Chasing Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo

Visiting Japan was an incredible experience – I can’t remember the last time I was immersed in surroundings where everything felt so foreign and new to me. My last few travel destinations to Europe, Mexico, and around Canada were wonderful but familiar. Visiting Tokyo felt like visiting another world.

My first impressions off the bat:

  • There was more lush greenery than I was expecting, and the trees are so…majestic! As we travelled through the countryside on our train ride in from Haneda airport to Tokyo city centre, I felt like I was in a scene from My Neighbour Totoro. The landscape matched the movie perfectly, and even the sounds – quiet, except for the whistle of the train, the rumble of the wheels on the track, and occasional footsteps – emulated the movie perfectly (Is it weird that the isolated sounds in My Neighbour Totoro stand out to me? I find them to be such a distinct element of the story!).
  • There is an entirely different language spoken in Japan, and I’m not referring to Japanese. There is an unspoken language of manners and social protocol that I don’t think I could ever become fluent in. I consider myself to be a polite person, but there were numerous moments on the trip when I felt downright rude – it was unnerving! I tried my very best, and learned so much.
  • Uniformity seems to be a large part of the culture in Tokyo – at least in fashion. The majority of the men I saw wore suits (whether they were commuting from the business districts, or driving a bus!), and many of the women wore beige trench coats, tailored but loose-fitting trousers, and heels of some kind (with little “no show” socks, that were often visible. It seems as if wearing the socks is more important than having them hidden). Although I sometimes felt like I was in a sea of suits and beige trench coats, I noticed that every person had some detail on their outfit that added a personal touch. Some men wore very cool shoes to jazz up their conservative suits, others hemmed their pants just an inch higher than their ankles. As for the beige trench coats – some were structured, some were drapey, some had pleats down the back, some were tied with a bow.

My cousin Jasmine and I were there for five days, and we PACKED our itinerary! I say this every time, but we really travel well together because we’re on the same page when it comes to eating, exploring, resting, and taking a bajillion pictures 🙂

We checked into our hotel in Ginza around 5pm on our first night, and stayed up to explore the neighbourhood and have dinner. We went to No Midori for sushi, and waited TWO hours to get seats at the sushi counter! I couldn’t believe it, but queuing seems to be a normal thing in the city. For the rest of our trip we saw lines everywhere, and learned to have our meals either earlier or later than normal.

No Midori was excellent…but Jasmine and I made the mistake of ordering a sushi platter instead of just the items we knew we’d like. We wanted to try a little bit of everything, but unfortunately we got more than we bargained for. I am usually a pretty adventurous eater, but I really, really, really did not like the kazunoko (herring roe). For me, it felt like chewing sand that emitted a salty, vaguely fishy taste. I had read that in Tokyo it is impolite to leave food unfinished, but I could only stomach half of the kazunoko. Jasmine was having her own issues trying to finish her piece of “extremely fatty” tuna sushi. She was chewing for at least five minutes with intermittent sips of tea, and said that it was so fatty that her mouth felt coated in oil. Sadly, it was such an unpleasant experience that we did not order sushi again for the rest of the trip. This turned out to be a good thing though, because we tried lots of other Japanese specialties!

On our first full day, we decided to go cherry blossom hunting. Our first stop was to Ueno Park, where the cherry blossoms are the most photographed. However when we arrived, we saw only bare trees. We must have just missed them! Jasmine and I are an optimistic pair, so instead of despairing we spent the next few hours exploring the park. It is huge, beautiful, and filled with historic sites and museums. We visited several shrines and enjoyed the nice weather. Our next stop was Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a twenty-minute or so subway ride away.

We picked the perfect day to visit the Garden because it was absolutely awash with beautiful pink blossoms! I think we stopped at nearly every tree to admire (and take pictures of) the delicate petals! There were light pink, bright pink, and almost white versions of the flowers. The Garden itself felt serene and looked perfect with its calm pond, manicured shrubs, ancient trees, and lovely pavilions. Admission to the park is a few dollars, but I would recommend everyone visit. It was just so breathtaking!

