Asakusa: Beauty of Sensōji Temple

While we were leaving Tsukiji Fish Market area she suggested to go to Asakusa (Pronounced Asaksa). For me anyway it didn’t matter where we were going to because I was sure that was going to be a surprised, because as I said in a previous post (see First Time in Akihabara (With Mari) – First Day in Japan), I didn’t know anything about Tokyo.

As soon as we arrived at Asakusa, Mari took me to see Sensōji Temple. Inside the entrance there were many traditional Japanese food stalls in both rows of the way towards the temple. All those food stalls gave me an impression of real Japanese culture that have been passed through generations and generations.

Food Stalls

The food stalls impressed me a lot for different reasons. One of the reasons was because they all looked very colorful. Another reason was because they gave me the impression that I really was in Japan, in fact, they really looked very Japanese with all the Japanese characters written above the food stalls. Another reason was because there were so many people walking along the way and stopping to buy some of the delicacies that they were selling. Another reason was because there were many girls (18-20 years old about, maybe more or maybe less) that were selling food in most of the food stalls.

Each food stall was selling different food, much different from the food stalls found in UK or in the Western countries in general. I was so glad to be there in that country that I loved for so many years, even though I had never been there before. The food that the food stalls were selling was made fresh on the spot. Some of them selling chicken such as yakitori, others selling sweets made with rice and others were selling other kinds of food.

I remember that at the end of the stalls there was a gate with two paper made (I don’t know how to call them) balls that were hanging from the ceiling (one of them is part of the background photo of the blog, also see below), one in each side, they were red with white stripes with written something in Kanji and Katakana characters. The pathway was in the middle. I decided to took photos because they looked so beautiful and interesting.

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The Paper Balls (I don’t know how to call them)

After the gates there was a square with a big open temple at the end and a tall pagoda on the left. I really loved that place because it looked so traditionally Japanese, I would love to go there every day because it would relax me and would make my heart warmer (like I was feeling at that moment).

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Asakusa Temple from outside
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Asakusa Temple (View from Corner)
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Me in front of Asakusa Temple

When I reached the temple I decided to go inside to have a look. As I can remember, I think I wasn’t allowed to enter properly inside the temple. Anyway, I remember that I took photos of the temple inside and at the ceiling. Then I went to have a walk around. The overall environment is to beautiful. I took the photo at the pagoda near the temple, at the trees and at everything that was surrounding the temple.

After that we decided to leave and grab a coffee at Starbucks. I didn’t really want to go to Starbucks, I had preferred go to a Japanese style cafe’ rather than going to Starbucks, we just went there because I needed internet and I knew that Starbucks would have provided it. While we were going to look for a Starbucks, we had to go through an arcade of shops. At first we couldn’t find it and then I saw a McDonald and I said to Mari:

– Look, there is a McDonald, if a McDonald is there it means that Starbucks should be nearby.

I was right, Starbucks was like 30 seconds away just round the corner and across the road. However, that Starbucks provided wi-fi only to Softbank customers (Japanese mobile phone provider), however, we had already spent the money for the coffee so we stayed there for a little while.

After leaving, near the Starbucks I saw a statue of a man in Kimono  in pose and I could see Tokyo Sky Tree not far away, then decided to take a photo with the man in Kimono and giving him a high 5. Then we left to the next next place…..)

Tsukiji Fish Market

As soon as I woke up and had a shower at the Ryokan after my first night in Tokyo, I went down the stairs at the reception. The lady that could speak at least 3 languages greeted me and presented me with the breakfast before going to meet Mari again. I really cannot remember what I had for breakfast because I am writing this post one 1 1/2 years after the experience. Anyway, after the breakfast I picked up my ruck sack and left the Ryokan greeting the lady.

While I was waiting for Mari at Yotsuya station, I noticed that the few western tourists (or residents) were wearing the same white safari hat, I was wondering why, probably because of the sun (it was really hot in Japan those days) but I decided not to wear anything like that and be myself with my Oakley shades, t-shirt and Jeans.

