A Few Days In Tokyo
April 17, 2015
With all the travel I’ve done, I’ve never been in Japan before this trip. Despite my early obsession with martial arts and my later obsession with Japanese food, the country eluded me, partly because it was difficult and expensive to get to. Well, one part of that has changed for those of us living in Denver. United now has a direct 787, “dreamliner,” flight direct from DIA to NRT and it makes the trip much shorter and easier. Unfortunately, it is still expensive and actually more expensive than the longer options of connecting via the west coast.
Last December I found myself needing to top off my mileage to keep status on United, and I needed a big top off, so I decided to pack my cameras and go to Tokyo for a few days. It was a quick trip. I had 3.5 days on the ground and I made the most of them. I walked about 65 miles in my time there and shot hundreds of exposures. If you would like to see the photos without the narrative, links to all the galleries are at the bottom of this post.
I stayed in Shinjuku because I wanted to be in the a dense, bustling area of the city with easy access to transportation, dining, and lots of site seeing. I got up fairly early on my first day and enjoyed my first Japanese breakfast of miso soup, fish, rice, vegetables, and various fermented soy products. My hotel had a full American breakfast choice, but I didn’t fly half way around the world to eat eggs and bacon.
Shinjuku is the skyscraper district of Tokyo. I had a crisp, clear day to walk among the buildings and adjust to my new time zone. The aspect of this area that struck me most is how quiet it is for a large dense city. Car engines seem more muffled. Drivers didn’t honk their horns, and outside of rush hours, the sidewalks were uncrowded and easy to navigate. I eventually found my way over to the small samurai sword museum and then to an amazing little ramen place for lunch.
In the afternoon I headed to Shibuya, walking instead of taking the train. By staying above ground I was able to witness the transition from the business-like Shinjuku into the bustling retail and youth-culture center that is Shibuya. In contrast, Shibuya is loud. Music and voices blare from speakers. Neon signs and video projection screens demand attention in every direction. Masses of people crowd the sidewalks, but everything remains orderly and easy to navigate.
Shibuya is interesting for people watching and you can certainly find any electronics ever made among the speciality shops, but I did not find it compelling. The food choices focused on sweets appealing to uniformed students spending their money after school.
For my second day, I planned a walk to the Imperial Palace and through the public gardens that surround it. The palace itself is only open to the public on specified dates. It was about a 7-mile walk from Shinjuku to the palace and I headed out right after breakfast. After a nice stroll through a park, the walk was mostly along a large commercial street and not particularly interesting. It was still fun to take in the sites and sounds though and walking is the best cure for jet lag. As I approached the palace there were street and sidewalk closures and large masses of people. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and I couldn’t get down the street I had planned to use to get to the gardens. After trying several police officers, I finally found one that spoke a little English and he managed to tell me “palace open today.” I pointed to myself and the palace and asked if I could go in and he nodded and bowed in that way that I wasn’t sure if he as saying yes, or being polite because he didn’t know what I was saying.
I took my chances and joined the crowds and just moved along with everyone else. The Japanese are incredibly good at moving in massive crowds without any impatience or disruptions. I just shuffled along and took photos. I had no idea how long it would take or what I would see. We ended up in several large lines divided by orange cones and it appeared that they were staggering groups to enter, but I still wasn’t sure. It helped to be among the tallest in the crowd crowd so I could take some photos, but I still couldn’t figure out where we were going or how long it would take.
After a while a man in the crowd asked if I was American. I was thrilled to find someone who spoke English and he seemed anxious to practice his. He informed me that he had studied in Cincinnati many years ago, but doesn’t get to use his English much anymore. He was from Osaka and was visiting Tokyo that week. Through him I learned that there were special openings of the palace grounds that weekend and that I was very lucky to get in.
As we walked through the grounds with thousands of others, I found him a few more times and he explained some of the sites. There was nothing spectacular in there, mostly government buildings, but the experience of doing something that most people don’t get to do and being surrounded by people for whom this was a special experience made it quite a day. There were a number of sites on my plan for the day that I didn’t get to see because of this experience, but it was well worth it.
After the palace I navigated into a neighborhood to find the small, but interesting photography museum, which ironically didn’t allow for any photography on premises. I then also realized that I was fairly close to one of the restaurants that I had mapped out that made octopus dumplings, so I found my way over there and had these for lunch.
As the weather turned a bit wet, I mapped my way back to my hotel in Shinjuku. I had reservations for a special sushi dinner and knew I wanted to rest for an hour or so first.
The Bars of Golden Gai
After an excellent sushi dinner (see food section below), I grabbed my camera and headed to Golden Gai, the sole remaining area of pre-war structures in Tokyo and a popular drinking neighborhood. I set my 23mm lens on f/1.4 and just strolled the narrow streets focusing on the decorated entryways and narrow staircases.
Many of the bars don’t welcome tourists, but some do and they usually post it on a sign. As I passed one of the bars, I saw a group of three people from Amsterdam who I had met in the streets earlier. I went in, paid my cover and had one drink with them. Perhaps it was the early hour, before midnight, or perhaps it was the season, but Golden Gai was quiet and uncrowded. Either way, I wanted to make the most of my next day so I went back to my hotel after one drink.
