Oh Osaka: our hotel horror, day trip to Mount Koya and discoveries about Dotonbori

Osaka was our final stop in Japan; to get to the place that some have labelled as a “must see” for food lovers, we got the train from the main Kyoto station to Osaka station, which only took half an hour (fifteen minutes if you get an express train, but we preferred to save a few hundred yen). On the first impressions, Osaka seemed promising- the sun was shining as we approached the region, and the rural surroundings, interspersed with some buildings, appeared much more akin to what I initially expected from Kyoto than the more commercialised Osaka.

OUR HOTEL

All was well and good until we reached our hotel. We’d stayed in a variety of places thus far- some poor (our Ikebukuro place had a hole in the floor and windows that wouldn’t shut properly), some good (the place we moved to when we figured our room wouldn’t withstand a typhoon that was due to hit that night in Tokyo) and some perfectly satisfactory (where we stayed in Kyoto, which was a clean place to rest your head, and did provide Wi-Fi in the lobby area). However, the Livemax Namba (the English name that our Japanese hotel is far less commonly known by) was a tad nightmarish. The reception was cold, barren and (in an attempt to seem upmarket) marble, with two outdated sofas, Japanese T.V playing in the background and a ludicrous set of rules (for example, a 9000 Yen penalty if you lose your room key- they therefore recommend you hand it in at reception every time you leave the hotel). We took the elevator to our room on the 8th floor of an outdoor, stone courtyard which brandished an array of repugnant smells. One day we inhaled L’eau de Manure, another day the scent was more like cat urine and well… you get the drift. The room itself was unbelievably stuffy, but the air conditioning emitted cigarette smoke scented air (in an apparently non-smoking room) so we had a little bit of a catch 22 situation regarding whether to put aircom on or not. They do say that you get what you pay for though (or less in this case, but we were travelling on a budget after all). And with reference to redeeming features of the hotel, there were some: the location was not awful, since we were in walking distance to Sakuragowa station (part of a pretty decent metro network around Osaka) and the furnishing of our rooms was fine too. And remarkably, this was not the worst place we stayed (just you wait until the Guilin blog entries). Hotel aside- food was still a big issue for me in Osaka. What had got 10 x better in Kyoto (though still not easy per se) became 100 x worse in Osaka. We weren’t near many restaurants, and the nearby ones offered no vegetarian options. But we did have a supermarket near us, so I dined on fruit and Kitkats that night (to be fair, there are worse dinners) whilst my friend had a microwaveable meat fried rice and some similar noodles with an egg on top (kudos to the room, we had a microwave since the hotel had no dining facilities). Kirin beer provided us with a mini treat after a long day.

THE HUNT FOR WIFI

The next morning we headed out to find a Starbucks (as nowhere in our hotel had Wi-Fi, which was causing big issues regarding planning and blogging). We got the train from Sakuragowa and changed onto the Midosuji line at Namba station to get to Umeda and Osaka. We found a Starbucks… but this one had no Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, a mushroom and mozzarella tartine and coffee provided me with my veggie-safe lunch and the hunt for wi-fi began. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but eventually we headed into a large electrical shop with my travel companion locating a free International Travellers’ Hotspot Wi-Fi sign. We headed to the basement floor whereby it transpired that simply showing your passport could give you a username and password that would allow your to access internet publicly in places like train stations and McDonalds (it didn’t always work in train stations, but worked at other times). This was something that Osaka offered which really impressed me, so should you find yourself without Wi-Fi whilst there, take advantage of the scheme.

THE POKEMON CENTRE, OSAKA

Like Tokyo, Osaka has a Pokemon Centre. Though I watched it a bit when I was younger, I am by no means a Pokemon expert. However, my travel companion was keen to go and sure enough, I was really impressed by the store. Whilst I’m sure some of the memorabilia and souvenirs were lost on me, the shop impressed by selling everything from traditional (and rarer) trading cards, to Pokemon Macaroni and IPhone cases. The shop itself was a riot of primary coloured souvenirs amongst a cream backdrop and consisted of some excited adults who were clearly lifelong fans. And being here gave me the chance to pick up two birthday presents for my travel companion, who celebrated his birthday on the 5th November in China (blog on that day coming soon).

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The entrance to the Pokémon Centre

MOUNT KOYA

During day 2 we took a trip to Mount Koya; there is one big reason why I won’t go into this too much- Mount Koya, compared to somewhere like Arashiyama, did less for me in terms of attractions and was somewhere I found to be less fufilling. However, parts of the Mount Koya area were interesting, so below I’ve compiled a visual album and brief description regarding what we got up to while we were there:

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Pictures from Shojoshin-in temple, on the way to Koyasan Okunoin Osaka previous day 037

A pathway going through the Okunoin Cemetery/Koyasan Okunoin

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The temple which consisted of the Hall of Lanterns

THE FINAL DAY- DONTONBORI

Today was a day for shopping (and to be fair to Osaka, quite a few good purchases were made) and the opportunity to visit Dontonbori, the area of Osaka renowned for its street food; this included Takoyaki (dashi flavored batter filled with octopus, tempura, green onions, and pickled red ginger, usually served with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo), something my friend was keen to try. After doing some shopping in the Osaka station region, Anthony and I went somewhere to try okonomiyaki, a pan fried dish consisting of batter and cabbage (the other ingredients vary depending on what you order it with). My friend ordered pork, spring onion and mayonnaise and I went for tofu, cheese and egg. We watched the food being cooked on a griddle in the centre of the table. A note for vegetarians- although the okonomiyaki I ordered was completely veggie safe, the girl cooking the dishes sometimes went to use the same utensils for both the pork and tofu oknomiyaki if we didn’t remind her in time, so keep tabs on the cooking of the dish just in case 🙂

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The restaurant we ate at

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Our okonomiyaki being cooked

It was okay taste-wise for me- my friend chose to top his with BBQ sauce and mayonnaise, which would undeniably add a stronger hit of flavour but I refused the additional sauces on the basis of “better safe than sorry.” Nonetheless, the experience itself was really cool- I enjoyed watching the okonomiyaki being made right in front of us, hearing the sizzle of it cooking and inhaling the scent of the spring onion in both variations of the dish.