After Mari arrived, we headed to Tsukiji. Tsukiji is famous because there is the biggest wish market in the world, even though I just heard that few months ago they shut it down and moved it somewhere else. As soon as we arrived we found that the market was closed, so we decided to ask around why it was closed. They said because Sunday is the only day that the fish market is closed.

However, we didn’t leave the area. We decided to stay there and go to a restaurant to eat some sushi and sashimi. While we were walking to find a restaurant, we also realised that in that area also the most of the restaurants are closed, however we still managed to find one, and according to Mari, that restaurant is actually quite popular.

We entered the restaurant, Mari asked me if it was OK to sit at the counter and I answered that was fine to me. Then we looked at the menu before deciding what to order. While deciding, Mari told me that she couldn’t eat some of the fish because she doesn’t like them, I don’t have any of those problems and I will tell in a blog I will write down in the future what fish I had when I went to Osaka and if I will remember I will do a link from here to there. Anyway, we both decided to order sashimi.

When the sashimi came to the counter where we were sitting, the sashimi was just looking amazing. I really loved looking at the sashimi because it looked so good and so colourful so I decided to take a photo at the sashimi. I really would had loved to eat that sashimi all day long and everyday (this is what I was thinking before eating it). Both of the sashimi dishes ordered were on a bed of rice.

When I started eating it, I realised how good it actually was. It was so tasty and I really wanted to order more but I decided not to be greedy. So we just had one dish each. Anyway, the sashimi was not really cheap and we ended up paying 3000-4000 yen each (£17.50-£23.50 each or $29-$39). I wanted to save money because I might need them to do something else.

After eating we left the restaurant and took a photo outside together in front of the restaurant and kept the photo as a great memory. Then we left Tsukiji and headed to….(day 2 continue on the next post)…….

Second Day in Japan

To the top of Tokyo Tower and buying Tokyo Banana

Before I went to Japan, the only thing that I knew about Tokyo was the existence of Tokyo tower, which I did a brief research few days before my departure on Google photos just for few seconds, so I knew more o less how it looked like. It was already getting dark and me and Mari went from Akihabara to Kamiyacho Station and from there we walked for about 10 minutes to get to the most beautiful tower I have ever seen: Tokyo Tower!!! At first I thought that the tower was on a flat ground, instead was on a tiny hill that made the look of the tower even more impressing. It was so beautiful to see the illuminating red color of the tower in the evening, where everywhere was dark, the tower gave the area surrounding something special.

Tokyo Tower

After finishing to admire the beauty of the tower, we decided to enter and inquire about the prices to get on top. They had two prices option, the first one was to pay to get to the white box half way of the tower, the other option was to pay to go to the top to the round part to have a better view and to do that we had to pay first to get to the middle part. We decided to do both!!! (I can’t remember how much we paid in total but was around 1,600-2000 Yen. Once we were in the middle part we could see that we had an amazing night view and started taking some photos. We could see the most part of Tokyo, Tokyo by night is just amazing with its tall building illuminated made the whole scenery even more amazing.

