Japan, a place that has long governed my list of places to see and experience and I finally did! It was one of those dream destinations that was always on my mind. Dreaming of Tokyo, I often imagined neon streets, an energetic buzz that leaves you mesmerized, and the overall excitement of being in such an interesting new world to get lost in. It is everything that I imagined it to be; home to the fascinating, unusual, and bizarre. I noticed how the smallest and most everyday things are subtly different and Japanese in their own way! Overall, a visit to Tokyo most certainly implies a world of discoveries and stimuli for all the senses.
My first glance at Tokyo!
We landed in Japan during the winter times, and it was freezing cold. Once we arrived in Shiodome, Minato, a redeveloped district known for it’s modern architectural design, we let ourselves get a little lost on the way to our hotel and it was already a sensory overload for me.
I couldn’t wait to explore this treasure trove of encounters and experiences!
On the following morning, we explored the area and went into a small convenience store called “Family Mart” to grab something fun to eat (also known as a Konbini in Japanese).
There were all sorts of interesting-looking snacks, desserts, pastries and bento boxes – and all were labeled in Japanese so it was impossible to understand if only from a cute cartoon drawing on the package. The store had virtually everything you need, from thoughtfully packaged meals to sandwiches. And almost anything I picked up was delicious. We used the Google Translate Camera app to point at the packaging and it would give us a general idea of the content which was really helpful. However, the fun part was randomly picking up a variety of snacks and trying them out for surprise! These mini marts became one of my favorite stops throughout our trip and every time I walked into one I was wide-eyed at the variety of items to try.
Some snacks I tried were clam-flavored ramen and a kind of dried fish and seasoned calamari, and there was even kiri-flavored ice-cream! My favorite part of walking into any Japanese convenience store is their “Hot meal station” next to every cashier for a “grab & go” snack. The photo below shows some rice buns with different fillings and Tsukune, which are tender Japanese chicken meatball skewers glazed in delicious seasoning.
A Japanese convenience store with a variety of snacks
Tokyo is divided into several districts, each with their own unique character and charm. Our very first district was Asakusa, where we visited the sacred grounds of the Sensoji Temple.
Getting around Tokyo
It is no doubt that Tokyo’s metro system will get you to many places, but it’s a labyrinth of subway lines. We got lost a few times before eventually getting the hang of it (thanks to my husband who mastered it like a BOSS! Without him I would get stranded 🙂
One aspect of Japan that I found striking is the sheer respect and politeness of Japanese people. From the courteous taxi drivers in their immaculately clean vehicles (with automatic doors that open and close!) to the humble department store workers and businessmen at the subway, I was quite shocked at the amount of genuine hospitality. There were many instances throughout our stay that reinforced this.
One great example was at the metro station, we were seemingly lost and attempting to find the correct subway line. Usually when that happened we would turn to a local for help. This time we approached a business man and he pointed us to line “8”. When we reached, we waited for the metro to arrive and after about 10 minutes we see the man running to our direction apologizing profusely that he was mistaken and the right line was “7”. The fact that he took the time and effort to come back and tell us this left me astonished! Another example was similar except that we asked help from a young college student. He whipped out his phone to search for answers and it really looked like he sincerely wanted to help us. He even missed his train!
I also remember another endearing instance when we were about to get some drinks from a vending machine and my husband accidentally dropped a pile of coins. Children nearby rushed to pick up the coins and give them to us. Where in the world do you see this act of politeness? Respect and etiquette are at the core of Japan and embedded in their culture.
Nostalgia in Japan?
One look at Japan’s traditional culture, technology, innovation and art made me realize that the Japanese actually strive for perfection in everything, which makes it such an orderly and organized nation. There is also an air of nostalgia that I couldn’t point my finger on. It could be the old-school Japan, and I guess I would say that a sense of nostalgia is even reflected in their manga, invoking a longing for the good old days.
Asakusa is known for the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo dating back to 645 AD. The path leading to the temple is also one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets called Nakamise Dori. When in Japan, I wasn’t really looking into touristed-out typical travel trinkets. I was more on the lookout for rare Japanese finds, be it handicrafts or only-in-japan traditional souvenirs.