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Dontonbori at night

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My friend’s Takoyaka

Next we went on to Dontonbori, the place famous for all its street food and a key reason as to why my travel companion wanted to visit Osaka. Lit up like a Christmas tree, and full of street food vendours, my friend soon found himself in front of a Takoyaka stall (ocotopus and egg pancake balls described earlier). Despite the promising smell, he said it tasted disappointing (he binned it) and so we walked down the stretch looking for other things we might want. We were let down by a lack of variety (despite many vendors selling similar types of food) and in hindsight, what lowers my opinion of Dontonbori a little bit more was that some of the food markets we saw in Xi’an, China, were less famous yet more impressive. We mucked around in a small arcade down the Dontonbori stretch for a bit before inadvertently stumbling into an area where many massages were being offered alongside lots of hotels. We doubled back on ourselves and tried to find the Ezaki Glico marathon runner, a picture which was meant to be popular with tourists, and is owned by the same company (Glico) which owns popular Japanese snack foods- Pocky and Pretz amongst other things. However, we were tired at this point, and subsequently unsuccessful. So for us, Osaka was a bit of a let down. Granted, we didn’t see everything the area has to offer, but we did what we could considering our location and the fact that our primary reason for going there was food. On that front, both of us were underwhelmed. I guess I wanted to write this blog entry to show that as much fun as we had when travelling, not everything runs smoothly and you won’t necessarily love everywhere you go (but if you do, I’m incredibly jealous). As a reader of other blogs, I know that positive cheerful blogs are normally the more fun read, and I do love writing those blogs personally, but I also want to record experiences as accurately as I can. Thanks for reading my Japan blogs- next I’m going to upload posts on the South Korea stretch of our trip, which was very different from Japan! We got the chance to see Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. As always- your continued support means a huge amount so thank you for reading!!!

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Amazing Arashiyama: the day that put a permanent smile on my face

Located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a beautiful scenic area, with some cute and inviting shops and restaurants, the magnificent Bamboo Groves and the ornate Path of Kimonos. Apparently there is also a romantic train, but needless to say my best friend and I were not particularly interested in that! From what is written on paper, Arashiyama seems like the perfect tourist destination but what really elevates it from just another attraction to something really charming is the ambience; amongst the sea of tourists are a good number of locals with ready smiles on their faces. School children weave in between us at the end of their day, queuing for street food and chatting animatedly. And any right turn from the main stretch leads to the more residential areas lined with houses (some of which have the most beautiful front gardens- there is a sense of pride in the way the owners are treating where they live).

But Arashiyama doesn’t deserve a brief description, or a rough bullet pointed list of what makes the place a good attraction to visit, so I’m now going to go into more depth about what we did, and why we enjoyed it. After lunch at Apprivoiser again (with it only 3 minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was too convenient and the food was too tasty for us not to make a return visit), we walked to Kawaramachi Station (in downtown Kyoto) and got the Hankyu Kyoto Line towards Umeda, disembarking at Katsura station. I’m pretty sure the station name has some anime reference, since my travel companion stopped to snapchat the station name, but I unfortunately have no idea what it is 🙂

We then got the Hankyu Arashiyama line to Arashiyama itself (note that there are multiple ways to get here, you can also take the a line to a different Arashiyama station, nearer to the Bamboo Path). Where we disembarked, we were only 5 minutes walk from the park and we greeted by bright sunshine and blue skies. So after removing the thick jacket and the thinner jacket I’d worn after a cold start that morning, we trundled merrily towards the park (I’ve no idea why I’ve used the word trundled, I think I just like how it rolls off the tongue).

Walking through the park was a joy; the Oi River glistened from afar, many people were out and about, basking in the sunshine and Mount Arash was standing dominant in the background.

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The River Oi and Mountainous backdrop

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Near the entrance of the park

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Another photo of the park from a different angle

We crossed a bridge (allowing for both cars and pedestrians) to reach the other side of the river, where the main Arashiyama café/shop promenade was present. We found the Bamboo Path very quickly, owing to my friend recognising the Mandarin character for Bamboo (apparently the same or similar to the Japanese one) and following the relevant signs. Though busy (as was to be expected) the bamboos were abundant and spectacular. Walking through the path, with the light peeping through the tall stalks and emerald leaves, was beautiful.

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Note that everything in Arashiyama shuts down by 4.30/5pm. I felt it prudent to mention this at this point because we planned to return to the Bamboo Path later on, when it had quietened down, but when we returned, it was pitch black and the central Arashiyama area was virtually empty. We therefore decided to head back to the train station instead.

But I digress, back to the path- we passed a temple called the Tenryu-ji temple (which translates to the Sky Dragon temple) and my friend said that this sounded promising. So once we completed the Bamboo Path (and came across a beautiful and largely ignored landscape a bit further down from the path) we doubled back on ourselves and entered the temple gardens.

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The largely ignored landscape at the end of the path

The gardens were pretty- full of a variety of trees (all with Wooden name plaques informing the visitor of breed) but did pale into comparison when thinking about Zenrin-ji Temple (see the Finding #Zen-rinji blog post for more information).

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An example of a wooden plaque giving information about the trees

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Some of the trees in the Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

Nonetheless, we found a very charming wishing pond full of coins and decorated with stone frogs, and right by the temple building, a large lake landscape which was gorgeous (and provided absolute justification as to why Tenryu-ji gardens are a world heritage site).

