Konnichiwa! Japan has fascinated me since my early childhood. From the food, origami, and indeed the entire culture has cast a spell on me and will not let go until today. Order meat with tomato sauce or prefer to fish your own fish? See the cherry blossom with the Japanese or discover the best place for Hanami on a travel blog about Tokyo? With these Tokyo insider tips, your trip to Tokyo is sure to be a success!
Day 1 - Flight to Japan
Where does almost every trip to Japan start? In Tokyo! At half past noon, my plane went to Tokyo. With two extra nights in Bangkok and five days full program in Beijing, we were a bit exhausted and unpowered when we arrived in Tokyo. The almost three hours literally flew by and I was back in order and cleanliness to Tokyo. When I land at Tokyo Narita Airport after just under 24 hours of travel time in the morning, I am one thing above all tired. The runway starts right on the waterfront and here even the sun shines!
At the entry desk, an official without a word presses a stamp on my passport. I already knew that taxi is extremely expensive, making the train the vehicle of choice. At 10, the counter opens, where I can buy a train ticket, with which I travel to Tokyo.
The train takes about one and a half hours to get to Tokyo. There are several routes. I get off at Shinjuku Station, near my accommodation near Toshi. I wanted to stay in a ryokan, a traditionally decorated travel guest house as a hotel in Tokyo is expensive. Since Japan is the country with the highest living costs, the next few days are not cheap anyway. The country is special for me, and I am here to make the stay as special as possible.
I leave my backpack with joy. After a French toast, coffee, and orange juice, I leave. I do not have mobile internet, but I've already looked at Google Maps in which direction I have to go. And all the important signs are in English anyway. What Google did not tell me before the trip to Tokyo, however, is that in Shinjuku daily millions of people change. The station has correspondingly gigantic proportions.
Several floors, tens of lines intersect here. In between, I accidentally end up in the shopping center. The Japanese mass, however, is in steady flux. Nobody collides, and not even someone is stressed. Everyone walks patiently. After several attempts in the wrong direction, I am miraculously at the right exit. I recognize a hotel that was also on Google Street view, and suddenly everything is quite simple.
A few streets later I am at the finish. I enter the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market. One of the must-sees in Tokyo is the fabulous Tsukiji Market, located in the center of Tokyo. Although one is not fond of Japanese food or markets in general, it is a unique experience of forced attendance. The Tsukiji Market is the largest fish market in the world and over the years has become one of the most longed for visits when one steps on the capital of Japan.
The first time I entered at 5 in the morning and left after 10. I went through every point of the internal market (now closed to the public until 9 in the morning). And the auction of tuna (at that time without restrictions of any kind) was a real spectacle. The second time I entered at 9 in the morning and toured the inside of the market until after 11. And in this third time, I went twice. In the first, I went through the whole foreign market and in the second I went back to the tuna auction.
At 3 o'clock in the morning, the movement of the trucks that unload the fish coming from any part of the world begins. 3,000 tons pass through the market every day and you can find around 450 species of fish and shellfish. If you can eat or cook and you do not find it in Tsukiji, it does not exist or it is not from this planet.
The market is made up of two large areas: wholesaler with license (in the interior) and wholesale and retail sales (abroad). In the interior zone, it has had restricted access for a few years until 9 in the morning, except for the 120 people who can enter to see the auction (at 5:25 and 5:50).
It is always under the strict control of access where licensed wholesalers (about 900) operate their businesses and where the auction of tuna takes place. The outside is a mix of wholesale and retail sales where you can find everything. There is fish, Japanese cooking utensils, food, packaged products, sauces, condiments, household goods and/or trade, fruits, and vegetables.
And this is where we also find (although inside the internal market there are also) the numerous restaurants and food stalls where any type of Japanese food is served. There is ramen, tempura, sushi, sashimi, and tamagoyaki. What any traveler and tourist in the world (and also from other parts of Japan) wants to see there in the first place, is the auction of tuna.
Every day, between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning, hundreds of tuna are auctioned (the frozen ones are covered with a thin frozen layer) that are placed and numbered throughout the warehouse used for this purpose. The tuna weigh between 400 and 700 kilos and are placed in rows according to their size. Little by little they will lose the white layer and they will recover their natural color.
