JAPAN 2020: Tokyo

The long-awaited Japan trip reports are finally here!

Because the trip was so long ago, I think the best way to recap everything would be by the pictures that Bryan and I were able to capture instead of doing a day-by-day report. Honestly, because of ~*the current situation*~, a lot of our days were spent walking around and eating instead of doing more tourist-y activities, which is not a bad thing at all! We still had a great time! But that probably doesn’t make for an interesting trip report, especially since so much time has passed and I’ve since forgotten a lot of the details.

So today, we start with Tokyo, where we spent most of our time in Japan!

A view of Shibuya from the roof of Shibuya Fukuras

Our first hotel was Hotel Mimaru Nihombashi Suitengumae, which provided us a spacious room in a convenient, if quiet, location.

I feel like we were absolutely spoiled by this hotel, because it was by far the largest of our entire trip. We even had a kitchenette and a seating area – which I wish we used more often!

We chose this specific hotel because it was close to the Tokyo Marathon route. Even though I didn’t end up running the marathon, the location was still nice because we didn’t have to wander far to watch the elite runners go by.

Later on, we stayed at two different hotels in Akasaka – the Hotel Rex (one of our favorite hotels of the entire trip) and the Hotel Centurion. Akasaka was a great place for us to stay, located pretty centrally and close to many different train lines, and if/when we ever go back, I’d definitely stay there again!

Because I didn’t have to worry about preparing for the marathon anymore, our schedule was wide open for whatever activities we wanted to do, tired feet be damned! However, because of the growing panic over Covid-19, our options dwindled down quickly: Tokyo Disneyland was closed indefinitely, the Marathon expo was cancelled, and our reservations to TeamLab Planets were cancelled the day before we were supposed to go.

We were, however, still able to go to a cooking class! Taught in a tiny apartment by a sweet, motherly duo of women who could be our grandmas, we put together a full meal of tamagoyaki, udon soup, and tempura. Even more than the food, they taught us about the apartment (a traditional one-room apartment with tatami floors), their Hinamatsuri doll set, and the origin of the Japanese phrase “mottainai”.

Before coming to Japan, going to a maid cafe was actually very low on my radar. However, as time passed, we felt like we were running out of uniquely Japanese experiences to do, and decided to bite the bullet and try one out. We made last minute plans to get lunch at Maidreamin in Shinjuku.

The cafe was definitely unique and about as awkward as I thought it would be! For those in our group who had no idea what a maid cafe would be, they definitely started to understand the concept once they handed out cute headbands for us to wear and asked us to do cute poses for our pictures.

The maids, though they tried their best!, spoke almost no English, and I could only banter with them with my limited Japanese for so long. Most of our conversations ended with everyone awkwardly grinning at each other. The English they did know, however, was the cutest English possible; that is, they got us to cast cutesy spells on each other’s food to make it as delicious as possible! The food, while adorable as heck, was near the bottom of our list of favorite food in Japan.

Oddly enough, one of my favorite meals of the entire trip was Ikinari Steak. We went to the branch near Tokyo Dome on a whim, not realizing that we’d have some of the best steak of our lives there. By trying out the different condiments, I realized that I love wasabi and mustard on my steak – who knew?

Our last meal in Japan was actually at another Ikinari Steak, this time near our hotel in Akasaka. They had a small sign in their window stating that they had 50 Wagyu beef steaks every day, first come first serve, so we decided to have a steak brunch after checking out of our hotel. It was expensive, sure, but I can still feel the fat melting in my mouth, so I think it was money well spent.

On the other hand, we did try going to Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511, not realizing that it was a high end restaurant that was way out of our price range! The worst part of our trip, by far, was awkwardly leaving after sitting down and taking one look at the menu and sweating nervously, not realizing that even the cheapest steak was out of any of our individual budgets. That sucked!

We spent a day in Harajuku, meeting up with my friend’s family who live Tokyo. I had seen pictures of Takeshita-dori online and saw videos on YouTube, and it truly lived up to the hype – I could have window shopped there for hours, but restrained myself!

(We did, however, spend a lot of time looking at gachapon as a Harajuku-themed techno song boomed in the background – I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that song for the rest of my life.)

The oddest thing was that it was very quiet. While it was one of the busier places we visited, it was much less crowded than usual, according to some other friends that had been there in the past.

I’ve seen pictures of this street being shoulder-to-shoulder packed – so seeing it this quiet is a bit shocking!