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The wishing pond                                               A temple building

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The lake at the end of the gardens

There are two slightly cheeky things about the attraction to note; Firstly, it costs 500 yen to enter the gardens and an extra 100 yen for the temple (which you have to pay separately). You can see into the temple from when you are viewing the lake, and since the temple itself wasn’t world heritage (just the gardens were) we decided against this (being the budget travellers that we are). Secondly, this was the only place I found that was charging 100 yen for toilet roll (that’s why tissues in a rucksack/handbag are such an important tool). With the amount of tourism the temple was getting, I felt this charge was a bit unnecessary.

Next we went to Arashiyama station (different to the Arashiyama Hankyu JR station we disembarked at) which was a tourist attraction in its own right. This was the prettiest train station I’ve ever seen, with a walkway called the Path of Kimonos next to it, which consisted of kimono patterned pillars in red, pink, purple and orange lining the pathway. At the end of the Pathway was the Pond of Dragon, whereby:

“Wishes are granted if the dragon that landed in Arashiyama is prayed to. If you immerse your hands in the water springing from Atago, your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness”.

So I did (being the superstitious type that I am, but also because I thought the sentiment of the water feature was nice) while my friend amusedly abstained.

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The train station                                                  The Path of Kimonos

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Holding water in the Pond of Dragon

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The descriptive sign next to the pond

We got hungry so I hunted for something to eat and… I failed (as was the norm in Japan at times). But my friend had a meat filled steamed bun, which he enjoyed, and I was in too good spirits to let the lack of vegetarian food get my mood down.

We browsed some shops, where I picked up a larger travel sized purse and we collectively looked at some souvenirs made from bamboo wood (nice, but a tad overpriced). We ate at an Italian restaurant called Akamanma that evening (just a bit further down from the main promenade of shops and cafes). The pasta was okay, but note that there are only two vegetarian options from a vast menu and the food is overpriced for a) what it is and b) the portion size. Nonetheless it filled us up. Walking back across Arashiyama, most of the district had been plunged into darkness bar a few lights, twinkling in the distance. It is definitely a place for the day as it sleeps by early evening but we didn’t mind- we’d covered a lot of ground that day. I found the place to be amazing, somewhere that set a very high benchmark for subsequent day trips we did from that point onwards. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, hop on a train there. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂

Finding #Zen-rinji Temple: initial impressions of Kyoto and exploring our favourite attraction

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When Japan was mentioned to me as a potential travel destination- my mind envisaged this image of absolute solitude in a beautifully sculpted Temple garden. And visiting Zenrin-ji temple provided me with that opportunity, though achieving this golden silence was not exactly easy, as I’ll explain later on. And choosing where to go is something that can also eat up a large amount of time- Kyoto itself is akin to a giant buffet when it comes to temples, which makes the situation especially problematic if you only have time for a couple of main courses 🙂

We started our first full day in Kyoto visiting Apprivoiser (see my veggie bites post for more information). Having left the restaurant feeling nicely re-energized, we made tracks to the downtown area of Kyoto, situated only 15 minutes walk away from where our hotel was located. The vibe in Kyoto is very different from that of Tokyo- for a start, the number of fellow tourists increases but not exponentially. You also need a state of permanent vigilance when it comes to bicycles racing across pavements, something which is not necessary in Tokyo (because everyone mainly walks their shorter distances). In addition, Kyoto fashion is far more “sexy casual” (as a floor advertising clothes in a Kyoto department store described) than Tokyo. Fashion in Tokyo is more diverse, but perhaps overarching more conservative. In Kyoto, it was more the norm for girls to wear knee high or thigh high boots, stylish cowl neck sweaters, cute mini dresses/skirts and brightly coloured but well-tailored mini coats. Perhaps this is a good time to note that both the Tokyo and Kyoto undergrounds carry signs like this one:

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A sign warning girls to beware of people looking up their skirt

So despite fashion being (in my opinion) really nice- I’d be lying if I said that such signs didn’t unnerve or concern me slightly. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t walk around with my travel companion saying “I love what she’s wearing, but I couldn’t wear that on the London underground” multiple times. However, by and large, Kyoto had an air of youthful vibrancy that the region of Tokyo we were staying (Ikebukuro, the business district) unsurprisingly lacked.

But I’m going to stop myself before I digress anymore- we were heading to downtown Kyoto in order to hop on a bus to get to the Eikando Zenrin-ji temple. The temple itself was the headquarters of the Jodo Sect Seizan Zenrinji Branch, and is a still fully functioning temple amongst the Jodo Sect of Shingon Buddhism, with the still fully-functioning temple element being important to us when choosing which temple to visit.

We got a bus from the central downtown area- with the temple name clearly displayed on the list of bus destinations. It cost only 230 yen for our entire journey, with our stop being something like the eighth stop on the line- but the experience itself was not particularly pleasant. It was bumpy, crowded and jolty, but it meant that I was clinging on to the handle falling from the ceiling with such intent that I realised my upper arms had received a complimentary workout. And in that respect, every cloud has a silver lining.

When we disembarked from the bus, we realised we had no idea where we should be heading. Despite there being a board nearby, nothing said “Zenrin-ji” only “Eikando”, and since trip advisor hasn’t posted the full name of the temple (Eikando Zenrin-ji temple), this confused us as we were worried we’d be heading to the wrong temple. Reassured by the fact that there would be at least one temple in the area we could visit (since the map was full of them), we nonetheless decided to ask around in a few shops before one lady guessed what we were getting at and pointed us towards the correct place.

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The sign which also helped us. A lot.

