And now, we’re onto the last stretch of our week-long journey in Japan. On the morning of February 26th, we walked to the station early in the morning at 8 AM to board the shinkansen, which would take us to Tokyo in 3.5-hours. It was the first time any of us were taking the shinkansen, which is the Japanese bullet train. I’ve heard a lot about how great they are – the cleanliness, how on time they are, and mostly how fast they travel (320 km/hour). I was so excited to finally be on one. Our ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo was around $130 CAD from what I remember. They’re definitely not cheap, but it’s one of the main ways to get from one big city to another far city.
The shinkansen was a great experience. I loved how on-time and how efficient everything was. If your ticket said that your train was departing at 9:05 am, you could expect the train to come 2 to 3 minutes early and leave right when it was 9:05 am. There was free wifi offered on the train as well, which made things comfortable. I definitely could feel that the train was moving fast. I was writing some postcards on the train so I had my head down. Every time I would have my head down to write, I’d get dizzy because of how fast the speed of the train was.
To prevent this post from getting so long to the point where nobody (even myself) reads it after it’s published, I decided to just highlight our itinerary for each of the 3 days that we were in the city and just talk about the things we did that I enjoyed the most. Each day, we tackled a lot; I don’t think there was ever a day where we walked less than 18 or 20 kilometres, which is insane. We planned our itinerary in a way so that we would do all the sights that were in the same general area. That way, we weren’t walking TOO far and we didn’t have to take the metro too much. Right when we got into Tokyo, we learned that public transportation in Tokyo was expensive. It was the most expensive we’ve seen out of all the cities we’ve been in thus far. It didn’t come as a shock to us that everybody biked in Japan; you probably couldn’t walk more than 10 metres without seeing a bike coming from one direction or another. Even on the sidewalks, we had to keep looking for bikes that were coming behind us or toward us. It seemed to be the primary method that people got around and commuted to work.
After checking into our Airbnb (again, another cramped space), we officially started our day at 2 pm (it was already almost 1 pm by the time we got into Tokyo from Kyoto).
Our itinerary for the day was as follows:
- Late lunch in the Kabukicho district (tried soba noodles for the first time)
- Hanazono Jinja Shrine (A quick look)
- Meiji Shrine
- Takeshita Street (Great for treats and souvenirs)
- A 20 minute visit to a cat cafe (Cat Café Mocha on Takeshita Street)
- Shibuya Crossing at rush hour
- Japanese Curry for dinner (again)
The first day was not incredibly exciting, mostly because since we had started the day late, we knew we couldn’t go to any big tourist attractions given how early everything closed. So, we just tried to wander around and we did what we could do. We started in the Kabuckicho district for lunch which was decently close to us. It’s known as the entertainment and red-light district of Tokyo; it even has the nickname of Sleepless Town. Even during the day, it looked so lively. Big, lit up signs were everywhere – we could tell that we had certainly left behind Kyoto’s more quiet and quaint scenery. We could tell we had arrived in Tokyo: everything was busier, more lively, and more packed together.
After finishing our food, we popped by the Hanazono Jinja Shrine for a quick look. I loved the red hues of the shrine and of course, I loved seeing people go about their praying rituals.
During our afternoon stroll after lunch, I mostly remember the Meiji Shrine. It was great and stands out a lot in my memory. One thing I loved about it was that you had to walk through a big forested area (Yoyogi Park) to get to the shrine. Yoyogi Park is 16-hectares and according to Google, there are 30,000 trees planted in the area. It was like a Central Park for Tokyo and has been deemed to be a “haven for stressed-out Tokyoites”. We strolled through it, enjoying the shade, the breeze, and the quiet.
Meiji Shrine is a shrine dedicated spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor and Empress in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor. It was destroyed in the Second World War but was rebuilt shortly thereafter. I learned that Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan. He was born in 1852 and took the throne in 1867, which was at the peak of the Meiji Restoration. This period is when Japan and modernized and westernized itself so as to be able to join the world’s major powers. It’s a huge part of Japan’s history.
At the shrine, I loved seeing the ema, which are small wooden plaques worshippers will use to write their prayers or wishes on. They’re left hanging up at the shrine so that the spirits or the gods can receive them. A lot of the ema that we saw were Chinese New Year/Year of the Rat themed and would have hand-drawn designs of rats on them. I don’t know if it’s good practice to read what people write on them, but I loved doing so. I loved seeing what people were thankful for, or what they wanted to pray for. I would see wishes for good health, for a happy marriage, a good education for somebody’s child, love, and so much more. It made me feel good to read what were almost always positive messages and messages for hope.
We spent the early evening at Takeshita Street, which was a great place to do souvenir shopping and buy dessert. My friend, Alex, and I saw a cat café on that street (Cat Café Mocha) that had good ratings online and was part of a chain of cat cafes across the city. We had to go in – we had to somehow make up for the sub-par experience we had at the hedgehog café in Osaka. At Cat Café Mocha, it was 550 yen for the first 10 minutes and 200 yen for an additional 10 minutes. Just like with any animal café, you get free unlimited drinks as part of your admission fee.
