At the end of May, I ventured to Asia for the first time with my parents and brother. It was our second international adventure together. Our previous foray abroad was a trip to Barcelona and Paris nearly four years ago. I was living in Besançon, France at the time, teaching English in two different elementary schools.
If you want to read how we spent our four days in Taipei, you can check out that post here. This post is dedicated to the five days that we spent in Tokyo. While I can’t remember the names of the restaurants where we ate, I can definitely share stories of what I ate. Tokyo is an amazing and crazy city. It dazzles the senses. People, and lots of them, are everywhere. Amazing food is on every street corner, every building level, and the basement of department stores. Bright lights. Bustle. Custard. Choux Pastries. Red Bean. Serene gardens. Sky scrapers. Kind strangers. Hello Kitty construction cones. Tokyo has a bit of everything for everyone.
We arrived in Tokyo around 6:00 PM on a Saturday night. It took some time for us to grab our suitcases and make the trek from Narita International Airport to Tokyo. After a bus dropped us off at Tokyo Main Station, we hailed a taxi, only to realize that all of our suitcases would not fit in the trunk. Instead of taking two taxis, we decided to call an Uber van. As my dad and I figured out these logistics, my mom and brother talked to a robot, who followed them around speaking Japanese. By the time we made it to our hotel, it was around 8:30 PM. We dumped our suitcases in our rooms, and then wandered out in search of food. We settled on Japanese barbecue, which was absolutely delicious.
—- Day 1 —-
What I Saw
- Yasakuni Shrine
- Tokyo Imperial Palace
- Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
What I Ate
- Ramen at Menya Musashi
- Green tea ice with some sort of cream (panacotta?)
We started our first full day in Tokyo by meeting my friend, Nate, who also happened to be in Tokyo. A scholar of Japanese studies, Nate kindly led us around Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace, offering historical tidbits and facts. Built in the 1800s, this Shinto Shrine serves as a resting place for anyone who died in service for the Empire of Japan (~1869 – 1947). The Shrine tends to be somewhat controversial, since nearly 1,000 soldiers buried at Yasukuni were convicted war criminals according to the IMTFE (International Military Tribunal of the Far East).
After wandering through a few market stalls selling antique teacups, plates, old Japanese texts and other odds n’ ends, we made our way to the Imperial Palace grounds and garden. We climbed remnant castle walls from the Edo Period (1603-1868) to catch a nice view of the park (Encyclopedia Britannica). While we couldn’t visit or view the Palace where the Imperial Family lives, we were able to explore the beautiful gardens. Yep, Japan still has a monarchy, though their role in government is strictly ceremonial.
Tired from meandering in the sunshine, we left the garden and made our way to a café. I tried something that looked like a hybrid of shaved ice and an ice cream sundae. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures since I ravenously dug into the treat before I could snap a photo. Imagine a large ice cream sundae glass. The bottom is filled with a lightly sweetened cream, the texture of yogurt. It is topped with shaved ice, green tea, and sweet red bean paste. I know, it sounds kind of weird, but it was actually amazing. The dessert was perfectly refreshing and not too sweet.
With a snack to boost our energy levels, we bid farewell to Nate, who had a few errands to run on his last day in Tokyo, and made our way to Koishikawa Garden. For such a cosmopolitan city, I was amazed that a such peaceful, quiet, and serene garden could be tucked among the dazzling skyscrapers. It’s quite amazing how many of these gardens Tokyo has.
Hungry and tired, we made our way to the nearest metro station to head back to our hotel. We happened to find ourselves at a station that had several restaurants. After browsing a few menus, and examining the displays of plastic food that are so common to restaurant storefronts in Tokyo, we wandered into one, where I ordered a tuna sushi bowl that came with a side of miso.
For dinner, we ventured to Menya Musashi to try some ramen. Tucked into a quiet side street, this tiny ramen shop had a line out the door. Luckily, with ramen being a food that’s quick to eat, we didn’t have to wait long. Once we entered the ramen shop, we found ourselves staring at a vending style machine. Unable to decipher the Japanese characters, we were about to randomly push buttons when a kind middle-aged Japanese woman asked if we needed help. She explained to us the different types of noodles that we could order, and recommended the classic ramen – dark broth, an egg, pork belly, and lots of noodles. We ordered four bowls of ramen, and collected our meal tickets from the machine. Waiting in line, we continued our conversation with the friendly Japanese woman until it was time to eat.