The part of Kyoto where Eikando Zenrin-ji temple was located fit my prior expectation of what Kyoto would be like far more than downtown Kyoto- this area had emptier roads, smaller dusty coloured houses, shops and cafes (although more of the former than the latter two options) and generally an incredibly communal, village-y feel that downtown Kyoto lacked.

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Entry to the temple was 600 yen each and it was absolutely stunning! Autumnal coloured leaves, majestic trees, sparkling water with little stone bridges above, a small fountain by the exit and beautiful brown and white temple buildings. Below are some of my favourite images from the temple.

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A temple building                                                       The bridge leading over the lake

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The view from the bridge                                         Another bridge leading to a shrine

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Autumnal leaves framing the lake

We enjoyed the peace (a school was nearby so we still had some background noise of children but this wasn’t disruptive per se). What was disruptive, however, was that we’d only been inside the temple for twenty minutes or so when what seemed like a tour group of Japanese businessmen arrived, completely killing the ambience with chat and noise. Like the other tourists present, we were not best amused, and we felt especially cheated since the same thing happened in Happoen Gardens in Tokyo (we had 10 minutes of peace before it was interrupted by a wedding). And I’m fully aware that I may sound a bit like the Grinch (in spite of it not being Christmas) but for many of these gardens in Japan, it is the silence that makes the place magical and ethereal, and allows you to feel a million miles away from reality but absolutely in harmony with nature.

We decided to move on from the Temple at this point. I’m not sure whether Zenrin-ji Temple has a marvellous policy whereby tickets allow for re-entry once you’ve left or whether the lovely women who sold us tickets simply recognised me and my friend and waved us back in (upon seeing our previously brought tickets) but after the Philosopher’s walk, myself and my friend walked back past the temple to get to the bus stop and saw the group of Japanese businessmen boarding a coach and leaving. We felt triumphant since this meant that we did get to return. But more on that later 🙂

The Philosopher’s walk was a pathway my friend wanted to try and had been signposted before we entered the temple. It was a long, gravelly walk, surrounded by grass, water and dark khaki trees, but we did see some interesting things along the path- a lady surrounded by cats who jumped for the ball when she held it up for them, an elderly man who drew the most amazing ink sketches of landscapes and then a coffee shop, mainly filled with locals eating mizo and noodles. We stopped there as we were in need of a little perk-me-up at this point; my advice is don’t- it wasn’t too great. My friend went for strawberry shaved ice (too artificial tasting) and I had an incredibly watery hot chocolate. I don’t actually think the name of the coffee shop was overly visible from the outside or I would have taken a photo but just avoid it if you are doing the Philosopher’s walk- I think it makes more sense to bring your own snacks.

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The view at the beginning of the walk                    The cat lady we saw on the Philosopher’s walk

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Moggy                                                                  The work of a Japanese artist sketching as we walked

Upon seeing the businessmen leave as we walked back, we returned to Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple and climbed up to a pagoda which was absent of people; I had a brief nap on a wooden bench (probably responsible for the subsequent insect bites on my leg despite having smothered myself in insect repellent). And I could do this, because the peace was magnificent- all we could hear was the birds tweeting merrily and, when we descended from the Pagoda, a gong being hit at regular intervals (about 4.30pm), symbolising the monk’s prayer time.

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The view from the Pagoda                                    Another view from the Pagoda

You may need luck on your side to obtain peace in the temple gardens but if you get it, than wow- be prepared to be amazed. Hearing the monks during prayer was an additional unexpected bonus and I left the temple feeling more mentally relaxed and calm than at any other point in Japan.

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The landscape at the exit of Eikando Zenrin-ji temple

Veggie bites: a few of my favourite eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto

Hi guys,

Building on from my last blog post (the struggle is real), I have decided to compile a list of my five favourite Vegetarian-friendly (and/or Vegan friendly) eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto. Osaka unfortunately does not rank as, although it was visited, we seriously struggled to find any palatable vegetarian places here.

So here are my top 5- I hope you find them somewhat useful 🙂

Number 5: Apprivoiser, Kyoto

This wholefood café scores points with it’s light, ambient interior, cute material covered menus and, most importantly, very yummy hot vegetable sandwich.  In addition, it was only two minutes down the road from the Rich Kyoto Hotel where we were staying. Although not providing an abundance of choice for vegetarians, they also offer a vegetarian curry and their breakfast menu offers granola as a veggie-safe option. The vegetarian sandwich itself varied in terms of ingredients both times I visited; both times the café used thick, fresh white bread but the first time, it was filled with seitan (a wheat derived mock meat) marinated in ginger and soy sauce and the second time, it was filled with sweet potato and other root vegetables (my favourite variation of the sandwich). For those of you that are happy to eat meat, my friend seriously enjoyed his croquet monsieur. They also serve a really excellent mandarin juice for those with a citrus sweet tooth.

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The café front                                                                                  Owl menus

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My first hot vegetarian sandwich                                        My friend’s croque monsieur

 Number 4: Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop, Tokyo

This dumpling haven may be a bit difficult to find but is a valuable needle in a haystack for any vegetarians in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Run by the most lovely Taiwanese lady who speaks some English and has an unbelievably comprehensive understanding of vegetarian and veganism (upon finding out I was vegetarian, she proceeded to check if I ate egg), food here is incredibly reasonably priced. You can grab a vegetarian set dinner or, if you eat meat, a regular set. This tends to include seaweed soup, sticky rice, a red pepper and egg dish and a selection of gyozas filled with whichever fresh vegetable ingredients the owner has in her kitchen. Jasmine tea is complimentary and since the restaurant is very small and narrow (with only two tables inside), takeaway is also an option.