For my last full day I planned to hit the temple and the markets around it, as well as the national museum complex. It was a lot to do and a long ways away so I took a train. I still plotted a stop that was about a mile away from my destination so that I could walk through markets and get a view of the giant television tower. One of my favorite shots of the trip is this one of the paraders I encountered in the market under the train tracks on the way to the temple. It’s a good idea to always get off a stop early or late so you see more on the way to your destination.
The temple was quite crowded, but very much worth the visit and the food vendors around it made for one of my favorite experiences in all of Tokyo. I caught the temple at a good time and photographed a performance of traditional dancers.
After the temple, I only had time for one exhibit at the National Museum, but they have a very nice highlights of Japanese culture exhibit that you can see in an hour.
My fourth day was also the day I had to fly home, but with my flight at 6:00 PM I was able to enjoy the morning at the Meiji Shrine and forested Yoyogi Park that surrounds it. The shrine is dedicated to the “deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.” Whatever… It is cool to see and the forested park is beautiful in the middle of this crowded city. The whole area is a short walk from Shinjuku and borders an upscale shopping district that I found uninteresting, full of the same brands and stores you see around the world. The park is a quiet respite from the city though and the shrine looks right in place among the forests.
After a leisurely walk through the park and the shrine, I had time for one more lunch in Tokyo. I had mapped out a Soba place nearby and got there just before the lunch line formed. With that meal, which I forgot to photograph, I completed my noodle trifecta of ramen, udon, and soba before getting on the train out to Narita airport for my flight home.
The food in Tokyo deserves a section of its own. Food is an important part of my experience when I am in another culture, and I now place Japan up there in my top three food destinations along with Italy and Spain. Everything is good, even the convenience store food, which I had to try, and most of it is quite affordable. In fact the best food is the cheaper food, the noodle joints and street food, even the sushi sold off push carts in the parks is good.
Speaking of Sushi, that is where you will find the smallest difference between the US and Japan. Most American cities have excellent sushi places now, many run by chefs who have moved from Japan to the US. I had to have one good sushi meal though, just to find out. I was able to get a reservation in a place that reviewers billed as Michelin-starred sushi without the Michelin-starred prices. It certainly wasn’t cheap, but I guess not Michelin expensive either. Most of my meals in Japan were costing me between $10-$20 with the great exchange rate, but a prix fixe seating at the place I chose was about $125 with those same great exchange rates. I have no complaints. The experience was phenomenal. There were only twelve seats at the sushi bar and no table seating at all. There were three chefs working the bar, so no group would ever share a chef with more than one other group, and there were three sous chefs supporting them farther back. I wish I had kept better notes and had taken more photos, but I believe there were about ten courses including some sashimi, soups, and small plates that were more like amuse-bouches. The food was excellent. It just wasn’t that much different than good sushi in the US.
Noodles were a different story. I sought out well-reviewed noodle places and waited in line with others to get my share hunched over a bowl and slurping. The tonkotsu pork broth I had was the richest I’ve ever experienced, but perhaps, the biggest treat was the udon noodles I found off a little alley in a neighborhood behind my hotel. The broth was simple and smokey and the noodles were tender as I’ve never experienced them before. I took the photo below with my phone as I was waiting to enter the restaurant. The chef was making the noodles and the soup.
I thoroughly enjoyed the street food around the temple too, including the jar of warm saki I bought but wasn’t sure if I was allowed to drink in the street. I eventually found an interpreter who helped me figure out what I was having at each spot, but before I found her I encountered this creation known as a “waffle burger.”
The man making them asked, “regular or premium”? He couldn’t explain the difference, but showed me the beef for each cut. Premium was three times the cost of regular. I didn’t hesitate. It looked incredible. He grilled up the beef while making the waffle and served it to me wrapped in paper. I later learned from the interpreter that the waffle was made from rice flour and that the premium beef was Wagyu Beef. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted, even if it doesn’t look so appealing in this photo. With our great exchange rate, it was almost a $20 sandwich.
General Travel Thoughts
I can’t wait to return to Tokyo. The direct flight from Denver makes it a reasonable destination for a short trip. You get off the new 787 feeling pretty good with the increased humidity and cabin pressure. It’s an expensive flight, but if the exchange rate keeps up, Tokyo is cheap once you are there. It’s an incredibly walkable city and you never have to worry about your safety so feel free to roam.
I bought a prepaid cellular data card and had it delivered to my hotel. It was reasonably priced and worked great in my Verizon iPhone 6, which is sold unlocked. I was able to use Skype over it for all my voice calls and the mapping was a trip saver. Apple maps is very good for walking directions in Tokyo. Google maps is not as good. Google basically puts you on driving routes with sidewalks, but Apple Maps will route you through cool neighborhoods with winding streets. For about $30 I had plenty of data for my whole trip.
Don’t expect to speak much English while you are there. It is important to learn some key Japanese terms to be polite, but don’t expect to interact much unless you’ve really studied the language. Since I can get by in Spanish, Italian, and French, traveling in Europe is easy for me. In Japan, the data card and some apps and books were key to bridging the communication gaps. It is easy to feel isolated in Japan. Here are a few links that I found quite helpful:
A friend recommended this book for food and it was great.
Here is the visitor sim card I bought.
This free app is indispensable.
If you’ve been thinking about going, do it. I’m glad I did.