Toy Capsules (Gachapon in Japanese)
Another one of my favorite things to do was scout the toy capsule machines all around Tokyo, which are itself a cultural phenomenon. Believe it or not, each area has different editions with unique collectibles. Exploring the various miniature works of art in plastic such as capsuled mini food models, anime characters, keychains, and toys is a really fun experience and addicting in a way too. These were quite nostalgic for me because I remember my favorite childhood video game Shenmue where the lead character wondered the streets of Yokosuka, Japan, collecting toy capsules.
551 Horai is a popular Asian rice bun outlet
A Japanese pickle store – Tsukemono
KIMONOS – THE TRADITIONAL GARMENT OF THE OLD EDO PERIOD
Kimono rental shops are pretty much everywhere, and it’s always good to consider wearing an authentic kimono as you stroll the old streets of the Edo period. The intricacies that go into wearing one and the rainbow of choices that come in different patterns and colors was interesting to observe. One fact I learned from the lady working at a kimono rental shop was that you can “Level-up” your kimono gear, depending on the pattern and fabric that range from basic kimonos to more elaborate ones worn by Geishas or wedding ceremonies. All in all, dressing up in a kimono is an art by itself.
Owls (Fukuro) everywhere
One of the things I noticed was Japan’s obsession with owls, just like myself. I learned that there is some significance and meaning to owls in Japanese culture. Most if not all Japanese souvenir shops had owl trinkets, charms and owl figures almost as popular as Hello Kitty. Owls actually symbolize luck in Japan, and the word “Fukuro” for owls means “Good luck or fortune”.
Each colored owl symbolizes luck, protection or fortune
Japan’s ancient Buddhist Temple is called Senso-ji, considered to be a very spiritual place in Tokyo. It was crowded when we reached, and masses of people surrounded a cauldron producing a cloud of billowing incense smoke that visitors were wafting over themselves. People light up incense sticks and place them in the giant urn to make a wish before entering the temple ahead.
Also, before entering the temple there is a fountain of purity. The streams of water are meant to provide spiritual cleansing before moving forward.
Once in the temple, there are consistent rattling sounds coming from over the temple from people shaking metal containers with hopes of receiving a good fortune. I picked up a box as well and once satisfied with the shaking, I turned it over and a wooden stick came out of a small slit at the bottom. There were some characters written on it with which you have to match on the drawer in front of you. After spotting the correct drawer, I was lead to open it and receive my “Omikuji” (fortune). I deciphered it, and I turned out to get a good fortune! Normally, if you get a positive reading you take the fortune back home with you, if not, you tie it on to a “Omikuji tree” at the temple and leave it behind.
Japanese vending machines
The Japanese have a strong affair with vending machines, and its no wonder as they really are a source of fascination due to the variety of items sold in them. They are very convenient and handy too, dispensing a range of cold and hot beverages with the cutest and most colorful packaging. My husband and I would always stop at one to grab ourselves a nice warm drink, he always got the hot coffee while I had tea with milk.
The cutest bottle of water!
Back to Shiodome, Minato
Pachinko Arcades: Gambling?
A craze that I found in almost every corner were Japanese arcades known as “Pachinkos”. When we entered one, it looked like a form of gambling and the majority playing were middle-aged men in suits fixated on the screens of their machines which were blaring and making incessant noise. It almost seemed like they were oblivious to their surroundings and focusing solely on the game in front of them. I tried to understand what they were playing exactly, but all I could make out were flashy colors and random balls, it mostly resembled a pinball game. Honestly, I couldn’t stay in one for more than 3 minutes as the sounds were overwhelmingly loud and unpleasant. I guess when you’re so into the game you kind of block out the noise overtime.
White surgical masks: Protection or a long-standing trend?
You might always wonder why the majority of Japanese, especially from Tokyo, wear white masks like just another clothing garment and at first it may seem puzzling. In reality it is a social etiquette, either to block viruses or allergies or prevent yourself from spreading them to others. I also learnt from one Japanese that it helps battle the “hay fever” season caused by a specific Japanese cedar tree, therefore donning a mask helps alleviate the symptoms. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if masks are actually considered a fashion statement in Japan as there are all kinds of styles and colors sold everywhere.
