Wednesday 11/02/2015: I arrived at Narita around 2:30pm after a 2 hour flight from Sapporo. Staying in a capsule hotel is one of those unique experiences you can only really get in Japan, and I had missed out on this during my 2014 Japan trip, so it was something I definitely had to tick off my bucket list on this trip. Unfortunately, the majority of capsule hotels in Tokyo are male only, so I had a little bit of trouble finding a place in a good location. I decided to go with a capsule hotel in Asakusa, known as Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside.
I got a direct train from Narita Airport to Asakusa and found the hotel almost straight away. It was located right next to Asakusa station like they had described on the website. Once I stepped into the hotel lobby, I was bombarded with the sounds of Chinese tourists chattering loudly in the lobby. The hotel was in traditional Japanese style and guests were asked to remove their shoes and put them in lockers at the entrance. I was then given a key to my capsule which was on the women’s floor. The price for one night here was 1950 yen (around AUD $21). Once I entered the hotel, I was glad that I had only booked one night here. The decor was dingy and the hotel looked as if it hadn’t been renovated since the 70’s. The hotel staff also weren’t as friendly as other Japanese staff I had encountered. Usually service in Japan is pretty consistent and generally always good, but the hotel staff here looked miserable/irritated.
There was a separate area to store luggage with fees for 8 hours of storage. The hotel had free wifi, but it only worked on one level, so this was the area that everyone was congregated at. There were no electrical outlets in the capsules or capsule floors either, so everyone was also congregating on this floor to charge laptops and phones. Unlike the other hostel in Sapporo I had stayed at, most people were pretty quiet here and kept to themselves. While charging my phone, I made small talk with a French girl over the table we shared. We were in a similar situation, and she was staying here for one night also, purely for the novelty.
After I had charged my phone a little, I went out for dinner in Asakusa. I had already been to Asakusa on my 2014 trip, so the area was quite familiar to me. Asakusa is situated in Taito-ku, in the north-west part of Tokyo. It’s not part of the central city and the atmosphere is very different to somewhere like Shibuya or Roppongi. When you come to Asakusa, it almost feels like you’ve been transported back in time- there aren’t really any bright lights (except for the lone Asahi sign) and you sometimes see older people strolling in kimono. There’s also usually lots of tourists in this area, as Asakusa has lots of hostels, and cheaper accommodation. There’s also Sensoji, Kaminarimon, and Nakamise shopping street in this area that tourists usually come to see.
After strolling around a little, I decided to have dinner at a kaiten-zushi. This place was by no means the cheapest kaiten-zushi I had been to. There are lots of hyaku-en (100 yen) kaiten zushi in Tokyo, but you have to know where to find them.
The sushi here was not the freshest I had eaten, but was still better than Sydney. I think I paid around 2000 yen for everything I ate here. After eating here, I continued walking around Asakusa, and walked past a shop called Gindaco selling takoyaki, so I decided to try some. In Sapporo that morning, either Lindsay or Bonnie had been talking about eating takoyaki and I had been craving it, although I knew in the back of my mind it was probably not the best idea to eat takoyaki in Tokyo.
Eating takoyaki in Tokyo is akin to eating risotto in Rome. On a trip to Italy a few years ago, I’d been advised by a Roman not to eat risotto in Rome, because it is a dish from Northern Italy, and therefore people in Rome didn’t know how to make it well. Likewise, takoyaki is a dish that comes from Osaka, south of Tokyo. Tokyoites definitely do not make takoyaki as well as their Osakan counterparts. The takoyaki was overcooked, and too firm for my liking. Needless to say, I won’t be eating takoyaki in Tokyo ever again.
After eating, I strolled around Asakusa, and went to Senso-ji. I had visited Senso-ji in 2014 as well, but it was a completely different atmosphere by night. For one thing, it wasn’t swarming with tourists.
During last year’s visit to Senso-ji, the shrine had been too crowded for me to take a decent photo.
After walking around a little, I was so exhausted that I decided to go back to the capsule and have an early night.
Thursday 12/02/2015: The size of the capsule was big enough for me to have a comfortable sleep. It was about the size of a single bed. However, there was only a shade that could be pulled down, which separated me from the rest of the dorm. It was not enough to block out noise, and as early as 5am, I was startled awake by sounds of feet moving across the floor. Later on around 9am, I was again woken by sounds of vacuuming. By 10am, I had gotten out of bed and gone to take a shower, when I realised that the capsule hotel did not have a western style shower. There were only Japanese style sento baths here, which wasn’t a problem as I was no longer a sento virgin, having had my first sento visit the week before. At this time, the sento was completely empty, so I enjoyed having the entire bath to myself. After checking out of the capsule hotel, I dragged my luggage to the station and then caught a train to Minami-Senju subway station nearby.