Tokyo Tower View 1

  Tokyo Tower View 2

I have already been amazed by Tokyo during the day but during the night was also amazing if not better. Unfortunately, the battery of my phone went flat while we were in the middle part of the tower and I couldn’t take any more photos. ;(…… When we went to the top the view was even better because we could see more and also we could see better what the tall buildings were hiding behind. I realised recently that if we were going during day time on a nice day (as it has always been through my travelling experience before getting to Beppu) we could have seen mount Fuji. I reckon that going to Tokyo Tower during day time I could have seed a different aspect of Tokyo. I suggest everyone to try to go to Tokyo Tower both during the day and during the night.
While we were leaving, we saw a shop on the bottom of the tower that was selling souvenirs (omiyage – おみやげ in Japanese). We entered the shops and Mari asked me if I have ever eaten Tokyo Banana. – Tokyo Banana? What’s that? – I said and then she answered – Have you ever heard about Tokyo Banana? – No, as I told you I don’t know anything about Tokyo, because I want the whole experience to surprise me -. By the way, Tokyo Banana is a small sponge cake with the shape of a banana with inside a delicious banana flavoured cream. Mari then was surprised because they were selling the caramel version of Tokyo Banana, she didn’t know that was existing, she is from Tokyo but she was aware only about the banana version of the banana. Also the caramel version has the same shape. So we decided to buy both versions, each version for me and for herself. The photo below is the bag they gave us when we bought the Tokyo Bananas and the two different versions of the bananas (original on top and caramel below).
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After leaving Tokyo Tower, we decided to go to a restaurant. I cannot remember which area did we go and what we ate, the only thing I can remember is that we went to a traditional Japanese restaurant, we spent around 3,000 Yen each and I drunk Sake or Shochu (traditional Japanese style drink that has around 20% alcohol). At the restaurant we sat on the floor, as this is custom in Japan. I always wanted to eat in the traditional Japanese style, I ate on the floor few times at a Korean restaurant back in London, but never in a Japanese restaurant. The food was great and the restaurant was amazing. It’s a pity that I couldn’t take any photos because of the phone’s battery, otherwise I would have done.
After leaving the restaurant Mari and I decided what to do the day after (Sunday, 9th September 2012) and she told me that she was going to take me to Tokyo fish market in the morning, but that comes to the next chapter of the blog. Then she went back home and I went back to the Ryokan and I arrived just before midnight. After having a quick shower I plugged my phone to charge and I layed on the futon mattress on the tatami floor, I turned on the TV to see what they were showing. At the ryokan they had just terrestrial TV and it wasn’t very clear. I started watching a channel where they were showing anime, even though I couldn’t see it properly due to the quality, and it wasn’t long until I fell asleep (of course after switching off the TV).

Akihabara: The Electric Town

While walking around, Mari told me that Akihabara was also called the ‘Electric Town’ because there are a lot of shops which sell electrical stuff such as computers, phones, televisions and so on. In few words, it is an heaven for people interested in those things. Once we were walking, Mari showed me a big colorful building which sells electric stuff. From the outside, it looked like a building different from the standard building. This is because you could see the escalator path way from the outside that looks like a pipe. Something that seams come out from the video game ‘Super Mario Bros’. I do not know if the two main characters (Mario and Luigi) ever lived there, but one thing I realized was that the building surprised me.

Mari asked me if I wanted to have a look inside and so we did. On the ground floor they were selling phones. I was interested to buy a ‘pay-as-you-go’ phone because I knew that I would need it (11 months is a long period and I was planning to make some friends and having a phone would be very convenient to me to get in touch with them). Mari then told me that in Japan they do not sell pay-as-you-go phones and all the phones were with a contract, but we decided to go to the phones department to enquire about the options they were doing. We asked a man there and that man told us that they actually had two phones which are pay-as-you-go. They had one which cost ¥7,000 and another one which cost ¥10,000. The were not fancy phones, apart from calling and messaging it could also take low quality photos and get access to emails. They were not touch screen, but like a shell which when open there is a screen in the top part and a keyboard (not qwerty) in the bottom part, which included a button to access Yahoo! Mail and other buttons for few other functions. I did not buy it because I wanted to have time to think about it and at that point I had only few friends in Japan, all of them Japanese, Mari from Tokyo and Miki and her sister Chise from Nagoya. I had another friend, Noriko, from Kagoshima in the South of Kyushu, but she had been living in Canada for a while and married a Canadian guy and that was it. The phones in Japan differ from those found in the UK, they have a much wider selection of Japanese brands, such as Sharp Aquos, NEC, Toshiba as well as a wide selection of Sony. After looking at the phones we went to have a look around the store and I was surprised at the laptops because they look thicker and much heavier than those found in Europe. I do not know why they are like that, but it is interesting. We stayed in the store only for a short time before leaving to go to Tokyo Tower.

Akihabara’s Colorful Buildings

Anime Buildings

After we left the Meido Kissa, Mari and I went walking around Akihabara and she showed me some places. Akihabara is an amazing place with buildings that you can see only in Japan, some of them have a bright color such as the very tall Karaoke (カラオケ) building which the frame is of a bright red and large windows, the ‘Sega’ building (the company that produces video-games and produced game consoles) which is red and with their logo ‘Sega’ on the top part of the building and some other buildings which have large anime pictures on the front.

