Tokyo: My General Impressions

Me in Odaiba, Tokyo with Rainbow Bridge in the background.

The grand Tokyo Skytree, completed in 2012.
Recently, I took my first solo trip. Location: Tokyo, Japan. Although I spent only six days there, Tokyo has officially become my favorite city in Asia so far.

While planning my trip, many people told me going to Tokyo would be a waste of time as it is very similar to Taipei, where I currently live. Indeed, the Taiwanese do borrow several elements of Japanese pop culture (e.g., the Taiwan Hello Kitty craze), and both are bustling cities with many skyscrapers, restaurants, shopping streets, etc. Nevertheless, for years I have wanted to go to Tokyo and see the city for myself. Admittedly, when I was a kid, I wanted to go to Japan because I was an avid anime fan. Yet my teenage and later adult self who was (and is) highly interested in other aspects of Japanese culture (e.g., the Showa era, especially kayōkyoku; cuisine) wanted to experience Japan firsthand.

As I explored the options of where to go in the city, I became increasingly excited about my 3-hour hop from Taipei to Tokyo. Additionally, the trip was a gift to myself for my 25th birthday. What better way to celebrate turning a quarter century and surviving through my thesis defense and two jobs for the past six months? These days, I love to spend most of my money on experiences - especially travel and food - rather than things, so a trip to Tokyo was a no-brainer.

I decided to stay in an apartment in Kōtō-ku or Kōtō City, a small special ward in eastern Tokyo. My accommodation was small and cheap (less than $50/night) as it was not in the city center. Nonetheless, my apartment was clean and the view from my window of the Sumida River was absolutely priceless! I was barely "at home" during my stay, but when I was I loved to watch people running along the river and the boats passing by. Plus, you can see Tokyo Skytree clearly from Kōtō.

The Sumida River.
An almost-empty Tokyo Metro (TM) Hanzomon Line train right before its
arrival at Nakano Station.

An infamous "Women only" car
marker  on a subway platform.

I also enjoyed the the neighborhood where I stayed because I was able to get to all major attractions in the city in less than 30 minutes. Traveling to the other side of Tokyo was only about 20 to 25 minutes as the Tokyo Metro (TM) is usually always on time and is fast (much faster than Taipei's MRT system). However, the Tokyo subway system can be quite confusing as the trains and rail lines are both government and privately owned. Luckily, if one has a Suica or Passmo card (I purchased the former at Nartia Airport B1) they can ride all of the trains with ease, which naturally makes sight seeing less stressful. 

So, what is there to see in Tokyo? 

Well, like many major cities, I think there is something for everyone in Tokyo whether you like food, music, shopping, culture, etc. Other than thrift shopping, buying snacks, and expanding my kayokyoku and 90's J-pop CD collection, I was not particularly interested in shopping. Therefore, I focused more on seeing sites which I felt would interest me, as well as enjoying all kinds of Japanese food since I'm a big foodie! Regardless of what you like, I think anyone who comes to Tokyo would notice the interesting contrast between old and new in seemingly all facets of the city. As many know, Tokyo is an innovative metropolis at the forefront of technological advancement, yet tradition and hallmarks of the past are visible, and there appears to be a palpable nostalgia for the Showa Era.

The famous Asahi Beer headquarters with the "Asahi Flame" on top
in Sumida, Tokyo.
Fuji TV headquarters in Odaiba, Tokyo.
There are several buildings in Tokyo with unique designs. For one, Tokyo Skytree is pretty amazing; I feel it's slowly taking over the Tokyo Tower (which I didn't visit, surprisingly!) in popularity. I would say the Asahi Beer building is one of the most interesting modern structures I have seen. Pictures do not do the "Asahi Flame" justice; a person has to stand there and marvel in its strangeness in person!

The Fuji TV headquarters in Odaiba is also a stunning modern landmark. The sphere in the middle of it resembles a spaceship.  

The popular
Shibuya 109 mall.

This tower is one of the most famous parts
of Sensoji Temple. Sweet red bean cakes
in the shape of different parts of the temple
are sold in the streets around it.
Girls who love shopping should visit Shibuya 109 which towers over all the other malls in the vicinity of Shibuya Station. Several pricey, high-end Japanese brands call Shibuya 109 home, yet there are cheaper items in the mall for bargain hunters, especially at the accessory shops. Even if you don't buy anything, I'd say it's a must-visit as the shop staff look like living dolls! There is also a 109 Men's mall close by.

For those unimpressed by shiny glass and metal pillars of modernity, Tokyo has no shortage of edifices from antiquity, especially temples. As my time in Tokyo was short, I only visited two of the city's famous temples - Sensoji Temple and Meiji Shrine. Sensoji Temple was absolutely brilliant since I visited on a clear, sunny day. It's a temple which pulls crowds, yet although I don't prefer crowded areas, I loved the bustling atmosphere.

It was rainy and cold outside when I went to Meiji Shrine, yet I think it added to the atmosphere in a similar way that it did when I visited Jiufen, Taiwan. It's location in a forested area north of Yoyogi Park gave it a relaxing but mysterious feel.