Then there is the inspection of the appraisers, who section the tails of the tuna to obtain samples in the form of fillets, where these expert cutters armed with a metal hook and a flashlight can see the quality of each tuna.
These samples reveal the veins of white fat contained in each specimen: the more abundant the better quality the specimen is and the more expensive it is sold. The samples are placed either on the same tuna or on an elongated table with a mark of the specimen to which they belong. The next act is one of the most spectacular. The auction of each copy or batch of copies.
Small groups are formed around wholesalers (many of them climbed on a stool) who sing the auction of each piece or lot of tuna. Buyers with a license to participate in the auctions are dressed in distinctive hats and bid with very quick gestures to the wholesaler. This show has no waste and is a continuous scream, gesticulate, point, write, mark, etc. In a hurry and without rest. There are intermediate wholesalers with businesses within the same market, restaurant agents, and large supermarkets.
Here nobody wastes their time. They told me there is a very special jargon between seller and buyer so that the final price is secret. The best pieces go to the best restaurants and the buyers move along the ship searching for the specimens that they have selected to bid as the batches are liquidated. From bigger to smaller. While the auctions take place (not everything is sold), the transfer begins on carts loaded by the operators of the market.
They go to three different places. One, to the trucks that distribute the pieces in the hundreds of restaurants and shops in Tokyo and surrounding areas that are waiting to receive the product in order to start making their culinary creations. Two to the shops and stalls that there are throughout the market (interior and exterior) and three, to a room of mechanized ronqueo, where they are cut and chopped.
Here the noise and the rhythm are enormous as mechanical saws cut the half-frozen tuna in half. It is part of the market where the tuna is cut, it is only accessible from 9:00 o'clock and at that hour it is very difficult to find any large tuna piece being torn apart. Why? Well, because a few years ago a series of imbeciles decided to start bothering the staff working there, which local authorities were forced to limit and prohibit access in this area. People got into the tuna, played them, used flash, etc.
Come on, there was no respect for the people who make their living there. He was not going any more were some Englishmen who took some motorized cars and they dedicated themselves to make the hooligan by the market. This was the point at which it was said enough. But the pressures by the enormous popularity that the visit has for the tourist, they forced to return to allow the visit inside the market, but under a strict control of attendance and behavior.
These restrictions are going to produce the effect that they seek: that the interest in going away will be lost because it will not be worth it. And if I'm honest, I think they're going to get it because the subject has changed a lot. Too. The amount of tuna and sellers/buyers participating in the auction has decreased considerably (you only have to compare the photos from 2005 and 2012) with what the show has also suffered and every time it goes down.
Throughout the morning and part of the morning, the tunas (and any living marine bug) are cut, sliced, filleted and prepared for resale. Here, everything is used. These experts and specialized masters cut the tuna loins with huge knives with a wooden handle. Some measure more than 1 meter (depending on your specialty within the market, you have a knife and it is so sharp, that nothing has to envy to a katana) and it takes two people to make the cut.
Each part of the tuna is harvested and sold according to its quality. In the showcases of many of the stalls (both inside and outside) the parts of each tuna are exposed to their corresponding price according to the quality.
As I mentioned the position where I had breakfast, it had 40 different varieties of tuna with which they make sushi. There is nothing. Although any animal is cut, it is worth observing that of the eel, since you have to have a lot of skill to do it well.
In addition to the tuna ships, there is a huge number of fishmonger stalls in the Tsukiji market where they exhibit all kinds of marine animals and exotic species. Although there are also numerous sites that sell other types of non-marine products. All kinds of fish and seafood are sold and super fresh, thanks to the fact that almost the place is connected to the seawater by a key and air pipes with oxygen.
Each position of sale (be it the product that is) places the genre taking care of the presentation and packaging (there is so much competition that the first impression is very important).
Despite the hustle and bustle of movement, everything is extremely clean and tidy. You do not find remains or large puddles although it is not recommended to go in flip-flops. And it does not smell fishy compared to the markets around here.And they smoke anywhere.