—- Day 2 —-
What I Ate
- Korean BBQ
- Cream puff with green tea
- Green tea éclair
What I Did
- Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market
We started our second day in Tokyo by visiting the famed Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world. In November, the market will apparently be moving to a different location in the city, so I’m glad that we got to see it while we did!
Wandering around the small streets of the outer market, we marveled at the amount of fresh fish everywhere. Small stands sold sushi and sashimi to go, while waiters stood outside of restaurants, advertising their meal deals. Tucked in between the restaurants were small shops selling dried fish, pottery, chop sticks, top-line cooking knives, and Japanese sweets.
After walking in and out of a few market stalls, our stomachs started to rumble with hunger. From my research online, I know that some people swear by certain fish restaurants in Tsukiji. We didn’t want to wait in line, and honestly, I figured that the fish would be fresh and fantastic at any place we tried, which proved to be true.
After sushi, we stumbled upon an ice cream stand selling green tea ice cream, among other flavors. My mission while in Japan was to eat as many green tea things as possible. Green tea flavor is subtle but powerful, and it is never too sweet.
After stuffing our faces with fish, we wandered toward Ginza, an upscale shopping area. Although we had just eaten, we stopped at Patisserie Aoki Sadaharu, a famed French patisserie with locations only in Tokyo and Paris. We collectively sampled a green tea éclair, a cream puff, and a layered green tea cake. Green tea for the win.
From Ginza, we took the metro to Sensho-Ji, one of Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temples. Surrounding the temple are stalls selling all kinds of trinkets, from kimonos to chop sticks to lucky kitty key chains. In the area, about a five minutes walk from the temple, is a mall area with restaurants, clothing shops, and more trinket shops. We didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked exploring this area, since it started pouring, and many of the stalls were closing.
After depositing some of our purchases from the day at the hotel, we made our way to Shin Okubo, the Korean town of Tokyo. We settled on a Korean BBQ restaurant where we sat on the floor, eating our food Japanese style. Our waitress was a friendly Korean lady who responded to all our requests with a jubilant and boisterous “Okay!”
—- Day 3 —-
What I Ate
- Dominque Ansel Bakery
- Sashimi, Japanese Beef, Grilled Fish
What I Did
- Shibuya Crossing
We started the day by exploring Takeshita Street, a famed labyrinth of colorful shops in Harajuku boasting trendy clothes, shoes, candy, coffee, ice cream, crepes, and cream puffs.
After wandering in and out of the dazzling shops that dotted Takeshita Street, we made our way to way to Shibuya. Hungry, we stopped for lunch at a small shop that specializes in gyoza, steamed or pan-fried.The gyoza were great! Between the two types, I preferred the crispy bottom of the pan-friend gyoza. Satisfied with our savory lunch, we wandered around the narrow streets of Shibuya only to find ourselves in front of Dominique Ansel’s famed bakery. Dominique Ansel is the famed French pastry chef who invented the cronut, a donut made from croissant dough. We were lucky to grab one of the last remaining cronuts of the day, along with a cookie shot, caramel éclair, frozen s’more and boscoff (brioche stuffed with hazelnut cream). We ate every last bite. And then felt slightly ill, from all the sugar.
Stuffed to the max, and feeling as guilty as gluttons, we made our way to Shibuya Crossing by way of a curved street whose name I could not find. The street was lined with chic boutiques and small cafes. At the end of this meandering, somewhat quiet and peaceful street, we found ourselves at Shibuya Crossing, an intersection where all traffic stops on red lights and pedestrians are granted free reign to cross any which way they choose. Watching people cross the intersection is almost like watching an army of ants, weaving around each other to enter their ant hole.
Overwhelmed by the bustle of Shibuya Crossing, we took the metro to Roppongi. We were going to spend more time walking around, but tired and hungry as we were, we made finding a restaurant our top priority. (I know, it might seem like all we did was eat, but we did walk a lot too. Every day, we were each hitting at least 20,000 steps. Justifies all the pastries, right?) Apparently, this area is known for its night life, but we didn’t see any of that where we happened to be wandering. It was almost eerily quiet and empty as we walked up and down streets in search of a restaurant. After stopping at a few that were too busy to seat us, we finally found a restaurant. The name was in Japanese, the menu was in Japanese, and the waitress knew only a few words of English. Despite the language barrier, we had a wonderful meal of sashimi, seared meat, and grilled fish.
