The Best Of…

In developing this blog, my goal is to help you better plan your own trips, whether that means learning about interesting things I did and incorporating them into your plans or avoiding some of the missteps of my travels.  With this mind, I don’t think that a summary of my daily schedule would be particularly useful or interesting.  Instead, I will focus this and similar posts on sharing the highlights and lowlights of my experiences, which I hope you find informative and – at least slightly – entertaining.

Hitting the Mark

img_1366Grand Sumo Tournament:  Attending the Grand Sumo Tournament was easily my favorite experience in Tokyo and an overall highlight of the trip.  While the individual matches last mere seconds, the preparations the wrestlers undertake before each bout are mesmerizing.  Lifting and lowering each leg, squatting and standing, standing and squatting.  At first, the wrestlers’ actions appear to be aimed at intimidating their competitors, but as the matches continue and the pre-bout warmups remain unchanged, it starts to look more like routine.  That is, until the upper-division wrestlers begin competing.  img_1374While they engage in many of the same theatrics, they bring added flair – dramatically tossing hand chalk in the air.  Of course, the bouts themselves improve in quality and excitement, as well, when the main matches get underway.

img_1408Tournaments are held six times a year, every other month, and the schedule is currently available for the next two years.  I recommend purchasing tickets in advance, as soon as they are available.  We planned to splurge and buy two-person box seats, but when I attempted to access the website after tickets went on sale, it was down.  By the time I could get through, only arena seats were available.  On the day we attended, the tournament was sold out with no day-of tickets for purchase.

img_2028Each day’s competition lasts from morning until evening.  Ticketholders can arrive at any time and in-and-out privileges are granted once.  We arrived mid-morning, went out for lunch, and returned in the afternoon.

The neighborhood in which the stadium is located is known as Sumida and is rich with sumo culture.  We had lunch at the nearby Chanko Tomoegata, which specializes in chanko-nabe, also know as “sumo stew.”  It was the perfect meal to complete our sumo day – especially since it happened to be raining.

Swallows Baseball Game:  A uniquely cultural event with familiar undertones, the Swallows game was another Tokyo standout.  The Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Swallows, feels like a minor league stadium in the U.S., but fun fact, it is one of the few remaining stadiums where Babe Ruth played.  img_1299The games are virtually identical to U.S. baseball, but the fans engage in more cheering and chanting.  There is a dedicated cheering section and team cheerleaders.  A major positive over U.S. stadium policies, attendees are allowed to bring in their own food and drinks, including alcohol.

Advance tickets can be reserved via email, with detailed instructions on the team website.  We received a prompt response to our request and had no problems picking up our tickets before the game.

Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho:  This tiny collection of alleys, which seems lost in time yet is inexplicably located in the heart of the bustling Shinjuku neighborhood, was home to one of my favorite meals.  But more than a meal it was.  Tiny holes-in-the-wall line the alleyways, most seating no more than 15-20 people along a single bar.  We stumbled into one and embarked on a fun and delicious dinner.  img_1987We were seated in front of raw sticks of yakitori surrounding a large ice block.  The lone guy behind the bar placed the yakitori into a large bubbling cauldron before moving them to a hot grill and serving them up.  We left the selection to him and enjoyed a number of meat yakitori, as well as mushroom and cabbage.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most memorable.

The website provides background on the area and even a restaurant guide, though I can’t for the life of me determine at which establishment we dined.  Regardless of where you end up, I’m certain you can’t go wrong.

img_1869Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory:  I love tall structures.  More specifically, I love going up in tall structures.  I love heights and unobstructed views and aerial panoramas.  When I visited China, I skipped the Forbidden City in favor of visiting the Central Radio & TV Tower (formerly CCTV Tower), the tallest structure in Beijing.  But I digress.  The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings have two observatories that provide beautiful views over the city.  We visited the South Observation Deck in the afternoon.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for an evening visit to the North Deck.  Admission is free of charge.