There are no restrictions on this. And it is very surprising because there is so much care in the whole process that it is shocking that in the middle of a sales point there is an uncle who gives the cigar. A separate commentary deserves the mountains of hundreds of white boxes of polystyrene piled up in different points of the market and the mini motor cars that are everywhere. These cars are the most dangerous and you have to be careful, because if they can section a leg.
They are like bulls looking for a piece of gore. Unbridled fury in pursuit of blood. The blood of the absent-minded and distracted tourist who has gotten into the mouth of the wolf. There are those who go with a lot of bad milk, partly because they are fed up with the tourist bothering them while they work and partly because their obligation is to deliver the goods as quickly as possible. And if you are in the middle of your path, you are a hindrance.
Or would it not bother you that in your workplace there were hundreds of Japanese taking pictures around you every day of the year? We would end up crazy. The cars move at full speed and appear from nowhere with what is always advisable to be stuck to the wall and not in the middle of the corridors, although there are so narrow that either they pass or you have to hide.
To situate yourself in a point of the market and dedicating yourself to observe the activity of the market is also highly recommendable. It is a chaotic order or an orderly chaos. It depends on how you look at it.
You always have the strange feeling of being observed but never without getting to offend. It's like a double showcase: you look but they also watch you, although in a more indiscreet way. That's the way it is all the time.
Except for the tuna area, this foreign market is accessible without any restriction, being a mess of streets and alleys where there is everything. There is the crustacean, mollusk (giant oysters larger than the hand), fish, algae, fruits, vegetables, knives, wooden utensils, clothes, household goods, etc.
In this outdoor area is where more and more people are wandering in any corner. Surely with time will also put restrictions. Market activity declines around 8 in the morning and at 11 it closes most of the stores. How is it said around here, at this time all the fish is sold.
Going through the interior streets, I discovered two different places that are dedicated to manually elaborate the famous Japanese omelet (tamagoyaki), which is made with square or rectangular pans. I was mesmerized by the process of elaboration.
After enjoying so much marine animal and other edibles, it is worth eating in one of the hundreds of places that are found in the streets and adjoining alleyways. Small establishments where fish is served for breakfast (or other delicacies according to the preferences of each one) open very early. Narrow bars and tiny tables that fill with workers and visitors. The freshness and texture of the sushi here, I'm sorry but it's awesome.
It tastes different. Maybe it's the magic and the charm of the place. Or maybe you're so predisposed that everything is more tasty. There are kicks of locals with more or less names. This last time I ate at a very small one called Okame, in Shin-Ohashi Dori almost in the corner with Harumi Dori and that is easily recognizable because it has on top (or in the business next door) a huge fish in three dimensions. There will be better, sure, but to lose two or three hours waiting in line to eat in a certain place, I find it a waste of time.
At the entrance of the world's largest fish market, a sign informs tourists in English about the possibility, possibly to be run over. I accidentally break the first courtesy bids when I walk in the flat with street shoes and brush my nose by the way. For Japanese absolute no-go, as I learn later. Finally, I am on the right way! Shinjuku is known as a nightlife district and for its kabuki shows. Not three steps later, I find myself in a scene of Star Wars. Hundreds of beefy drones transport goods.
The first Japanese food is calling. At the restaurant, I cover myself with fresh sushi. I also have Udon soup and seafood tempura with green pepper. Seeing the prices, I almost faint. Japan basically consists of mountains, settlements and rice fields. There is not much space for cultivation areas. Therefore almost everything is imported. With my sushi box, I sit down in a nearby park and fall to bed completely exhausted.
Day 2 - Ueno Park Cherry Blossom
It's 4:30 in the night and I'm suddenly wide awake. I have to rush to the Tsukiji fish market to be in the middle of a very fast-paced video game. But unfortunately only one in life. Others beat us through to the tuna auction, which is unfortunately already sold out. 100 spectator seats are allocated each morning, and it's better to be there at half past two, we learn.
So our plan B is a bit of sushi for breakfast. In the cozy alleyway along the fish market, we find countless small shops, sushi bars, and restaurants. When we reach the bar around 5 in the morning, there are just about twenty people outside the entrance to the sushi bar. But the friendly boss of the store sends us away around the next street corner because there begins the real queue. It is bitterly cold and dark and so we take hot tea.
