Category Archives: Places to Go

6 Tokyo Hoods I love But You May Not Yet Know

A "live" or concert house in Shimokitazawa

A “live” or concert house in Shimokitazawa

One of the tentacles (oh my God, someone please take away my keyboard) that’s keeping me trapped in Japan is the Tokyoness of Tokyo. In my time here I’ve been all over central Tokyo’s most trendy, grungy, ethnic, fashionable and upper class neighborhoods, but there are a few that I keep gravitating to again and again. Places such as…

Roppongi Hills/Midtown

Here me out. I know you know Roppongi, but it has this reputation as party city for expats, and while it’s true that in Roppongi you’ll find “gentleman’s” bars and the sleaziest clubs this side of a swinger’s hook-up, Roppongi also has this very elegant side, bordering on bougie (urban dictionary, look it up). I feel a bit under dressed no matter what I’m wearing whenever I go to the Roppongi Hills shopping mall, but that’s where you’ll find the best cinema in Tokyo, Toho Cinemas Roppongi.

There are also great (normal) bars and restaurants in Tokyo Midtown, so even if you don’t have set plans it’s easy to find somewhere to eat, or grab a drink. And Hinokicho park is a beautiful place to take an evening walk. It’s not just about the partying in Roppongi.

Ginza

Ginza is Tokyo’s “rich” neighborhood, though all the neighborhoods seem rich to me. And it’s true that if you want to go shopping out there, it’s gonna cost you a kidney or something. But drinking? It’s surprisingly reasonable. In fact there’s a well-known bar out there slinging 300 yen drinks (about $3 USD).  Ginza also has it’s share of wine bars and a lot of Spanish restaurants for some reason, but I’m not complaining. Far from it. In Ginza you’ll also find Star Bar, were I had some of the most expensive, yet well-mixed drinks of my life. Star Bar shuns the closed-minded conventions of the common man like “drink menus”. Psssh. You just tell the bartender what flavors you like and he’ll come up with something that suites your taste. Pretty fancy, huh?

Shimokita-Fish

Shimokitazawa Storefront Art

Shimokitazawa

Love this place. There are a lot of theaters and small clubs where indie artists put on concerts. It’s got this artsy “bohemian” (if we’re still using that word) vibe and that speaks to me man. In Shimokita you’ll find a ton of second hand stores, boutiques, interesting cafes and intimate bars. One of my favorites has a big, fluffy couch and fairy lights strung from the ceiling. There are usually street performers, and many of them don’t sound half bad. It’s a great, laid back place to just chill. In fact whereas I often under dress for Roppongi and Ginza, I overdress for Shimokita.

Takadanobaba

Student and poor teacher’s heaven. It’s near Waseda university, full of restaurants and everything is cheap cheap cheap! I like Cotton Club, an Italian restaurant that has a cute patio and great cheese pizza. And speaking of pizza, my favorite place in Tokyo, Sempre Pizza, has a branch in Takadanobaba. Their pizza is made in a wood oven and it’s about 600 yen ($6 USD). Compare that with Dominoes and Pizza Hut and the rest, where a small pizza is at least $10 USD in Japan.

Takadanobaba is also home to my favorite ramen/tsukemen joint, Menya Mushashi. There’s always a line to get in but I loooove their tonkotsu, or pork broth, tsukemen–which is like ramen except the noodles come on the outside and the broth is a lot richer, to me at least.

Marunouchi

View from the Shin Marunouchi Building

View from the Shin Marunouchi Building

Recently I’ve been hanging out a lot at the area around Tokyo station, specifically the Shin Marunouchi building. The top floor is dedicated to restaurants, including one of my favorite Chinese joints “So Tired” (don’t ask me about the name, I don’t know either.)

In Summer you can eat out on the patio and it has a stunning of Marunouchi area and Tokyo station. I really get that “Wow, I live in Tokyo” feeling whenever I come here.

Korakuen

KorakuenBeautiful. It’s got an amusement park right in the center of a metropolis, two of my favorite things ever. How can I not love this place? Korakuen is an entertainment complex that’s home to the LaQua shopping center, featuring Spa LaQua, a hot spring in Tokyo.

Koichikawa Koraken

Koichikawa Koraken

There’s also Tokyo Dome Stadium, and nearby Koichikawa Korakuen Garden, one of the biggest and most beautiful gardens in Tokyo. If you want to impress a date, this is a good place to take them.

How about you, are there any Tokyo neighborhoods you love, or want to visit?