Akihabara's Red Building with Hatsune Miku's posters on the front and on the side
Akihabara’s Red Building with Hatsune Miku’s posters on the front and on the side

The buildings really impressed me because it is not possible to find anything like that in Europe and that made my experience even more real.

‘Meido Kissa’ experience

Kawaii!!!!!!!!!!

After we left the shop she asked me ‘Shall we go to a Maid Cafe’?’. I remembered she mentioned about the Maid Cafe’ when she came to London earlier in the week, I did a very brief research in London before heading to Japan but I did no go deep into the details because I wanted it to be a surprise. While we were walking on one of those streets of Akihabara we met a cute (‘kawaii‘ in Japanese) girl dressed as a maid and handing out leaflets about ‘Maidreamin‘ maid cafe’.

Then Mari asked me if I wanted to go there and I said that anywhere would be fine. That girl pointed where that maid cafe’ (or ‘Meido Kissa’ as Japanese call it, ‘Meido’ is how traditionally Japanese people pronounce English words by adding an ‘o’ at the end of each word and ‘Kissa’ is the short for ‘Kissaten’ that in Japanese means cafe’/coffee shop) was. It was just inside the building behind where that cute girl was standing. So we decided to head there.

Japanese Videogame/Manga

To get there we had to go through a short corridor and get the lift (or ‘elevator’ for American English or ‘erebeta’ for Japanese pronunciation) to the 4th floor. As soon as we arrived there I was surprised for two reasons. The first is that when we reached that floor with the lift there were no corridors or doors, just the erebeta’s door and the Meido Kissa was just there, the entrance of the Kissa was the erebeta’s door. Secondly, I felt very weird at  being at that place because it seamed like being inside a Japanese video game or a manga. The atmosphere inside was weird, I felt strange and I was wondering how can such places exist. This was just my first impression. As soon as we entered, a kawaii maid came to us and shown us where we could sit. The Meido Kissa was not big but had many people inside and all of them (or almost) were Japanese male customers.

Childish?

As soon as I went inside the Meido Kissa I realized that the girls were speaking with an accent that to me resembled how children talk, that made the experience even more weird and strange. After seated, a kawaii girl came with the menu on our table with different options and different set menus. The selection was not wide, they had three choices of food, three different kinds of cocktails, including one that is non-alcoholic, and the third option that included having a photo taken with one of the kawaii maids of my choice, a plastic folder with Maidreamin printed on it and something else which I forgot. We opted for the set menu. I had Japanese style rice omelette (omorice), one of the alcoholic cocktails and the photo. Mari instead had Japanese curry, alcoholic cocktail and the folder.

What am I saying? (Embarrassed)

When the food came, and given me the omorice, the Meido that was serving us came with two different kinds of sauce and she said to me that she was going to draw a picture on the omorice with the sauces. She did it in an entertaining way and she drew a kitty on my food. Then she said that we had to say a magic phrase (in Japanese of course, I didn’t have a clue what I was saying and if I was saying right) to make the food taste nicer. But we had to say it together otherwise it would not work. At that point I felt embarrassed but I played along because it felt funny and interesting.

Learning Experience

This place was probably the only place which I encountered culture shock throughout all my 11 months in Japan, but at the same time I found that experience as a part of learning about the Japanese culture. I did not dislike that adventure at all, I really found it very interesting and amusing at the same time, and also the way that the Meido were treating the costumers was just unbelievable, something that you cannot find anywhere else in the world outside of Japan.

Magic Cocktail

As for the cocktail, we had to say again the magic phrase. But at that point I was starting to get used to the experience. When we finished the meal and the drink, the Meido came with the folder, which Mari gave to me, and asked me to have a photo taken. They said that I could take the photo with two of the Meido of my choice, so I chose two of the most kawaii that were working there. We took a Polaroid photo together in a funny pose, I was in between of the Meido. Our overall experience lasted for about one hour, they gave us a Maidreamin Loyalty Card called Dreamin Passport (just before leaving) and then we left.