While in Shinjuku, Jasmine and I made it a mission to go to the Robot cabaret! I had pre-ordered our tickets through Viator, but there was some confusion and my order was not confirmed. The show was sold out, so we stood in the queue for “no shows”, in case two spaces opened up – and luckily they did!! The show was WILD and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Lazer lights! Dancing! Robots! Costumes! Singing! Dueling! It was stimulation overload for our eyes and ears 🙂 Another absolute “must do” while visiting.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our day tour that we booked with Hato bus. The tour took us to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, Sensoji Temple, Imperial Palace, a cruise around Tokyo Bay, and Odaiba. It was a great overview of the city, and our tour guide was so sweet and extremely knowledgeable. We learned a lot from her about Japan’s history, its political climate, and even some of the cultural nuances we were having trouble grasping (which side of the road should we walk on?!).

The Meiji Jingu Shrine was a highlight because we were able to see a traditional Japanese wedding procession! The bride looked stunning in her outfit – I loved all the intricate kimonos.

The Sensoji Temple was impressive, but VERY crowded! I think it might have been because we were visiting on a Saturday, but it could very well be that busy all the time. We enjoyed walking up and down the arcades and trying some of the delicious food. I inhaled a “melon pan” – basically a gigantic cream puff 🙂

 

 

The traditional Japanese garden that we visited at the Imperial Palace was immaculate. Japanese gardens incorporate different elements for an overall harmonious look.

After the garden at the Imperial Palace we had lunch and took a cruise around Tokyo Bay. The boat we were on was actually a replica of an Edo-era style leisure boat!

We ended our trip in Odaiba, a cool shopping and entertainment area. Odaiba was originally a set of man-made islands built to protect the city back in the Edo period, but it’s now home to the FujiTV building, shopping malls, and a big ass Gundam robot statue! Jasmine and I made our 23408304th trip to a 100 Yen store to pick up souvenirs – I could honestly shop at Japanese dollar stores all day.

We ended our day with some of the best ramen I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t get the name of the restaurant (because I was hangry tbh, and just needed food and then bed), but it was a tiny little spot around the corner from our hotel in Ginza. Jasmine and I ate sitting side-by-side at a table that could seat 4, but there was a little screen that hung in front of us to separate us from the diners seated across. I found it funny that I could practically knock knees with the gentleman in front of me, but could not see his face 🙂

We started off the next day with brunch in Shibuya at Happy Pancake – big, fat, jiggly “soufflé” pancakes are a trend in Japan that have slowly made their way here to Canada. You can find these gorgeous cakes at Hanabusa in Kensington Market or at Fuwa Fuwa in the Annex! I haven’t tried either, so I can’t tell you how they compare to Happy Pancake, but I can tell you that Happy Pancake was pretty epic. The cakes manage to be fluffy but still dense, and not too eggy. They were paired perfectly with whipped cream and sweet berry compote. Heaven.

After fueling up, Jasmine and I made our way to the main event of the day – MARIO KART! I’ve received sooo many questions about this, so let me write about it in point form for easy-reading:

UPDATE: Mario Kart is now shut down! They got majorly sued. Jasmine and I feel super lucky to have done it because it was SO FUN! If they open up again then you can read my quick tips…

QUICK TIPS FOR MARIO KART IN JAPAN

  • Reserve ahead. You must make a reservation ahead of time, especially in tourist season because this books up like crazy! Jasmine and I made our reservation three weeks in advance through Facebook messenger (it’s the fastest and most direct way to do it).
  • You do need to get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). You can obtain this if you have your G or G2. Have two pieces of photo identification ready as well as two passport-sized photos, go to CAA and you can get your IDP on the spot for $25. It is valid for one year.
  • Jasmine and I did a 3-hour course, and I think it was the perfect amount of time. We were using the course as a way to sightsee, even though it wasn’t a “tour” (as in, our guide did not explain the historical significance of our stops). We both think the 1-hour course option would be way too short! 3 hours was a good way to see the city and have a lot of fun. We recommend a course that goes through Shibuya, so that you can drive through the famous “scramble crossing” 🙂
  • Was it scary? A little bit. We essentially drove go-karts on crowded city streets and even an expressway (Rainbow Bridge! Eek!), with no helmets and only our Mario costumes for protection. So yes, it was a little dangerous, but more so it was exhilarating! We drove in a line formation behind our guide who made sure that we were all together at all times. If I was able to do it, anyone can.
  • Was it worth it? Yes! We paid about $100 CAD, and it was worth every penny. I will definitely do it again, next time at night so that we can see the city lights!

