Can you believe my luck? My first international travel for 2016 and it's to the land where my favorite food hails from: JAPAN!
Japan was my international travel goal for 2016, but I was aiming for the later part of the year because I had blown all my funds on my Eurotrip. But when the opportunity came to me to visit earlier, I took it. Everything happened so fast, and before I knew it I was rushing to apply for my visa, which took so long that 12 hours before my flight, I still didn't have word if my visa was issued or not -- but I proceeded to unearth my coats and knitwear anyway, which were packed away in the back of my closet after my Eurotrip. Never having another international trip in the next few months cross my mind, I was excited to know that my fall/winter purchases wouldn't have to wait another 9 months before being used. I packed my luggage, went to get my money exchanged, and then made my way to the airport in the wee hours of the 23rd to fly to Tokyo, Japan with Airlite Travel & Tours. Clearly, I wanted this trip to happen badly, so I claimed it and acted like it. It wasn't happening any other way.
Thankfully the Japanese embassy has been very generous with granting visas to those who want to visit Japan, so they released my visa in time. I was joined by families, couples, Jowee (a cool girl from Bacolod whom I met on Twitter the night before we got our visas!) and her adorable mom, and fellow lifestyle blogger, David(a friend, and one of the very few bloggers I admire and look up to, but let's not tell him that, cause it's a little embarrassing lol.) for a 4 nights and 5 days tour to Tokyo.
My flight to Narita departed at 5:40am, having zero sleep the night before (I tend to sleep late, so imagine having to be at the airport by 2:45), I tried to get some shut eye on the plane. It proved to be in vain, babies on early morning flights and sleep deprivation don't mix very well. I got a killer view of the sunrise though, despite having my seat by the aisle -- a first for me, I always request the window seat.
We arrived in Narita around 11 AM, Japan being an hour ahead of Philippine time. Upon landing David and I made it our priority to get a pocket wifi so we could post live updates on our social media channels (mainly Snapchat) during the trip. We found a counter right in front of the arrivals area (beside the ForEx counter) where you can rent a pocket wifi for only 1,290 Yen a day. Not bad considering the reliable and fast internet speed around Japan. The only issue we had with it was the wifi disappearing completely, but that was easily fixed by having our tour guide, Kenny, call their office and asking for further instructions on how to get our internet back again.
Tokyo was everything I expected it to be, and more. The city is bustling with locals rushing to work, tourists walking around in awe, and buildings with colorful billboards, ads, large company logos -- it's a beautiful chaos, every street as intriguing as the next, busy but never stressful or tense. There's a certain unexplainable calm amidst it all, which I believe can only be brought about by the wonderful Japanese people.
Shinjuku is one of the 23 city wards of Tokyo. The district is known for its large entertainment, business and shopping area, as well as having the world's busiest railway station, handling more than two million passengers everyday.
The view from the sidewalk of our first stop, on our way to lunch.
From the sidewalk, we turned a corner and this busy looking street, clad with signs that never seemed to run out or end, greeted us. I instantly fell in love. David and I took our time taking photos, having no regard for being left behind by the tour group. We didn't care. We were in Tokyo, we were in awe, we were falling in love with the place. We joked around how stressful it was to be torn between wanting to just take it all in and taking the time and effort to take photos, snapchatting, and vlogging (for me).
The area we walked to get to the restaurant turned out to be Kabukicho, Japan's largest red light district. I didn't know it then, because everything was obviously in Japanese, but a number of shops displayed photos of women in lingerie was a small hint in that direction. I guess the area wasn't really part of our tour because our tour group was composed of families, so you know, gotta keep it wholesome. Haha
We made our way to Mo-Mo-Paradise, an all you can eat shabu-shabu & sukiyaki restaurant, for our first meal in Tokyo. It was my first time to actually enjoy shabu-shabu, because it was as authentic and tasty as can be. I never enjoyed shabu-shabu until that day.
Snippets of Tokyo from our bus ride
I loved this pedestrian scene because it reminded me of a Chanel fashion show with how the people were standing as they waited to cross. I'm especially drawn to the girl in the middle in the army green jacket and face mask.
I love Tokyo's colorful bridges. I'm pretty sure one of these can be seen in the first Godzilla movie from 1954, when Godzilla attacks Tokyo (when doesn't Godzill attack Tokyo anyway?)
Asakusa is the center of Tokyo's shitamachi, which literally means "low city". It is also one of Tokyo's districts where you'll find Tokyo's past, going back decades, survives.
Tourists on a Jinrikisha, which literally means "man powered vehicle", is a human-drawn cart with two large wheels and seating for two passengers. A pretty cool way to take a tour around the area, but I don't think I would ever get on one. It's amusing to see though!
In Japan, it's possible to rent kimonos for a day and walk around in them. This is something I want to do one day. It's also possibly the only time you can do this without playing a part in cultural appropriation.