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A vegetarian set meal                                                                 Mixed vegetable dumplings

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The boards lining the wall of the gyoza shop filled with food posters

Number 3: Café Matsuontoko, Kyoto

This completely Vegan café seems popular with locals and tourists alike; in spite of the dark, wooden interior, the food warms you up and impresses- so much so that my meat-eating friend considered the food to be “a stellar example of Vegan food being perfectly capable of tasting good”. Needless to say, you are spoilt for choice regarding the menu but the things I ordered when I ate there were the burger special (a teriyaki tofu burger with French fries and salad, my favourite dish there) the first time round, and a seaweed, potato creamy ragu pasta the second time I went. My friend went for a fried miso burger the second time we visited. Food is freshly made and tasty,  fusing Japanese flavours with Western dishes. and the café itself is not difficult at all to find (central to the downtown Kyoto shopping area).

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The outside of Café Matsuontoko                                          The burger special set (teriyaki tofu burger)

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Ragu Spaghetti (a Japanese twist on an Italian dish)

And finally, my friend and I argued about how to order these top two but you know, it’s my blog (I say in total jest… I have to be honest- both were excellent).

Number 2: Maharaja, Kyoto

Located near Gion Shijo Station, this Indian restaurant wowed in every way. Bollywood movies played in the background (I’m a fan already), the staff were really friendly and, best of all, the food was some of the best Indian food myself and my friend have ever eaten. Portions were ample, and I seriously over-ordered with a delicious garlic naan, cleverly spiced vegetable pilau rice and beautifully creamy veggie korma. My friend went for keema naan, butter chicken and pratta. He also enjoyed the Mango Lassi but I can’t say no to Singha beer with a curry 🙂 Note that the restaurant is at basement level but the sign outside doesn’t make it too difficult to spot. This was the first time I left a restaurant in Japan with a food baby.

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Garlic naan, beer, pratta and butter chicken               Veggie korma and pilau rice

Number 1: Falafel Garden

I can’t help it- I’m a total sucker for a good falafel and these were absolutely fantastic! Located down the road from Demachiyanagi station, this Israeli Café and Restaurant was incredibly popular with locals and became very full very quickly. Whilst this meant service at times was slow, the food more than made up for this. Falafels were the best I’ve ever had with a really lovely bite (I chose for mine to be served in pitta with salad and a homemade dressing), houmous was rich and flavoursome, the crispy pitta (though a bit oily for my friend) was spiced to perfection and the baklava bites we had for dessert were very yummy! Note that although this place is veggie-friendly as opposed to completely vegetarian or vegan, the menu clearly labels vegan dishes. Easy to find, good ambience, and a meal that kept me very satisfied despite not being able to find a restaurant to eat dinner in when I got to Osaka (thank goodness for Pringles and fruit).

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The outside of the restaurant                                                   Lunch falafel in pitta

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 Baklava

And if you end up in really dire straits:

1) Look for a nearby Irish pub. I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but as well as being guaranteed Guinness (if you like it that is, not for me but it is popular in Japan), you will get chips and onion rings. And when you’re hungry, beggers can’t be choosers.

2) Check out Brown Rice in Tokyo. I’m not saying the food here was bad because it’s not- it was fresh and well made. But it will leave you hungry, and the food is expensive for what it is. This is a vegan restaurant strutting around as a macrobiotic health food place, rather than a genuinely comforting place to get filling vegetarian or vegan food. Also note that the restaurant is hard to find- it is located behind Neal’s Yard Remedies in a rather plush area of Tokyo- Omotesando (we were there to visit Nezu Museum).

I hope that was of some help. This is just my own personal opinion, but Kyoto was by far the best of the three parts of Japan we visited in terms of catering for Vegetarians or Vegans. Incidentally, it was also my favourite part of Japan so if you like, keep an eye out for my upcoming Kyoto blogs regarding attractions there- I would be very grateful 🙂

Thanks for reading!!!

Spontaneous sightseeing in Odawara and watching Japanese football in an Irish pub

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If you told me that during one of my days travelling, I’d stumble across a strange place in between Hakone and Tokyo and, this being totally unplanned, would lead to one of the best days I’ve had in Japan so far, the organiser in me would have snorted. But alas, my friend and I found ourselves in this strange place called Odawara on a “travel” day (getting back from Hakone to Tokyo), decided to have a roam around and subsequently gatecrashed a festival filled with locals, saw a castle, and got drawn into a Japanese football game whilst eating some of the best pub food I have ever eaten. This is the story of the day that makes me smile the most out of all my “Tokyo days” (next posts will be on Kyoto). This was the day we discovered Odawara.

The morning started off really well- we were checking out of the Hokane Kowakien hotel and had some breakfast/brunch (a lot of days we’ve skipped this meal due to an early start or sheer tiredness). And this might sound really melodramatic, but being able to have toast with butter and strawberry jam was a total luxury for me (especially due to the struggle to find vegetarian food). And I caved into temptation and got an éclair. After my friend indulged in an overly cheesy pizza and we were both feeling nicely stuffed (again a contrast to the hunger pangs I’ve had at times in Japan), we walked to the local train station and hoped onto a train to Odawara, with the intention of heading straight back to Tokyo.

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We found Starbucks in Odawara with the intention of getting some wi-fi and looking up what we could do in this completely novel place. And we failed- there was no wi-fi in this branch. However, we soon stumbled across a map at Odawara station which listed some local attractions and my friend mentioned how the Soshu Odawara Castle rang a bell and maybe we should check it out? So we left the station and my initial first impression was… meh.

But then we walked on, and we found a brilliant bright orange building, an irish pub called Celts (my friend joked “we’re going there” and I laughed at the time), a café in a department store which served “safe” veggie food and finally, best of all, a gorgeous lake with a bridge leading across it and the sounds of people and music drifting from the archway on the other side of the bridge.

