Work Hard, Play Hard (and grab some sushi!): Our Travels in Tokyo

After the whirlwind of car-living and camping in Oceania, we headed back towards Asia to another new country – Japan! We already had a taste for the wonderful cuisine, and were intrigued by the little we knew about Japanese culture. Both of us were very excited to experience Japan in person, not only for the food but the architecture, history and interesting lifestyle. 

We started with an 11 hour AirAsia flight from Christchurch to Tokyo with no food or drinks and only a few downloaded movies for entertainment. When we arrived in Tokyo, we headed straight for our Airbnb. Our room was a perfect depiction of minimalism, complete with only 1 set of 2×4 built bunk beds which were shortened to fit inside the tiny room. But it was bigger than our tent or car seats, so we were totally happy. We slept in the first night, resting up for a big day tomorrow. 

Walking out into Tokyo in the morning was like walking onto a different planet. It was pretty unlike the Asian countries we had already visited, but in a very good way. We went exploring for some breakfast and found a small self-service place called Matsuya. Inside, there is a machine where you order and pay for your food. A small ticket pops out, which you bring to the counter for your food to be cooked. Then a nice Japanese lady hands you a cup of green tea while your food is being prepared. We weren’t exactly sure what we ordered or what to expect from the food, but when it arrived, we were pleasantly surprised! Both our breakfasts were rice, veggie, egg concoctions and were absolutely delicious! 

We then ventured out to Gyoen Park to look for cherry blossoms and saw the Meinji Shrine. The Japanese architecture is just amazing, and after seeing so much in the European style, this was definitely a change!  After, we went to Yoyogi park to see what locals do on a Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t the typical activities you might see in the US such as children on the playground, parents walking their dogs, or couples having a small picnic in the park. Instead we saw a juggling bartender, expert frisbee throwers, KPop singers performing, and children acting out a gladiator scene with cardboard swords…truly interesting. 

After, we headed towards the famous Shibuya crossing; a massive intersection of 5 streets where instead of crossing 2 sides at a time, all the crossings occur at once! It also happens to be in a very busy section of Tokyo, with thousands of tourist and locals flooding the streets each day. Who would have thought we found a street crossing you could marvel at? Our last stop for the day was dinner, and we were hell-bent to find some good sushi. Tokyo totally delivered!! We found a small restaurant that was again self-service. Each seat had an iPad, where you order your sushi, sides and drinks. Once your order was placed, the sushi was delivered to you by a small conveyer belt! And not like the one in the US where the sushi just goes around and around; it was more like a toy train where the carts run along the tracks, and stop directly in front of you with your food. Not only was the sushi amazing, but the whole experience was a blast! We also were impressed by the plates (talking 20-30 plates of sushi) that the other patrons were consuming! 

Literally, all we could say is WOW JAPAN! We might be in love…

We filled our second day with lots of sight seeing in Tokyo. We started with a match latte and breakfast on our way to Ueno Park. We expected to see some deer and cherry blossoms, but not so much. We continued onto the Tokyo Tower, which is the asian version of the Eiffel Tower. But our favorite part of the day was exploring the Senso-ji Temple. Stunning Japanese architecture in bright red and gold, beautiful gardens, and an energy that was both peaceful and exhilarating. . There were the large smoking bowls of incense for prayers to waft onto themselves. We also enjoyed weaving through side streets filled with souvenirs that surrounded the temple.

The next day, we planned to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world! This market sells around 1,600 tons of seafood a day and has over 480 different types of seafood to choose from. At 4:00 am, they host a Tuna auction, where the fresh-caught tuna are placed on display and auctioned off to local dealers and restaurants. A top tuna can sell for over $10,000! Unfortunately, in order to see this event, you need to be waiting in line for 1-2 hours before it opens, and they only allow a limited number of tourism participants inside. So instead of waiting outside in the freezing cold, we decided to just explore it during normal business hours. 

We started with a walk around the outside of the market, where many shops and restaurants are set up. We had fish for breakfast, which normally would be a bit weird. But the tuna sushi that I had was truly amazing – tender, smooth and some of the freshest I’ve ever had! We wondered through the external markets seeing lots of fish, pickled items and some mystery food that we still can’t figure out. The inner market, where the majority of the fish selling happens, was closed for tourists to walk through; you had to be there to purchase fish. Totally understandable, but we still wanted to see inside. So, we snuck around back and found an entrance where we crept in. Hey we totally would have been interested in buying if we had a proper kitchen to cook the fish in! It was amazing the amount of fish there, and just watching the dealers prepare their catches was incredible!

After the fish market, we headed to the Imperial Palace. Again, the tiered pagoda architecture was amazing, but the inside was a bit less impressive as most of it was damaged in WWII. Later, we went to find Love Hotel Hill. Apparently, a love hotel is a place that will charge for full nights or by the hour…I’m sure you’re catching my drift. While these may be considered more dingy places in the US, in Japan, they can be really nice hotels! Many have cool themes, and some rooms come complete with costumes and toys for entertainment. Needless to say, it’s definitely a more interesting part of the culture in Tokyo. 

Fast forward 3 days (side trip to Nikko), and we were back in Tokyo for just one night. We went to the Russian Consulate to get our visas, and then spent the morning trying to plan our next adventures in Japan. In the afternoon, we visited the Meguro River Park hoping for some more cherry blossoms, but we were still too early. Then we went to the Tokyo Anime Center, which wasn’t as interesting as we hoped and didn’t have too much to see. We preferred just going to the many anime, manga and video game shops nearby, which had a much larger and more interesting selection. I think my favorite part is seeing the men in business suits who have worked hard all day, popping in to buy a few comics on their way home. Japan may be known for their ambition and work ethic, but to us it seems that they work hard, play hard. Something we totally appreciate! We ended our night and our time in Tokyo with one last walk through the city and had some amazing gyoza for dinner. 

Matthew & Stephanie

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