streets are busy with people no one is making a sound. We were here during the weekend and it was no different. The apartment we rented was in a neighborhood full of apartments and the only sound were crickets at night.

Quiet clean streets of Shimokitazawa

The only real plans we had in Shimokitazawa was to chill and enjoy the relaxing vibe.

Ginza

Ginza area of Tokyo is very high end. The main street is called Ginza Five and it’s closed off to traffic leaving the streets open for pedestrians. Tables and chairs are set out along the middle of the street for people to sit, relax and people watch. Most of the stores are high  end retail brands famous for being strategically placed in upscale popular areas of cities worldwide. Being here on a Saturday, the stores were packed with people shopping.

Ginza

I couldn’t finish this blog without mentioning the toilets in Japan.  The toilets are ahead of any toilet technology I’ve seen in my travels. For starters the toilets come with a standard seat heating element and under carriage wash designed for male and females. Sitting on a warm toilet seat was something I never imagined felt so good. Another thing to note were most of the public bathrooms indoors were spotless and all were equipped with a high tech toilet.  While using the bathroom at a restaurant the toilet flush instructions were in Japanese. Thinking I was flushing the toilet,  I found out I was calling for help.

Bike parking was another thing I didn’t want to forget. The Japanese have thought of everything! This is a video of a bicycle parking garage in Tokyo.

There are so many things  I want to write about Japan and Tokyo but this blog would be endless. Being in Tokyo and seeing the way of life in Japan just kept me in awe.  Especially in awe of the organization and peaceful way of life.  At times I cringed at the thought of what they must think of America.  Silence is everywhere in Tokyo even on the subway. This is something I could get use to. This silence made it such a peaceful place to be outside and appreciate my surroundings. I’m going to miss that the most.

2 responses to Tokyo ~ Japan

  1. Mom says:

    Barb – This comment is unusually long because you provided an unusually detailed account.

    There were so many wonderful things that you described about Japan and the surrounding cities that heretofore I had no inclination existed. If I could speak the language, I would love to be a part of that culture although I am not certain that I would be accepted culturally, ethnically and socially.

    Most notably, it looks a lot like Chicago or New York architecturally — if those cities weren’t filled with people who don’t give a damn about others, and was clean.

    The man sleeping in the street could very well have been Mr. Miyagi as he hasn’t worked in a very long time. Ha!

    Tokyo at night is the brightest night i’ve ever seen. Although it looks like Times Square, it is exponentially more stunning! In contrast, Piss Alley was so much more dimly lit.

    Does anybody work?? It seems that all the action happens late at night. What’s up with that — and why are we Americans so damned tired that we are paralyzed at home in front of our televisions after work with no desire to explore and experience our surroundings??

    I’ll bet Big Doug was in heaven eating the rare meat called Gyukatsu! Looks like you were fine with it even though I do recall that you didn’t really like steak — and especially rare steak. However, your world travels has changed you as a person — for the good! (And Big Doug, too!) You do realize that both you and Doug are two different people than the ones who left Las Vegas in 2015.

    The “kid-like game machine” gives a gift of what looks to me like “a conflagration of testicles — or overcooked Parker House rolls”. Very interesting. To drive the point home, you mention Pachinko — a game that rewards players with “more balls”!! I’m beginning to see a psycho-sexual connection with “balls”— although I could be wrong (but I don’t think so)!

    Anime films have been popular for ages — of course, it was invented by the Japanese. It’s pervasive on the independent channels and movies and contains some serious subject matter at times.

    The Shinkansen (bullet train) is beautiful! We could learn something from Japan and even Italy concerning rail travel. However, since our entire country’s progress is tied to the most wealthy and how they will enrich their fortunes, sadly, we will never progress industrially to our full technological potential.

    The thing that impressed me most in Harijuku were the fabulous ladies’ shoes!!! Wonder why they aren’t sold here??

    The Akiba Fukurou cafe is commendable for their meticulous care of owls. Although the owls were beautiful, personally they give me the creeps. However, it is good to know they are treated so well and not exploited in the meantime.

    It seems that in all the towns, there are a preponderance of eateries. Is it because of tourism dollars or is it just tradition that Japanese enjoy eating outside the home?

    It’s always nice to be sitting on a warm toilet and ringing for help! Did anyone come to your assistance, or did your butt continue to cook until it was extra crispy on the outside and rare on the inside??

    You did not include your “feeding-deer-biscuits-and-fleeing-whilst-doing-so-with-said-deer-engaging-in-physical-altercations” video. I’m so glad Doug shared them in his blog. I literally laughed out loud and so did Dad!

    I can’t get over the valet bike parking and the “sounds of silence” amidst the varying crowds. You and I both could get used to that degree of peacefulness. This country will never aspire to neither Japan’s exceptional technological advances nor its lofty, serene way of life.
    Safe travels until we meet again.
    Love you, Mom

    Liked by 1 person

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