Monday, March 24, 2014

The first solo travel (Part 1) : Tokyo

I just got back to Fukuoka after my first solo trip ever. I have had a bad memory with group travel so I decided to travel on my own, hitting Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe. 


I left for Tokyo on the 16th and slept over at my friend’s flat in Chiba for 1 night. Manami, my friend, picked me up at the station near her place and we were off for dinner after that. I met Manami last year when she came to Vietnam to volunteer in the organization I was working for also as a volunteer. After that, we even had a small reunion party at Manami’s flat and did some talks before going to bed. Even though we met each other for only 1 night, I was so happy to see her again in Japan, and hope for the same to happen in Vietnam some day.

with Manami
The day after, we said goodbye to each other early as Manami had to go for a soft ball match and I was off to Tokyo. My first stop was Asakusa as it’s on the way to go to city center from Chiba. I got off at a random station, then let myself walk to Asakusa following guidance of Google map. It was early at that point, the city was sleeping so streets were deserted, only a few shops opened. After walking for a while, I got to Asakusa. The most well-known spot here is Sensoji Temple which is the oldest one in Tokyo. It’s famous for its main Kaminarimon Gate, where a giant lantern hangs. As here’s a sightseeing spot, there were a thousand of people coming to visit. I got stuck in a sea of people from different countries with various languages, especially Chinese and Thai. Lining along both sides of a street from Kaminarimon Gate to Hozomon Gate is Nakamise shopping street with many stores selling souvenirs, rice crackers and other snacks. I came by some shops to buy some post cards and try some snacks which were very nice. One of my experiences on travelling to temples in Japan is staying hungry before going, then getting full at the temples by eating stuff there. You may think I’m just kidding but no, you should try because the foods there are very appealing that you find it hard to resist eating them. 

snack made from mochi - japanese sticky rice
a fried pumpkin cake that I ate

Asakusa and the temple are one of my favorite places in Tokyo with large space, nice view and from here you can see Tokyo sky tree. Sky tree and the temple, modern and tradition, are distinct features of Japan. However, there were lots of tourists, which makes this place somehow commercialized. Anyway, it’s understandable because it’s one of famous sights for tourism. 

Sky Tree
 From Asakusa, I walked to Ueno via an arcade where many traditional shops are located. I like wandering at those arcades in Japan as stuff which is sold here are mainly traditional with reasonable price, and sometimes you can even purchase some cheap things with sale campaigns here. 
Ueno in Edo period was considered “shitamachi” or “Lowtown”, where was home to working classes, merchants and artisans. At the moment, the feeling of “shitamachi” even retains with not crowded streets, small houses and especially the market Ameya Yokocho in which people sell abundant of foods from meat, fruit to dried ingredients and other stuff like shoes, clothes and so on. I strolled there, stopped by every shop, and even almost got lost in the crowd. But that’s what I love. I know I can’t do like that if I travel with a group of people. When I travel on my own, I can do whatever I like, go to any where I want to go.  After getting stuck in the market (but I did have fun there), I was off to Ueno Park where I saw cherry blossom coincidently. Cherry blossom season is coming but it often starts from the south where is warmer than the north, but it’s quite warm this year so some trees bloomed early. I didn’t have any guide book with me at that time so I just walked around the park, then ended up being at some shrines and temples. 
cherry blossom at ueno park

Ameya Yokocho
A shop at Ameya Yokocho
 I was off to see my friend at Tokyo Tower around 3pm via the Museum of Nature and Science where you can get to know about Japan nature including animals, lands and human along with the world’s ones through seeing displayed objects and trying real stuff at experiment spaces. However, the disappointing thing of this museum is almost explanations are in Japanese that I couldn’t understand all of what they say, except for some at the Global part but they are only a few, which is not enough. Anyway, it’s a nice place, suitable for kids to explore Japan and the world. 

