Before arriving in Japan, one of the first things I did in preparation for my trip was to purchase a JR Pass. These passes allow for unlimited travel across most JR lines in Japan, and is well worth the price if you plan on visiting both Tokyo and Osaka, as a round trip essentially makes you break even.
This pass also creates a sense of freedom, as the cross-city trains in Japan are quick and easy to use. With this in mind, we hoped to take many daytrips; one of which being the Shibazakura festival in Fuji (which only occurs once a year, around May).
Upon looking at Google maps to plan things out though, we realized it would be too much of an ordeal to get there, and ended up settling with a slightly more convenient location: the Hitachi Seaside Park. While still a distance away, it was a much safer option for us.
Hitachi Seaside Park is famed for a variety of flower fields, differing by season and mapped out on this handy webpage. What drew us there were the photos of the Nemophila, tiny blue flowers which together form a canvas of blue and green, combining beautifully with the open sky and seaside views.
As you can see, these flowers attracted quite a few tourists, and it was difficult to get the landscape and portraits that we wanted. Patience prevailed however, as despite the crowds, there were plenty of little breaks where we could get shots like these:
Getting to the park is a huge time commitment (2.5 hours one way), so I'd highly recommend checking and double checking if the flowers you're looking to see are blooming (eg by checking the geolocation on Instagram) and to make sure the train is running there on the day you plan to visit.
While I was amazed at the park and its beauty, we did regret not having a chance to see the Shibazakura overlooking Mt. Fuji, but that does give us an excuse to come back to Japan another time to cross that off our bucket list.
PS: their soft serve was superlative. The matcha was intense, and their blueberry was bursting with flavour. Highly recommended on a summer day.
After a long journey back, we stopped by in Ginza to explore a few stores I had on my checklist.
Japan is famous for its design and attention to detail, and one stop on our list was the Good Design store, a space dedicated to products that win the annual design contest. In the same mall, we saw how the Mujis in Japan are much better stocked than those in Vancouver.
Ever seen Muji coffee beans or a Muji toaster oven? I hadn't until this point. After doing the math, we realized certain things were much cheaper in Japan, and we walked out with our staples/
The Ginza district is known as one of the main shopping districts in Tokyo if you're looking for western brands. While this makes it a hotspot for tourists, it still kept its own unique flare and didn't feel like other large shopping districts.
One of the distinct aspects were the collection of specialist stores: Ginza is home to over 10 camera stores selling both new and used equipment. As you can imagine, I was in heaven but had to hold myself back from exploring each and every one of them for the sake of keeping my companion sane and my wallet unemptied.
Another such hobby store however, drew us both in, and offered items that were much more everyday:
Itoya Stationary Store
At over a century old, Itoya is one of the most famous stationary stores out there. The newest renovation has it at over twelve stories tall, and you could easily spend several hours exploring each and every one.
While I only took photos of the pen section, the list of items they offer is overwhelming, with every floor offering a different specialty. Special points of interest include a unique hydroponic farm on the eleventh floor, and a cafe at the top.
There are several items which you can only find at this location, including a special edition Lamy Safari. As somebody who loves my own Lamy Safari, the giant sculpture of one and the Safari-inspired drink tickled the nerd bones inside me.
Speaking of drinks, the food scene in Ginza is crazy. In line with the luxury theme the rest of the area exudes, there are too many amazing food places to count.
Home of the infamous cronut, I couldn't resist taking a visit when I found out there was a location here. While I expected it to be a light dessert, it was unexpectedly heavy both in a figurative and literal sense.
Once you bite through the flakey croissant-like outer shell, you're treated with a yuzu cream filling. Heaven, and for a not-too-eye-watering price too.
??? Mochi Store
We saw this warabi mochi booth in the same food court area as Dominique Ansel (The basement of this building complex). While they weren't pounding the mochi in store (from what we saw), it still looked and tasted exceedingly fresh. They offered three flavours: soybean powder, brown sugar, and matcha.
We wanted to try all three, but the cunning staff told us that the mochi should be eaten within 24 hours of purchase right AFTER we paid. We ate a lot of mochi for the next 24 hours. From my standards (I didn't get to taste fresh mochi in Nara), this was the best I've ever had.