Anyone can go

That was the most unique experience I had all my life. I really enjoyed that experience and I suggest everyone to go to a Meido Kissa in Akihabara if you ever travel to Japan. I am sure that you will love it. Also children and girls/women can go there because is not an erotic place even if though the girls wear a sexy costume. It is a place where to have fun, at least once in a lifetime, with good humor and nothing rude!!!

 

First Time in Akihabara

How can a Japanese person could possibly speak Italian?

When I went back to the Ryokan at around 2.30, the lady that owns the Ryokan was there and after saying hello (she could speak English very well) she asked me ‘Are you Italian?’. I was surprised that he knew where I came originally from, I asked her how she knew my country of origins and she said she saw it from my passport, which I gave to her when I first entered the Ryokan in the morning. The biggest surprise was when she started speaking to me in a very fluent Italian and she told me that she learnt Italian while she was working for Alitalia, she has been working for the airline for 30 years.

Waiting for Mari

At the moment I felt a bit tired and sleepy so I soon went to my room resting while waiting for Mari. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. At around 4 PM someone woke me up by knocking my room door. I found it difficult to wake up but I managed through my hard effort. Was the lady at the Ryokan that told me that my friend Mari had arrived. I got changed and went downstairs and I greeted her just in a normal way. This was not because of Japanese culture, but because I had seen her 5-6 days earlier in London because she was there for business. Every time she came to London, either on business, holiday or living there, I kept telling her about my wish to go to Japan. And that was the day.

 

First destination: Akihabara

I was very pleased to have met her there and she also told me that I finally made it to go to Japan. After the greetings she asked me what I wanted to do and what I wanted to visit. At that point my mind was blank because I knew I didn’t do any research or what so ever about Tokyo or Japan in general. This was not because I was not interested in Tokyo or Japan, but because I know for experience that if I do a lot of research before travelling, everything I visit is not interesting and therefore I do not get surprised. At that moment I said to Mari ‘I do not know anything about Tokyo, please surprise me!!!’. I have to tell you that she actually did!!! She then said ‘Let’s go to Akihabara’. We went to get the train together at Yotsuya train station and we headed to Akihabara.

AKB48 & Gundam cafe

 

After coming out from Akihabara train station she took me to a square and she showed me a building with two shop on the first floor (ground floor for European people, from now on I will tell the floor number in Japanese style) and then she said ‘That one is ‘AKB48 cafe & shop’ and that one on its left it is ‘Gundam cafe’. 

I knew about Gundam was a popular manga and I was surprised they had a cafe’ but about AKB48 I never heard them in my life. Mari then said that AKB48 was a very popular group of singers in Japan. Then she took me for a walk inside the AKB48 shop just to look around for a minute. After that we left and decided to visit a ‘Maid Cafe‘.

 

Walking to and Around Shinjuku

Road map

After I left the luggage in my room at the Ryokan I asked for some information from the lady at the reception (she is also the owner) regarding where to go (not too far away from the Ryokan) while I was waiting for my Japanese friend Mari (we have known each other for about 12 years) she was meant to come at around 3 PM to show me around Tokyo more in detail. She suggested I should walk to Shinjuku and then gave me a local map of the area. I could not believe it I was in Japan.

Beauty of Shinjuku

After I left the Ryokan on the way to Shinjuku, I saw a traditional Japanese house with typical sliding doors (which at that time were open) and I noticed a man inside sleeping on the floor on a futon, this made my Japanese experience more real. It was not difficult for me to get to Shinjuku, apart from few turns at the beginning, the road was almost straight and I managed to get there with the help of my good sense of direction.  When I arrived there, I went around walking into some small street looking for the real Japan. I saw many interesting things there such as a building that from the outside is decorated like a jigsaw with a brown color, a restaurant with a giant crab moving above the door (I should have taken a video but I just took a photo) and other colorful buildings.

 

 

Real Japanese Essence

While walking around, I saw some tall buildings traditional Japanese with big signs, and I said to myself that this is the image of modern Japan and I wanted to go to look what was hidden through the small streets in between of each building, then I a crossed the road and went where I felt like I should go.