Tokyu Food Show:  Japan is famous for its extravagant food halls in the basements of department stores and train stations, and this was one of my favorites.  Located beneath Shibuya Station/Tokyu Department Store, the market is a food lover’s dream.  It boasts everything from hot savory foods to breads, nuts, candies, desserts, an entire grocery section and much more.  Two items in particular were noteworthy for me.  img_1834First was ouef pudding, perfect tiny custards made in real egg shells!  These delicate treats are courtesy of Patisserie Française Quatre, a Tokyo-based French-style bakery.  Also, the food show marked the first time we were introduced to Japan’s outrageous produce prices.  One bunch of grapes for $10, single pears for $4.  The cantaloupes took the cake, though.  I saw a single melon for the equivalent of $140, and a package deal of two cantaloupes for $260.  I kept recalculating the conversion rate between yen and dollars because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Pota Pasta:  Yup, an Italian restaurant.  We were shocked to find Italian restaurants all oimg_1825ver Japan; it was easily the second-most available cuisine next to Japanese itself.  This tiny establishment, about a half-block from Shibuya Station, was a chance favorite.  With fresh seafood sourced daily from Tsukiji fish market combined with traditional Italian flavors, it would be hard to go wrong.  I had a pescatore pasta with tomato sauce while Derek enjoyed a salmon belly pasta with cream sauce.  Both were excellent dishes that would go for $15 – 18 in DC; these were $5 each.  The restaurant doesn’t have a website, but a quick search will provide location and contact information.


Somewhere in Between

And now for the things that just didn’t live up to the hype.

Off by a Hair

img_1811Shibuya Crossing:  For a pedestrian crossing at a roadway intersection, Shibuya Crossing definitely punches above its weight in terms of notoriety.  I love the buzz generated by big crowds, and I was pretty excited to be in the thick of it.  I imagined crossing a couple of times and then watching from above at the nearby Starbucks as others made the scramble.  As it turns out, 10 a.m. on a Monday is not peak time for the world’s busiest crossing.  I can imagine it being a fun experience during evening rush hour, when one could scurry across and then enjoy pre-dinner drinks at L’Occitane Café while watching the fuss below.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take this into consideration before planning my visit.

On a slight tangent, I imagine the entire Shibuya neighborhood is more enjoyable in the evening.  As we strolled through, the streets were quiet and many shops were closed.  We were left with the impression of Shibuya as a sad, dirty area.  (It was the first and essentially only place we saw trash on the ground.)

img_1956Robot Restaurant:  The Robot Restaurant is absolutely one of those only-in-Tokyo experiences.  It’s insane.  I really have no words to describe in any comprehensible way what the show is about.  And I don’t necessarily want to deter others from going – it’s fun and it’s definitely memorable.  I just think it’s important to know what you’re getting.  While the entire show is billed as around two hours long, actual entertainment time is less than 45 minutes.  There are multiple breaks to sell concessions, and the first 30 – 45 minutes is spent in a lobby area, seemingly for the sole purpose of selling drinks and food.  The costumes and props are starting to show their age, with some not working at all.

Ramen StreetRamen Street, on the lower level of Tokyo Station, gathers Japan’s most famous ramen restaurants in one location.  Different styles of ramen are available for the choosing.  img_1765We opted for dipping ramen, and specifically, for Rokurinsha.  We arrived before noon, and there was already a long line, but surprisingly, it moved quickly.  Upon reaching the entrance, we placed our order at a kiosk before being seated.  The ramen was delicious, but it became cold very, very quickly.  I didn’t finish mine and was unable to drink the broth because of the unappetizing temperature.  The seats next to us turned over a couple of times while we were there.  It seems the Japanese are accustomed to inhaling their ramen; I was clearly unprepared for such a lunch on the go.

Tsukiji Fish Market:  I’m reluctant, and a bit embarrassed, to include Tsukiji Market in this group, particularly since my disappointment stems from user error.  But here we are.  Mostly, I want to warn you against repeating our mistakes.  We debated whether to go to the tuna auction, but after much deliberation, we decided against it.  We have heard from others that it’s difficult to get in, and with a lack of certainty, getting up before 4 a.m. wasn’t in the cards.

