We started the day at 5:30am with a work out in our scenic hotel gym overlooking the city. I could spend hours in this gym! I also went to the steam sauna after our work out – couldn’t think of a better start in the day!
On our agenda for the morning was a visit to Shinjuku Gardens – which has three different landscape gardens: Japanese, French and English. This park was my favorite one to see the cherry blossom trees as it was less crowded and they had different colored trees along with the Japanese trees – looked especially beautiful. We spent the morning walking around, taking pictures and a little picnic on the grass. I really loved it!
Our next stop was the Samurai Museum…which was a smaller museum but is definitely worth the visit. The tourguide made the tour really interesting and you even get to try on the samurai uniform at the end (heavy!).
We walked around the neighborhood and had lunch at a place where they only served skewers – either fish or meat. We had a mix of 6 different skewers chargrilled and served with miso soup, salad and rice. Very nice! 😊 It’s too bad I can’t remember all the names of the restaurants we went to as they usually don’t have “English names” outside and I can’t read Japanese. So we will never find them again – but there are so many to choose from you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
We started our day with a tea ceremony at Happo-En. When you drive through the busy streets of Tokyo along skyscrapers and condominium towers you would not expect to find this oasis. All of a sudden you turn right, go through the gate and enter a beautiful traditional Japanese garden. You truly feel transported into a different time in Japan. As soon as you arrive a hostess greeted us and walked us through the garden to the 150 year old tea house. Pictures speak more than words…so just watch the video below:
After the tea ceremony we walked to the imperial palace (it’s the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan.). You can access the east garden of the estate which is enormous…and this is only one part of the property. Cherry blossom trees where planted around the imperial palace for guests to enjoy (Thank you Emperor). For some reason when we got to Tokyo I thought we would only see them in one area in Ueno Park but we were lucky to enjoy them all around the palace (and Tokyo).
Our next stop was a proclaimed hipster area called Tomigaya. This neighborhood had a complete different vibe than any other part we’ve been before – it wasn’t traditional Japanese, nor touristy or historic but very urban. There were plenty of unique stores restaurant and coffee shops. As mentioned before, coffee is actually more popular in Japan than tea so there are plenty of cool coffee places around Tokyo. Hey, I’m a tea person – how did I start liking coffee?
We walked, explored and ended in Shibuyo where we stoped at Don Quijote shop – a crazy store where they sell everything you can think of (thrift store type) and Shibuya109 (department store for teenage girls). In between we had lots and lots of sushi / sashimi. I wish I could recommend specific restaurants, but I rarely could find / read the name. Honestly, you really can’t go wrong with any of them – so just explore on your own.
Oh one more…we were expanding our photo collection of “beige coats” today…which one is today’s winner?
Today we wanted to venture out of the city and into nature. I was researching different areas but for a day trip the best option was Mount Takao – the closest mountain to Tokyo. When we got to the subway station the morning commuters where walking from the train station to their office building. I can’t put into words how many people in black suits where walking to their offices, but everything is organized and even roped off – people going one way or the other. This went on for hours in the morning. It was amazing to witness. Also getting on the train people form exact lines without being told to. There’s never chaos despite the millions of people in small space.When we got on the subway we were squeezed like sardines and couldn’t move one bit. If I think about other countries I would be grossed out to be that close to other people, but in Japan good hygiene is most important. I haven’t smelled anything bad, no one is eating/drinking on the subway (or while walking) and most of them wear mouth protection. We thought it’s because of germ protection, but someone else told us when girls don’t wear makeup they put it up too (not sure what the truth is or if it’s a mix of different things). If you have any insight on the reason let me know below 🙂
The subway ride was about 45min to Mount Takao. We first took the exit to Takao but it was actually the last exit of the station. Once you get off you’re in the middle of a cute mountain town with small restaurants, gift shops and even a cable car up to the mountain. There are several trails to choose from – we went up Inariyama trail and down Biwa waterfall trail (liked this one better). It’s a pretty steep climb up with lots of stairs but not too long (about 1 1/2 hours).
On top of the mountain we had a great view and even saw Mount Fuiji. I first thought it was clouds but then saw it’s the snow on the top of Mt Fuji. Maybe next time we come back in the summer and take on this mountain! There were many people on top and we had a nice chat with an older Japanese who spoke very good English. He showed me how to eat musubi (Rice ball triangle filled with meat, fish or his was apricot). He was a very sweet man and said he visited Pacific Palisades, California before.
