TOKYO: Sipping wine under a bridge and plastic burgers.

TOKYO IN THREE DAYS

No I am not a wino, but I am a fan of small dive bars (and upmarket ones too), hard to find places and creating interesting memories. Tokyo could keep me writing for months. there is literally so much to see and do its hard to know where to begin. I am fortunate to  have had the benefit of having visited many times before. Each time I try and do something different. Its a city I never tire of, and whilst it has changed enormously  in the 30 years I have been going there,  in some ways it is still the same. At least I don’t get stared at like a she devil any longer and I manage a smattering of Japanese, although English is widely spoken, don’t rely upon that. Its always good to have a few basic polite phrases in store, and of course the essentials such as where are the toilets, and do you have coffee and wine!

NB: Any links I have added here are purely for assistance and in no way are advertising for these sites.

Wine under the bridge

Wine under the bridge

I was reading recently on one of my favorite travel blogs Nomadic Matt , his blog post on experimental travel and the fact this is a BS term is well worth a read.  “when you travel you eat the local food, soak up the local culture, take public transportation, and talk to people. Just travel….” I totally agree and I don’t get sucked into new and interesting ways to spend my money, rather I research,  and read blogs such as this and start making plans based on new discoveries.

So my time in Tokyo this time was much more one of immersion rather than sightseeing. Travel shapes who we are and time spent observing, learning and understanding all adds up to a greater understanding of life itself and people and ultimately oneself.

TWO DAYS IN TOKYO.

Of course if you haven’t been to this magnificent, modern and diverse city most Google searches will render the  ubiquitous top ten things to do list so I wont regurgitate that here, but rather I  tend to look for some more unique things to see in the city. However I do recommend a site  called Truly Tokyo written by a Lonely Planet guru that is super helpful!

GETTING AROUND –  A Japan rail pass is a great , easy way to get around, but do your sums as if you are only going for a few days it may well be cheaper to do the sectors individually. For me, I was only going between Tokyo and Kyoto as the major piece of internal travel and after much research I opted to use the Passmo card for all my city trips and then purchased a shinkansen ticket to get to Kyoto. The Man in Seat 61 was a wealth of information, although very comprehensive I was looking for more immediate answers and found the Tokyocheapo site to be excellent . I took their advice and went on the Platt Kodama train which was both fast and cheap!

WHERE I STAYED  – I chose to stay the first night close by to the airport, if you are flying into Narita beware, as it can be a long haul into the city. Narita village is only ten minutes from the airport and the hotel I picked also had a free shuttle. It was very reasonably priced- around $50 per night and I felt completely refreshed to then get on the train and enjoy the view into the city the next morning.

The train was easy enough, just be a bit patient as it can be confusing trying to understand where you need to go and how to get there, but everyone is so willing to help, relax and enjoy the unique city that lies in wait.

Taito- Ku, on the Hibiya line was a super convenient spot. The Hibiya line has stops for most of the major spots on the sightseeing route, making Taito-Ku a central, affordable area to stay.  I was rapt with my choice, a large apartment on top of a soba noodle shop    ( that is only open weekends so he doesn’t rent it out then) and it was truly eclectic. Thanks Airbnb

DAY ONE

The time difference is awesome! so I am up at 5 am ready to go, which I love incidentally.

KAPPABASHI- or Kitchen Town

Love gadgets and knives? this place will have you sorted. Whilst many shops cater to the commercial trade end of town many are stocked with individual items such as the famous Japanese steel, Kappabashi is a long street located between Ueno and Asakusa easily accessible and can be part of a day trip to all there areas. Read here for a useful article and perfect directions on how to get here. As a caterer I LOVE to spend time here each visit and come home with colorful and interesting pieces every time, The knives I bought here 30 years ago are still my pride and joy.

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The street is basically one large , long street and this guy is on top of a building at the entrance, you cant miss it!

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Colorful pottery is everywhere in Kappabashi

A restaurant venue this area is not.  There are not many places to grab coffee , let alone lunch, but out of the blue we found this  Italian restaurant that has been in the area for over 30 years, it was extraordinary, we discovered it completely from my friends memory and voila, ended up talking for ages to the owner whose daughter had been a student of my friend all those years ago. Seriously good Italian food. So far I have spent all day not eating Japanese food… we will need to fix that! Check out the creation below, not my lunch but a plastic window creation. You can even do a mini course at a shop called Ganso Sample and make your own mini takeaway food. Ill put that on the list for next time.

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A humongous plastic burger!