Two hours later we are right in front of the front door and can at least look into the sushi bar. There are exactly 10 seats. At twenty past seven, we finally enter the hallowed halls and are received with friendly cheers. I had read in the guide of the exuberant welcome rituals.
Under the hot towels, we slowly thaw our hands. Hot green tea and miso soup are served. There is Tamago, a fluffy multi-layered scrambled egg cube with green algae and I am very happy to be here. And I'm afraid that part of the recipe for success might be due to the fact that after more than two hours in the icy dawn, all guests are simply uncritically happy to be here. I decide to stay critical, because the first sushi is served.
Sushi calling - The day I stopped eating sushi outside of Japan
With shining and deep red meat, the sushi rice is warm. The grain clings to grain, and the fish melts on the palate. The almost imperceptibly leavened rice crumbles in the mouth. Reverently I chew with my eyes closed. And that's when I decided to never eat sushi outside of Japan again. It would be pointless. I chew and apologize to all the fish that had to die because I thought I was eating sushi in a typical Japanese restaurant. Everything was worthwhile for this one Nigiri Sushi, getting up, getting ready, and flying to Japan.
Did I mention how unrecognized deep, round and spicy the miso soup tastes? Their secret is found at the bottom of the miso-shell, bones, fish meat and shrimp shells are the basis of the incredibly dense broth. The sea urchin roe melts in the mouth with its creamy, nutty sweetness. At a good pace, we continue with meaty scallops, herring, sea bream, snapper, mackerel, grooved hall, and a fat tuna.
When we step into the morning sun on the road, the queue has grown to 50 meters. I could not have imagined a better start to my day in Tokyo. Fortunately, I discovered a number of Tokyo travel guides on a shelf in my hotel. Because I read so much about how the Japanese celebrate the cherry blossom before my trip to Tokyo, I take the subway to Ueno Park. In fact, a huge pink-white sea of sakura flowers awaits me.
At lunchtime Japanese people sit in groups on plastic tarpaulins on the floor, laughing, partying, picnicking and drinking beer. Celebrating Hanami in the spring season is absolutely cult in Japan. I sit down for a while. When I have enough, I walk to the nearby Asakusa Shrine, one of the largest and most beautiful in all of Tokyo. The Asakusa Shrine is one of the largest, most beautiful and most popular tourist shrines in Tokyo.
Nearby there are some shopping streets. At numerous stands, Hello Kitty peeps out in all shapes and sizes of plush and plastic among all sorts of trinkets. The district is a bit further out and here tradition meets modernity. Amazingly many Japanese women wear a traditional kimono in everyday life. From a nearby bridge, we have a good view of the Tokyo Sky Tree. I do not want to go up, though. The Tokyo Sky Tree is not only popular with tourists as a photo motif.
Manga Madness in Akihabara
According to Lonely Planet Tokyo guide, Akihabara has the largest electronics selection in the world and Ginza is buying the rich Japanese. Landing in Akihabara, I dived into the largest electronic store only two minutes later. Akihabara is the center of the Japanese electrical industry, but also a meeting place for manga, anime and cosplay fans. Neon signs adorn all fronts. It is packed.
Every corner of this department store is filled with articles, stickers and tons of gaudy offers, all over several floors. Through the loudspeakers, information is continuously transmitted in several languages. My personal interest was, of course, in the photo and camera department and found out that this is the ultimate electronics paradise! There are hundreds of cameras for testing and accessories as far as the eye can see.
Nevertheless, I finally went out empty-handed, which was more due to the high prices than my willingness to buy. We decide to visit one of the so-called cafes. The special feature is that all the waitresses are dressed as maids, and the visitors are called prince or princess. The cafe is located on the fifth floor of a shopping mall. Even the way up through the video game halls is worth seeing.
Upstairs we join a queue. 45 minutes should be the waiting time today. When it is our turn, our damsel of the day greets us. The girl looks like a maiden and wears a waitress uniform and the obligatory knee socks. Everything is kawaii, Japanese for cute, cute and childlike. Our maid leads us to our place. There we can choose a drink. There are different price options.