Japanese Tea: A way of philosophy
Tea is a Japanese cultural activity and custom that involves a ceremonial preparation and presentation of the Japan’s favorite powdered “Matcha” green tea, and there’s a whole philosophy behind it that helps one enjoy their tea through a relaxing experience. It’s less about the drink and more about the appreciation of the nature and art of making the tea. When we entered an old tea shop, there were a wide variety of tea leaves with premium being the highest quality. The man working there offered to prepare a sample for us with his ceremony utensils, and the whole preparation looked like a form of mastery representing harmony, purity, serenity and respect.
The Imperial Palace
The Imperial palace is set amidst beautiful traditional Japanese gardens and is the place where the Emperor of Japan resides. It was especially stunning during the season of Cherry Blossoms which we were very luck to witness! The entire grounds gave us a feel of ancient legacy.
The Enchanting Sakura: Shades of Pink
It’s a lovely sight to witness when gardens and parks are blanketed with blossoms of pale pink, baby pink, and deep pink hues. This is when we knew it was the onset of Spring in Japan. The Imperial Palace was amongst the best spots for cherry-blossom-viewing. I hadn’t known prior to traveling to Japan, that there is more than one type of Sakura tree. There are actually over 600. It was certainly a dream come true to be walking amidst their magical beauty and a great memory I’ll cherish!
A type of “Yellow Sakura”
Cherry blossoms are so iconic and loved all over the world, that the Japanese have an entire word for “looking at flowers” which is called “Hanami”. There are several “Hanami spots” throughout Japan to admire the blossoms.
Hanami picnics – an ancient tradition and national pasttime
Sakura flavored treats are also very common, with sakura flavored Starbucks Pink Milk Lattes to sakura-layered white chocolate Mille Feuille and Sakura-infused tea.
Ginza is known as Shopping Heaven. You can find everything from high-end luxury brands for men’s and women’s fashion in multi-storied designer buildings to traditional Japanese goods ranging from stationary stores to expensive Japanese pottery shops.
Tokyo in general has a lively art scene, but in Ginza in particular there are a variety of arts, antiques, and crafts for display in galleries which make for great spots for inspiration.
Japanese glazed porcelain dolls
The art of Japanese dolls
Japanese Stationary: The 100-year stationary store
If there’s one thing that Japan and I have in common, it’s our passion for stationary! In this digital age, I still go nostalgic for beautiful artful greeting cards and postcards. In Japan, there’s an entire century-old stationary store devoted just to stationary goods called Itoya. And of course, I went wild.
With over 7 floors, you can find your ideal ballpoint pen, make your very own customized notebook through a color, texture & thickness chart, home care goods, Japanese colored paper art works, and a whole floor dedicated to postcards, greeting cards and stickers. The stationary looks so cute, I wanted to get everything. Aside from the cuteness, Japanese stationary puts quality, design and functionality at the forefront.
The original Sheseido Cosmetics Building
Sheseido is huge in the beauty industry, and it’s personally one of my favorite Japanese cosmetic brands. That’s why spotting Ginza’s original Sheseido building of 9 floors got me excited! Starting with make up on the first floor followed by skincare on the second where I received a personalized beauty diagnostic. They have several stations devoted to various skincare needs, from anti-aging, moisturizing, serums and more. I also stopped by 2 more floors which had a hairdresser and photo make up studio. I stocked up on a lot of exclusive Japanese Sheseido make up and skincare after spending hours exploring their items which was a delightful experience 🙂
Only a street away is an another entire building dedicated to a Sheseido bakery known as Sheseido Parlour. This is a fact I hadn’t previously known about, which is that Sheseido has it’s own line of baking goods that come in beautifully-packed containers. One of the most well-known items is their signature Sheseido cheesecake which was popularized in Ginza itself.