OMOTESANDO- Is a wide tree lined avenue leading to Harajuku. It is full of elegant high end shops. Sat down for a coffee but honestly balked at the price of Y900 ( approx $10 AUD) and by now I was hankering for ramen. Being a vego, eating good Japanese can sometimes be challenging to say the least, so almost at Harajuku station I saw a vegan Ramen sign , in English I walked almost in a trance like toward it.

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Kyushu Jangara Ramen Harajuku fantastic bowl of goodness

HARAJUKU After a wonderful bowl of steaming hot ramen we are off again. A trip to Tokyo for me always includes a stroll through Harajuku. Here you will find all manner of weird and wonderful , cute and quirky. I am talking about costumes, gadgets, cat cafes and even hedgehog and owl cafes. Personally I am totally against any manner of animal exploitation but there you have it, Japan really does not do things by halves.

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Any given day in Harajuku!

 

DAY TWO The first order of the day was to get my ticket for the next stage of the trip, so a visit to Tokyo station was in order. As you may recall I decided on the Platt Kodomo shinkansen and you actually have to go to the ticket office to purchase this. Follow the directions given on the website link above and all will be well. I always think getting around a train station is part of the adventure anyways.

UENO I love Ueno for its sprawling park , which was originally part of Kaneiji Temple,  one of the city’s largest and wealthiest temples and the family temple of the Shogun ruling Tokugawa clan during the Edo Period. I studied Japanese history so I am fascinated by this era, which in part was what this trip is about, well certainly the next leg….

ASAKUSA  Apparently the areas past was more of a red light district full of Yakusa ( gangsters) geisha, actors and the like.  Today it is a bustling  tourist spot, famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple. I also found this a good place to pick up  souvenirs , on Nakamisi Dori- the street leading to the temple, strangely not overpriced. Asakusa is also home to Hanayashiki, Japan’s oldest amusement park founded in founded in 1853. There is loads of street food here, sweet potatoes and mochi. Green tea ice cream was the most popular food this time as it was hot.  However I go there for cold soba noodles, a dish I have grown to love. The last time I was here i was just about to tuck into my meal when a young boy ran through the restaurant,  grabbed the food out of my mouth and ran off! still makes me laugh and I go back for more every time.

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The cloudy skies add drama at Sensō-ji Temple

MARANOUCHI – is Tokyo’s financial district located close to the  Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station is the hub for most of the long distance shinkansen , and it was here I needed to go to purchase my ticket to Kyoto. The area is full of upmarket shops with all the big label names. We went to dinner at what I swear is the best Indian food in town. My Indian Didi has a suburb chain of restaurants throughout Tokyo and they are well worth visiting.

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Maranouchi comes alive at night

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Best Naan in town!

So how did we end up under a bridge drinking wine? well, after our banquet we decide a walk was in order . Remembering this place we found on our last visit, we set off to our bar under the bridge. Only a short walk from Maranouchi is a spot known in Japanese as Gado-shita, from “below the girder”, there are numerous great bars, izakayas and sushi joints alongside pizza and tapas, all with lots of beer and wine. These slightly gritty and lively bars stretch about 700 metes under the tracks of Yurakucho Station.

Tokyo is full of hidden spots, alleyways, bars, clubs, jazz rooms… you name it, it is there. I am in awe of the people all out late at night, most still on their way home from work, stopping in at these places, eating, drinking and laughing. Check this article for more on these places, and don’t miss it on a trip to Tokyo. Sitting underneath a bridge sipping wine… perfect.

Thanks for reading, off to Kyoto next.

Japan: Only a week vacay?

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Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine

Japan used to be considered one of the worlds most expensive destinations  and a lot of people I speak to still seem to be of that opinion ( without having been there) Yes there are VERY expensive things to do , see , eat and buy but the average vacation in Japan need not be so at all. In fact it is quite cheap in certain areas, especially food. Of course this is somewhat subjective, and I would point out that if you are backpacking on a tight budget as always you can hunt out the cheapest way to do things.

Japan is a wonderful country steeped in many ancient traditions and has a culture quite unique maybe cultivated whilst having been cut off from the western world for nearly 300 years in the time of the Shoguns. Today’s Japan is high tech, busy and colourful , yet traditions and history have deep underlying roots in modern day Japan also.

Why do people raise their eyebrows when I say I’m going to Japan for a week? business people do it all the time – and they work in between! Change your mindset….wow a whole seven days, what can I do with that? stay at home on the couch or hot foot it to the airport. I know which one I pick. This trip was seven days and I went to Japan.