 

Through those streets I could see the real Japanese essence, however, not long after I was walking through those streets, a young Japanese man stopped me and said to me something in Japanese that I could not understand (is not that I could understand any Japanese at all anyway). I said to him that I did not understand what he said (in English of course) and then he said to me ‘sex, sex’. He could not speak English at all but I could understand that he meant if I wanted to have sex with a girl. I refused by saying ‘No, sorry’. At that point I realized that, without knowing, I ended up in the red light district of Tokyo (or at least the red light district of Shinjuku). Then I kept walking around and I saw more men like that and was still morning and afternoon had not come yet, let alone evening or night.

First Japanese meal ordered from food machine

After walking around Shinjuku  I felt the need to grab something to eat, I was in Japan and therefore I wanted something Japanese. At that point the time was 1 PM and I had to start walking back to the Ryokan so I could meet Mari. On the way back I looked at different restaurants that could please my needs and then I made my choice to stop to one of them. It looked like a place where busy people go there to eat something quickly and then leave. I was surprised to see that many restaurants like that one had counter service, customers seat at the counter and have their meal there.

Other two things which I was surprised was that, first, I had to order the food through a machine, put the money in and the machine give you the ticket to hand to the person that serves you in order to get the food, second, the food was very inexpensive, I had a bowl of rice topped with pork (probably pork belly) for a very reasonable price, of only ¥370.

At first I didn’t know how the whole system worked so I asked someone to explain to me with hand gestures because nobody could speak a word of English. One of the customers came and explained me with his broken English. Once the food was on the table I was surprised that they gave me only chopsticks and no spoon for the rice (in contrast with Korean culture that you get also the spoon as well as chopsticks if you get rice).

I thought to myself if I should order a spoon but then I said ‘I am in Japan and I do like Japanese people do’. Another thing which I was surprised was that I could also get water (tap water) for no extra cost and other drinks were not offered to me (I know that in nearby Korea people do not trust tap water and they always buy water by the bottle). The food and the tap water were actually quite good. After the meal I walked back to the Ryokan waiting for Mari to come.

 

Finally My First Day in Japan – Arriving at the Ryokan

Loved the Japanese style straight away

I left UK on 7 September 2012 from Heathrow airport in London with British Airways and I arrived in Tokyo at Haneda Airport in the early morning of the 8 September. Few days before I left for Japan I booked a room for three nights at a Ryokan (Japanese traditional hotel) in Tokyo, near  Yotsuya train station in the centre of Tokyo near Shinjuku. When I arrived at Haneda airport, I got the train straight to the Ryokan. From outside, the Ryokan looked like a normal building, the Ryokan’s reception was also nothing particular but as soon as I put my foot on the stairs to head to my room (I think my room was on the 2nd floor, 3rd floor for Japanese people, in Japan I later found out that the ground floor in 1st floor in Japan), the lady owner of the Ryokan stopped me and told me that I had to remove my shoes and wear the slippers in order to go up the stairs. This is the first part of Japanese culture. As soon as I opened the door for entering my room I said ‘wow!!! That’s really a traditional Japanese room!!! I love it!!!’

Traditional Japanese table with traditional Japanese chair in the room – Photo taken on 8 September 2012
As you can see, this is a traditional Japanese room from this Ryokan with a traditional Futon bed and traditional Tatami floor
Traditional Japanese room from the Ryokan with a traditional Futon bed and traditional Tatami floor – Photo taken on 8 September 2012

No time to waste

As you can see from the pictures it had a traditional ‘tatami’ floor (traditional Japanese floor) and ‘futon’ (traditional Japanese mattress-bed). I was so excited at the idea in sleeping in a traditional style Ryokan room, this is what I was waiting for many years, it was awesome, I slept on the floor before when I went backpacking in South Korea almost 10 years earlier, but never on a tatami floor and futon, However, even after a 12 hours flight and carrying heavy suitcases, I did not have the chance to sleep in that room at the Ryokan until later in the day, because I was still full of energies and I was in Japan and I wanted to enjoy my stay as much as I could, so I went out and check out what Tokyo was offering. I was so excited in being in Japan and I almost CRIED of joy!!!!!!!!!

I WAS FINALLY IN JAPAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Next Post: Walking to and Around Shinjuku