img_1719Our first stop was Sushizanmai for sushi breakfast.  This may have been the highlight of our entire trip for Derek.  As patrons enter, the chefs behind the counter sing out a greeting.  We were provided with counter seating where we could watch the masters work.  Derek ordered the sushi deluxe, which consisted of about 15 pieces of nigiri, and I had chirashi-don, a bowl of rice topped with sashimi.  Thankfully, eating raw fish at 8 a.m. wasn’t as difficult as I had feared; it was quite enjoyable!  After finishing our meals, we strolled through the outer market of food stalls.  Derek had an oyster on the half shell that was larger than his fist, while I had a gooey sweet treat.

fish-marketInexplicably, we couldn’t find the wholesale market and ended up leaving without seeing it.  I know – a travesty.  I have since found a map of the market complex and now realize that the outer market does not readily flow into the wholesale area; it must be sought out.  My mistake here was not being more actively involved in planning our visit to the market from the beginning.  Typically, this map is the type of thing I would have in the information packet, but I left this particular excursion up to Derek.  He was so excited about visiting the fish market and had read all about it, I never thought to follow-up on the details.  In the hope that your visit will be more successful, I’ve included the map here for reference.

The Worst Of…

Finally, these are the places I just did not enjoy.

Missing the Mark

Imperial Palace East Gardens:  While portions of the Imperial Palace can be viewed from the surrounding plaza and park areas, the inner grounds are not open to the public, save for select dates and during guided tours.  Unfortunately, we visited the area on a Sunday when tours are not provided.  Instead, we opted for a walk through the East Gardeimg_1291ns.  On a small portion of the grounds lies the Ninomaru garden, a picture-perfect, quintessential Japanese garden.  It may be that this area alone dictates a visit to the East Gardens.  Regardless, we found the remainder of the property to be unremarkable.

img_1779Meiji Shrine:  At the risk of sounding too negative, I am at a loss to recommend anything about the Meiji Shrine.  Most of the shrine buildings are fairly new, having been rebuilt in the late 1950s following World War II.  The large forest surrounding the shrine is impressive and may be worth a stroll.  This is also where I first participated in the purification ritual associated with visiting a shrine.  Rightly or wrongly, I was put off by what I perceived to be a tourist-centric focus, and I didn’t find it interesting.

Know Before You Go: Quick Tips and Observations

Following is a collection of thoughts and observations, some amusing, some informational, of which I made note while in Tokyo and that I hope better prepare others for their visit.

The city is enormous and very spread out.  We walked 15 miles the first day and nine on the second.  This is worth keeping in mind when selecting the neighborhood in which you will stay.  We stayed in Asakusa, and while I felt like it was out of the way, I’m not sure any neighborhood would feel central.  You’ll likely want to visit areas all over the city and find yourself quite far from your home base regardless of where it is.

It is not as expensive as you think.  (At least right now, for Americans.)  We were repeatedly pleasantly surprised by the cost of our meals.  As mentioned in another post, we had a delicious Italian lunch where our pasta dishes were $5 each.  That said, we did experience a few eyebrow-raising moments – like when we paid $27 per ticket to see a movie!

Be prepared to carry your garbage.  Tokyo, and in fact all of Japan, is unbelievably clean.  Perhaps aimed at ensuring it remains so, there are virtually no public trashcans anywhere – not on the sidewalks or even in many bathrooms.  The platforms of major train stations were a consistent exception.

You’ll never know on which side to walk.  The Japanese drive on the left side of the road.  In other similar countries, such as England, pedestrian rules mimic those of the road.  For example, whereas in the U.S. we typically walk to the right when going up or down stairs or walking down the sidewalk, it’s the opposite in London.  The same is true in Japan…only when it’s not.  Directional arrows on stairs and walkways in the subways constantly change sides, and there seemed to be no consistent manner in which people walked or rode bikes along the street.  As a result, we often felt flustered and in the way.

Don’t sweat public transit.  Tokyo has a mind-blowing number of rail operators and transit systems.  Don’t worry:  it’s not necessary to figure it all out.  As long as you know what line you want to take and the station names, you’ll be fine.  Signage is clear and abundant.

Convenience stores FTW.  Family Marts and 7-11s are everywhere, and they actually have great snack food and bento options.  From rice balls to pork buns and lunch boxes, they’re great in a pinch or just a midday pick-me-up.