It took me less than 20 minutes on the train to get there, and I found my next hotel, Hotel Juyoh relatively easily. It was cheap accommodation, about 3500 yen per night for a private room, although the room was was like living in a matchbox. The location wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t want to stay in a hostel in Tokyo as I like to unpack all my luggage for my duration of my stay, and it was a pain to not be able to do this in Sapporo. I had picked Hotel Juyoh because it was situated on the Hibiya line, which gave me direct access to Roppongi. Ginza and Akihabara could also be accessed directly, but I less concerned with that. After checking in at the hotel, I decided to spend the day shopping in Shibuya.
I had lunch at a kaiten-zushi and spent most of the day walking in circles looking for a shopping centre I had walked through last week.
After several hours of walking and shopping, I was all shopped out, and decided to stop for a coffee in Shibuya.
Starbucks was my first choice, but the one at Tsutaya across from the Hachiko statue is always, always full, due to its prime location overlooking the crossing, so I decided to look around for another one, and stumbled upon a Doutor cafe instead and headed in there. Doutor is a popular cafe chain in Japan, similar to Starbucks, with a range of coffees, matcha, and cakes available.
I was able to find a seat here, but saw a few people come in after me, who didn’t bother ordering because of the lack of seating. One thing I’ve noticed that’s different about Australia and Japan is that people (mostly Japanese) will often sit at cafes for hours on end, long after they have finished their food and drinks. And this is completely acceptable here, even if there are other customers waiting for seats. I’m also guilty of doing this in Japan, but in Australia it would be unthinkable. I’m not sure whether I like or dislike this.
Often in Japan, I’ll read something written in hiragana or katakana and order it without asking what it is, just for the surprise. Sometimes it’s pleasant, and sometimes it’s not. At Doutor, I saw that they had a kabocha cake, so I ordered that as a light afternoon snack, with a matcha latte. It turned out to be pumpkin. I’ve noticed that pumpkin is a popular dessert flavour in Japan, as I also had pumpkin ice cream in Sapporo and once, at a Japanese restaurant in Sydney. For some reason, this trend hasn’t really caught on in Western cuisine yet (except perhaps for Starbucks’ pumpkin spiced lattes) but I wish it would.
After sitting and reading a little at Starbucks, I proceeded to the Hachiko statue around sundown, where I met P, an international student.
P and I went to a restaurant/bar with a name that was something like Bohemia. I think they also had shisha there, but I didn’t smoke that night. Over our drinks, we chatted about life in Japan and living in Tokyo.
After we had a drink, I decided it was time to head home as I was exhausted from a day of walking in Shibuya (shopping will do that to you) and decided to go back to Minami-Senju. After being with Lindsay and Bonnie for most of my time in Sapporo, it now felt a little bit lonely and strange to be on my own again, so I decided to skip dinner at a restaurant that night and had a meal from the konbini at my hotel, before trying to go to bed early.
Friday 13/02/2015: In my first week in Tokyo, I had been staying in a lovely little hotel (Hotel Kashika) in Shin-Okubo that used to kick me out at 11am every day. In comparison to that, Hotel Juyoh in Minami-Senju was bliss. The room was a matchbox with really only space for a futon, a small fridge, small corner table and my luggage on the side, but it was cheap, and I enjoyed not having to worry about waking up in the mornings. That day, I had planned to go to a part of Tokyo that I had previously never been to- Ueno.
Admittedly, I used to be a big J-Drama fan, and my number one favourite J-Drama of all time was Hana Yori Dango. In one episode of Hana Yori Dango, Makino and Domyouji go on a double date to Ueno Zoo, and this is basically the only reason I wanted to go to there, aside from the fact that I also like going to zoos and hadn’t been to one for a few years. Minami-Senju, the area that my hotel was in, was a little bit run down. Minami-Senju is located in Kita-Ku, a northern ward of Tokyo. If you look at it on a map, you can see it’s quite far from the main touristy/nightlife areas like Roppongi, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. Being the excellent trip planner that I am, I didn’t bother looking up the hotel on the map before I came to Japan and just assumed it wouldn’t be too far to go to where I wanted to go. This was clearly a mistake. To places like Asakusa and Ueno, which are on the north-eastern side of Tokyo, it was fairly easy and convenient from my hotel, but it was a real pain going to Roppongi (and of course I wanted to go there every night).
