Tokyo, 23 August – 1 September 2014
I went to Tokyo for the first time – I was there from 23 August to 1 September. It’s a city I’ve been meaning to visit for awhile but held off on going because it’s expensive. R, whom I met in New York City last fall, asked if I’d like to join him and before I knew it I was booking my flight. Two weeks later I was on a plane to the Japanese capital. Tokyo is great, it’s very modern, safe and easy to get around, though not as cosmopolitan as I thought it would be. The Japanese are famed for their hospitality and everyone was polite and respectful, which was a nice change from the brusqueness I encounter back home. Most of the locals have little or no command of English but they were unfailingly helpful whenever I needed directions. Gestures and hand-drawn maps went a long way in pointing me to my destination, and I really appreciated their help.
R and I travelled together for the first three days and then split up as we wanted to see and do different things. We hit the usual places like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza, checked out cool record stores and soaked in the atmosphere. No trip to Tokyo is complete without shopping at Uniqlo and Muji, where the variety is much wider and prices are lower than in Singapore. I also visited a seven-storey sex shop in Akihabara called Pop Life. It was eye-opening to say the least; it’s filled with every imaginable sex toy and pleasure enhancing gadget you can think of. There are different products on each level, condoms, dildos and vibrators are located on the lower levels, porn movies are screened on the second level and costumes are on the top floor. R and I spent a fair amount of time in the store making fun of the more outlandish items and wacky packaging. The crowd was a mixture of curious tourists and Japanese men who looked to be in their thirties and forties. Fun fact: purchases are wrapped in discreet brown paper bags, which tickled me no end.
I also made day trips to Yokohama and Kyoto, which were lovely and a nice change from the frenetic pace of Tokyo, though I wished I had more time as a day in either of those places is hardly enough. Yokohama was nice – being a port city it has a relaxed and chilled out vibe. R and I went to Osanbashi Pier and had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Though beautiful, I found Kyoto to be very touristy – there were considerably more foreigners there than in Tokyo. I enjoyed wandering around the temples and shrines, and especially loved the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Surrounded by towering bamboo trees I felt peaceful and serene, as though time had slowed down and I was left to contemplate my thoughts.
The food was amazing and every meal was exceptional. I had onigiri for breakfast nearly everyday, big comforting bowls of ramen, udon and soba, delicious bento sets on the shinkansen, and a wonderful sardine sashimi lunch at a Michelin star restaurant called Nakajima. I hit the famed Tsukiji Fish Market and admired the variety of wares on offer; prior to that I had a splendid sushi lunch at Sushi Katsura a few blocks away. I wolfed down hearty pork, beef, chicken, quail egg and bacon skewers, and a huge potato croquette containing a soft-boiled egg at a bustling yakitori joint in Roppongi. I relished an incredibly tasty cheeseburger and fluffy potato wedges at Freshness Burger, and wolfed down yummy buns and pastries from Mont Thabor bakery in Ebisu. I had matcha soft serve ice cream, peanut mochi, and warm, gooey takoyaki at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. Whether it was a humble custard pudding from 7-11 or melt-in-your-mouth tonkatsu at Maisen, everything tasted fresh and flavourful.
One of the highlights of my trip was visiting a Shiba Inu shopkeeper that ‘runs’ a small cigarette shop in a residential neighbourhood west of Tokyo. When it hears the shop bell ringing, it comes running and slides the window open to greet customers. I had heard about it when several articles made the rounds online a few months ago. My editor even wrote about it for the website. It was an approximately thirty minute trek from Musashi-Koganei station in a light drizzle to the Suzuki cigarette shop. When I got to the shop the dog was nowhere to be found; it was past 7pm and it was probably eating or resting inside. I stood and waited to see if it would come out, and sure enough it did. It’s an adorable and very handsome dog, and while I was taking pictures and waving at it through the glass, the owner appeared. She’s a very nice elderly Japanese lady and I explained I had come specially to see the dog. She invited me to pen a message for Shiba in a notebook where other visitors had left theirs. I patted Shiba and took a picture with him. He was so quiet and well-behaved, I wished I had a dog like him too. I bought a can of iced coffee as a small token of appreciation, said goodbye to Shiba and his owner and walked back to the station. I was bedraggled by the time I got back to the apartment, but overjoyed at meeting the dog.
Ten days was barely enough time and there were some places I didn’t get to, like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which I heard has a stunning view of the city at night, the Studio Ghibli museum, as well as Club Womb and various restaurants. I left knowing there was still so much to experience and with any luck, I’ll be back soon.