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The plane I was on landed in Narita Airport just as the sun was rising at 6am on a Tuesday morning.
There could be no doubt that I had arrived in 日本, Nippon, the Land of the Rising Sun. Especially when I made a detour to the restroom, where I sat on a warm toilet seat and found these instructions on how to “cleansing the buttocks with warm water”.
Despite the detour, I got through customs, picked up my bags, unpacked the warm clothing from my suitcase, queued up for the ATM (twice! I got the exchange rate wrong the first time!), bought my train ticket to Asakusa and hopped onto the next available train, all within the space of 1 hour! Yup, I was out of there by 7am. Gotta love Japanese efficiency! So far, I’ve encountered this level of efficiency only in Switzerland and Germany, both countries I adore. It looked like this trip was getting off to a good start!
The train was fairly empty when I first got on the train, but by the time I approached my stop of Asakusa roughly an hour later, there was a sizeable crowd that I had to nudge my way through in order to disembark. This wasn’t too difficult, as the other passengers obligingly made way for me without a fuss. Japanese people really are the nicest, friendliest, most polite and helpful I’ve encountered anywhere, even in a megapolis such as Tokyo! Most other big cities the world over suffer from “I’m too busy and important to help you, get out of my way” syndrome.
Having already looked up the location of the ryokan I had booked last minute via tripadvisor, I knew to take the exit that led towards Sensoji Temple. Don’t worry if you don’t know a word of Japanese. There is actually very good English signage here for all the major tourist attractions.
The only problem I’ve encountered so far in Japan is the lack of wheelchair (ahem, big suitcase) access at the train stations. I was glad it’s still the end of winter and hence quite chilly, as this made lugging my suitcase up the flights of stairs so much easier. Tip #6 (see my previous post for #1-5): Bear in mind that many of the train stations don’t have lifts/elevators when you’re deciding whether to suitcase it or backpack it in Japan. On the other hand, remember the shopping is fantastic here! This was why I brought my largest suitcase with me.
I was pleased to be greeted by this sight at the top of the stairs.
I had worried that Tokyo would feel like just another concrete jungle, as many people had told me that a trip to Kyoto is needed in order to experience “the real Japan”. As it turns out, my delayed arrival into Japan was a blessing in disguise as it meant I could spend more time in Asakusa and Ueno than I had originally planned. There are still a fair number of traditional buildings in this part of Tokyo, and I definitely recommend visiting these neighbourhoods.
Tip #7: Keep your eyes pealed for these incredibly helpful maps. They’re really quite ubiquitous, at least in Asakusa and to a lesser extent in Ueno.
Thanks to the map, I was able to head towards the right direction towards my ryokan, and in just a couple of minutes, I found myself facing the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) at the southern end of the souvenir stall lined Nakamise dori.
At just after 8am, only 1 or 2 stalls were open and there were only a handful of other tourists. It’s a shame I was too tired from my overnight flight and in dire need of a restroom. I should have made full use of the fact that I was there at that early hour and taken more photos then. The next morning I arrived at the temple complex between 9-9.30am and it was utter chaos! Tip #8: Aim to get to Sensoji Temple early, by 8am if possible, if, like me, you prefer photos without crowds.
I snapped a few quick photos with my DSLR (which I’ll share with you when I’m back home), then proceeded to peruse the wide range of souvenirs on offer along Nakamise dori. Although I don’t have a photo of Sensoji Temple on my iPhone, here’s a quiet little shrine I found to relax by away from the crowds. I guess raccoon dogs aren’t particularly popular!
Anyway, this shrine is important mainly because it’s roughly opposite Daikokuya, where I had lunch on my 2nd day in Japan. If you walk north along Nakamise dori, turn left just before the kindergarten onto Demboin dori. At the first T junction, you’ll see this shop to your left.
Translated, Daikokuya means “big black house”. A bit of a misnomer, if you ask me. Like Sometaro, it was recommended by both my top 10 Tokyo and Lonely Planet Japan guidebooks, so buoyed by the deliciousness of the previous evening’s okonomiyaki derivative, I was keen to try their touted tempura.
Just as my guidebooks had warned, there was a small queue outside the shop the entire time I was there. However, turnover was pretty quick.
I ordered the mixed tendon (tempura rice bowl), which came in a pretty lidded bowl and with a small side of pickles.
This dish included 1 large tempura shrimp, 1 piece of fish, and some mixed vegetables and smaller shrimps.
Truth be told, I wasn’t impressed from the get go. The tempura looked nothing like what I had seen on their website, and without even picking it up, I could tell straightaway this wasn’t the crispy crunchy tempura I’m used to. Sure enough, every piece was soggy. The sauce was certainly tasty, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the dish. The side of pickles was also quite bland.
That fantastic Japanese hospitality was again evident here. Despite probably needing to queue, the turnover is fast, as I said earlier. When the wait staff have cleared a table, they invite the next customer in by addressing them as “-sama”, which is a highly deferential and respectful term.
It’s a bit crowded and you may have to share a table with a stranger, but hey, this is Japan! So do as the Japanese do and get cozy!
My tendon cost ¥1550, which I thought was quite pricey given how much I’d paid for superb okonomiyaki the night before. I’ve also seen other shops and stalls selling various rice bowls in the neighbourhood for around ¥600-700.
11.30am-9pm Saturdays and public holidays
1-38-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03 3844 1111, for reservations call 03 3844 2222
Disappointing. I wished I had sampled the various street foods available on Nakamise dori instead. There were fried goodies, waffles and various other snack type treats. I did manage to fit in some soba flavoured ice-cream though.
This was absolutely delicious and not as weird as it sounds. Soba is basically buckwheat noodles, so the ice-cream just had a wholesome hops-like flavour. Mmm…
There are also many stalls selling rice crackers and these red bean cakes baked in decorative molds called ningyo yaki. These would make great gifts to take home as they come in all sorts of cute shapes including Hello Kitty and Doraemon.
As I wasn’t headed home just yet, I bought just 1 packet of each to try.
These ningyo yaki cost ¥300 for a packet of 8 or ¥500 for 2 packets. The filling is like a slightly less sweet and less sticky version of the red bean paste in Chinese mooncakes, but the casing is entirely different, more like a sponge cake. I enjoyed it, but still prefer mooncakes.
What I would highly recommend, though, is trying these matcha (green tea) flavoured rice crackers.
But then again, I’m mad about all things matcha!
What about you? Are you as matcha obsessed as I am? What other foods should I try whilst I’m in Japan?
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