Excerpts from Japan: The Vivid Colours of Tokyo

We kicked off our first hour in Shibuya sipping drinks at Starbucks and munching on a shared green tea macaron. Miraculously, we managed to find a seat in the crowded café. The little outlet overlooks the Shibuya crossing. The crossing itself is quite a wonder.  Being one of the busiest intersections in the world, it is known to cater to more than 3 million people each day!

As I sipped on my green tea soy milk frappuccino (cold and sinfully delicious), we discussed where to go and what to do now that we were in Tokyo. The first thing we needed to do was to check into our hotel, the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu. But we could only do that at 2:00PM, so we acquainted ourselves with the bustling city for a couple of hours and purchased a bunch of stuff from an interesting store called ‘LOFT’.

Our hotel room was located on the 19th floor and we had a pretty fantastic view of the Shibuya crossing and the city skyline. We relaxed in the room for awhile, often looking out the window and peering down at the hundreds of people. I snacked on the roasted chestnuts we bought in Chinatown the day before while James tried the yummy-looking mooncake he selected and purchased from there.

It had been cloudy and drizzly the entire afternoon, which wasn’t exactly the best weather to go gallivanting about. However, we wandered around Shibuya Mark City, which was the shopping mall connected to our hotel. After a bit of window shopping, we returned to our room and I took the opportunity to take a great number of photographs of the city from the window.

When the rain clouds finally started to clear, James and I decided to head to Shinjuku by train.

We spent a good deal of time in glittery Shinjuku and eventually had dinner there. We found a quaint little ramen place along one of the streets. A nice lady who spoke a bit of English greeted us outside while we chose what we wanted to eat from a Japanese menu outside. It wasn’t written in English, so we just pointed at what we wanted and the lady helped us out. Then, we followed her into the dimly lit eating place, excited and a little apprehensive. The ramen bar was tiny. There was an L-shaped bench that hugged the wall and a barely visible kitchen on the opposite side of said bench. Space wasn’t a commodity here. But it was cosy and warm and welcoming. Apart from the staff, the place was completely empty when we walked in. We were served our orders a few minutes after filling in a piece of paper with a genius list of things that we could choose to our liking, such as what kind of toppings we wanted in our ramen,  the thickness and hardness of our noodles, how spicy we wanted the soup to be, et cetera. Thank goodness the list was in English! But really, the whole picking and choosing how you wanted your ramen to be like was such a good idea!

As expected, the ramen itself was amazing. I just can’t tell you how amazing! The noodles were firm, the soup was deliciously warm and the ingredients were bursting with flavour! Oh, and on another note, within a few minutes of us starting on our meal, the place was suddenly full of customers. Strange.

After our filling ramen, we went back out into the cold and back onto the streets of Shinjuku. We entered Bic Camera and took a look at all the cameras and electronic items they had for sale. I bought some camera related items, including some Instax Mini film and a small photo album.

After wandering the Shinjuku streets for a little while more, we decided to go elsewhere. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building sounded good, so we headed in that direction. Unfortunately, when we got there, I started to get very tired and there was a fairly long line of people waiting to go up to the observation deck. So, we ended up not going up the building and instead, found a little store called ‘Danish Bar’ selling sweet Danish pastries in odd shapes. James bought one for us to share. It was covered in almond slivers and oh my god, it was so yummy! I wish they had outlets here in Australia! They’d be very popular!

It was quite late by the time we got out of Shinjuku, so we decided to call it a night and head back to our hotel room for some much-needed rest. It had been a very long day but I think that our first day in Tokyo was a huge success!

Previous excerpt: Golden Week in Yokohama

Excerpts from Japan: Golden Week in Yokohama

The breakfast that greeted us on the morning of our second day in Japan was equally as amazing as the breakfast we had the morning before. While the first breakfast was more Japanese (which included things like grilled mackerel, brown rice, natto, pickled eggplant and miso soup), the second was simpler with eggs and sausages on the side. That said, there were still a multitude of tasty Japanese dishes that James and I loved, our favourite being the miso yakionigiri. Akiko-san is a very good cook!

The weather was still gloomy and drizzly on our second day. The sky over Yokohama was a blanket of motionless grey. For those interested to know, Yokohama is the capital city of Kanagawa Prefecture. It is the second largest city in Japan by population, Tokyo being the first. It has a population of over 3 million and is located about a half-hour train ride south of Tokyo. Today, Yokohama functions as one of Japan’s major ports.