As an ex flight attendant I am only too familiar with long flights and body clocks, so I opt for day flights where possible… what a waste of a precious days vacation you say? wrong… my logic is that a day flight gives me the opportunity to do nothing for more than ten hours, watch movies, snack, doze… I feel like I have had a week on the couch- then I am not fried by a restless night trying to sleep on a usually pretty uncomfortable seat ( I opt for cheap tix so I can travel more)

Even as I am writing this I am planning my next ski trip. This time I think it will be to Japan again. It looks awesome, and I see that Jetstar also have amazing package deals on again.

MY SEVEN DAY ITINERARY

TOKYO- 3 Nights

KYOTO- 2 Nights

OSAKA- 2 Nights

This time I flew with Jetstar via Cairns. They have some no brainer deals on , especially when the return flight is for free, or two for one deals. However be prepared for a really early stat and a wait at cairns including reclaiming luggage from the first leg . I came from Sydney so that is a domestic flight. At least you only have to check in one hour before. Otherwise my standby website to check is Skyscanner as thats such a good comparison site. I have also used Zuji and Kayak but found the interface on Skyscanner much easier.

AIRBNB OR HOTELS?

I have been an Airbnb host for over two years and loved the experience of it, but rarely have I used it as a traveler, so this time I stayed in Tokyo and Kyoto with Airbnb, and Osaka in a small hotel. So here is a plug from me for Airbnb as I cant recommend it more highly. Of course each property has reviews so ultimately it is your decision as to where you stay and at what price point but I am very happy so far. If you want to find out more or book one of the places I stayed at it would be awesome if you want to use my referral key .  

As a solo female traveler I felt very safe. I did opt to take the entire place to myself rather than a room in another persons house, but that was simply my choice and was not at all to do with personal safety.

WHAT TO PACK

Well, once you get to know me a bit more you will realize that although I am spontaneous , I do have a regime of a few essentials I recommend to everyone travelling here:

Firstly, as far as the weather is concerned, I am not a weather blog, so please check google or a weather app….seriously the easiest answer to all these questions.

Toiletries– Pack your essentials everything else can be bought, however do not rely on any written English on anything. As I embarrassingly found out having to ask for corn plasters! Bring any medications you may need from home, and of course make sure you have travel insurance.

Clothing- Use common sense and dress for whatever season your research recommends! Do however wear darn good walking shoes, My Sketchers are the only shoes I have ever worn out, just awesome. I do take some pretty ones for going out in of course.

Electronics- Beware the voltage change so I don’t bother with hairdryers- most hotels and Airbnb  have them . DO get some plug adapters though.

COOKING CLASSES

As i move on with my travels you will see that i try to attend cooking classes wherever I go. I think it gives me a better understanding of the culture and make up of the people and countries. I am also a passionate cook and now have a small catering company so its important to learn as much as possible and have new ideas on the ready!

Ok… more to come on each city

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OFF TO THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN

 

JAPAN : Insiders guide to Pachinko, Toilets and more

This is my very first blog on one of my favorite countries- Japan, and I have chosen to title it like that- what was I thinking? There are so many oddities here for us westerners that I would be remiss of me to not mention them!

This trip to Japan is a quick one ( seven days) but covers a lot of ground. If you only have a week this is totally achievable and will leave you hankering for more. I will be posting articles on each city I visited separately. This post is about some of the more curious aspects of Japan and modern Japanese culture that I find fascinating. In fact entire TV series and books have been made dedicated to the  quirkiness of Japanese culture. I have family in Japan and as a disclaimer I love and respect the Japanese people, but man they have some peculiar ways of doing stuff!

TOILETS . When I first came to Japan in the late 1980’s most toilets outside the hotels were the squat type so McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts were the only places us delicate types would venture to use. Now the Japanese have mastered the art of sitting in peace. Or, one could say this is a natural extension of Zen…A typical toilet, even in airports has a heated seat, a bidet ( for the back bits) and a washer ( for the lady bits) and even music that is optional in case you don’t  want the person beside you to hear your personal sounds ( how perfect this would be at home many of you are thinking) The instruction panels range from the very pictorial basic ones to mind boggling variations that leave me wondering, really, just how many ways are the to do this? Beware the flush button as this may be confused with the attendant call button.

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A basic control panel!

