There’s always something special about going to Japan. A country that have inspired many mythology, fiction, technology, and pop culture. It’s hard to describe the country in a single essay, much less sentence or word. So many contradictions is contained within a country so advanced in technology but yet traditional ways and religions pertains. A conservative country by heritage, but yet some of the most outlandish and craziest pop cultures stems from it too.
But one thing that’s pervasive wherever you go in Japan is how ridiculously, absurdly, crazy nice the people are. Pursuit of personal wealth and status notwithstanding, everybody here are very courteous, generous, and polite. We did a small sampling of Japan, travelling along the Tokaido East rail line to visit just some of the more popular travel spots, getting a decent sample of big cities to rural areas. But meeting nice people over and over again was the one common thread we noticed.
We started our trip in the capital city of Tokyo, where the more modern side of Japan is on display everywhere you go. The glitzy animated billboards and signs often reminds me of scenes straight out of Blade Runner or Minority Report of a hyper-consumerist society.
Arriving in Tokyo really late at night, we stayed at a traditional Japanese house that we found on Airbnb.com. The hosts, Akane-san and MItsu-san, were very accommodating to us. Though we didn’t come in until past midnight, they left the light out for us and woke up from their sleep to come and greet us with some hot green tea. Their house was also wonderful, a small two story traditional house with tatami floors, it’s just like what I always imagined an old Japanese house to be. And the whole house just for the two of us for a price less than a 3-star hotel!
We spent the next day in Tokyo travelling around some of the key neighborhoods in Tokyo. Starting at Asakusa to see the Sensoji temple, famous for its huge red lantern and as the oldest Buddhist temple in the city.
We tried our hands at a self-service fortune telling. Where you’d shake a canister full of numbered sticks until one comes out, then you’d pick out the fortune paper from the corresponding box (luckily they had English translation in the back of it). One of the fortune did say it was a good time to start a journey, guess this was a good sign.
We had lunch at Fuunji Ramen in Shinjuku district, known for their Tsukemen dipping ramen. The line was long but very orderly and expedient. Not a place where you sit and chat, you place your order in the vending machine, give the ticket to the cooks, find a seat, eat your ramen, leave. It was filled mostly with office workers. And this ramen was incredible, I could still taste the thick savory and fruity dipping broth; there’s also a thermos of dashi to dilute it down so you can chug it after you’re done with the noodles.
Afterwards we headed to Shibuya district with the famous intersection, kind of like New York’s Time Square, for a quick walk around. It's usually even more crowded at night, but even during the day you get to see hundreds of people converging at the street crossing as soon as the light turns green. From afar, it looks almost like a swarm of ants.
I’ve always wanted to get a skyline view of Tokyo, so to get one we took the train to Roppongi Hills City View, where they have an observatory where you can view the city from up high. For about 2,000 Yen you get to see an exhibit (Star Wars at the time) and an additional 500 Yen to come up to the open air rooftop / helipad. On one side, you get to see the western part of Tokyo (I think this is overlooking Shinjuku/Shibuya district).
And the other end you get to see Tokyo Tower and its surrounding. No tripods allowed here though, but fortunately was able to find some flat fence posts to set my camera down.
Dinner was at Omaide Yokocho (also known as Yakitori Alley) back in Shinjuku. A very small alleyway lined with small yakitori shops. Language was definitely a barrier here but we managed to point our way to our dinner at a pork-only shop. They marinate/boil all the skewers in this thick pot of broth that’s probably been absorbing pork juices all day long before they grill it. And in the end they give us the broth to drink before we leave, and man was that rich. Wouldn’t say it’s the best yakitori around, but worth the experience.
We also made a stop at the Ramen Museum just off the Shin-Yokohama station to try and get a sampling of a couple different ramen bowls. You have to pay a 300 Yen fee to enter the 1920s-styled underground food court where multiple ramen stores line the ground floor and mezzanine level. The decor's a bit kitchy to attract visitors, but it's kind of a fun thing to do on its own.