After finishing our apples we started our way down the trail. This time the trail went along a river and stepping stones within the stream. We also reached a Buddhist temple in the middle of the forest that even had its own waterfall. There was a female monk who did a bathing ritual in the ice cold water by the waterfall while chanting loudly. It was a bit intimating to be honest and the lady didn’t look too happy coming out of the water. I later read this is one of the head temples of the Chisan sect of Shingon Buddhism.
When we got back to the mountain village we were looking for a restaurant. All of them had soba noodles so we decided on one where we could see the chef preparing soba noodles freshly. So precise and made with much dedication. In every task Japanese people give 100% which is so admiring. The soba were made with an ingredient that they discovered (I forgot the name) and is good for your health. It was a grey jelly like paste– tasted great too.
After refreshing at the hotel we picked out a conveying belt sushi bar close to the hotel. We have exactly the same type of set up in one of our favorite sushi bars in Litte Tokyo, LA. It’s all computer animated where you place your order on the screen and get a gift when you reach a certain number of plates (by finishing them and put them in a type of “slot machine”). Its pretty entertaining but the most important part was the food – sushi was excellent. After dinner we wanted to go to a karaoke bar and found one closeby. We had in mind it’s a bar where you sit down and watch other people sing karaoke. This one was a lot different. You “rent” a room with a professional set up of screen, lights, microphone – like your own recording studio and get charged in 30min increments. First we had to figure out how to switch from Japanese to English and I just clicked on buttons on the screen where we found 2 English songs: Ed Sheeran & Coldplay. Ulli didn’t want to sing so I entertained (tortured) him with my singing. It was actually a lot of fun despite just being the only two in the room. I can imagine how amusing it is to go there with a group of friends. It was a perfect ending to the night.
Some new things learnt today…
Public Bathrooms so clean: Even on the top of the mountain at Mount Takao the bathrooms were TOTO with all kinds of features. You don’t see these kind of fancy bathrooms & toilets in most of the hotels in Europe/US and this was on top of the mountain!
Coffee over tea: We learnt that coffee actually plays a bigger part then tea in Japan. They have many great individual owned coffee shops and we explored a different one each day (may favorite to come the next days)
I thought I had this jet lag thing figured out, but today I woke up at 3.30am and couldn’t fall back to sleep. Finally at 5am I got up and wanted to work on my computer, but my laptop wouldn’t turn on. Ulli to the rescue who made it work and saved my day! That’s how we got up super early today. On our agenda today was a visit of the largest Fish Market in the world! We were in Ginza district by 7:30am and not only discovered the fish market but also Tsukiji Outer Market. They have everything from fresh meat, vegetables, dried foods, knives, dinnerware and of course lot and lots of fish. We tried many new items – my favorite was a snack with gunnel and walnuts – sounds gross but was really good!
At around 8:30am we had breakfast at one of the sushi restaurants. Yes, sushi for breakfast. There are several small places that fit only 10 people at a time and if you read online you should go where the “longest lines are”. Well the wait for these lines was a minimum of 2 hours and some people were standing there for 5 hours already. When Ulli asked why this is such a good place, all they said was “this had the longest line”. Well that wasn’t good enough reason for us to waste half our day, so we just went to a place that was literally next door to the other one. They only have 5 items on the menu and I choose a tuna bowl while Ulli picked the sushi sampler.
There’s only a counter bar, no other seats in the restaurant and the entire space about 2m wide and 8m long. The sushi chef put each piece in front of Ulli with already wasabi on it and told him when he should use soy sauce and when not. He would present one piece at a time and Ulli would eat it with his hands (not chopsticks). It was very good quality sushi – but pretty much everywhere in Tokyo. 😊 The experience was worth more than the taste of the fish (in my amateur opinion). I had three different kinds of tuna – but my least favorite was the bellyfat tuna (too bland and fatty in taste for me). When we got out of our restaurant there was now a long line in front of our place – so good timing and this just means people don’t go where they know it’s good but they trust where the lines are is good.