That cat café was like a piece of heaven on earth. To this day, I still miss it so much. It was an absolute haven. We were both so emotional in there the entire time; in my notes on my phone (which I keep so that I remember what we do each day), I literally had typed “Cried about cats”. For the 20 minutes we had in there, we tried to interact with as many of the cats in there as possible. We got a scary amount of photos, both with the cats and of the cats themselves. We both thought the place did an exceptional job of caring for the cats. They were all so well-groomed and so well-fed. The place even had a door that the cats could go in and out of, in case they were tired of being in the “play area” and needed alone time away from the visitors.
At one point, the two of us were playing with one of the cats and one of the workers there came up beside us. He wanted to show us that with that cat specifically, it really liked it when you did something in particular to it. We kept talking about how cute the cats were and he said, “Yes! Kawaii!” (the Japanese word for cute). We just burst out laughing, and kept repeating the word back to him.
After our time at the cat café was up, we walked all the way from Takeshita street to the Shibuya area because we wanted to catch the Shibuya Crossing at rush hour. For those of you that don’t know, the Shibuya Crossing is the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. It’s a sort of scramble crossing so that travelers can go straight or diagonally. The traffic lights at the crossing have a 2-minute cycle.
That crossing was crazy at rush hour, which was around 6: 45 to 7 pm (they go to work much earlier than I’m used to in Canada, and get off work later as well). We stayed on the ground for many of the traffic light cycles. The first time, we dived right in and walked with all the other pedestrians from one end of the crossing to the other. It felt like we were being swallowed up by the human race. After that, we stood on a ledge close to the edge of the road so that we could film the crossing and its craziness from above. We stood there for a few cycles, trying to get the perfect shot. We were honestly just amazed at how there would just be a sea of people in the middle of this busy intersection, spaced out by 2-minute intervals.
There are a lot of buildings and stores that surround the intersection so we tried going up to a Starbucks that had a view overlooking the intersection. Although it was higher, the view wasn’t as good because it was through a window.
That night, we opted to stay in the Shibuya area at night because of how nice it was. We chose to order Japanese Curry again (I tried a really weird Cheese Filled Hamburger Patty Curry with Rice), and decided to call it a night.
We started Day 2 earlier by going to the Tsutiki Outdoor Fish Market right at around 8 AM. At first, we had been planning to see the live auction for the fish market (which was apparently supposed to take place at around 5 AM); this takes place now at Toyosu Fish Market. However, the day before, we found out that you have to submit a form request at least a month in advance usually. There’s a whole application and reservation process that we just didn’t know about, and I wish we did beforehand so that we could’ve applied. I have heard that even when you apply and reserve your spot, you have to be watching it all take place from an observation deck that is surrounded by glass.
So, because we couldn’t do that, we still decided to check out the older Tsutiki Outdoor Fish Market so that we could check out the stalls and see the different types of seafood they were selling. We passed by stalls selling fresh fish, crab, lobster, and so much more. While we were there, we were chatting with the vendors in broken English about what the auction process was like. Many of them mentioned that their bosses (the owner of the vendor) had gone to the fish auction early in the morning. I asked if the fish they were selling today were from the auction this morning. They mentioned that it was from the auction yesterday and that the fish they purchased this morning from the auction would be sold tomorrow morning.
Our itinerary for the rest of the day was as follows:
- Hie Shrine
- Imperial Palace
- Tokyo Tower
- Rainbow Bridge
- Gyukatsu for dinner (Absolutely amazing)
Hie Shrine was a fun one to see because it brought me back to the Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto (my favourite part of this whole trip so far). Although the main shrine is nice to see, the shrine’s back entrance has a path that is lined by 90 of the bright red torii gates, hence feeling like the Fushimi-Inari shrine. On the walk there, we even caught a glimpse of cherry blossom trees nearing full bloom.
The Imperial Palace was my favourite part of the day. The grounds of the palace itself are beautiful and were made even more beautiful because of the amazing weather we had that day. If you want to see the actual palace, you have to join a tour to do so and they only have two tours each day (one at 10 am and one at 1:30 pm), both of which are on a first-come, first-served basis. We had actually gone earlier at 10:30 am and were told that the tour had already started, so we made sure to come back in time for the one at 1:30 pm.
To get into the tour was a process in and of itself. We had to show our passports, fill out a form, go through security, and enter a waiting room before the tour was scheduled to start. Then, they split us up based on our spoken language. There were tours conducted in English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and German from what I remember; they were really accommodating for all the global travelers. The tour ended up being amazing and it’s great that they offer the one hour tour for free. We got led around the palace grounds and educated on some of the history there.