You'd get your ramen ticket from the vending machine outfront, and if you're planning to sample multiple stalls you can get the smaller 'mini ramen' size, most stalls would offer this size.
We tried Najima-tei which has a more traditional Hakata-style tonkotsu broth with thin noodles, and the newer Casa Luca which has a hint of pasta flour to their noodles. To be honest, not the best bowls of ramen I had on this trip but not too bad.
(In case you haven't noticed the trend yet, yes we sample quite a few bowls of ramen on this trip)
We actually didn’t get to go to Tsukiji fish market until our last day before leaving Japan. And in order to get here to see the tuna action, we had to leave our hotel at 3AM. It didn’t used to be like this, but nowadays they restrict the visitors to only 120/day and they have to be escorted during their visit. Mainly because the amount of tourist coming in was starting to become overwhelming for this very active market where serious fishy business is being conducted.
Japan is one of the largest supplier of seafood in the world, and majority of the tuna you see in your sushi restaurants are sourced here through a tightly regulated and controlled auction system. Each morning, flash-frozen tuna are brought in by auction houses for the daily auction. Some of the more prized fish can cost more than your car (the symbolic first tuna of the year can cost more than a Bugatti Veyron). Wholesalers would come and inspect the tuna lots with their eyes, nose, and hands before the auction begins.
When it’s time, the auctioneer would start ringing a bell to indicate the start of the auction. Then the very fast bidding war happens. The whole thing probably took no more than a couple minutes, and it would repeat until all lots are sold.
We were then escorted out, this is where most visitors would then eat sushi for breakfast (yes, nothing wrong with sushi at 6 in the morning). Sushi Daiwa is the most famous of all restaurants along the outside perimeter of the market, by the time we got here the line was an estimated 3-hours long. Seriously, it’s worse than Franklin’s BBQ in Austin. So we opted for a different sushi place around the corner, which I thought was delicious. For about 2000 Yen, you get a nigiri set with the most freshest fish I’ve ever tasted. Nothing fancy, utilitarian, but delicious nonetheless.
Visitors aren’t allowed back in the market until after 9AM, after peak business hours. So we took a stroll to the produce market in the outer ring, where you can find fresh vegetables, fruits, and other groceries. It’s a very active market, so we had to try our best not to get in the way of real people doing real business.
After a quick coffee stop, we finally were able to come in to the main market to see all the seafood vendors. Have to say that from all the live market I’ve been in around Asia, this is probably the least smelling one (if you don’t have the stomach for fresh fish smell, personally it smells like my childhood).
You can see some of the stalls are processing the tuna that’s been bought from the wholesalers after the auction. They would hack away the skin and vertebrae with large knives or axe, before chopping it up to smaller sellable pieces using a bandsaw. Honestly, it was a little nerve wracking to see them do this with minimal protective equipment.
Though we were severely sleep-deprived, visiting the market is my favorite activity while we were in Tokyo. It’s a great spot for street-photography, and also a great place to see a portion of the economy in Japan. A trade that has existed centuries old but have continuously modernize and adapt to global demands. This is also probably the last time we'd be able to see the market as is, since they will be relocating to a more modern and larger location in the Koto district in November 2016.
- Next time, I’d probably stay around Shinjuku area where it’s very convenient to go to most landmarks with a big central train station. There’s also a direct rail line from Shinjuku Station to Hakone if you’re planning to visit.
- Buy the metro day-pass that includes the Toei subway lines. On average a train ticket costs 220 Yen each way, the pass costs 1,000 Yen, so if you’re planning to see multiple spots in a day it’s totally worth it
- If you bought a JR Pass and going to be staying in Tokyo for the first few days, don’t exchange your voucher until your first trip out. This way your 7-day or 14-day pass won’t start counting until you take your first train.
Next up: Temple hopping in Kyoto, buck naked at an Onsen, and waking up to a 3.3 earthquake.