I met my Vietnamese friend, Linh, who was my university mate in Vietnam and works in Tokyo at the moment at Tokyo Tower. Apparently, it is a famous spot in Tokyo but for me there is nothing much. Moreover, it’s super expensive. You have to pay 820 yen to go to the 150m high observatory to see view of the entire city, and if you want to go higher and see more, you have to pay 600 yen extra to go up to the special observation. It’s not worth (although we did). The tower looks better from outside. I think seeing it from far is enough, don’t need to get in.

Taken from Tokyo Tower
Next, we left for Shinbuya, the biggest crossroad and also the most crowded area in Tokyo. In the evening, when all the lights are lit up, the city looks more and more vibrant and bustling. In front of Shibuya station is statue of Hachiko, which is the dog remembered for his loyalty to his owner, even many years after his owner’s death. When we got there, many people were lining up to wait to take photo with the statue. We quickly escaped from the crowd to be off for dinner as I was starving. My friend took me to a small restaurant serving beef steak and rice. I had a big bowl of fried rice with cheese and corn along with salad. I don’t eat that much when I’m home and I really care about what I eat but as I was on my way travel , I ate everything I met on the move. The meal was very nice with good taste and reasonable price (780 yen for a large size of rice dish and 100 yen for the salad). 

Then, Linh showed me round Harajuku and Shinjuku. However, it was late, almost shops closed so I couldn’t see the way people dress which is known for Harajuku style. Therefore, I decided to come back here the day after with my Japanese friend. After that, I said goodbye to Linh and took train to go to my friend’s flat where I stayed during my time in Tokyo.

On the second day, my friend, Hikaru, and I went to Meiji Jingu and Imperial Palace after strolling a bit in Shibuya and Harajuku. Takeshita Dori is a street lined with miscellaneous characters and idol goods popular among teens. Thousands of people, especially youngsters, come here every day. There is no space between people, and I almost got lost in the crowd. But if you go to Tokyo, you’d better check this place out as it pays off. You can have chance get to know about Tokyo youth as well as their lifestyle.

with Hachiko
eating crepes near harajuku
girls dressing harajuku style

Takeshita Dori 1
Takeshita Dori 2
Our next stop was Meiji Jingu, the largest shrine in Tokyo. It is a Shinto shrine built in 1920. Both sides of the path leading to the shrine are covered by thousands trees, which makes a very beautiful view. The shrine is like a treasure hiding itself in a solemn forest. This is a very lovely place, well worth visiting. Despite the fact of being located near Harajuku, one of the most crowded places in Tokyo and visited by millions people all the year round, Meiji Jingu still brings to me a different atmosphere, something ancient, mild and taciturn. Furthermore, I was lucky to see two traditional Japanese weddings at the shrine. They were so impressive. Undoubtedly, this is one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

in front oF meiji jingu
the biggest gate in japan

the path leading to meiji jingu

wedding no.1
wedding no.2


Before moving to the Imperial Palace, Hikaru and I stopped over at a restaurant to have lunch with monja and okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is my favorite Japanese food, monja is a Tokyo okonomiyaki style with less flour and wetter than other okonomiyakis. 

making monja
tokyo station
in front of imperial palace
the famous bridge at the palace
Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of Emperor of Japan, located near Tokyo Station which is the newest station (maybe the prettiest one) in Tokyo. It’s a park – like area with a large ground in front. Most of the parts of the palace are not open to the public, except for some like the East Garden, but you need to come up with the time as when I got there, it was almost 4:30 which is the closing time. 

the park in front of the palace
the palace's neighborhood
The area close to the palace is full of modern tall buildings, mainly offices, multipurpose or complex facilities. 

I went to Odaiba after the Imperial Palace alone as my friend was tired and wanted to get back home. Although I used a 1 day pass ticket with unlimited rides by JR train, I still had to pay extra fee for the train to go to Odaiba as it’s a new opened line. Odaiba is a large artificial island where is home to the Rainbow Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. The Rainbow Bridge looks best at night, from a park that I forget the name. There are several shopping malls, entertainment centers and offices like Decks, Aqua City, Diver City, Palette Town or Fuji Television Headquarters, etc. From Aqua City, you also can enjoy view of Rainbow Bridge and the statue of Liberty. 

rainbow bridge and the statue of liberty

While eating dinner at Aqua City, I read quickly a Tokyo guide book I picked at the information desk. At the beginning, I planned to go to Yokohama on my last day in Tokyo, but after reading the guide book, I realized there were still many places in Tokyo I have never been to so I decided to go to those instead of Yokohama.