—- Day 4 —-
What I Ate
- Soba Noodles
- Sweet potato ice cream
What I Did
- Hiked the Daibutsu trail
- Visited the Great Buddha
- Talked to students for their English assignment
- Bought a lot of senbei, rice crackers
After spending a few days in Tokyo, we decided to take a day trip outside the city. We visited Kamakura, a beach town an hour outside of Tokyo by train. Our first activity that day was to hike the Daibutsu Trail in Kita-Kamakura. Starting at the Jochiji Temple, we climbed up stairs and tree roots to see the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura. I think it took us about 90 minutes to complete, but we stopped along the way to take pictures.
At the end of our hike, we began to search, as always, for a place to eat. While we walked in search of restaurants, a group of young students stopped my dad to ask him questions in English for their assignment. They asked simple questions, like “Do you speak English? Where are you from?” We had lunch at a soba noodle shop. Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be eaten hot or cold. When eaten cold, the noodles and broth are served separately; you dip the noodles in the broth before eating. Satisfied with our lunch, we explored the town, wandering in and out of gift and snack shops. A kind couple from Yokohama, a city not from Kamakura, noticing that we were not from the area, stopped to ask us where we were from. They took us to their favorite gift shop, which sells senbei, Japanese rice crackers. Traditionally a savory snack, we tried flavors like soy sauce, black sesame, green tea, plum, and citrus.
Satisfied with our city explorations, we boarded the train back to Tokyo. Arriving at Shinjuku Station, we found ourselves at a new section of the metro stop dedicated to selling pastries and Japanese treats. We paused at each counter, admiring the lovingly crafted treats and searching for black sesame paste. In Taiwan and in Japan, we ate so many wonderful treats flavored and filled with black sesame paste. We wanted to buy some to bring it home. As we searched, the nicest and friendliest mother and daughter stopped to help us. Lenna, the daughter, had lived in the U.S. and spoke perfect English. She gave us a list of restaurants to try in the area, and made recommendations on places to visit in the city. Her mom painstakingly called several stores in the area to see who carried black sesame paste. I have to say, wherever we went, people were incredibly helpful.
Based on Lenna’s recommendation, we made our way to an Izakaya restaurant, a type of casual Japanese restaurant that serve a variety of foods. People generally frequent them after work to have drinks with co-workers. We tried a bit of everything, from horse sashimi to chicken gizzards.
—- Day 5 —-
What I Ate
- Dumplings, salmon, pork buns, seaweed salad, beef teriyaki, dapaki
- Beef Brochette, Beef Tongue Brochette, Takayaki
- Tonkonsu Curry
What I Did
- Tsukiji (again)
- Emerging Technology Museum
- Isetan Department Store
We began our last full day in Tokyo by visiting Tsukiji fish market, yet again. I had to eat fresh tuna as much as possible! Happily content with our fish breakfast, we made our way to the Emerging Technology Museum in the Koto area. After spending some time perusing exhibits and watching a robot demonstration, we made our way to Akihabara, an area famous for electronic and anime shops. In between weaving in and out of shops, we stopped at a small restaurant to try Tonkatsu curry, and a few food stalls to try Takayaki, fried balls with octopus, and Beef Brochettes.
Although we were exhausted from our day packed with activities, we headed to Isetan, an upscale department store. We spent over an hour wandering around the basement floor, which was a food emporium of prepared foods, gifts, desserts, pastries, and produce. About 30 minutes before closing, the people behind the prepared food counters began furiously shouting, beckoning shoppers to buy their remaining food before closing. For dinner that night, we bought several different foods – gyoza, pork buns, salmon, salads, veggies, and beef among other things.
On our way back to the hotel, bearing our bag of edible loot, we hunted down our newfound favorite pastry: zakuzaku. Kind of like eclairs, zakuzaku are long cream puffs filled with custard and topped with chopped almonds.
—- Day 6 —-
Our lasty morning in Tokyo, before heading to the airport, we walked around Shinjuku Goyen Park. It was beautiful! We stumbled upon the shrine while making our way to the park. After a lovely morning strolling in the park, we bade farewell to Tokyo and to our epic two week journey in Asia.