Tokyo Drifters

Overview

Population: 13,617,445

Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)

¥1 = 0.75p. £1 = ¥133.1

Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)

18th-23rd September

Our time in Tokyo started pretty slowly. We got ourselves settled in to the hostel and wandered out to see what was around our hostel. We headed in the direction of Tokyo Central Station but came across an exciting street of lights. It turned out later we had stumbled in Tokyo’s glitzy suburb of Ginza, full of jewellers and designer brands.

Ginza

We had one eye on food but I had got myself a coffee and I wanted to find a bin before we went in somewhere. After walking for 10 minutes and seeing no bins we turned around and went up a side street away from the fancy shops, assuming they didn’t want bins blighting the image of the place. But there were no bins. I ended up gracefully putting my cup through a hole in a bin bag at the back door of a restaurant. This large lap had made us rather hungry so we went for the nearest eatery, which just so happened to be a Bavarian beer hall. I had a sausage and potato dish and a beer, Kate had fish and chips and a wine. We could have forgotten where we were had it not been for the cutlery.

Fish & chips with chopsticks

During our meal 3 or 4  dirndl-clad ladies came out; one with a clarinet and one with a microphone. Soon the hall was filled with music and one of the ladies went round clinking everyones glasses.

After dinner we went to check out the hostel bar. There were posters around the hostel telling us that we got a free drink with the first one we bought every night which sounded promising. When we got down to the entrance it sounded as if the party was in full swing with music blasting out, but we walked into an empty bar, just a really loud one. We got our drinks and our free ones and left. Kate had a sore throat and struggled to speak over the music and had to resort to writing it on her phone. It turned out there was a big dance music festival going on in Tokyo called Ultralive and there were showing the live stream.

Day 2 didn’t get going until late either. We needed to catch up on sleep after our journey and we had some laundry to do. We nipped out to get some lunch in the rain. I had searched for cheap food and found there was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant (or kaiten sushi) nearby in a shopping centre in Ginza. It turned out to not be particularly cheap however it was amazing! It was around 3 or 4pm by the time we went for lunch so it was quiet and the conveyor belt was mostly empty but there was a chef right in front of us that prepared whatever we wanted there and then and in less than a minute it was under our noses. Kate tried an egg dish and a tofu dish, ate one of each but didn’t like either. I had salmon, shrimp, squid, octopus, mackerel, plum and Kate’s leftovers. I had a great time!

Unagi maki and mackeral nigiri

I noticed on the way back that every single person had an umbrella and I felt like we stood out without one. So we headed to our nearest Family Mart and picked up a cheap one and suddenly felt right as rain. And less wet.

That night we headed out to Shibuya where the famous Hachiko crossing is.

So many umbrellas

At this point Kate was getting very hungry having only had 2 little bits of sushi so we aimed for food. We needed a place with an English menu and at least one suitable veggie/fish option and we eventually found a cool little underground bar where Kate had a pizza and chips, and I had what was intriguingly called “Eggs Benedict Japanese Style” in the burger section.

It was delicious. Chances are you won’t find an overcooked egg in Japan so if you like your yolks runny you’re in for a treat.

Day 3 was the first day we used our metro passes which meant we had 72 hours of unlimited metro rides, so we set to work on actually seeing some Tokyo. Our first stop was Ueno park. The weather was still very wet and for some reason we both had the bright idea of wearing our Toms. Within minutes they were more water than fabric, especially mine with their wicker bottoms. But we plodded on.

Within Ueno park was the National Museum. Monday (Day 2) had been the National Respect for the Aged Day and so the museum was closed, which was why we had aimed for Tuesday. It was still closed. So instead we went to go get our culture from the Pokemon store in Ikebukero’s Sunshine Building shopping centre.

At this point I had the beginnings of trench foot so we figured a shopping centre would be as good a place as any to get some shoes. But then again, shoes could wait, first it was Pokemon.

The store was not as big as I had expected and the merchandise was all a bit specific and seemingly randon. There were dozens of different Pikachus in outfits ranging from Tokyo police to the statue of librerty to beefeaters. But no regular Pikachus. Nonetheless, the big ceramic Charizard and Mewtwo were impressive sights and we still spent a good while browsing all the weird and wonderful options.

