Week one in Tokyo (04/02/15- 08/02/15)

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Day one (Wednesday): I arrived back in Tokyo on a Wednesday night, at Shinjuku station after having caught a very comfortable Willer Express bus from Osaka that took about 8 hours. I met up with a family friend at Shinjuku station, and from there we caught a taxi to Shin-Okubo, a suburb nearby.

We had a light dinner at a kaiten-zushi before checking in at the hotel.

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It was my first time in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown, and I was fascinated by the vibrant, buzzing atmosphere and bright lights. My family friend checked me into a hotel for four nights. The hotel’s name was Hotel Kajika, and was situated in a laneway just one minute from JR Shin-Okubo station. It had both Japanese and Western style rooms, and it was spacious by Japan’s standards.

Day two (Thursday): I had a comfortable sleep until the next morning, when, just after getting out of the shower at 10:30am, I heard the phone ring and didn’t answer. I was getting ready and it was about 11am, when the phone rang again. When I answered the phone, it was the woman from reception saying something about checking out. I was extremely confused about this as my family friend had said he’d got me 4 nights here, but got all my things ready and came downstairs. When I came downstairs, he was waiting at reception for me, and said he’d forgotten to tell me that the hotel required me to check in and check out every day, but that they’d keep my luggage at the hotel for me. I thought this was bizarre but didn’t complain- it was free accommodation, after all.

Tonkotsu ramen
Tonkotsu ramen

We went to eat ramen for our first meal of the day, and I had the first bowl of tonkotsu ramen that I ever loved (I have never enjoyed tonkotsu ramen in Sydney). The broth was thick, rich and flavoursome with tender meat. After we ate, we went our separate ways. My plan for the day was to go to Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine nearby, as well as check out Omote-Sando if I had time.

I caught a direct train from Shin-Okubo to Harajuku on the JR line.

Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Takeshita Street, Harajuku

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Due to the bad weather, and also being a weekday, Takeshita Street wasn’t as crowded as I had seen in pictures. The street was full of delicious looking crepes, and despite not being hungry, I stopped to get one.

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After eating a crepe that I got here (I got the one with matcha ice cream in the bottom left hand corner) I walked up to Meiji Jingu shrine near Harajuku station.

Walking in Harajuku
Walking in Harajuku
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Meiji Jingu Shrine

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It was a freezing cold day and I could just barely manage to get my hands out of my pockets to take photos.

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I walked around for a little bit, taking in the sights, and then paid a small fee of 100 yen for a fortune.

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After I had had my fill of walking around in the freezing cold, I decided to walk to Omote-Sando from Harajuku to find a sento called Shimizu-yu. Thanks to my trusty Tokyo pocket guide by Lonely Planet, I found the place (after getting lost and walking in circles). My first sento experience was filled with confusion on my part. I had taken care to read up on bath house rules before I came to Japan to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. At the entrance of the bath house, there were small lockers for shoes to be placed in. At Shimizu-yu, there were English speaking staff who helped me out. I paid about 800 yen for entrance fee, towel rental, plus soup and shampoo- however, when I got into the female bath, I realised I didn’t need it. At every little shower, there was a large container of body soap and shampoo.

After taking off my clothes and putting them in a locker, I entered the bath and sat at a stool and scrubbed up with soap and washed my hair. After scrubbing, I rinsed and entered the bath. It was extremely hot, and I felt as if my skin was searing to be in there. It wasn’t pleasant at first, but soon came to be after I got used to the temperature. After getting out, I got my clothes out of the locker and dried my hair with a hair dryer for 200 yen.

I left Shimizu-Yu feeling satisfied that my first sento experience had been a good one, without any hiccups. I caught the train back to Shin-Okubo from Harajuku. It was around peak hour by this time, and the JR line in peak hour was crowded as usual. I was pressed up against strangers and glad when I got to my stop. I met my family friend at Shin-Okubo station and we had dinner at a kaiten-zushi nearby.

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After eating, my family friend went home and I decided to look around Shin-Okubo for a bit as I couldn’t return to the hotel until 9:30pm due to some strange lockout rules (this is common in Japan). After buying some toiletries at Matsumoto Kiyoshi (Japan’s version of Priceline) I went to an internet cafe to kill time for 2 hours. The internet cafe was filled with Chinese boys, probably university students. The computers were old and outdated, and smoking cigarettes was allowed in the internet cafe (also common in most places in Japan). It was not a pleasant two hours. I was glad when 9:30pm rolled around and I went back to the hotel and got ready to head out to meet J for a drink (more here: Thursday night drinking in Golden Gai)

Day three (Friday): I was ready on time this morning, and met my family friend downstairs at 11am. We walked to the post office and he helped me send some clothes home (about 5kgs worth) which cost me 7000 yen.

We ate breakfast at a restaurant chain called Suki-ya, although they didn’t have the sukiyaki dish I wanted available at that time.

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After eating breakfast, I got a train from Shin-Okubo to Sakuragicho (one stop from Yokohama) which took me about 50 minutes with 2 changes. I met Kaho at Sakuragicho station and we walked from there to the Cup Ramen Museum.

Yokohama
Yokohama

During our walk there, Kaho and I chatted and caught up on the 7 months during which we hadn’t seen each other. I first met Kaho while she had been doing a year of exchange at University of Sydney, and had also met her in Kyoto in 2014 during my first trip to Japan.

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We paid 500 yen for entrance to the cup ramen museum- at the entrance you got to choose if you wanted to make ramen noodles from scratch or design your own cup of ramen noodles. Kaho and I picked the latter and proceeded upstairs. Because the ramen museum was so popular, there were set entrance times, and ours was about 20 minutes after we got there, so we looked around the museum first.