In short, the Imperial Palace is the current residence of Japan’s Imperial family (hence the heavy security) and is surrounded by moats and massive stone walls. The palace, as with a lot of other things in Tokyo, was once destroyed during World War Two and was rebuilt in the same style afterwards. Apparently, it is only on January 2 (New Year’s Greeting) and February 23rd (the birthday of the Emperor) that visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make a public appearance on a balcony.
I liked the greenery of the palace grounds. Because of the moat and the way one of the buildings was designed, it took me back to the morning that we had spent at Osaka Castle just a few days ago.
We also went to see Tokyo Tower that day (just from the outside). It was underwhelming, mostly because for some reason, I thought it would be much bigger. Tokyo Tower is the world’s tallest, self-supported steel tower. It looks like a red Eiffel tower that stands 333 meters high in the center of Tokyo, and is a symbol of Japan’s post-war rebirth as a major economic power. It actually remained as the country’s tallest structure from its completion in 1958 until 2012, when it was surpassed by the renowned Tokyo Skytree (which we would visit the next day).
Before dinner, we decided to walk all the way to where the Rainbow Bridge stood on the Tokyo Bay. I remember it being so windy by the waterfront, and every part of our body was frozen – our toes, our hands, our cheeks and noses. But still, it was nice to see the waterfront at dusk. The pink sky was a great backdrop to the water and to the bridge.
For dinner that night, we went to Gyukatsu. It was probably our priciest meal yet (1500 yen) but every yen was worth it. It was essentially deep fried wagyu beef cutlets that you were able to cook yourself on a “hot stone” that they put in front of your plate. They paired it with a variety of smaller appetizers + sauces, which really served as the cherry on top. We all found it incredibly convenient they had instructions for how to actually go about the process.
That night, seeing that we had had a tiring day and wanted to relax a bit, we decided to go all out and hit up a karaoke place after some drinking in our Airbnb. We found a place nearby and paid for an hour’s use of the room. That whole night and experience was so much fun. I’d been to a couple of karaoke places in Toronto before, but just being in one in Tokyo felt different.
For once for this entire trip, we let ourselves to sleep in a bit until 9:30 (shocking, right?). The past week of walking and sight-seeking (plus last night’s drinking) got to be a bit too tiring for us and we needed to rest.
The itinerary for our last day (which was a chill day) was this:
- Ueno Park in the morning
- Ameyayokacho Market (great for souvenirs)
- Senso ji
- Nakamise Shopping Street (souvenirs)
- Ramen for a late lunch
- Tokyo Skytree visit
- Sumo Arena for the Olympics (it was closed)
Ueno Park was such a fantastic way to start our morning. The park was huge from what I can remember – there was a map even detailing all the different ponds, trails, and museums that were on park grounds. There was a man playing music from a flute-like looking instrument, and it really was music to our ears that morning.
I loved browsing Ameyayokacho Market and Nakamise Shopping Street. It was our last chance to buy souvenirs for ourselves, for family, and for friends back home so we made sure to pick up everything we needed. They had absolutely everything – chopsticks you can engrave, packaged snacks, keychains and magnets of all sorts.
The Nakamise shopping street was close to Sensoji so of course, we wanted to go see that (it would, after all, be our last temple stop in Japan). The street actually leads from the outer gate to the temple’s second gate. I read recently that legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always somehow had a way of returning to the. As a result, Sensoji was built nearby the river for the goddess of Kannon. This temple was completed in 645, which makes it Tokyo’s oldest temple. In the main hall, we did what we normally do at Japanese temples: watch others pray and appreciate the beauty of the temple. This temple is deemed to be one of Tokyo’s most colourful temples and we could definitely see that.
For our last big attraction of the day, we visited the Tokyo Skytree and again, we decided that we didn’t really have interest in paying to go up to the observation deck. The Tokyo Skytree, which opened in 2012, is a television broadcasting tower and has a height of 634 meters. Its main highlight is its two observation decks – one at a height of 350 meters and the other at a height of 450 meters, making them the highest observations decks in Japan and some of the highest in the world. I wasn’t disappointed by it but just like with the Tokyo Tower, it didn’t seem to live up to its height in person. For some reason, even standing at the base of the Tokyo Skytree, it didn’t seem like the tallest self-supporting tower in the world. It’s 100 m taller than the CN tower back home in Toronto and yet, did it seem taller? Every time I see the CN tower up close, I’m also amazed by its height. Yet, I didn’t seem to be taken aback with the height of the Tokyo Skytree in person. I have no clue why.
At night, we walked around some more and had our last matcha ice cream in Japan (for now). We had an early flight the next morning (and it takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to get from central Tokyo to Narita airport via metro, so we’d have to be up at an ungodly hour (yet again).
It was definitely a bittersweet goodbye to Tokyo and to this amazing country.
That pretty much wraps up the Japan trip. 8 days. 3 big cities + Nara. 163 kilometres. It was definitely one hell of a trip, and I think it was the perfect way for us to spend our reading week. I’m so grateful for having had this opportunity to finally visit this beautiful, beautiful country and for having had amazing people to travel with 🙂