We got katsu for lunch – I got a cheese-stuffed version, while my friends got theirs drowned in delicious and rich curry sauce. Afterwards, we were inspired by the throngs of schoolgirls holding strawberry skewers and decided to go to Strawberry Mania for dessert.

Strawberries are truly more delicious in Japan!

On the topic of strawberries, one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip was taking the first bite of a strawberry-sakura sandwich on the bullet train and immediately devouring the rest of the sandwich with glee. I had more strawberry sandwiches in Japan than I thought I would ever have in my lifetime!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Japanese people love their whiskey just as much as I do. Highballs are the drink of choice for many, and even now, taking a sip of one brings me back to the many izakayas that we visited.

We went to two whiskey-centric bars while in Tokyo: the Tokyo Whisky Library and the Shinjuku Whisky Salon. I sipped some Japanese whiskey neat and also enjoyed some of the most creative cocktails that I’ve ever seen in my life.

The Whiskey Library even had smoked grapes to snack on with your drink, and we ordered them without knowing what to expect. They were smokey and sweet and an exactly perfect pairing with our drinks! Another pleasant Japanese surprise!

We had watched a lot of YouTube videos about the abundance of claw games in Japan, but didn’t truly “grasp” them until we actually visited one (or many, or literally any one that we came across while walking around… Akihabara was tough).

We probably spent – not exaggerating – hours in Japanese arcades: screaming in frustration at claw games; taking purikura in cramped, yet high-tech photo booths; and occasionally playing an actual arcade game (I may have fallen in love with Dance Rush for 30 minutes).

None of us expected to actually win anything, as much as we tried, but…

I carried a change purse for our spare change, and at one arcade, Bryan begged me for 500 more yen so that he could try for a cute Snorlax plush toy. “Another 500? I just gave you 500!” We argued about it for a minute or two before I fished out another coin and begrudgingly handed it over. Two minutes later… we had a new souvenir!

We named him Haibo Lawson: Haibo, short for “highball”, our drink of choice in Japan (see above), and Lawson, in honor of our favorite Japanese convenience store. (Now I want an egg salad sandwich!)

We had to buy another carry-on to bring him home, but I think he was worth it.

I expected to do a lot of clothes shopping in Japan, but was actually kind of disappointed at the selection there. Clothes weren’t as cheap as I thought they would be, and were pretty on par with prices in the U.S., though my only prior impression of “shopping abroad” is at 168 in the Philippines, so my view is admittedly a little warped. They also didn’t fit the way that I thought they would – while nearly all the maxi dresses and pants were made for my short legs, my chest and waist are bigger than the average Japanese woman’s, so my options were limited. Finally, and this was the biggest surprise, I wasn’t actually a huge fan of current Japanese trends!

Everything was super baggy, from t-shirts, blouses, and sweaters, to long, flowy maxi dresses and very, very wide legged pants. While everyone around us looked incredibly stylish, I know from experience that the baggy look does not work with my frame. At Shibuya 109, I even tried a few things on just to confirm my suspicions, and disappointingly had to put a lot of things back on their shelves.

I did leave with a few long-sleeved shirts with vague English phrases and a maxi skirt – which I’d like to feature in a future post someday!

A very crowded shot from one of the many Pokemon stores we visited

We did get to do more non-clothes shopping! For example, we just had to stop at every Don Quijote we saw for kit-kats and other souvenirs. I actually wanted a keychain of their mascot as a souvenir for myself, but couldn’t win one from a claw machine! (Foiled again by a claw machine!)

I also got a Morning Musume pin from the Hello! Project store in Osaka, where I almost started crying from excitement before I realized that I stopped following H!P over 10 years ago, and I didn’t know any of the current members at all. Oh well!

Odaiba, Japan? Or New York?

Bryan and I stopped by Odaiba as well, an area known for its many shopping malls and tourist attractions. The area was eerily quiet (save for the many, many dogs accompanying their owners to the pet stores) because many of the tourist attractions and larger stores and restaurants were closed. Despite this, we still got to wander through a vintage car display…

… and get some ramen at Aqua City’s Ramen Kokugikan Mai!

A classic bowl of tonkotsu ramen – one of many that we enjoyed!

At this point, it feels like ages since I’ve gone out. Going for drinks? with friends? What is that?

The last times that I did this were actually in Japan!