After our filling breakfast, we headed over to Motomachi, a quick walk from the apartment. Despite the weather, we had a good time strolling through the colourful shop-filled street. Many of the stores were fancy little boutiques and charming home décor shops. This was clearly a more upmarket place. We stopped at a Godiva outlet and picked up a quick morning tea snack: ice cream truffles. They were quite delicious. Cold, but so good! There were six different flavours shared among the four of us. These were green tea, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, almond and mocha.

After completing our walk through Motomachi, we headed towards Chinatown. As mentioned in my previous Japan post, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the biggest Chinatown in Japan and one of the biggest in the world. Located nearby is Yokohama Stadium. A baseball game was just starting and many people were milling about outside, buying tickets to get in or setting up food stalls for patrons of the game. There was also a large fountain nearby. For whatever reason, it seemed to emit smoke randomly.

There was a nice little park with a turtle pond around the corner where we stopped for a moment to observe the fish and the lone turtle resting on a rock in the rain. If you look closely at the next picture, you might be able to spot the turtle behind me on the rock!

Chinatown was busy. Very, very busy. People everywhere! Being Golden Week, this was to be expected. Vendors selling street food such as roasted chestnuts were located at every corner; hungry people clutching umbrellas were standing in long queues, waiting to buy hot steamed buns or fried dumplings from their favourite stalls; others were cramming into souvenir shops that sold cute, haphazardly arranged novelty items and gifts… It was all kind of daunting.

This was the kind of chaos that Japan is so famous for. We were headed for Tokyo the next day and in a way, this swarming crowd mentally prepared us for what was waiting in Shibuya. Although we knew it was going to be a lot worse.

Akiko and Martin headed back to the apartment while James and I were left to roam around. We entered a store that offered Japanese gifts and souvenirs. It was a den of little trinkets, from jewellery to teapots to incense to traditional clothes. There was a section in the store dedicated to just chopsticks, all different sizes and colours, all made from different kinds of wood. Some chopsticks were as expensive as 6000 yen (about 76 Australian dollars). But those were the really nice ones.

We bought some gifts for people back home in Australia and some keepsakes for ourselves, then headed back out into the crowd and purchased a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts from a nice street vendor who couldn’t speak a word of English. The chestnuts were warm, firm, moist and delicious. They brought back memories of when I was a child still living in Singapore where my dad would bring home a brown paper bag full of warm chestnuts that he would buy from a man who worked tirelessly day after day stirring a large cast iron wok full of red hot coals and chestnuts. I was never any good at shelling them, but here’s a clue: having long fingernails help! If you’ve never eaten them before and you don’t mind the extra effort of peeling the roasted shells off and getting blackened sticky fingers as a result, you should really look for some!

After Chinatown, we headed back to the apartment for a quick rest before dinner. Fast forward a few hours later and we’re sitting on tatami mats in a crowded, dimly lit yakitori place. Dinner consisted of a wide array of skewered meats and side dishes. Heart, liver, tongue, cartilage, quail eggs, the works. All grilled to perfection. And many, many skewers, some yakionigiri and a bowl of agedashi tofu later, we walked out of there feeling like corpulent penguins.

After awhile, James and I were left to waddle the streets of Yokohama on our own. Where else would we go but towards the brightly lit Cosmoworld?! Alright, so we spent a lot of time at World Porters first, where we found a shop filled with cute plush toys and stationery. And also, a cute little claw machine! James tried his hand at getting me a Rilakkuma plush charm. On his first go, he caught one. I was so proud!

When the mall started to close, we made our way to Cosmoworld. Cosmoworld is, in essence, a charismatic amusement park filled with fun rides, carnival game booths, arcades, horror houses and carousels. But the biggest landmark here is the Cosmo Clock 21.

Cosmo Clock 21 is a giant Ferris wheel. It also doubles as the world’s largest clock. When it first opened in 1989, it was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel. After a second installation in 1999, it measured an impressive 112.5 metres tall. It has since been succeeded by 12 other Ferris wheels around the world, the current tallest being the Singapore Flyer standing at a staggering 165 metres.

Unfortunately, we didn’t sit the Cosmo Clock 21 that night. But we did get a chance after returning from our weekend in Tokyo, which I will be talking about in the next instalment of Excerpts from Japan! Watch this space!

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