The Sunshine building had a large selection of shops with multiple dedicated shoe shops. We went to every single one (and some outside) with none of them stocking shoes bigger than a 4.5 for ladies and 9 for men, which for our giant Western feet was way off. So we continued on with our correctly sized but sodden shoes.

To continue with the water theme we watched a spectacular short film and fountain display in the centre of the mall with lots of vivid imagery of the Japanese countryside.

The finale of the 3 storey jets

We then continued the theme further by going to the aquarium on the top floor. I’ve been to a fair few aquariums and I’ve always found them to be a bit samey, with the main attraction being the sting rays or some sharks perhaps. But this one had seals, otters and penguins. And a giant octopus. And mudskippers.

So cute

We also managed to catch the fish, rays, shark and giant eel thing getting fed in the main tank, which was all very exciting despite us not being able to understand the Japanese commentary.

After all that fun I was starting to get a bit worried for the state of my feet after their day in smelly foot baths. We discovered there is a Skechers store in Harajuka which was a short metro ride away and being an international brand Kate figured they had a better chance of stocking larger sizes. We found it pretty easily and were greeted by a very enthusiastic salesman with perfect English. In order to avoid wasting anymore time I asked what their biggest size was. UK 11. My size. I picked a style and the guy went away but came back empty handed. 7 was the biggest in that one. I feared the worst at this point. I picked 2 further styles and 2 minutes later he returned with 2 boxes of size 11 shoes. Kate picked hers which were also in stock and as soon as we’d paid for our new shoes (and socks) they were straight on our feet. The salesman gave us bags for our old, wet, soggy Toms and little backpacks and even offered us free umbrellas, which we declined because we had 2 brand new ones (a decision we would come to regret).

With our new, dry shoes we had a spring in our step. We spotted a sign for a cat cafe and thought it sounded like what we needed. We got upstairs and had to take our shoes off again. But the shoes could wait, there were cats to stroke!

We turned up just before feeding time and for the first 10 minutes the cats were everywhere, running around the roof, the floor, the walls, just not towards us. As the staff brought out the multiple bowls of food, the atmosphere changed entirely.

The cats were much more docile after their tea. I bonded with a ginger one and Kate made friends with a fluffy one with its tongue hanging out. The cafe had a selection of shiny things on sticks to play with and a variety of cat ear hairbands for those all important selfies.

For tea we went towards Otemachi, a large station in the centre, in the hope we would find a big food court, which we found with ease. I had joked earlier in the day, when Kate had asked what I fancied eating for tea, that I wanted octupus carpaccio. To my astonishment we found an izakaya (a sort of Japanese gastropub) with just that. It was amazing!

Look at those tentacles

I tried some shochu (a Japanese spirit made from a variety of different ingredients, this one used sweet potato) and it tasted a bit like vodka and olive juice – like a vodka martini without the vermouth and heavy on the garnish. I had a glass of sake after that and it was delicious. During our time there a group of drunk, middle-aged businessmen turned up. One of the older men of the group was particularly sozzled and walked at a bit of an angle. A short while later he was accompanied to his train home by one of his fellow drinkers, who then returned to imbibe some more. Once our drinks were done we returned to our hostel. Unfortunately, at some point, someone had taken one of our umbrellas and left us with an old battered one. But it kept the rain off.

Day 4 was supposed to be wetter than the previous day so we had a bit of lie-in. When we woke up the ground was dry! So we headed for all the outdoor attractions we had planned for our last day.

Stop one was the grounds of the imperial palace, a huge expanse of land in the centre of Tokyo with the historical seat of Tokyo in the middle. There are a bunch of museums you could pay to visit but the grounds themselves were what we wanted to see, and they were free which was a plus.

After a good stroll we went towards the Senso-Ji Temple, via a couple of steamed buns and a sandwich each. We ate our lunch on the riverbank looking out at the iconic Asahi beer hall and SkyTree (Japan’s tallest building and the world’s tower)

Then we headed towards the temple itself. To get there you walk through a marketplace of traditional food stalls and plastic trinket stores within old wooden buildings. The temple is huge and, once more, an incredible contrast from the modern, neon, skyscraping Tokyo beyond it.