Japanese beauty gadgets
Japanese beauty tools are everywhere, from innovations meant to exercise your face muscles, to spooky-looking masks, breast gymnastics massagers, nose beauty lifts to knee brightening foams.
Aside from that, within every 3 meters of walking any street there are multiple drugstores with a dizzying number of beauty bottles, tonics, emulsions and packs at every corner. Skin conditioners, skin softening, deep cleansing are the main pillars of Japanese skincare regimes and they are known for their quality, effectivity and innovation.
I got to know a couple of traditional Japanese cosmetic brands as well, those of which use old Japanese beauty practices such as silkworm cocoons and the rich camellia oil for hair.
The Food Scene (My Favorite): Navigating Japan’s Food Wonders
There’s hardly a corner in Tokyo that isn’t peppered with stalls, labels, posters and displays of food. I was mostly interested in eating like a local and trying out unusual things. We wondered the narrow streets of Ginza with a very wide range of restaurants. Japanese food is so diverse we wanted to have a bite of everything! There is much more to classic Japanese food than what we are used to having (like tempura, ramen, and sushi) as Japanese cuisine is steeped in culture and all about artistry. The Japanese make the most out of natural flavors and sparingly use any spices, fats, or red meats , therefore it is considered healthy and typical Japanese food tastes vastly different in texture and flavor when compared to other cuisines.
Initially we were on the lookout for a Yakitori Restaurant which serves traditional Japanese grilled skewers of meat and vegetables. However, we ended up in a different cozy restaurant by mistake which served Japanese “Shabu Shabu”.
The Japanese “Fondue”: Shabu Shabu DIY cooking
Upon entering, we were seated on a high-chair table resembling a bar which was lined with boiling “hot pots” of soup. The chef then served us a fresh spread of raw vegetables and thinly sliced A5 grade Wagyu beef.
We were also given special utensils to make a sesame-based sauce for dipping. The fun part was being in total control of your ingredients once you start throwing them in to the steaming pot to cook. When you drop in a slice of Wagyu it momentarily simmers and cooks within seconds before melting in your mouth. I loved this dining experience. It’s great for sharing, and it’s light and healthy.
The chef demonstrating the Shabu Shabu for us
At first, the big spread of beef slices might come off as a large portion but it disappears before you even realize it. That’s how light it is! The guys seated next to us had those slices coming one after the other.
Interviewed by Japanese TV
To our surprise, there was a camera crew present on sight at the restaurant as well. We stood out as foreigners and I guess they were intrigued by us. The interviewee and the cameraman approached us and asked if we wanted to participate in their show on Otaku TV by answering a couple of their questions about our Japanese dining experience as tourists. They documented our dining experience and asked all kinds of questions ranging from how our food back in Kuwait compares, how we discovered Shabu Shabu, to what we enjoyed most about the whole experience. It was a very interested encounter! I’ve yet to receive the coverage from the TV station 🙂
Japanese plastic food models (Sampuru)
Looking so good you could eat them
Strolling the streets of Japan, we would often find menu displays of “dish replicas” at restaurants which actually look highly realistic and very interesting to look at.
They are so popular, that they come in keychains and have even turned into a fashion business with designs for accessories and phone cases!
It’s a really interesting phenomenon unique to Japanese culture. The food models look like culinary art forms! The life-like replicas are actually not that far from reality, and the exquisite amount of details makes them perfect at giving you a very close idea of what your dish will look like. Picking out something to eat as we walk by a restaurant is like going through an art exhibition and there are actual craftsmen behind these models that paint and sculpture them to look as delicious as possible. Interestingly, plastic food models were invented by a Japanese man called Takizo Iwasaki in the 1800’s.
I can see why these cute-looking dishes and imitation of food aesthetics can turn into a collecting hobby as there is an enormous wide variety of them which are all tempting to have!
There are Sampuru workshops around too where tourists can sculpt and paint their very own plastic food dish and master the art of faking it. It’s practically like a real kitchen where every element keeps the aspect of its original, except for the taste!
