Tokyo, Japan, was the destination for our annual family trip with 5 adults, one teenager, and one 7-year-old. And what a fun destination it was!
We arrived at our hotel, the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo, with just enough time to grab dinner before crashing for the night. Our hotel was in Shinjuku, one of the 23 wards in Tokyo and a center of business. At first, I was concerned by the quiet, sterile business atmosphere surrounding our hotel, but within a few short blocks we found ourselves on a small street filled with restaurants and small stores. Even more importantly, the street had a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that was both good food and a fun experience. When a small plate goes by with a sushi dish that looks good to you, you take it. At the end of the meal, the server adds up the cost of the color-coded plates and presents you with the bill. (Everyone else in my family had eaten conveyor belt sushi before, but I hadn’t.)
The next day brought many new experiences including Team Lab, an immersive art experience. We took off our shoes and began our trek through the rooms that featured water and gardens. My favorite area was one in which we waded through water while light-projected colorful koi swam around us. My husband liked the crystal room featuring constantly changing LEDs reflecting in the mirrors that surround you, while others in our family liked the orchid-filled room where thousands of flowers react to your motion.
(Note: More Westernized hotels and restaurants do not have bathroom slippers that visitors to the facilities must use, but Team Lab does. Visitors are expected to step into the provided slippers upon entering the toilet area and slip them off when leaving. Great idea!)
Our excellent guide, Nishiuma Tomoyo, led us through Team Lab and on to a tour of Tokyo. She pointed out Rainbow Bridge, Olympic Stadium, the new fish market, Tokyo Tower, and Sky Tree. On our way back to our hotel, we stopped for a sushi-making class at a local restaurant. Thankfully, our sushi turned out deliciously since it became our lunch.
We filled the afternoon by going up in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which features a free observation floor. We enjoyed the view and the music provided by the pianists, with skill levels from beginner to professional, playing on the grand piano in the center of the large single-room floor. Afterwards, we found Shinjuku Central Park for some play time for the 7-year-old and down time for the rest of us before dinner.
Zaou Fishing Restaurant was our destination for dinner. The concept is interesting—especially if the fish were hungry. You are supposed to catch a fish which is then prepared for you in your choice of preparation. However, it is hard to catch a fish when the fish aren’t hungry. After 45 minutes of trying, we just asked them to give us their already caught fish, so we didn’t starve. The restaurant was a fun concept for kids, but I definitely wouldn’t suggest it for adults only.
The next morning, we walked to Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world with approximately 3.5 million people travelling through it every day. From there we took the train to Shibuya where we made our way to the busiest street crossing in the world with over 3,000 people often crossing at one time. We were there midday on a Tuesday, so it wasn’t as busy as it is on weekends!)
Our next stop was the multi-floor Tower Records before heading to Harajuka area and its Takeshita Street for rainbow grilled cheese sandwiches to give us energy for the next few hours. This area is the center of kawaii in Japan. Kawaii means “cute” or “adorable” and the street gives so many examples of it—animal cafes, photo booths, rainbow colored food, girls in pink frilly outfits, and more. The cat cafe called our name after lunch and so we found ourselves in an air-conditioned room petting spotlessly clean, adorable cats of all different types. (The area also has other types of animal cafes such as dogs and hedgehogs.)
Takeshita Street is full of Instagrammable spots. In addition, photo booth stores line the roads where costumed—and non-costumed, visitors can get their pictures taken. Most of the photo booth stores also have links to your pictures as well as to a video of your group getting ready for the picture while in the booth.
My husband and I walked back to our hotel while the rest of our family took the train. GPS led us down small streets, alleys by some standards, to our destination. One of the biggest surprises in these small back streets was the number of vending machines that were just seemingly plopped down in the middle of nowhere. We had already been enjoying the multitudes of machines that can be found throughout Tokyo, but these locations provided a pleasant break on a hot walk. Nowhere did vandalism appear to be a problem. For dinner we decided on a break from Japanese food and had, you may have guessed, Italian food which was very good. (Capricciosa is a chain in Japan.)
The Imperial Palace was our first stop the next day. Unfortunately, the grounds are not easily accessible, so we basically had a photo shoot with the magnificent bridges in the background. As nice surprises, we also observed the changing of the guard and the Emperor’s horses being trained. The palace and the more than 350 acres surrounding it are located in the middle of Tokyo and have been the palace of the Emperor since 1888. (Note: Kyoto was the capital of Japan before the governmental seat moved to Tokyo. Tokyo is an anagram of Kyoto.)
Next up was Studio Ghibli highlighting the anime developed by Studio Ghibli. Studio Ghibli is a magical wonderland glimpse into filmmaking in Japan since the early 1800s. The short movie put smiles on all our faces and made us want to watch more Studio Ghibli creations in addition to My Neighbor Totoro. As we climbed up one of the two spiral staircases, our excellent guide, Tomoyo, explained that the studio makes animations that appeal to both children and adults.
At this point we were all hungry and hot, so we opted for a local ramen shop. (I had promised everyone that we would have Japanese food for the remainder of the trip.) Local ramen restaurants spotlight fabulous food for very little money.