In addition to those two famous sites, I enjoyed strolling through old streets and temples in random alleyways. Tama Cemetery was also a relaxing place. While not necessarily a tourist site, you can visit the graves of the several Japanese icons buried there (e.g., Mishima Yukio). I enjoyed walking through its gardens. It seems Tama Cemetery is also a place where people like to ride their bikes.

Barrels of sake close to the main gate of Meiji Shrine.

Some of the candy available at Candy A Go-Go in
Harajuku's Cute Cube mall. The candy is sold
by weight (100g). They also sell cookies 
and other snacks.

Graves at Tama Cemetery.

A temple in Ueno Park.
In Tokyo, old and new also contend in the area of sustenance and indulgence - food! I'll start with the sweet stuff: candies and desserts. I feel the Japanese have a bit of a sweet tooth, and I find their desserts to be sweeter than confections in Taiwan. For that reason, I prefer Taiwanese sweets, but although I try not to snack, I spoiled myself rotten with matcha treats in Japan. Additionally, the variety of matcha sweets and snacks available is so wide. I bought plenty everyday but there are still several I didn't get to try. I formed a bit of an addiction to them! I have to say that my favorites are the matcha green tea Oreos and green tea Country Ma'ams, both available at Daiso, one of Japan's "dollar store" chains which has locations abroad.

About half of the green tea sweets
I hoarded.

Cakes and fruit at Kyobashi Sembikiya
in Tokyo Station.
When it comes to food, the Japanese are masters of presentation. Even if you don't enjoy sweets, you have to marvel at how they are displayed. Occasionally, I found myself just staring through bakery and cafe windows, and I was only able to resist about 60% of the time!

While the Japanese are skilled at creating alluring Western-style treats, they clearly have not abandoned their roots. Traditional Japanese sweets are beautiful in their own right and made with a delicate touch which makes you not even want to eat them!
Sakura mochi purchased from
Tsukiji Fish Market.

A traditional Japanese sweets shop.
Showa Era nostalgia has also influenced the area of sweets. After WWII, the dagashi-ya (駄菓子屋) or "candy shop" concept was quite popular among school-aged post-war babies. They would spend their allowances at local candy stores. Now, the dagashi-ya aren't as popular, but there is a famous one in Odaiba which I visited. It was nice to watch the kids pick out their favorite treats just like their grandparents probably did when they were children.

Candy at the dagashi-ya in Odaiba.
The prices fit the tiny budgets of their pint-sized
customers :)

Chirashizushi from one of the many
Tsukiji Market sushi restaurants.
As the years go by, the taste buds of a nation change. Japan is no different; it's possible to eat many types of cuisine in Tokyo, or an amalgamation of food from one or two cultures. Nonetheless, I only ate Japanese-style dishes during my time in Tokyo. I wanted to taste the "real deal" version of all the Japanese food I've tried in the past. Although there is amazing Japanese food in Taiwan, there's nothing like eating a type of cuisine in its country of origin. One of my favorite meals was the chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) or "scattered sushi" I had for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market. I would say that it is a requirement to eat fresh fish at the market. When I had that meal, I immediately realized why its best to eat fish as fresh as possible. It tasted like heaven!
A close up of one of the bento boxes
I scored for dinner.

One of my favorite things to eat in Tokyo were the bento ( 弁当) or lunch boxes sold in Tokyo Station bento-ya (弁当屋) or bento shops. You can get bento all over Tokyo of course, but I believe the best ones in the city are at Tokyo station. Most of my meals were bento because they're highly convenient and offer a variety of items for you to try - and they're absolutely beautifully presented as well!

While I occasionally splurged on seafood and bento lunches, most of my meals were from vending machine udon shops or even pre-made food from Lawsons convenient stores or the grocery store. Nonetheless, it was mostly delicious. Food is taken seriously in Japan, and no matter the price you pay, quality appears to be of upmost importance. However, I did not enjoy the gyoza (ギョーザ) I had at the Gyoza Stadium in Ikebukuro. Gyoza (Chinese: guotie 鍋貼; jiaozi 餃子) is much tastier in Taiwan in my opinion. Perhaps I was unlucky.

My birthday dinner was a $5 combo of udon and
a rice bowl. It was absolutely delicious though!
My lackluster gyoza.
At least the napkin was cute...
Everyday I had fruit, a veggie and egg salad, and natto (納豆) 
or fermented soybeans for breakfast.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Tokyo. I feel the atmosphere is fast-paced like Hong Kong, yet people still retain an air of organization and politeness despite the chaos . Visiting to Tokyo was truly was a trip of a lifetime for me as well as a confidence-building exercise as I was all on my own and barely know the language. I am already making plans for a second visit and am trying to learn more Japanese. 

Below is a video which includes most of the places I visited in Tokyo in less than 4 minutes! (Pay attention to the guy at 2:27; I didn't notice I caught that on camera until I got home!)

No comments:

Post a Comment