Before visiting Asakusa's main attraction, the famous Sensoji, we walked the opposite side for a view of the famous Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), unfortunately we didn't visit the Tokyo Skytree itself.
Tokyo's weather was quite perfect on the first day, so two layers of clothing sufficed. I wore my petticoat from Primark and my tartan scarf from Edinburgh.
I love cities where locals bike. It's something I wish would be possible around Metro Manila. I would bike everywhere.
Sensoji, which is also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, was completed in the year 645 making it the oldest temple in Tokyo.
The dragon fountain in front of the temple is meant to cleanse your hands and your mouth. I've read that you're not actually supposed to drink the water, but on the day itself we were wrongly informed by our tour guide. Thankfully I didn't really drink the water, since it was impossible to drink it anyway out of the palm of my hand.
Tourists in simple kimonos. I found the colors and the pattern absolutely beautiful.
Omikuji (おみくじ) are fortunes which are written on slips of paper. You either get a great blessing or a great curse, and if you get the latter, you tie the strip of paper with your fortune and leave it to rid of the bad curse.
Unfortunately, we didn't know we'd be able to do things like this so David and I stupidly left our wallets on the bus. We missed out on experiencing this part of Japanese culture as well as the Nakamise shopping street.
Nakamise is a shopping street right outside the Senso-ji temple. It spans over 200 meters long and leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate. In this shopping street you'll find shops selling typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata, kimonos, folding fans and various traditional local snacks.
A man making Ningyo-yaki (人形焼), which is a battered and deep fried soft cake filled with red bean paste. This is something I wanted to try, but like I said, we left our money on the bus. *cries*
A side street near the market with the Tokyo Skytree in sight.
The sign between them reads: "Local's Rule: Eating while walking is prohibited. Please eat in the eating area. Thank you." I find this quite endearing. In some countries, it's an absolute no-no to walk around while eating your food, and Japan is no different. Aside from the fact that eating while walking can cause unwanted spills or mess, it's also in regards to respect for food in general. I'll admit that I'm one of those people who could walk around while eating, but for cuisine like Japanese food, I think it deserves the respect of being eaten properly, paying respect to the process of how the food is made and those who made it.We saw an old Japanese man walking around wearing traditional Japanese footwear called Geta. They look incredibly difficult to walk in, but he seems to have had a lot of years in practice. I asked him for a photo and he was happy to pose with me. He didn't speak a slick of English, and we didn't understand a word of Japanese, but here we are. Haha
After visiting the temples and the street market, we boarded the bus and headed to our next destination where we would visit a market and then have dinner.
Ameyoko is a busy street market in Ueno. The name Ameyoko is short form for "Ameya Yokocho" which means candy store alley. Candies were traditionally sold in this market. Another fun tidbit about Ameyoko is that the "Ame" alternatively stands for "America" due to the fact that American products used to be available here when the street was a site of a black market in the years following World War II.
Today, Ameyoko is simply a market where various products are sold such as clothes, shoes, bags, cosmetics, fresh fish, dried food and spices. You'll also find food stalls that sell donner kebabs, which ultimately stand out among all the Japanese cuisine. I found it rather amusing.
Daichi no Okurimono
An all-you-can-eat buffet that's good for you. Daichi no Okurimono is a restaurant that serves only organic food, so you'll feel a tadbit better about pigging out here.
The basic buffet is Y2,800 for dinnertime and Y1,600 for lunch. Not bad for a buffet. The food doesn't disappoint much either.
Their special theme for that night were strawberries (my favorite fruit!) so all desserts had strawberries in them. But my favorite was the Japanese rice with strawberries and avocado. You'd think it would be sweet, but it worked perfectly well with the rest of the dishes.
The food is mostly the same stuff you'll find in a typical izakaya, only more vegetables in average (organic and healthy, remember?) but plenty of tasty fish and meat as well.
I was able to try different flavors without having to put too much on my plate. Last row center is the Japanese rice with avocado and strawberries I was talking about earlier. I swear, it's tastier than it sounds.
After dinner, we made our way to the Sunshine City Prince Hotel where we checked in to stay for the next 3 nights. After an early morning flight and touring around the whole day, I was happy to finally rest in our cozy little hotel room, but I quickly found myself praying for slower days.
Only one day in Tokyo and already in love. I know, I say this all the time to places I visit, but can you blame me? The world is such a beautiful place, it would be a shame to never fall in love with any of it. So, I fall in love with each new city I step foot in, but it's never the same love twice.
If you're interested in joining a tour, you can check out Airlite Travel & Tours Facebook page for their tour packages for the Philippines, Asia, Europe and USA.
Disclaimer: My Tokyo tour is sponsored by Airlite Travel & Tours. All thoughts, opinions and experiences in this post are genuinely and entirely my own.