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A street in Odawara                                          The orange building brightening up our day

 

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The pub. More about that later 🙂

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Standing in front of the bridge leading to the people and noise…

Upon entering the archway, the dulcet sounds of a Japanese rock band met our ears. Heaps of local people were milling around-watching the band, eating, shopping and chatting to each other. Although we were obviously tourists, the people and ambience were incredibly friendly.

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Entering the festival                                           The Japanese rock band at the festival

My friend and I picked up a soda we had found at one of the festival stalls (the same kind of soda we had in Asakusa- see Tokyo Time Part 1 blog entry if interested) and meandered around the stalls which displayed an array of items including glass bottles (like cola bottles) shaped as vases and a number of kitchen items. Such items in particular were coveted by my friend, who said he would have brought them were he heading straight back to Hong Kong (our next country is instead South Korea).

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A gate belonging to Soshu Odawara castle in their garden/back entrance

It materialised that we had arrived at the Soshu Odawara castle through the back entrance. As we walked through the gardens, we came across these little fellas:

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Makes a change from Carp 🙂     

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 The pathway towards the main castle

We eventually came across the castle itself: a huge, cream coloured, Japanese style building.

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Soshu Odawara Castle- the first views you get

We paid 450 yen each for tickets around the castle and walked through a number of the levels. Exhibits were very interesting but photography was unfortunately prohibited in some places. We climbed the stairs right to the top of the castle and managed to get some pretty decent views of the Odawara area.

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Odawara from the top of Soshu Odawara Castle

By this point, we’d got hungry and because of how difficult finding vegetarian anything is in Japan, my friend suggested we head to the Irish pub. So, with expectations low (because I guess the patriot in me could not see how a Japanese Irish pub would be any better than a British or Irish pub) we headed to Celts.

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And yes, I was impressed. Very. I enjoyed the Japanese football in the background (although there were times where it was painful watching the teams play- very few goal attacks), I enjoyed my Gin & Tonic (there gets to a point where you don’t fancy Kirin beer) and most of all, we both loved our food. Who’d have thought chips covered in herb with a basil mayonnaise dipping sauce on the side would be such a comfort? Add to that some onion rings (for me) and deep fried mushrooms (my friend) and we both left the pub feeling very happy. The only slight downside is that you can smoke in pubs in Japan so, for me anyway, the passive smoking was not great. But it was a small price to pay for the friendliness and comfort food.

We headed back to Odawara station where were due to get the bullet train back to Tokyo (and yes, that impressed me too- less so my friend who had seen it before). Like the name suggests, watching the train travel past the station created a visual blur and the journey itself was rapid and pleasant.

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The bullet train in action

Having re-checked into where we were staying in Ikebukuro, we decided to go to Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop (veggie safe but with meat options according to Vegetarian app Happy Cow). This small restaurant (like a narrow shoebox) had two small tables squeezed into it, a kitchen and posters of glorious looking Taiwanese food. Also, the lady who owned it was amazing: super maternal and understanding. Anyone in Japan who beams upon hearing I’m vegetarian, checks whether I eat egg (I do) and comments on my smile  (bonus) is someone I become instantly grateful towards and fond of.

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The food board                                                                                My fixed meal

She brought out lovely Jasmine tea, made me a vegetarian fixed meal (650 yen) and my friend a standard fixed meal and we ate sticky rice, soy plum sauce, a red pepper, spring onion and egg dish and these amazing multi-coloured gyozas (filled with meat for my friend and vegetables for me). She refused to accept a tip and asked us to come back (which we did- the next day). It’s so lovely to meet people who genuinely take pride in seeing others enjoy their food (my travel companion- who is an excellent chef- also does this) and the meal itself provided the cherry on top of what was a really lovely day.

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Happiness 🙂

Getting Naked in a Japanese Hot Spring. Twice.

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The front entrance of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari

After our morning at Mount Fuji and afternoon at Owakudani sulphur pools and the Hakone ropeway (see my previous blog post if interested), we headed on to Hakone itself to try an onsen. In Japan, hot springs (or to use the Japanese term: onsen) are both prevalent and popular, and can include indoor or outdoor baths. There are also often sauna or steam room facilities located nearby and the hot springs themselves traditionally link to sulphur vents in the Hakone area.

Initially, the procedure of bathing in a hot spring sounds fairly akin to bathing in a Jacuzzi in the UK (at least it did to me at first). But in spite of some similarities, there are a few rules enforced in a Japanese Hot Spring which set the two apart; for one thing, if you have a tattoo (no matter how big or small), you are prohibited from entering a hot spring (or at least one which upholds traditional values, and most of them do). This is because tattoos are associated with gang culture (yakuza) in Japan. In addition, concerns over swimwear are irrevelant because bathing in a Japanese Hot Spring requires you to go completely naked. It is important to note also that the onsen are split by gender (an onsen for females to access, and a different hot spring for men to use).

The first onsen to visit was an onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, the hotel which provided our post-Mount Fuji tour accommodation. On the two beds in our room, fetching yukatas (blue and patterned) were provided, and people wear these around the communal areas of the hot springs.

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The hotel yukata. High fashion 🙂

Near entry, a sign specifies how you are forbidden to enter if tattooed, drunk or pregnant. For the most part, when I swim at my local public swimming pool at home, it is natural to change in a cubicle and for people to have a generally more conservative attitude regarding getting changed. Though swimming and bathing in an onsen are two very different entities, the Japanese women in the changing room had no reservations about being naked and there were no cubicles to change in. In spite of the sign outside saying that you should bathe “au naturale”, an Australian women I had met on the tour earlier in the day refused to take her white bikini off and seemed surprised when I complied with the onsen rules. But to be honest, you’re going to draw more attention to yourself in an onsen if you wear swimwear than if you don’t. And in the second onsen we visited (more about that later), you were explicitly forbidden to enter the hot springs wearing swimwear. I know this because another lady tried to take large towel into the bathing room instead of a small one (to cover up) and was told she was only allowed the small towel in the onsen. So I dread to think how the onsen attendant would have reacted if the same lady tried to enter the bathing room in a swimsuit.