Anyway, I digress. Kita-ku is clearly not the most glamorous part of Tokyo. On my hotel’s side of the station there wasn’t much to do, not even any restaurants or small dollar shops, so I had to wait until I got to wherever I was going every day to eat my first meal. From Minami-Senju, it only took me 10 or 15 minutes to get to Ueno.
After I got to Ueno, I walked around near the station for a little while trying to decide what to eat, until my hunger finally got the best of me. I had passed a tonkatsu restaurant on one of the streets, and decided to have breakfast there.
I really don’t have much to say about my meals in Japan except that 99% of the time, they are cheap and delicious. At most restaurants, a main meal like this will cost around upwards of 700 yen to 1500 yen, while set meals for sushi are a bit more expensive, around 3000 yen. 99% of the time when you eat out in Japan, your meal will be faultless as well. It’s a world away from dining out in Sydney, where my friends and I are constantly researching restaurants to eat at on Urban Spoon, because 5 times out of 10, the food will not be good. This is not something you have to worry about in Japan.
The only thing that tourists might have to be concerned with in Japan, is that restaurants are specialised here, so if you see a restaurant that says ‘yakitori’ or ‘tonkatsu’ outside, that is its specialty and it’s very likely that they won’t serve anything else. This can be a problem if your travel companions have special dietary needs to the rest of the group, but otherwise it’s not really a problem.
After finishing my meal (it was delicious of course) I asked an elderly Japanese woman who worked in the restaurant how to get to Ueno Zoo. She didn’t speak a word of English and took about a minute to explain the directions to me in Japanese, which I just barely managed to grasp. From the restaurant, it was a short walk to Ueno Zoo, and basically almost a straight road- I don’t know how I had missed it. While walking there, I saw a Beard Papa store, and stopped for a matcha cream puff.
Beard Papa is a fairly ubiquitous cream puff shop in Japan and they sell cream puffs in a multitude of flavours. The Ueno store was take away only.
I wanted to get to the zoo quickly so I began eating while walking, and noticed some people staring at me. This is highly unusual in Japan, as most Japanese people hardly ever even make eye contact with you, so staring was very abnormal. It was only much later that I realised that eating and walking is taboo in Japan, hence the shocked stares that day.
To get to Ueno Zoo, you had to first walk through Ueno Park. It’s a completely different atmosphere to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and I found it very relaxing and pleasurable to walk through here that day. While passing through, I saw lots of school kids on excursions and mothers with children.
Admission to Ueno Zoo was 500 yen. It wasn’t too crowded that day, and I spent a couple of hours walking around here. The highlight of my trip to the zoo were the monkeys of course.
After spending a couple of hours at Ueno Zoo, I decided to wander around and explore the rest of Ueno with no real plans in mind. This can be one of the best things about traveling alone, or the worst thing, if you are indecisive like me. A lot of the time while I was in Japan by myself, I wandered the streets for long periods of time because I was spoilt for choice with food options, and I couldn’t decide what to eat.
It was a cold day and my favourite way to warm up in the Japanese winter was to go shopping or eat. I went into Ueno Marui, which is the building with the red O|O| on the top. Marui is a department chain, similar to Sydney’s Westfields, and they have another one in Shinjuku 3chome that I also went to. While in Marui, I did a bit of shopping and enjoyed a matcha latte at a matcha cafe chain called Nana’s Green Tea which serves hot and cold matcha drinks and desserts. Shortly after that, I caught the subway back to Minami-Senju and got ready at the hotel before heading out later that night to meet H. I’d picked my hotel for its direct access to Roppongi on the Hibiya line, but I hadn’t actually realised how long it would take to get to Roppongi. It took me about 30 minutes, which was not ideal at all, and I ended up being late to meet H.
We met on the corner of Roppongi Crossing and went for a drink at A971, an upmarket bar across from Tokyo Midtown. The bar was filled with rowdy Japanese salarymen who got progressively louder as the night went on. H and I both had Hibiki 12YO for our first round of drinks and shared truffle fries while chatting. After this we decided to continue drinking at Hub, a more casual bar down the street. Hub is a British bar chain, and I’ve noticed whenever there is a chain from overseas in Japan, it’s usually always full of foreigners. I barely noticed any Japanese people in Hub at Roppongi that night. The bar was underground, smoky, with loud music and people talking loudly.