Senso-ji

Our final site for the day was supposed to be the Meiji shrine but we turned up just as it was closing so we figured we’d go back the following day. Instead we did what we always do in this situation: go to the pub. Being Japan, it wasn’t just your regular pub fare, but more raw things. This time beef carpaccio.

Day 5 was a little bit drizzly but nothing too heavy. Unfortunately our only remaining good umbrella had been pinched in the hostel, thereby leaving us with one old one and choice of other old ones to pinch back. But they both worked still. Just hoping for a fortunate upgrade at some point.

We headed to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a highly rated display of life in Tokyo from the 17th century onwards. It was a huge building with a secondary exhibit that we missed, but still managed to spend 3 hours looking around. We started off in the cafe, a traditional Edo-Tokyo Italian restaurant called Finn’s. I had an Italo-Japanese bento box style meal of hamburger, salad, vegetable cheesy pasty and battered fish. Bizarre.

Next, the actual museum.

They had spent a lot of time and money on replicating various famous constructions from the era, some were models, some were life size. It really was a well put together museum and one of the best I’ve ever seen.

A model of village life in Edo, complete with hundreds of individual model people

After this it was back to the Meiji shrine. On our way there we got a couple of seats and I was next to a small boy, all on his own. I got my metro map out to look and he asked me, in perfect English, if he could have a look. His name was Brian and he was a 9 year old Korean who had moved to Tokyo with his parents 8 months previously. He was on his way from his school, the International School of Tokyo, to the dentist to get his braces rearranged. He spoke Korean, English and a bit of Japanese. He also collected stamps.

We got there an hour earlier this time, just enough time to walk there and back from the metro stop, with ten minutes to look around.

It’s another fascinating escape from the metropolis, but this time surrounded by woodland so there were no sneaky skyscrapers poking up behind.

I paid my respects in the traditional Shinto way: threw coins in a bucket, bowed twice, clapped twice and bowed once more. Then it was time to leave (after a photo or two). When we got to the gate they shut it behind us.

After this we went to Tokyo tower to climb our obligatory high thing. Skytree was twice the price and 250m sounded high enough.

We got to the subway stop and followed a sign but saw no tower. A few hundred metres later we turned right and spotted something in the distance.

We went up in the lift (not as fast as Taipei 101’s) and stopped off at observatory number 1, a lowly 150m.

After a couple of loops we went to pay to go up to the special ovservatory at 250m but were warned the fog was thick and therefore there was a chance of 0% visibility. Having seen the tower on the way we passed and instead went down to look at the market stalls at the bottom.

After the tower it was time for dinner. Throughout our time in Tokyo we had managed to consume zero ramens. Ramen is a Chinese import to Japan hundreds of years ago, consisting of a big bowl of broth, noodles, veg, an egg and usually meat. We found a spot with an English menu and a veggie option and ate a giant bowl of tasty food for about £6 each. I love Ramen.

After Ramen we went to a British style izakaya, underground from a Japanese style British pub. I had a taster flight of 3 Japanese craft beers, one of which was magnificent, the other 2 being between quite and pretty nice.

Then it was back to the hostel to prepare for our trip into the country.

The hostel

Hachi – Officially Wise Owl Hostel’s general manager

Wise Owl Hostel is a large hostel smack bang on top of the Hatchobori station. Initially we had only booked 2 nights because we could only afford dorm beds in a 12 bedded dorm and Kate wanted to see what it was like before seeing if we should extend our stay. One look at our beds was enough and we went straight downstairs to book 3 more nights. We had our own private set of stairs up to what was effectively a small private area with 2 bunks and privacy curtains for each one. Like a treehouse, indoors, without the tree. There were so many great little touches, it is easily the nicest dorm I’ve ever seen. Bunk beds done right. The pièce de résistance were the cubbies containing your free slippers that made up the stairs. And the cute little owl downstairs helped make this one fantastic place to stay.

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