A ramen vending machine at a restaurant
The Sweet sides of Japanese: Wagashi & Dango
In Japan, if you’re craving something sweet you are most likely to indulge in typical Japanese desserts. One of these is called Wagashi made out of Mochi (rice pounded into paste). With each season comes different flavors. Since I was in the Sakura season, I tried the Sakura mochi which is a type of Wagashi. It’s definitely an acquired taste I would say. The glutinous rice ball is wrapped with a Sakura leaf which has a pickled taste to it, while the rice is chewy and sweet with a savory bean paste filling.
Most of the desserts are really pretty and colorful to look at!
Back to Shiodome, Minato
Japan’s tiny futuristic cubes in Shimbashi (Nakagin)
While on a night time stroll in Shimbashi district, I decided to take my husband to see the famous unusual capsule concrete structure known in Japan. It looked quite spooky at night and had somewhat of a decaying facade but very cool nevertheless! At first, we tried to access it and when we inquired the security guard about it we assumed we could just pass by inside and have a look but he mentioned it being an apartment complex. So, these capsules are actually residences and few people live in them. Some have turned into offices as well. It was built in the 1970’s and the 70’s interior remains the same and during that time it was marketed as living quarters. The cubes were designed in such a way that they were meant to be detached and replaced with new ones. People back then perceived the capsule building as an optimistic symbol of a Utopian sci-fi ideal. Sadly, what the structure used to represent has sadly been forgotten and now it stands as solely an icon of the past.
Japan’s Museum of Advertising
This museum was one of our many highlights and told us so much about the history of Japanese advertising. The very first thing that impressed me was the museum’s method of presenting and displaying the information, which was very engaging, catchy, and innovative.
The first room featured decorative advertisements and actual artifacts of the Edo Period. The practice of handing out flyers and promoting business venues was already popular back then and overtime the museum shows how these marketing tools have adapted to changing times.
Samples of old promotional flyers and posters from the Edo Period
You might think advertising wasn’t so advanced back then but the museum proves you otherwise. People in the past were actually very creative with their tools in order to visually attract customers to their shops, by using handcrafted shop signs to perfect the art of advertising.
Different types of ADs were like various forms of art
The very first AD for the famous Japanese cosmetics brand Sheseido
Then came a wonderful display giving insight into the newspaper period in Japan, followed by the major introduction of mass media such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines.
A fascinating part of the museum was the 2000’s, which showed how items and products changed with society. Different ADs portrayed the evolution of societal ideologies as new technological platforms emerged. It also showed the way consumer culture and lifestyles evolved in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to the present 21st century. The whole museum is like one giant timeline. My favorite part was a large screen displaying ADs from the past to present. It really changes your perspective when you look at how advertising accelerated throughout the years.
OWL CAFE (AKIFA FUKUROU): A CRAZE UNIQUE TO JAPAN
Owls…the mysterious creatures of the night featured in tales of magical realism. In literature and filmography, they are majestic creatures imbued with mystery. With their somewhat enchanting calls that echo through the night and charismatic faces, most cultures hail owls as symbols of wisdom, good luck and fortune. The Japanese word for owls is Fukurou, which literally translates to luck.my long-time favorite animal for as long as I can remember. As an owl collector (of figurines, trinkets, postcards, paintings and so on), I eventually found myself in an Owl Cafe!
Japan isn’t short of bizarrely-themed cafes. From Maid Cafés, the world’s first cat café and even hedgehog cafes, at the heart of Tokyo lies Japan’s popular Owl Café, Akiba Fukurou, which is home to 25 distinct species of owls. In the world’s most hi-tech metropolis at Akihabara street, I was about to re-connect with nature in the most unusual way. As an owl lover, this was going to be an immensely interesting and special one-of-a-kind experience.
Being as popular as they are, I was eager to successfully secure a spot at the café which meant an hour of up-close and personal time with these beautiful birds.
Before entering we were given a brief tutorial on owl-handling with an adorable introduction to the owl family tree. We entered a relaxed little mellow café with serene owls tethered on to long perches around the walls, some snoozing while others widely alert of their surroundings.