We opt for a drink. The drinks are like everything in the cafe (including the maids themselves) sweet and cute. Our maiden with a lot of giggles paints an animal. Made of sugar syrup on the glasses she demonstrates an idiosyncratic shaking performance. Shortly after she returns with a photo board. Each of us can choose a girl with whom we want to take a picture later.
For this, we are individually called forward in the cafe and may choose to put pink rabbit ears or form a heart with the fingers. Other visitors play with their maiden Jenga. Personal questions to the girls are forbidden. We can only photograph the food. For all the other pictures we have to ask the maids, but they are never on photos. After an hour, we are subservient to the submissive posturing and we pay what happens again with a lot of giggling. After a coffee, banana muffin we go back to the subway.
After seven stations I am in the shopping paradise of Ginza! Ginza Street is the most expensive and exclusive street in Japan. There are countless shopping centers with the well-known designer labels, but they are expensive.
Therefore, I also protect my wallet here and enjoy the sight of the rich and beautiful. Japanese women are not the only ones who attach great value to a well-groomed, feminine appearance in this district. Short hair can hardly be seen, for example, in younger women. Many have an almost doll-like appearance, which suits the mostly extremely slim women.
Right next to the shrine begins the Harajuku district. Here the young Japanese meet. Many are dressed in Lolita style or elaborately costumed cosplayers. Directly behind the train station begins the Takeshita-Dori shopping street, one of the most popular in the area.
What lies behind is pink and sugary through the bank. A sweetish scent stemming from the many crepes and popcorn stalls hang in the air. Excited groups of young girls can be found in the adjacent shops with brightly colored jewelry, fancy socks, and cute accessories. The Lolita style is very popular in Harajuku.
I quickly turn my back on the crowds of people passing through the narrow street and land on the broad Omotesando boulevard. In the adjacent streets hides some good vintage and second-hand shops, some with high-quality designer goods. Because we are just around the corner, I make a detour to the Meiji Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife Shoken. Inside, we see a lot of wedding parties in front of the camera so I could not resist taking some pictures.
At some point, there is an end. At the Imperial Palace, we can only visit the eastern part of the Imperial Palace Garden. I continue by train to Yanaka in the north. Here we can still find a bit of original Japan. The old wooden houses were largely spared by the war and are therefore very well preserved. I stroll over the huge cemetery and through the small quiet streets. It is a soothing change from the hectic core of Tokyo.
If there's an in-quarter in Tokyo, it's Shibuya. The shopping streets around the center teem with young people. Everywhere speakers are attached, from which loud J-pop echoes. The area is also known for its infamous intersection, where cross at peak times up to 15,000 people per traffic light phase. We get to the intersection. At the exit at the Shibuya station, we pass the Hachiko dog statue.
I drive to the Naka-Meguro, a small channel that a friend recommended to me as an insider tip for cherry blossom peeking. The area around the station is so unspectacular that I do not have high hopes. However, I am quickly being taught otherwise. A lush sea of flowers extends for miles along the canal.
The sight of the cherry blossom is beautiful and instantly puts me in a hard-to-explain elation. The branches form an almost continuous roof of flowers over the water. Again and again, I come across small bridges on which people stand and take pictures. In fact, here are almost only locals and not nearly as many as in the parks.
We spend the evening in an arcade on Odaiba. We secure a seat right at the front of the bike. The view of the skyline and the artificial Eiffel Tower is spectacular and gives an idea of the gigantic dimensions of the city. Inside the game room, the halls are loud and colorful. Everywhere people shout, ring and blink something.
We test a baseball and a roller coaster simulator, shoot at virtual undead at the Zombie Apocalypse and curve over the racetracks at Mario Kart. The whole thing is fun. Finally, we treat ourselves to a ride on the Ferris wheel, a real one outside the hall.
Shortly before returning home to my ryokan I went in search of something to eat. The small restaurant looked inviting from the outside. When I entered, I stood in the middle of a crowded living room with boxes, buckets, TV and all sorts of trinkets. The owner came straight to me, offered me a seat on the soft sofa and asked if I wanted ramen and beer. Well, I opted for the offer without a drink and made myself comfortable on the couch next to an elderly lady.
It's our last night here. Tomorrow we continue to Kyoto and two weeks of travel are still in front of us. Nikko, Kamakura and Mt. Fuji all wave at us.