Nodaiwa is a chain of restaurants specializing in unagi and its original location is over 200 years old. We were ecstatic to try it when we saw that they had a location in Ginza, but after a solid 30 minutes of searching, we found out it was closed for golden week. Somebody please try it and report back to us. PS: Their entrance is located near the stairs of a metro station, we were confused about this too.
After the initial unagi incident with Nodaiwa, we found a backup unigi restaurant around the same area. Located at the top of a mall complex, we had high expectations given the location and price.
I've always enjoyed Unagi from Vancouver's many sushi restaurants, but those wet and slimy slabs of defrosted eel pale in comparison to what we experienced here. Each piece of freshly grilled eel was delicately crisp, yet had a rich tenderness infused with a smokey flavour. It was the most expensive meal we had in Tokyo, but it was certainly worth trying.
Luckily, Ginza is also ripe with activity on the streets. Street photography was the perfect way for us to burn off all those calories we ate, and it seemed like there was always something of interest to capture.
Being a fashion district, there was no shortage of fashionistas showcasing their flare. It was so strange seeing a population consisting of equal parts uniquely styled tourists and conservatively dressed businessmen.
After exploring and eating our way through Ginza, our next stop was in Kawaski: a city about 45 minutes from Tokyo. While it's the 8th most populous cities in Japan, it had a completely different feel from Tokyo. Gone were many of the businesses catered for tourists except one: our destination.
From the outside and upon the first few steps in, you're treated to an authentic recreation of Kowloon Walled City, an infamous unregulated slum in Hong Kong. Everything was apparently very true to the source, and it was such a surreal experience seeing this in the middle of a suburban Japanese neighbourhood.
Go up a floor however, and suddenly you're in a modern arcade still styled as the historic slum. It's a rather odd to imagine the prospect of playing Mario Kart here.
Another floor up, and it's as if they forgot they were making a themed arcade, and the decorations disappear. It was a little disappointing that the uniqueness of the arcade was so limited. If you're attracted to arcades and the historic background, it may be worth the trip, but given its distance from Tokyo, I wouldn't recommend spending the time just to go here.
It is on the way back from the Cup Noodle Museum though, so perhaps a stop by wouldn't hurt.
The 5 minute walk from Kawasaki Station to the arcade was a beautiful one, however. Having been in the hustle and bustle of the touristy sections of Tokyo, it was nice to have a break from the density.
...That is, until we got back to the station. I'm pretty sure we stepped on during rush hour or something, because the whole trip back we were pressed body to body on the train.
Our final destination in Tokyo was Shibuya, home to the world's busiest crossing. We had a quick soba dinner before exploring the region. PS: matcha soba, while aesthetically pleasing, didn't taste too different from the plain kind for me.
PS: remember Bou'lange from my last post? There's another one in Shibuya. We picked up a few goodies for our trip to Osaka the next day. Buya.
There is also a famous gelato store offering 'the world's most intense matcha gelato' in the area, but it was unfortunately closed during golden week. Please give it a try if you're there and let us know how it is.
Upon reaching the crossing, I was totally awestruck at the sheer volume of people.
To be honest, I'm pretty certain that most people there at that hour were tourists, so perhaps the 'world's busiest crossing' title was self-fulfilling.
Regardless, we were both watching our bags and making sure we weren't decapitated by errand selfie sticks. Yes, this is one of the places that attracts those kinds of tourists.
I guess we shouldn't judge, we walked through at least 10 crossings trying to get a shot we had in mind. Just don't be the people who casually stroll through a green light trying to take photos, this isn't just an attraction, it's a real live crossing.
Tokyo was an absolute blast for us, and it served as a perfect entry point into Japan. While so much of it was alien to us, there was still tinges of familiarity, and getting by with only English was decently easy for most simple interactions.
When packing up for our next journey, the one regret we had was not having enough time to explore the everyday wonders of Tokyo such as exploring the quiet neighborhood our accommodation was located in. We hoped that our next destinations in Japan would give us that pleasure, and Osaka did just that. Look forward to that post, coming soon.