Each owl has a name and presumably a personality ranging from social, defensive, quiet, to moody. One of the rules cautioned to us was to remain as quiet as possible with no sudden movements, therefore everyone had to resort to whispering. We were told that we could gently pat them on the head or beaks with our pinkie fingers.
Utterly transfixed by the whole bizarre experience, it was time for everyone to select a favorite to hold and interact with. There are several baby owlets to much bigger and intimidating ones for every comfort level and every owl fan. I was particularly drawn to the white owls. Apparently the one I fancied had quite a bit of a defensive attitude, as told by the coach. Therefore, I took back my decision and picked another white one that was friendlier and relatively social. The coach gently took him off from the bar he was resting on and with his help carefully placed him on my arm. By that time I totally forgot that we were in a café and didn’t even end up ordering a drink! (couldn’t imagine holding an owl on one arm and a drink in my hand on the other).
The Owl Cafe
Dangerously good: Beard Papa’s cream puffs
Whenever we entered the subway on the way to our next route, we always walked passed an irresistible aroma of vanilla and bakery. It was impossible not to lure you in. These are the fresh and creamy puffs made by “Beard Papa’s”. Our senses were automatically overwhelmed by the warm, sugary smell. My husband and I would instantly turn to each other with that look of “Are you craving one too?” I originally thought they are Japan-based but actually they are a bakery in New York and I think someone should bring the franchise to Kuwait for me to get my fix every now and then! The first ones we tried were the cookies & cream puffs. Light, flaky, crunchy and sweet on the outside, and creamy and luscious on the inside with whipped cream and custard fillings that overall tastes like a homemade creation.
AKIHABARA ELECTRIC TOWN:
THE GEEKY SIDE OF TOKYO
The one district that we were overly excited to visit is the famed Akihabara, known for being a haven of games, electronics, gadgets, anime, manga and model kits. At first sight, the place feels overwhelming as your senses are assaulted in all directions from the colorful billboards emitting neon glows and Japanese pop flaring from screens on high-rise buildings. There’s certainly a lot to take in!
There are numerous shops with Nintendo merchandise, I went crazy for Super Mario!
There are huge electronics stores such as Softmap and laox.
One of our visits included a stop at Super Potato, known for retro video games and gadgets with unique vintage finds, it’s practically a candy shop for geeks offering vintage game cartridges with rows of retro consoles, All in all, it’s the ultimate place to experience Geek culture at full force.
On the way through Akihabara there are toy arcades at every stop, which became our newfound addiction in Japan. These are located in Game Centers, featuring “Crane machines” offering a chance to snag limited edition toys and figurines of well-known anime characters which make great souvenirs to take back home. To catch one, it’s surprisingly difficult but so satisfying when we finally did! (mostly with a generous and friendly helping hand from the staff working there!).
One of the little things I fell in love with are their model kits. These are small packaged house or stores that you need to assemble yourself. It takes some precision and persistence to finish the entire model but the results are simply amazing and satisfying and look great on a shelf! (i’ve still yet to complete mine!)
If you are in Tokyo, you will inevitably stumble upon the famous Maid Cafes. As we strolled the streets of Akihabara, we were cheerfully greeted by a girl dressed in a maid costume. Full of energy, she guided us to the cafe upstairs where we were greeted by more waitresses dressed up as maids who jumped with enthusiasm once we entered. Adopting child-like anime voices, cutesy gestures and overly girly behavior, the waitresses mostly spoke in Japanese and rarely a word of English. As we were seated, they handed us a menu of cute-looking desserts and bunny ears to wear. It really did feel like we were being served by characters from a manga comic! We chose to have some ice cream which was adorably decorated with playful designs and messages.
At the end, we were asked to take a polaroid photo with the maids for memories, which is dated and signed by the maid. However, in general no photos were allowed to be taken within the cafe. Overall it was a very unusual and funny experience. My husband and I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time and enjoyed it a lot!
Pablo’s CheeseCake: Japan’s cheesecake cult
Very popular in Japan are Pablo cheesecakes. These freshly prepared cheese tarts originated in Osaka and come in classic cheese, matcha flavor, chocolate and Sakura (and probably many more seasonal flavors). The first time we heard of them was online, as it seems that they actually went viral on social media. Once you take a bite, it’s gooey and creamy in the inside. There’s usually a long queue for these in every branch!