There was a list of shots/drinks with a high percentage of alcohol- H and I had a few shots of something which was 50% alcohol. I felt fine after the first one, but the night got extremely blurry after the 2nd one, so much so that we ended up at Feria and I had no idea how we got there or what happened there.
Saturday: Of course this resulted in me waking up with a raging hangover the next morning, leading me to cancel my plans to meet Yuko in Yokohama that day. Instead, I caught the train to Oshiage and went to MOS burger to have a deliciously greasy hangover feed. After that I walked around Oshiage Skytree town and did a bit of shopping, and then went back to my hotel to have a nap before going out for dinner with Lindsay.
I met Lindsay at one of the many exits of Ikebukuro station and we met her friend Jed outside, who had gotten lost. Ikebukuro could probably give Shinjuku a run for its money in terms of ‘busiest station in the world’.
After walking around Sunshine City for awhile, we finally decided on a restaurant where you grill your own okonomiyaki. Although tasty, it wasn’t as good as the okonomiyaki in Osaka.
After our enjoyable dinner, I parted with Lindsay and Jed and went home to Minami-Senju. I had been planning to go to a pub crawl that night, but due to having such a big night on Friday, I went back to the hotel after dinner and slept straight away.
Sunday: After having a long sleep, I woke up and got ready and went out to Akihabara. It was a special day, one that I had been particularly looking forward to because Starbucks was releasing their seasonal Sakura menu today. First, I decided to go to Tokyo Station and have ramen for my first meal at the famous Tokyo Ramen Street. I got to Tokyo station around 12pm, and walked around outside, before realising that “ramen street” was not an actual street outside, but located inside Tokyo station.
Ramen Street is a sort of lane inside Tokyo station with 8 of Japan’s most popular ramen restaurants located on one block. Each restaurant serves a different kind of ramen, ranging from Tokyo ramen, to tsukemen, to tonkotsu ramen. I settled on a restaurant serving tonkotsu ramen and lined up. I think it was about a 15 or 20 minute wait, and I ordered on a machine, and then gave the ticket to a member of staff inside.
The tonkotsu ramen here was good, but not the best I’d had. The broth was thick and hearty, with soft pieces of pork and perfectly cooked onsen tamago, but the noodles were the hard, white kind that I dislike. I much preferred the ramen I had eaten in Shin-Okubo last week.
After walking around Tokyo station for a little bit, I decided to go to Akihabara and explore.
As soon as I got off the train and out of Akihabara station, I happened to see a Starbucks, so I decided to go inside and try the new Sakura menu.
Although aesthetically pleasing, I didn’t find the sakura chiffon cake very nice to eat. It had a light, spongy texture with not much sakura flavour. The icing was also almost tasteless. The sakura frappucino was much nicer. Another thing to add to the list of Japanese things I wish they had in Sydney. After this, I got lost in Akihabara, for awhile, probably having gotten out at the wrong exit of the station. After walking around for a little bit, I gave up on my plans to explore Akihabara that day and instead went back to Roppongi.
With that, I caught the train from Akihabara to Roppongi and decided to go to the Mori Art Museum. With my luck, the Mori Art Museum ended up being closed for renovations and wouldn’t be open again until I left Japan. I then reluctantly caught a train to Ebisu and went to Ebisu Garden Place, where a famous scene from my favourite drama Hana Yori Dango took place.
After this I went to Omote-sando and went to Maisen for dinner. I heard about Maisen from my trusty Lonely Planet Tokyo guide book. This was the first time I had eaten somewhere recommended by a guide book and was glad that I did.
Maisen is located in between Omote-sando and Aoyama station, in a small laneway. It must be a popular restaurant because there are signs pointing out how to get to Maisen from the main street. Once arriving, I was greeted and seated at the counter on the ground level.
I ordered the Kurobuta Loin Cutlet set for 3,100 yen (around $32 AUD).
This radish appetizer was cool and refreshing with a mild flavour.
It took about 15 minutes for my main course to come out. The Kurobuta loin is the most expensive cut of meat that Maisen offers. It’s a fatty cut of meat, with a perfectly deep fried exterior. The black container to the right contained tonkatsu sauce which I applied liberally to the meat. The rice was cooked perfectly (as is everywhere in Japan- this has led me to the conclusion that Japanese people are master rice cookers).
The sorbet worked as a palate cleanser after the heaviness of the Kurobuta loin tonkatsu. After finishing dinner, I went to Asakusa and had a dip at a sento called Jakotsu-yu before going back to the hotel.