Here’s the first instalment of our recent adventures in Japan. The idea for this trip came about because Chris needed a visa so he could go back to work. We decided to turn it into a vacation and told everyone, “We’re going for the food.”
May 3-17, 2015: This was a first for both of us. Aside from airport transfers in Tokyo and Osaka, neither of us had been to Japan before.
As I was reviewing all our Japan photos and organizing them for these blog posts, I wondered why it took us so long to get here. Both separately and together we’ve covered a lot of ground in Asia, granted mainly in the south. The only reason I could come up with was that all of our other Asian trips centered around diving and usually happened at Christmas. It’s just too cold to visit Japan then. This would be a different type of holiday altogether.
We flew Japan Air Lines from Manila and landed at Narita airport in the afternoon. With no checked baggage we breezed through customs and immigration and headed down the escalators to the train station. The NEX (Narita Express) is fast, quiet, clean and comfortable. And remarkably empty. There were only two stops between the airport and our destination, Shinjuku Station.
Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world. I found differing statistics, but somewhere between two and 3.6 million commuters pass through it every day. It would become our hub for travelling around Tokyo over the next two weeks.
When I first started researching where to stay in Tokyo, the options were overwhelming and the prices seemed really high. It is, after all, considered the world’s most expensive city. Greater Tokyo has a population around 39 million, it’s spread out over miles and it has several major centres. In the end, Shinjuku won out because it was reasonably close to the embassy and several other places we wanted to visit, with good connections by rail and metro to other parts of the city.
It was just a few blocks from the station to our hotel, where we found ourselves on the 32nd floor with a view to the north towards Mt. Fuji. If only the clouds hadn’t gotten in our way, although we did get a little teaser one morning. On our return from spending the following weekend in Kyoto, we switched hotels and moved one block closer to Starbucks and the train station. All in all, we spent 12 nights in Shinjuku and certainly got our fill of big city life.
Shinjuku turned out to be a great choice. There were so many interesting areas to explore within walking distance. It was fun just wandering around the different side streets and watching all the people. Between our hotels and the station, we found hundreds of restaurants waiting to be experienced. Many narrow buildings were six to eight storeys, with a different restaurant on each floor. How would you ever know which ones were good and which ones weren’t?
We aren’t big shoppers, but if we had wanted to, there were lots of big department stores clustered around the station to choose from. Some of them with fantastic food areas in the basements.
Kabukicho, the entertainment district in Shinjuku, is easily identifiable by all the neon signs and all the people. The types of entertainment vary depending on your interests. Here we found theme restaurants and a giant Godzilla climbing onto the roof of the movie theatre. Girls in costume wandered around the streets promoting different clubs. There are plenty of other restaurants too, not to mention pachinko parlours and gaming arcades. You could even go bowling or visit a cat cafe. We did not. We were more interested in watching all the people on the street.
We did, however, go to the Robot Restaurant, a strangely weird theme restaurant with a live show. It’s kind of like live anime crossed with a rock concert meets Vegas floor show with a few “robots” thrown in for good measure. All backdropped by massive video screens to enhance the effect. Not quite sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. “Restaurant” is a term loosely applied in this case. You could order a bento box when you buy the tickets or buy a hot dog on site. At the intermission, staff carried around a sign that read “You may now go to the restroom,” while others sold popcorn and drinks. Apparently the place cost 10 billion yen to construct. That’s about 100 million Canadian loonies. It was certainly over the top.
Nearby in Golden Gai, there are several narrow alleys, connected by tiny passages, crammed with about 200 tiny bars and eateries, most that seat eight people at best. Here in one, we met several new friends including Jun, Shu and Yoshi from Japan, Minh from Vietnam, and Peter and Kiah from downunder.
Closer to the station is another narrow alley called Memory Lane (also known more colloquially as Piss Alley). We found numerous itty bitty restaurants called izakaya nestled side by side that serve yakitori and kushiyaki, sticks of meat grilled over a wood fire. You sit at a small counter crammed in next to Japanese businessmen or a smattering of tourists from all sorts of places.
Although Shinjuku is predominantly an area of entertainment, shopping and eating, if you want to get away from all the busy-ness of the city, there were also plenty of parks and temples to be found. The grounds surrounding many of the temples that dotted the area provided a quiet spot for reflection and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was spectacular, even if we were a few weeks too late to see the infamous cherry blossoms. We completely bypassed the French and British sections of the garden, and headed straight for the traditional Japanese gardens. It actually reminded me a little bit of the garden back at our old house in Canada with all the beautiful red maples and curved beds. Granted, our concrete pagodas were a bit smaller and we didn’t have a tea house or a pond or koi.
We were certainly off to a good start. Next up, we’ll take you on a tour of some of the other highlights in Tokyo.