On one of our last nights as a group in Tokyo, we decided to check out Omoide Yokocho (a.k.a. Memory Lane). Unlike most of the places we checked out in Japan, this place was packed! Despite that, we were still called over by countless shop owners, leaning over their grills, assuring us that they have English menus.

We took a seat at a crowded bar, ordered a couple of drinks, and ate some great yakitori (sadly, no pictures).

Afterwards, we headed over to Golden Gai – another collection of tiny, crowded bars that had been recommended to all of us many times over. While not as crowded as Omoide Yokocho, we still spent a lot of time walking up and down each of the narrow streets, peeking into each bar, trying to choose one where we could all settle down. (Almost every bar had a cover charge, so we weren’t keen on bar-hopping, as we originally planned.)

The bar that we ended up going to was, as expected, pretty cramped – with maybe 7 bar seats total, and a table or two squeezed in behind us. We shared the bar with a pair of French-speaking girls, who asked the bartender many questions about which bar or club they should go to next, as the night was still young! He talked to us a bit about Boston – he was a baseball fan, so we talked a little about the Red Sox (Uehara!), which is kind of wild considering we were on the complete opposite side of the world! Sadly, we caught him at the end of his shift, so he was busy cleaning things up for the next bartender, who spent a lot of his time setting up for the rest of his night – so we spent the rest of the visit talking among ourselves.

LOOK AT THAT VIEW! (Out the window, not me, even though I am also a view)

We didn’t necessarily go out for drinks at a different bar or izakaya as our “going out” every night. Looking back, we might have actually gone to karaoke more often than bars!

I took full advantage of Japanese karaoke and sang many of my old J-pop favorites, from Hello! Project, Shiina Ringo, m-flo, and AAA (and a lot more that I probably don’t remember). I was a bit embarrassed to sing these songs in front of my friends, who I didn’t know back during my J-pop phase and definitely didn’t know how deep my obsession went, but after a few highballs… who cares?! I joked many times that I wanted to go to Japan specifically so that I could sing these songs on karaoke!

Our favorite karaoke stop, by far, gave us the stereotypical neon lights view of Tokyo. We felt like we were in the Lost in Japan music video, or in the movie Lost in Translation (I know, same thing). We didn’t ask for the view – we figured that many rooms were empty as locals avoided going out due to the virus – and we quite literally screamed upon opening the door and looking out the window.

(The first bit of Japanese that I pulled out on our trip was actually at the front desk of a karaoke place: “30 minutes, 4 people, please!” My years of casually studying Japanese finally paid off!)

I wanted to close this Tokyo not-chronological-trip-report with one of my favorite meals!

One of my favorite ramen shops back home in Boston is Yume wo Katare, which specializes in a relatively rare style of ramen called Jiro ramen. It’s rich, with especially fatty tonkotsu broth, thick, handmade noodles, and topped with lots of bean sprouts and thick slices of pork.

At Yume wo Katare, the serving sizes are enormous, and at the end of your meal, a server comes to collect your bowl and rates how much you finished – I usually end with a “Good job!”, finishing most of the noodles and pork but leaving almost all of the broth. And I usually don’t eat for a whole day after! That’s how big these bowls are!

Near the end of our trip, we realized that we were in Tokyo, the home of Jiro Ramen, and decided to go to the branch in Kabukicho to get a bowl of the original stuff ourselves.

The place is decidedly more local- than tourist-friendly – the ticket vending machine was entirely in Japanese, as were the various signs hanging around the bar (which, using Google Translate, I found were instructions on how to order and clean up after ourselves), and the cook behind the bar ordered us to wait in line and sit down using a big smile and many gestures when he realized we didn’t speak Japanese.

However, when we finally got our bowls, we were greeted by the familiar smell of fatty pork broth, and were excited to dig in. The ramen was surprisingly lighter than the version we were used to back home, and in more manageable, smaller portions. I was the perfect amount of full when we left, with enough room left in my stomach to grab some mochi ice cream from the 7-11 next door to cut through the fattiness.

There was probably a lot more in Tokyo that we were able to do, but the trip was nearly 5! months ago at this point, so my memory is definitely lacking. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable trip, and due to the circumstances, there are still a ton of things on my list that we weren’t able to do, so I’m looking forward to our next visit to Tokyo!

(Next up: Osaka and Kyoto~)

Doesn’t this sculpture look more menacing with the blur turned all the way up?

3 thoughts on “JAPAN 2020: Tokyo

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