Today was our first day out exploring Tokyo. We got off to an early start and where at 7am at the train/subway station. It took us a bit to figure out where to buy the subway card, which one and where to hop on the train as there are multiple different train & subway systems (so different maps for each one). Luckily, all Japanese people we’ve encountered are super nice and helpful, even if we don’t speak Japanese. Our first stop on our “sightseeing tour” was Asakusa station to visit the Sensoji Temple. When we got off the train station we found this Japanese restaurant that served breakfast right next to the Kamimarimon Gate (where a giant latners hangs). We ordered different items off the menu including rice porridge, grilled fish, sashimi, miso soup, sour tofu and cabbage salad…not a breakfast we’re usually used to, but something we could get used to! It was delicious.
After breakfast we started walking along the Nakamise Shopping Street to the temple. The shopping street is filled with tourists but has lots of local food stands and souvenir shops. When you get close to the temple there’s a “smoke bowl” set up where people covered themselves in smoke from head to toe (I later read that they believe you get smarter by doing so). The Sensoji temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo, built around 628. All very crowded but still a must see esp. if it’s your first time in Tokyo.
After walking around in the Asakusa neighborhood we took a bus to Ueno park. I’ve never seen so many people squeeze in one bus – what a trip! I was looking forward to get away from the crowds/tourists and enjoy a quite stroll in the park while admiring the blossom of the cherry trees (that’s what I had in mind). However, as soon as we got to Ueno Park there where masses of people and under each tree where people having picnics. I couldn’t believe how many people pilgrimed there just to see it. The cherry blossoms where beautiful and just like you see in the pictures, but I more enjoyed experiencing the people & culture. The Japanese put so much love in detail and setting up a picnic with friends & family. Instead of steaks & sausages, they bring small bento boxes filled with many different vegetables and fish (mostly). I also saw many women dressed up in kimonos.
After a 12 hour flight from LAX we had a smooth arrival in Japan and speedy process through immigration and customs. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. Our taxi driver didn’t speak English and couldn’t read our hotel in English either, so glad we had also saved it in Japanese writing on my phone.
After a quick 20 minute ride we arrived at our hotel “The Strings by Intercontinental” which is located in Shingawa (business district). Our hotel is in an office skyscraper and the lobby on the 26th floor. When you enter the hotel you’re immediately charmed by their signature scent. Due to my work in the travel industry, my expectations for service and hotel standards is pretty high – but I’ve never experienced such an overly friendly check-in (and without any tipping expected). Our room is on the top floor and is very spacious – esp. considering how little space there is here. My highlight in our room is the view over the entire city incl. Tokyo Tower and the bathroom. It’s a small steam room with shower & bathtub – I want one of those at home! Also, my first experience with TOTO : seated heats, music and some special water – all coming from a toilet. Another one I want at home 😊 The gym is on the 26th floor with sensational views on the city and Shinagawa train station…you WANT to work out here!
After refreshing in our room we explored the area around the hotel, which is conveniently located at Shinagawa subway station…a very very big one that is (over one million people cross at the station each day – we would find out more during the week). There is an entire food court level incl. Dean & Deluca, Blue Bottle coffee and other farmers market style restaurants (you wouldn’t think this is a train station). We wanted some Japanese food so stopped in a small place where we had to place the order at a machine, then you get a ticket and give this to the lady in the kitchen who will prepare your food. We also discovered these tiny streets, only fitting 1 person through with sushi restaurants left and right. We went into one and my highlight was salmon in miso and vegetables cooked in aluminum foil. The one thing I didn’t pay attention to: smoking was allowed in this restaurant. We discovered that they have signs outside if smoking is allowed or not – so we paid attention on the other days. Great start to our vacation in Tokyo!
Some new things learnt today….
Facemasks are a thing here….not sure if it’s just for health reasons or pollution – but with that many people around all the time, I’m all for it
Nodding and bowing instead of shaking hands – also a thing I could get used to (esp. me being a germaphobe)
No trash cans anywhere: I read up on this and it started after a terrorist attack when they removed all trash cans from subway stations. It also causes people to produce less waste (yeah I know you would think more litter – but it’s the opposite, as they don’t know where to put the trash so they look after it more)
Don’t eat/drink while walking or on the subway: If you buy a snack you eat it right there (give them back your trash) and continue walking