27 Jul 2017

a little taste of japan

I’ve had Japan on my radar for a couple of years. So, when Qantas brought out a sale airfare to celebrate their direct flights from Melbourne to Narita I knew it was time to jump on board. With only one week, it was a bit daunting to think about what to see first. It’s a small country size wise, but very diverse.

My first 3 nights were in Tokyo in the Shinjuku area, staying at the Citadines Shinjuku Tokyo. It was an easy 15 min walk to the hub of Shinjuku with all the shopping, bars and restaurants. Wow what an eye opener! Great part of town, very lively, safe, clean, organised and busy! Melbourne is miniscule compared to Shinjuku. Highly recommended and when I come back to Tokyo I will be staying in Shinjuku again.

I booked a walking tour with Urban Adventures which started in Ginza. While it was written to sound exotic and a bit exciting to visit places that the average tourist doesn’t go to, it left me rather disappointed. Our first stop was a Yakitori restaurant in the Yurakucho area of Ginza. While the alleyways were great to see, we were there a little too early in the morning, so it was like a ghost town with no atmosphere. Similarly, when we caught the Metro to our final stop at a Monjayaki restaurant in the Chuo-ku district, it was eerily quiet as well. The food here was very simple – pick your ingredients and then cook it yourself on the grill at the table.

From Shinkuju it’s a bit of a walk or a couple of metro stops to Shibuya. This is another fantastic place to visit. The latest fashion trends and artists have their wares here. The streets have music playing and advertisers spruiking the whole time. This is rumoured to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world! The tourists come to see the famous Shibuya crossing where there are lots of crosswalks which all swing into action as the traffic stops. It’s exciting to watch and amazing to be a part of, especially as the crowds build. Starbucks has a great view of the street from the second floor.

My favourite meal of my time in Japan would have to be at Genki Sushi, Shibuya. It’s the coolest sushi train I have ever been to! You sit at an allocated seat where you have a screen to order everything. When you have placed your order, the food comes directly to your station stop. There are 2 tracks, so the plates of food never smash into each other and as the restaurant gets busier, the number of items whizzing past you is fantastic to watch! It also gives you an idea of what you might like to order next if the menu is too much to handle. Once you have finished, you check out on your screen, hand back your electronic seat number that you got when you came in and pay at the cashier. Loved the whole experience, plus the food was truly outstanding!! Unfortunately, it was the only one I saw during my time in Tokyo.

Kyoto is also probably on most itineraries for Japan. It has a lot to offer in itself and is a great jumping point for Nara and Osaka if you’re pushed for time. I stayed at the Dormy Inn Premium Kyoto Ekimae Natural Hot Spring. The location is close to the train station, but my intrigue was with the hot springs on their top floor. Unfortunately, you do need to bathe in the nude so I decided to give it a miss!

I did a great walking tour here - also through Urban Adventures.. It was a big day of walking, but our guide was excellent in her knowledge of how to beat the crowds and still be part of all the action.  My favourite part of the tour was the Gion district, this is where the Geisha’s live, study and learn to become a qualified Geisha. It was very interesting to hear about their way of life and then to see a couple was truly exhilarating! They have a rock star following as there are less than 200 per year who choose to become a Geisha. It was also wonderful to visit Fushimi-Inari Taisha.

I wanted to find a temple that wasn’t a big tourist attraction. After a bit of research, I decided on the Shoren-in. This is a Buddhist temple that was just beautiful. It has a lovely garden which is very peaceful and surprisingly quiet when the streets nearby are bustling. A little out from Kyoto in the Arashiyama district is another place worth visiting, just a 10min ride by train is the beautiful Bamboo Grove. Now I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but it’s worth it.

A day trip from Kyoto was spent visiting Nara and then Osaka. Nara has a deer park which is quite lovely. You can only feed the deer biscuits you buy there. Then it’s good luck to you while the deer hunt you down until you have no more food! Some of those antlers can be quite scary to handle, especially when they’re pulling at your bag and clothes to get to the biscuits. It’s an easy 30 min walk from the train station and a great way to spend the morning. In the afternoon, we moved onto Osaka. Wow – what a difference to Tokyo. For starters there are people eating, drinking and smoking while walking in the street. This is a big no-no in Tokyo. Secondly, they stand to their right on the escalators – opposite to Tokyo again. So, why come to Osaka? Well, it is the home of the Okonomyaki for starters! Also, well known for its octopus balls – yes read correctly. Both can be sampled at the canal area called Dotombori. This area comes alive as the sun goes down. Queues form where the best octopus balls can be found. They are delicious! The shopping street leading down to the canal is also spectacular – Shinsaibashi-suji. It goes for blocks and blocks and is all under cover – it was really lively and full of all sorts of shopping.

My final night back in Tokyo was in the Ginza district. I stayed at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel. Great location and a beautiful hotel. They have an amazing massage chair in each room which is worth checking out! Ginza for shopping is probably over budget for the average traveller. My guide on the walking tour says it’s now more expensive than 5th Ave New York. The latest department store which opened in April 2017 is Ginza 6. It’s massive – 14 storeys to be exact. My highlights would have to be the library with the bonsai trees, the beautiful art display in the foyer and the incredible dining options in the basement food court. Oh, it also has a roof top garden if you need some fresh air!

I also managed to pop into the Tsukiji Fish Market which is just on the outskirts of Ginza. There are so many sushi options here that you may be overwhelmed. Unfortunately, it was raining which made the task of choosing an option more difficult, but the freshness of the sashimi was fantastic.

I travelled by Rail pass for most of my trip. Very easy to use and extremely efficient. Great value for money too.

I really enjoyed Japan. I will definitely back to sample some more before too long.