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The “not allowed” sign in the second onsen, Oedo Onsen Monogatari

At Hakone Kowakien (the first onsen visited), the hot spring itself is a medium-sized rectangular pool, with glass windows on one side overlooking lots of plants. The pool itself was heated to 41.9 degrees Celsius and before entering the pool, you wash yourself using metal bowls dipped into warm water (in a kind of wooden washing station). The mood at this hot spring was much more quiet and relaxed, and there were only three other women bathing when I entered the onsen room. After twenty minutes, I was looking a bit lobster like (my skin reacts fairly quickly to heat) and I decided to get out of the pool. The washing station at both onsens involves sitting on a stall (in a line of women also sitting on stalls) and washing your hair and body using a shower head whilst seated. Each station has mirrors, and shampoo and body wash are visible in large cylinder containers. After that, you can either change back into clothes or back into your yukata to head back to your room.

My first hot spring experience, though not overly traditional due to being an artificial hot spring in a hotel, gave me an idea of what the onsen process was like. But the second hot spring we visited (back in Tokyo) was very different as well. This onsen was called the Oedo Onsen Monogatari and is the Thorpe Park of the onsen world (in my opinion). Though it appears to be catered more towards tourists with an arcade, food court, foot bath, relaxation rooms, complimentary green tea and photo booths (this is in the communal part of the onsen, where both males and females allowed), it actually had a large number of locals as well. Here, children can also bathe and entertainers put on shows for the children in the central communal area. The process begins with choosing your yukata (I went with for white with a pink and red pattern on) and selecting a coloured sash to tie around your waist (red was my favourite). Both girls and guys can choose between a range of colours and patterns. Next, you separate into female and male changing areas to put on your yukata (instructions are explicitly given on welcome leaflets regarding how this should be tied). I met up with my friend in the communal area and we went out to the foot bath (also communal) to chat and relax. We also had some green tea. Since pictures are allowed in the communal area of the hot springs, so below are some photos I took at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari:

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The communal area                                           The arcade just off of the communal area

We then separated into our respective hot spring changing rooms. The female changing room was far busier than the one at the hotel, with attendants here being very strict on onsen rules but also being very helpful towards the singular Western girl in the room (hi) who had no idea where she was going in this brand new hot spring facility. Similar to the onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, this one had a wooden stand full of warm water to pour over yourself before entering one of about eight potential hot spring pools inside a large hall. These ranged in temperature from 28 degrees Celsius to 42 degrees Celsius and also ranged in size- some are more like a Jacuzzi, others are the size of a small children’s swimming pool. The norm is to wrap the small towel you are given around your head when you are in the onsen (so it stays dry) and then to use it (I guess) to maintain some form of modesty when walking around (but it really isn’t a large enough towel for that to work- think the size of those face or tiny hand towels you can buy from Primark and you’re not far off).

The outdoor hot springs were my preference. Here, instead of simply being wooden pools, the bathing areas are surrounded by rocks and (again) plants, and the cooler air provides a nice contrast to the warmth of the water. Bathing outside was also far less busy, though this hot springs was generally less peaceful since many visitors were bathing in groups and therefore chatting whilst relaxing. Should you wish, you can also use a steam room but I’m not a fan so chose not to do this. After bathing for a while, I met up with my friend in the communal area. By this time, it was early evening so after a snack, we decided to head out to the foot bath again. Brief pause for something my friend noticed- you are not meant to enter hot springs drunk but the Oedo Onsen Monogatari facility serves alcohol in the communal area so technically that doesn’t really make much sense. But it’s good if you fancy a beer.

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The bridge leading to the foot bath stream         The foot bath stream

And the brief period of time we were outside that evening was a good moment within the Tokyo part of our travels. I had no camera with me and, without sounding lazy, didn’t want one (it lay locked in the changing room). I love taking photos (hopefully you can see it from my blog posts) but sometimes it’s better to just hold an image in your mind from memory. So I thought maybe I could describe the scene to you instead. The sky had transitioned from an inky blue nearer to black, and a wooden hut adorned with fairy lights held visitors who wanted Garra rufa (a.k.a. doctor fish or nibble fish) to eat away the dead skin on their feet (I know, not sounding that pleasant so far but bear with me please 🙂 ). Behind this cute little hut, a high rise building provided a reminder of Tokyo’s primary identity as an urban city yet in the foreground (which dominated most of the line of vision) lay vegetation and a stream of clear water. The path to walk along (or the foot bath) was adorned with different shapes and sizes of rocks, rooted into the ground and providing different levels of comfort and tension as you follow the bends of the footbath. Swirling above the rocks is water at a range of temperatures-from lukewarm to very hot- with the steam dancing under the small but strong specks of outdoor lighting. Wooden benches lined some parts of the foot bath stream and gentle rain drops cooled our faces as our feet and ankles were submerged in the water, hands gently holding our Yukatas at knee level. This was the literal calm before the storm, the beauty before the fury of the typhoon that we knew would hit Tokyo that night, and we sat under large clear plastic umbrellas (courtesy of the onsen) drinking in the ambience.

For 10 minutes, we sat in silence. It was gloriously peaceful. And even when more onsen visitors threatened to burst the bubble and joined us outside, talking and laughing in their groups, all was fine. Because this was just a little burst of energy adding to the oasis.

I could have stayed for hours but it was the more sensible thing to do to head back to Ikebukuro before the typhoon hit.