Before going to Kokubunji, I went to Korean Town near Shinjuku. Although it was over 9, it was still early for shops to open, but anyway I did see how the town looks. The Korean atmosphere probably comes from bunches of Korean restaurants lined both sides of the street the most. I bought tokbokki which is my most favorite Korean street food to eat. It was so yum, especially its spiciness. It has been a long time I haven’t eaten Korean food ( but will have them soon, maybe in August).

korean town

After Korean Town, I left for Kokubunji. It’s a small town 30 minutes away from Shinjuku by train. The town is small, quiet, different from an animated, dense and modern Tokyo that we have seen. I went to see Tonogayato garden which is considered a National Treasure. It’s a pleasant place with ponds, trees, bamboo forest, waterfalls, many kinds of flowers and tea house. It looks much better in autumn with momiji or in late spring with sakura or cherry blossom, I think.

in the garden
the garden
An old Japanese man asked me something in Japanese as he thought I was Japanese when I was looking around the garden. I told him that I wasn’t, just an international student. After talking for a while, he said he could take me to places I wanna see. We went to Otaka’s Path, which was named in Edo period, and some temples around. There is a small stream alongside the path. According to the old man, the water of the stream is very clean so residents often come here to take some home. And it’s true as I saw an old man taking water of the stream when we walked pass the path. 

the sign of otaka's path
otaka's path
I kept chatting with the old man in Japanese while walking around with him. My poor Japanese works sometimes (and it helped me a lot in this trip). He was so kind to me. Not only did he show me around, but he also bought me water at a vending machine and even invited me to have lunch with yakisoba as I said that was my favorite Japanese food. However, I wasn’t hungry and I needed to leave for some places as it was my last day in Tokyo so I just said thanks and denied the lunch. His kindness is enough, no words can describe my gratitude to him. 

In Edo period, Nihombashi played an important role to the lives of people as it was a town of merchants with a big fish market, and at the moment it’s a base point of commerce and finance.

Although it is a crucial part of Tokyo, especially in terms of economy, Nihombashi still retains its old vibrant downtown shitamachi atmosphere with old shops selling Japanese traditional meal – tofu and other stuff which you can easily find in Amazake Yokocho street. In addition, this area is not as crowded as the city center and not many foreigners come here to visit. In Nihombashi, you can get a boat at Nihombashi Pier and enjoy spots around. 

amazake yokocho street
snack and food sold in amazake yokocho
sakura ice cream

Shibamata is a small town in Katsushika Ward, near Chiba rather than Tokyo’s city center. Here is home to Kyoeizan Daikyoji Temple, Taishaketensando and other spots. It’s a bit far from the city center so I had to change train to get here. It was not difficult for me to find the places as there are some signs and those places are located near the station. It took a short walk from the station to Taishakutensando, which is the oldest shopping street in this area. Both sides of the street are lined up with local food shops selling dumpling and rice crackers. After passing the street, I got to see the Temple. Next, I was off to see Katsushika-ku Yamomoto –tei, which is actually house of Yamamoto, a businessman in Taisho era. This house is open to public but when I got there, it seemed to be closed. Then, I took a short walk to the neighborhood where I saw a big river with a very large play ground and road for walking and cycling. 


the temple
I got to Hikaru’s flat around 5pm, took a quick shower and had dinner with her. She is a great cook. As I said I loved tofu and vegetable, she cooked me salad and some meals from tofu. She was so nice to me. Once again, I was speechless along with grateful. 

It was my last day in Tokyo. 3 days is short but I had great moments with this dynamic, bustling but still traditional city, and with great people I met. Giving Hikaru a quick hug, I left for the station to take an overnight bus to Kyoto. After 3 days walking around Tokyo, my feet were swollen. But it was a half of my trip, another one was waiting for me.

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