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After being let in, we then entered a queue to select the kind of packaging for our instant noodles or instant fried rice. Kaho selected instant fried rice while I selected instant noodles.

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Recreation of the place where Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen

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After selecting, we sat down at communal tables and began decorating our containers with coloured texters that had been provided. After we were done, we went to the noodle and rice preparation area and chose the ingredients.

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We got to choose what kind of ingredients would be put into our noodles and fried rice. From memory, they had a choice of four powder soup stocks: prawn, chili tomato, curry, and another flavour.

Overall, I was really pleased with the novelty of the cup ramen museum. I probably would have been happier with the experience if I wasn’t so tired, and would definitely go back another time to try hand making noodles.

View from the balcony of the ramen cup museum
View from the balcony of the ramen cup museum

After Kaho and I got our instant noodles and fried rice sealed, we walked around the museum a little, then left and walked around Yokohama. It was my first time in Yokohama, and I found it very different to Tokyo. Yokohama was more spacious and didn’t seem to have as many skyscrapers (from what I could see). It wasn’t as crowded as Tokyo and Kaho and I also noticed a lot of Chinese people walking around that day. Kaho mentioned that there were a lot of Chinese people living in Yokohama, hence why their Chinatown is so famous.

I said goodbye to Kaho and left Yokohama mid-afternoon, and caught a train back to Shibuya, which took me about an hour. Having spent back practically half of my luggage that morning, I decided I was in a good position to buy more clothes appropriate for the season, and walked around Shibuya shopping for a few hours. While shopping, I chanced upon a tsukemen restaurant called Mita Seimen Ju, that my friends and I had eaten at last year in Osaka. I was pleased at coming upon it by chance, as my friends and I had thought that they made the best noodles we had ever eaten (not exaggerating at all).

Shibuya crossing, just before sunset
Shibuya crossing, just before sunset
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Mita Seimen Juu (near Uniqlo in Shibuya)

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Menu at Mita Seimen Ju
Menu at Mita Seimen Ju

I selected the 1040 yen option with 6 gyoza. It was served in about 10 minutes after I ordered, or even faster than that. I had eaten at Mita Seimen Ju in Osaka last July, and found that the taste of the noodles at the Shibuya store was exactly the same, although the gyoza in Osaka had been better.

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The tsukemen was thick and chewy, with a rich, hearty gravy that had pieces of tender meat throughout. It was just as good as I remembered it to be.

Shibuya by night
Shibuya by night

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I hung around in Shibuya until 9pm when I was able to go back to my hotel, then got ready hurriedly for drinks with J. We met at Roppongi Crossing and then went to drink at a whiskey bar of J’s choice nearby. The bar was dimly lit and being small, had an intimate air about it. J ordered La Phraig for himself and Speyside for me, which we both drank on the rocks. For some reason every time I’m in Tokyo, I decide to drink scotch and whiskey, although I don’t enjoy the taste. I didn’t like either the Speyside or La Phraig, although the La Phraig was much worse and had a medicinal taste. After one drink here, I was all scotched out. J and I were also the last ones in the bar, so we decided to head somewhere a bit busier.

The next stop was Franziskaner, in Tokyo Midtown, which J said was his favourite place to have a beer. We had one or two beers there before moving on to Scramble in Shibuya, as I said I didn’t want to go home yet. I’d been to Scramble in July 2014 for coffee in the afternoon, and was taken aback to see that it turned into a bar/nightclub in the evenings, and a crowded one at that. They played loud EDM, and it was filled with drunk Japanese salarymen (and women) when J and I got there. I downed at least 2 oolong hais in a short amount of time, so the night ended quickly after that.

Day four (Saturday): Of course, I woke up with a raging hangover after the previous night. After getting up late, around 1pm, I caught a train to Ginza and met A for coffee at Starbucks.

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Walking in Ginza
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Ground floor of Ginza Starbucks

Starbucks in Japan is usually always crowded, but the Ginza store was crazily crowded (on par with Shibuya Starbucks and Shinjuku 3-chome) because this store was built in the early 20th century. There were people lining up and waiting for a seat at this Starbucks, as is common in the more crowded stores. I noticed that it’s pretty common for people to sit for hours at coffeeshops in Tokyo, long after their drink has been finished. A was lucky that he had gotten a table with two seats, so we chatted over coffee for an hour or two, before we decided to do something that A referred to as the ‘konbini hop’, which entailed hopping from one konbini to another and buying alcohol from each. Konbini is a Japanese loan word from the English word ‘convenience store’.

One of the things I love about Japan is that you can buy alcohol from convenience stores like 7-11, Family Mart or Lawson for ridiculously cheap prices, and not only that, you are allowed to drink it anywhere you want on the street or inside the subway station (although it’s taboo to drink on the subway).

Alcohol at the konbini
Alcohol at the konbini

We had a few drinks while chatting in Ginza subway station before meeting A’s friends for dinner. We proceed to have dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant nearby. A’s friends were made up largely of JETs, A having been in his 5th and last year of doing the program.

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We had a pleasant dinner that cost around 2000 yen each (about $20 AUD) and despite enthusiastic talks among the group about going clubbing at AgeHa that night, when dinner finished, only A and I decided to continue drinking. The two of us caught a train to Shinjuku and continued the konbini hop at Park Hyatt hotel, talking about our experiences in Japan so far.

Still exhausted from the previous night, I decided to have an early night and went home before the last train. The next day, I would leave Tokyo to go to Sapporo for a few days.

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