A quick stop at Pokémon Center Shibuya also included a visit to Nintendo World, the Ladybug store, and more. In fact, shopping in Tokyo, especially for fans of anime or manga, is shopping on crack. It seems as though Sanrio stores (think Hello Kitty), has a shop on every corner! On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Don Quijote, one of the largest discount stores in Japan to stock up on Kit Kat bars. Kit Kats became super popular in Japan because the name sounds similar to the words meaning “good luck.” Kit Kat has taken on an entirely different life in Japan where you can buy flavors varying from banana caramel to sweet potato to wasabi to…you name it and you can almost surely find it among the more than 300 flavors available. Socks were the other item we stocked up on in Don Quijote and other stops in Japan. Because the Japanese take off their shoes upon entering temples and their homes, they generally wear socks—and there are so many cute ones from which to choose.
Time for a heads up: I mentioned that vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo, but I haven’t talked about gachapons—small toy-filled balls available in endless supply throughout the city. These vending machine balls are addictive for children and for adults. We found stores completely full—five and six machines high—of these fun items. They aren’t expensive until you start buying more and more.
Our day’s tour came to an end as the driver gave us a glimpse of Godzilla attacking the city near Kabukicho, which is the oldest red-light district in Tokyo complete with love hotels and prostitutes. Though calm during the day, we were assured that the area gets very busy at night.
Our dinner was at Nabezo, a Shabu-Shabu and Sukiyaki restaurant where we had reservations. Some places required reservations during our stay. I use Chrome as my browser, so Google generally gives good translations for web pages. Unfortunately, some of the Japanese restaurant websites were still difficult to navigate and make reservations. I also use the Google Translate app on my phone to read menus, signs, etc.
The next day we boarded the bus with Japan Panoramic Tours scheduled through Viator at 8:00 am for a whirlwind overview of the city with our first stop at the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine. The peaceful setting of the shrine next to Yoyogi Park, makes it hard to believe that you are still in the bustling city. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife. Like many historic buildings in Tokyo, it was destroyed in WWII but it has been carefully restored to its current condition. Our guide, Jane, was excellent at explaining the rituals of the area and helping us be respectful of the various cultures.
Shintoism is the ancient religion of Japan that continues to this day. The number of gods grows as good people die and become gods. On our way to the temple, we passed through the Tori gate, the symbol of the shrine and the doorway between the real world and the spiritual world. We were careful not to walk in the center of the gate since only gods are allowed there. Instead, we followed the custom and walked to the side of the gate and bowed once. (Before exiting we also turned and bowed toward the shrine.) We passed racks of sake barrels which are at shrines because sake is believed to draw one closer to the gods. The Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine is different from most in Japan because a rack of wine barrels is also present since Emperor Meiji loved wine.
To show respect and to pray at the shrine, visitors bow, throw offering into the container, bow twice, clap twice, and finally bow once. Approximately 69.0% of Japanese are Shinto, 67% are Buddhist, 1.5% are Christian with 6.0% choosing other religions. (I know these numbers do not add up to 100%. Many people practice Shinto and another religion.) Fortunes that are good for one year can be purchased at shrines and temples. Our guide recommended that, if we didn’t like our fortune, we should buy one at another temple.
Our tour actually took us back to the Imperial Palace but this time we went through the well-manicured gardens before heading to lunch in the Asakusa area and the Senso-Ji Temple. We wandered down the street that specialized in kitchen products, sampled matcha tea in one of three forms—tea, ice cream, or beer—then proceeded to a fried chicken shop for lunch. (Many Japanese eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas due to a ingenious marketing plan by the owner of the first Japanese KFC franchise.)
We walked further, through the Kaminari-Mon and Hozo-Mon Gates to the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, the oldest shrine in Tokyo. Nakamise Street, which stretches between the two gates, is a haven for souvenir and temple shoppers. Many people on the streets were dressed in traditional Japanese attire. Even though they looked amazing, we were thankful that we would have our opportunity to dress up later, indoors, and in air conditioning!
Our tour took us on a drive-by of Akihabra Street which used to be a street filled with stores selling computer parts. Now the street has become a center of anime and games—what a change!
Our next stop was the Tokyo Skytree, at 2,080 feet the tallest communication tower in the world. We traveled in the seasonal-themed elevators to the first observation deck and then further upwards to the taller deck. Even though we couldn’t see Mount Fuji, we did have a good view of the city. Of course, there was shopping on the bottom floors so that may have been the highlight of the trip for our kids. I would do either the Tokyo Skytree or the observation deck in the Metropolitan Government Building, not both.
The next stop was for a brief cruise from Odaiba to Asakusa. The design of the boat, a very modern looking ship, is based on anime. We sailed under the Rainbow Bridge before we were whisked off on the bus to our drop-off point near Shinjuku Station.
From here we decided to walk to Omoide Yokocho, Memory Lane, for dinner in this historic district with very narrow pathways. The area was formerly known as “Piss Alley” because there were no restrooms in the dining area so visitors would simply relieve themselves on the street. Torien provided excellent service and a great opportunity to sample many foods.(Many of the restaurants in this area are not large enough for groups; however, some, like Torien, have upstairs that are not immediately obvious.)
And, just like that, our time in Tokyo was over but, thankfully, we still had time left to explore more of Japan.
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