Check out my Instagram story to see some shots from our Mario Karting 🙂

That night we had dinner at Han no Daidokoro to try some delicious kobe beef! I want to write about my experience in detail, but I think I’ll preserve it for just Jasmine and me. I would say we didn’t enjoy the beef, but we did enjoy each other’s company. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in my entire life.

We made the same mistake as we did at the sushi restaurant, where we ordered an assortment of different cuts to try instead of what we knew we would like. So…we were eating beef tongue, stomach, rump, etc. Some of it melted in our mouths – like literally dissolved into oil – and some of it was a lot of chewing. I’m going to leave it at that.

The next day we started off in Shimokitizawa, which I can roughly describe as the Kensington Market of Tokyo. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me (thanks for the recommendation, Andrew!!) because it was so unlike anything we’d seen. It felt like a residential neighbourhood, but at the same time filled with adorable vintage shops and cool cafés. The vintage shops were SO organized compared to vintage shops I’ve visited in Toronto and Paris. Everything in the Shimokitizawa vintage shops was organized by colour, style, or era. If you’re a vintage lover, I highly recommend making the trip!

After shopping and eating some katsu curry, we hopped over to Shibuya so that we could explore Harajuku, Cat Street, and some of the specialty stores. We visited Solakzade, a boutique that sells rare vintage designer sunglasses – they were sooooooo cool, and so out of my budget. But next time, I’m treating myself!

Harajuku was crowded, and very touristy, but I’m really glad we went. It was cute and kitschy, and I did spot a few girls dressed up in incredible outfits with crazy contact lenses on. It was wild! We stopped for some super #instagram worthy icecream, and then made the walk over to Shinjuku for our evening food tour.

Our walking food tour was another one of the highlights of the trip! We were paired up with the most lovely couple from London, who were actually in Japan because they WON A CONTEST!! How cool is that?! They were able to see the cherry blossoms, go paragliding around Mount Fuji, and stay in a Buddhist shrine. We are instagram friends now 🙂

I love walking tours because they are a really great way to see parts of the city that are hidden away. We learned about “love” hotels, Japanese comedy theatres, and bar culture. We visited Golden Gai – six narrow alleyways packed with 200 tiny bars. There’s nothing like it anywhere else on earth! Some of the bars are so small that they only seat one or two guests! Some of the bars are themed, and some of them can only be visited by climbing very narrow, very steep steps. We visited one such bar, which had a Palestinian-wrestling theme, and I tried some very strong Japanese liquor. Afterwards, we visited Yakitori Alley Memory Lane, which was another narrow set of alleyways packed with tiny restaurants serving grilled skewers. It was so cool!

We also visited the food hall of one of the major department stores in Shinjuku – Isetan! The food hall was on the bottom floor, and it was bustling. Each counter looked more delicious than the next with delicious Japanese specialties but also French-inspired desserts. The only strange thing was that there was no seating area – it seemed to be more like a takeout-only situation, which worked just fine for us!

Jasmine and I were absolutely pooped after our long day out, and had a good last night’s sleep before our final day in Tokyo. We had to leave for the airport in the afternoon, so we spent our time in Ginza, right near our hotel. I fell in love with Marionnier Gate and bought myself a gorgeous umbrella as a souvenir. It was a great purchase because now I think fondly back to our trip anytime it rains and I open it up.

We also had an amazing brunch at a Hawaiian themed restaurant called Eggs n’ Things – it was SO unexpectedly good!! We had pancakes (this time more American style) with incredible sauces and toppings. The Hawaiian decorations were so kitschy and cute.

After that we headed back to the airport to end our amazing trip. I LOVE TOKYO! The people, the culture, the architecture, the nature, the morning television shows I’d turn on in the hotel, the amazing vending machines, Tokyo Hands (a cool department store), anpan (I am obsessed with anpan), the beautiful language, the fashion, the attention to detail, the civility, and all of the lights. I will definitely be back.

Thank you so much for reading! Xoxox

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