PACHINKO

These parlors make our Aussie  Pokie rooms look like child’s play- do not be fooled,  it is way more serious. I have now had two attempts at this, both unaided and I have come out no wiser as to how on earth this game works. A disclaimer is that I was never any good at Pinball. So, from what I can gather you put money in, get a load of steel balls and shoot them around to win more steel balls. Sounds relatively simple, but I just failed miserably in getting any balls back , so after my Y 2000 ( about $23 AUD) was all gone I gave up. This place is not for the faint hearted , the noise is incredible, the players relentless in their dedication, ambition and their chain smoking. Obviously this is a game of skill that is beyond me as many people had basket upon basket of balls stacked up beside them. Have a go- if not just for the experience.

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View of the machine- sensory alert

TRAIN ETIQUETTE

Japan is a nation of many millions,and as as such their cultural etiquette is all about politeness- on the surface at least. Order is what makes thier society work. Follow the signs and the rules. Of course the Gaijin (or Foreigner ) card still appliers in most instances whereby any dumb move on your behalf is written off. That being said, when in Rome do as in Japan I say.

On the escalator, stand on one side-which side I do not know as it seems to vary, just follow and all will be well. At the platform, orderly queues for before each train is due ( and they are ALWAYS on time) let the people get off first and then you are good to go. Thinking back isn’t this they way I was bought up? yeah.. what has happened to modern day western politeness?

SMOKING

Wow the Japanese love to smoke! its changing but beware that smoking is still allowed inside most restaurants, although there are usual designated areas. Odd since its not allowed outside- in Tokyo at least.

POLITENESS

The English are known for their stiff upper lip, and politeness- but most of the time this is cynical humour- I am originally English so feel somewhat justified in saying that. The Japanese however take it to the next level. It can be somewhat foreboding until you relax into it and just accept this is what they do. Being greeted at my hotel- and a cheap one at that by people bowing can be a little unsettling, but rather nice. Then the entire staff at the check in all do the same thing.. walk to the lift and someone is thee to push the button- well that saves my energy I thought.. lovely… get in the lift and the button pusher is there bowing to me as the doors close- awesome!

PUBLIC BATHS

Today I had my first experience in a “public Bath” how hard could this be.. yahoo, in Australia we refer to them as spas or hot tubs, generally an experience being sometimes a solo affair with a quiet cup of tea or a team event involving numerous people, cocktails and rowdy music. Not so in Japan. Of course I was aware that here bathing is taken seriously, so when I booked onto a hotel that offered this , I was ready to go. After a full days sightseeing experience in Osaka, a relaxing bath was just the ticket. I read, and re read the instructions carefully, also phoning a friend to do some double checking. I did put a cheeky little bottle of wine in my bag, just in case I was alone and could recreate my bathtub at home.

After dressing in the appropriate “room wear” having stripped down entirely, I donned the room slippers and headed off. Boys and girls have their own rooms… enter the anti chamber… another pair of slippers is required, so I leave my ones at the door and don those for the meter walk into the changing area, I then did a quick scope of the bath chamber and realised I needed to now bare all. Whilst being a bit confronting, nobody gives a damn! I sit myself down on the child like chair and shower then hop in the HOT bath. Hmm clearly the quick shower is not quite enough, my other bathing companions are slowly and surely lathering themselves from head to toe methodically. Ok ill give it a few minutes, if I don’t pass out from the heat…silently wishing I had had a swig from the wine to calm my unsure disposition. After what seemed like for ever I decided to exit stage left and got out and proceeded to do the full lather for extra cleanliness.

CAPSULE AND LOVE HOTELS. Usually I would have put this under the heading of sub culture, however this is so mainstream that it deserves a mention here. My Airbnb lodgings were in very mainstream areas and I constantly saw hotels advertising rates by the hour- of course I cant say exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but short term hotel stays of 1- 3 hours is quite normal- maybe they just need a cup of tea and a lie down huh!

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Love Hotel

SUB CULTURE

Much has been made of the weirder side of life in Japan, the sub culture or quirkiness of places like Hrajuku in Tokyo with the numerous Maid Cafes, Cat Cafes, Bird and even Hedgehog Cafes, and on it goes. There is a glitzy sub culture of sexuality and I am not talking Geisha girls here…so what ever rocks your boat you will find it here in Japan that’s for sure.

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Maids outfits

As I have neared the end of this insight into some of the quirkier things I have experienced I realise there are so, so many others. I   will either write chapter two or intersperse them with the following posts. Thank you  for reading- I hope this has been helpful and informative, and when you experience these things on your travels- please share and let me know.