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The view from Oedo Onsen Monogatari (having left the onsen) pre-typhoon

Did I enjoy my two hot spring experiences? Yes. But were they a favourite for me? Probably not, although I know that the Oedo Onsen Monogatari was a favourite for my friend. It’s something to experience which is very typically Japanese and is rewarding for anyone who wishes to submerge themselves more into Japanese culture (and some very relaxing water).

Tokyo time part 1: Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree.

My second day in Tokyo (after a very pleasant flight from Hong Kong but a stressful first day of settling) allowed me to have my first insight into ancient Japanese spiritualism and religion via a temple visit (which I hope to experience more of in Kyoto) and gave me the chance to see 360 degree views of Tokyo, lit up and twinkling at night from an almost bird’s eye viewpoint (350m high).

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My friend and I awoke on day 2 in Tokyo with the intention of having an early start but in reality, we didn’t venture out into Ikebukuro (where we are staying) until late morning.

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Ikebukuro at night- this commercial area of Tokyo encompasses the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Here you can see it lit up at night.

Our primary form of transport that day would be the train network; we had brought a JR pass in advance (for up to 7 days, standard price of £165.50, free trains on the JR network and some buses). This was also an important purchase for us since we knew it would cover the cost of our train travel to Kyoto (our second destination in Japan). The first port of call was Asakusa, and to get here, we took the Yamanote line to Ueno station and then had to buy tickets to travel on the Ginza line (since this is part of the subway system, not the JR network).

*note, if you do have a JR pass, you can get a shuttle bus to and from Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa to Ueno station, which eliminates the cost of buying a metro ticket- we discovered this whilst in Asakusa*.

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Ikebukuro JR station                                                                                  Asakusa Metro Station

But enough on trains, we had a short straight walk from the station to get to the Senso-ji temple. The temple itself is Tokyo’s oldest temple, known to the people of Japan as the Asakusa Kannon and attracting over 30 million visitors per year.

Walking through the arch, you experience a riot of colour and noise as market stalls selling items as diverse as rice-crackers wrapped in seaweed, toys pertaining to superheroes and childhood and traditional Japanese-style fans and tea sets line the streets.

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The top of the arch which you walk through        At first sight: the shopping area leading up to the temple

The shopping area forms a kind of crossroads, whereby taking the north fork (if you are coming from around Asakusa station way), leads you directly to the temple. The weather that day was fairly warm, and my friend spotted a street vendor selling Japanese soda. To get the taste, the vendor drops a ball of flavour through a closed bottle top, which then lodges itself into the bottle as a result of the bottle shape and, according to my friend, it then “effervesces… or something”. He also asked me to write that, in his in own words, “he is not a scientist” 🙂

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Japanese soda pop!

Upon approach to the temple; shop stalls become slightly more tourist-focused. If you look up, you can see decorations which seem to resemble tree or tree branches (maybe they are real, I’m not too sure), resplendent in shades of peach, fuchsia, lemon and crimson. Prior  to entering the temple, you walk through another arch (red and gold) and soon come across an urn, with incense smoke rising urgently and weirdly, almost elegantly, and the opportunity to buy incense sticks from a stall to the right.

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The burning of the incense in the urn                                      The temple from afar

The purpose of the incense (reputedly) is to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like. Entering the temple, you can throw money into a ridged box and say a prayer. It is also possible to light a candle. Since photos are allowed, below is a snapshot from inside of the temple.

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The shrine at which people throw money (into the box below) and then pray

The temple gardens were also beautiful, and my friend developed a new obsession (see below).

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The temple gardens                                                                  The obsession- a loved fish  nicknamed “Diem”.

After the senso-ji shrine, we decided to try and get back to Ueno, where a number of museums are. However, by the time we arrived at quarter to five, everyone was shutting up shop (so to speak). We made the impulsive decision to hop on a shuttle bus which had just arrived outside where were standing in Ueno (near Ueno zoo and the shuttle was free as a result of our JR pass). The final stop- Tokyo Skytree

By the time we reached the attraction, the city had crept towards darkness and my hunger levels were at an all time high (being vegetarian in Japan is not all that easy- a blog post about that might be coming soon amongst other things). So we decided to have a look around to find a place that I was able to eat at. Eventually, we found a fusion café in Tokyo Skytree town (my friend had eaten fried chicken in Asakusa earlier) and since the staff were so polite and obliging (this seems ingrained in Japanese culture), I was able to eat spaghetti with soy sauce and seaweed. Skytree itself exists within a shopping village, and shops there are either cute, quirky and full of anime references or high-end/high street clothing and accessories brands. There are also food courts and restaurants. It spans over roughly 8 floors, with an east and west wing and a centre point.

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An anime shop                                                                              What caught my eye 🙂

Post-food, we went to the fourth floor to access the Skytree tower. The lift elevated to us to 350m high ridiculously quick, so much so that my friend (who’s not crazy about sudden changes in height) did not experience any inertia.

The views from behind the glass windows were like nothing I’ve ever seen before; Tokyo became a toy city, with flashes of gold light from buildings and darkness only arising from rivers, fields or the sky itself. Below are a couple of my favourite pictures from the observation deck:

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I’m also seriously proud of my friend (who suffers from vertigo) for standing on a sheer glass floor (with the drop from that height visible beneath it).

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The glass floor in question                                                       Having a little sit down in the most comfortable place

In the end, he may have left Skytree feeling tired, and I may have felt energized, but both of us thought Skytree was an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. At 2060 yen, it may have been more expensive than Tokyo tower (which is where we initially planned to go and is located in Minato, Tokyo) but in my mind, it is well worth the cost. The views are mesmerising, staff are so sweet and cheerful and it was a lovely way to end a really good day in Tokyo.