Sightseeing with Mario Karts
Wishing to live the the real-life Mario Kart experience? Tokyo offers a private go-karting Mario-themed tour. We didn’t have an international driving license with us at the time otherwise we would have definitely tried the experience!
Shinjuku District: The city that never sleeps
Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku’s Night Life District
Laser lights, electronic music, and a crazy robotic show. We ascended up the techni-colored psychedelic stairway and took our seats with our flashing light bulb juice.
At the beginning, a dancing troupe made their grand entrance with drums, followed by complex choreographed dancing replete with giant robots and special effects all of which resembled a Japanese festival of robots.
I guess you could say it’s the Moulin Rouge of Japan. The cabaret-style show is themed around the future of technology, with performers dressed as robots and moving vehicles and large-scale robots move on stage using a remote control. The stage was pretty tight, which meant the machines were very close to the audience. It was a joyfully chaotic atmosphere of non-stop madness and entertainment! It was definitely a one-of-a-kind thrilling experience.
Japanese Artisan Bakeries
During our time in Japan, we were in for an unexpected treat; Japanese pastries. The European-inspired baked goods actually made it to the land of rice and before visiting Japan, pastries wasn’t something that came to mind. Buying bread at bakeries in Japan comes in self-service style, and the array of offerings are really delicious. For breakfast, we loaded our trays with choices of quiche, salmon and cream cheese tarts, custards puffs, to sausage rolls all freshly-made and packaged to enjoy on the go or during a quick trip in the metro.
Ueno Zoo: The Oldest Zoo in Japan
Known for it’s giant beloved pandas and urban zoological park, Ueno Zoo dates back to 1880 and houses 2500 animals with 450 species. Actually, it was pouring rain when we got there!
The most unusual animals for me were the gorillas and the elusive panda. When we reached the zoo, we immediately caught sight of a really long line queuing up to see a nursery of panda cubs. There was no way to get in line as you needed to purchase tickets in advance and they were already sold out. So we moved on to the section which houses the giant panda, brought all the way from China. Again, it was in a very far and glass-enclosed space that we hardly had a good look at it, also aside from the fact that others were also trying to catch a glimpse.
Spirited away at the Ghibli Animation Museum : Hayao Miyazaki
Tickets to the museum are extremely limited and it was hard to get it. The museum is dedicated to the studio’s work and the beautiful world of Japanese animation.
Ever since I watched Spirited Away and House of the Fireflies I instantly became a big fan of Ghibli Studios. It’s a wonderful work of art on imagination and storytelling and truly a treasured gem in cinematography. Anything Ghibli related I instantly bought as a souvenir! One of my favorite things is the paper theatre, which is a paper craft kit that recreates famous scenes of various characters by assembling together laser cut paper parts.
Odaiba District: Tokyo’s artificial Island
The man-made Island on Tokyo Bay houses many shopping malls and entertainment districts. I personally loved Odaiba, it was one my favorite districts which I found to have elements of futuristic, unique, and even strange.
One of the first things we noticed was a giant replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty overlooking the bay with a rainbow bridge sweeping across a view of Odaiba’s skyline.
When we just arrived, there was a booth with a lady dressed in traditional Japanese attire teaching a little boy the Japanese guitar. As we stood there, the lady beckoned to us to try it too. In my hands, I held a 3 stringed instrument known as Shamisen which is a type of Japanese guitar. It is said to be heard in most traditional Japanese songs in Kabuki theaters and Geisha performances. Resembling a banjo, the strings are made of silk thread contributing to it’s unique sounds. It is actually quite easy to play once I got the hand of it. It takes a degree of good muscle memory and rhythm to get it right!
Sega Joypolis: Tokyo’s largest indoor theme park
One place to be completely immersed is Joypolis, a really fun entertainment district. With the latest Virtual Reality attractions where you can take down attacking zombies, indoor rides, to many more thrilling horror games. One of the aspects I enjoyed in this place most is traditional Japanese horror. Their culture is replete with horrors, and they have a library of ghost tales, monsters, and spirits to draw upon.
Miraikan: The National Museum of Emerging Science & Technology
Miraikan is the place where we experienced Japan’s cutting-edge technology. There are over 200 exhibits that are overseen and designed by active scientists. Everywhere you look, people (including children) are focused and engaged. From issues faced by our planet Earth to solutions to better living, Miraikan is a source of scientific inspiration, excitement and exploration.
Robots: Our future
The museum also has several showcases of android robots. One of them is an Otonaroid, which is a hybrid of a human and android! They are eerily life-like, and a real person is used a template to create them. She can move her eyes and blink, make eyebrow movements, sync her lips to audio, and replicate other human facial expressions. From their smooth silicon skin to eloquent articulations, some of these robots are even used to help customers at museums, shoppings malls and airports.
Japanese robotics expert, inventor, and professor in Osaka University at Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Hiroshi Ishiguro says he uses research on human interaction and data on what differentiates humans and robots by examining “the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, and what is thinking.”
Time for lunch
After a fun and educational time, we walked to a nearby popular shopping mall called Aqua City to choose from a variety of restaurants ( love this part!).
We sat at a traditional/modern restaurant overlooking Odaiba’s skyline and ordered some soba noodles with a side of soup and Japanese grilled skewers (Yakitori) with a grilled rice ball (Yaki Onigiri).
Soba noodles a very a historic Japanese dish and the practice of making them is centuries old. Made from Buckwheat, they are high in nutrients and low on fat giving it a distinctive earthy flavor and can be eaten either hot or cold.
Yakitori are charcoal-grilled and one of the most popular ways to each them is from different parts of a chicken such as liver, heart, wings and breast which are brushed with a special sauce before grilled.
The Yaki Onigiri rice balls are a national snack favorite and it’s said to be found in every Japanese kid’s school lunchbox. This snack goes back to Samurai times, when the samurai carried Onigiri balls in bamboo leaves. The fire adds a crisp to the rice creating a delicious crust!
A jaw-dropping experience was the life-sized Gundam statue, one of Odaiba’s biggest attractions. I was surprised at the sheer size of the full scale statue which stands at 18 meters tall.
I think it would have been really cool if Gundam demonstrated some movements to make it look even more realistic! I am sure with Japan’s technology, they will eventually figure out how to get it to walk!
On the Way to Toyota City Museum
Part car showcase, part amusement center and part automobile museum, the place explores the various facets of Toyota’s automobile brand. The entire point of the center is to look, ride, and feel the cars. I am not much of an automobile enthusiast, however I did enjoy the museum’s “History Garage” section displaying vintage cars from the 1950’s to 1970’s, chronicling Toyota’s past.
I liked the overall feel of the interior decor showcasing the selection of cars. It is a walk-through exhibition fashioned in a way to resemble the streets of a small town in 1950’s America with similar evocative settings. The smallest details were taken into consideration, with shop window displays of retro books and children’s toys, a vintage coke vending machine, and even a replica of an old Japanese home. It was interesting to notice all the detailing of the exhibition and added a lot of authenticity to the overall place.
An old Japanese home in the 1950’s
Another good morning in Odaiba
Apart for the beautiful cherry blossom season that comes with Spring, there is another flower festival known in Odaiba that is a highly notable spring wonder. The promenade park becomes home to 20,000 planted tulips in full bloom. The flower beds are are really beautiful and I’ve never seen so many tulips in my life in one place!
I learned that Tulips are considered to be the luxury flower of Japan available only to the elite in the past.
Roppongi Hills District
From Mori Tower, we visited the Mori Art Museum, which focused on contemporary Asian and international art through innovative exhibitions of modern art.
A quick lunch
Yokohama China Town
If there was one word to assign to China Town, it would be FOOD. We did get the feeling like we had just wandered into China and the most fun part was browsing the expansive area of bright Chinese shops and temples tucked in between all the bustle. However, everywhere we looked there were steaming buns, dim sums and noodles!
To Kyoto…Chapter 2