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There’s Nowhere Like Nikko

Nikko is cradled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, and is famous for it’s natural beauty, most likely because it’s only 2-3 hours away from Tokyo’s concrete giants. In Nikko it seems no matter which direction you turn there are ranges covered in robust carpet of trees.

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Nikko is also known as a cultural hotspot, hosting some of Japan’s most well known temples outside of Kyoto. I visited Nikko’s famous Toshogu temple, but I won’t really be talking about it here, because I have to admit something: I’m done with crowded temples overflowing with tourists. A temple or shrine should be a quiet, sacred place and when there are too many crying babies and laughing people and line ups to go everywhere it turns me off, so I can’t say I was particularly moved by Toshogu. Chuzenji on the other hand…

Chuzenji

Chuzenji

When I first stepped on the grounds I instantly liked the atmosphere. The sun was struggling to force some grey light through the cover of clouds above, which threatened rain. Maybe that was why there were so few tourists milling around. A low, gong-like bell was rang out lazily from a tall, pagoda shaped tower. The scent of incense, to me the scent of prayer, rose up in wisps of smoke from an urn in the centre of the main square. Nikko-MonkMy friend and I joined about five or six other people on a tour inside the temple, led by a monk in blue. He explained the history of the temple and the gods enshrined there (all in Japanese), and then led us to an altar and invited everyone to pray. We all stood silent with our heads bowed. A sharp strike with a his stick on a bowl-shaped gong released a low reverberating chime. The sound was almost something tangible, almost breathable. I could feel it vibrating in my ears, feel it seep into my brain where, joined by the soothing smell of incense swimming up my nose, they coaxed my mind to be still for just a moment. This was the tranquil temple experience I had been looking for.

Next we tackled the senjo go hara hiking trail. At first, when I heard about the estimated three hour walking time, I didn’t want to go (Ugh hiiiiikiiing, but I’ll sweeeaaat). But it was highly recommended, so the original plan was that were were gonna do a half-hour mini hike, up to the next bus stop. But once we stepped into the forest and started the trail we decided to see it through to the end, and here’s why:

nikko-hiking

Even the sign at the start warning about bears couldn’t keep me from traversing this wonderland, and the hike was easy, more like a nature walk. There was a river to the left of us for most of the walk. and it’s soft bubbling made pleasant hiking music. But though the walk through the forest was beautiful, it couldn’t even hope to compare to when the trees gave way, and opened up onto the marshlands.

Nikko-Plains-1

No, that’s not a painting above, though at the time I had the dreamlike sensation that I was standing in one, the beauty is so unreal.

We ended the day with a trip to the Yumoto Onsen area. Here there are hot springs so close to the source of heat that there are vents with steam coming right up out of the ground, and the water smells like sulfur. After soaking in an outdoor tub at twilight, the mountains blocky shadows in the distance against a darkening blue sky, I both felt and smelled like a boiled egg. But my skin was tingling with the onsen’s magical powers.

I can’t recommend Nikko enough to any of you looking to come out to Japan. If you get the chance, go!

Kohama Island: A Hidden Paradise

Kohama Island has muscled it’s way into the top five most beautiful places I have ever been. This place is GORGEOUS!

Kohama 1

See? SEE?

It’s a small island near Ishigaki, Okinawa, which probably has more tourists than residents. Two resorts take up a big chunk of the Island, and I stayed at the bigger one, Haimurubushi. The beauty of Kohama island is that it’s not so crowded. I’ll admit, we visited the island off season, right before Golden week so I’m sure that had something to do with it. But it’s also not that well known.

There isn’t so much to do there besides relax, and that was fine with me. In fact one of my best memories of the vacation was lying in a hammock watching the sun turn the clouds orange as it set, the sounds of tropical birds calling, as if I was inside one of those “soothing sounds of nature” CDs. It was unreal. But we did get off our butts long enough to take a day trip to a sandbar to go snorkeling.

Kohama 2

It was such a chore, but somehow we managed

It was also fun to ride around the island to visit the one convenience store,, the site of the TV drama Churasan, and Mt. Ufudaki. The weather was perfect: warm but not humid. And the sky was so clear and blue, it just made everything on the island look so…happy. Riding around on the electric bicycle rented from the resort, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

Kohama 3

But the highlight of the trip? Stargazing, though it wasn’t easy to make it happen. Haimurubushi’s beach is about ten minutes walk from the rooms, which normally wouldn’t be a problem. But the path there is unlit, and surrounded by tall grass where all kinds of creatures quacked, and croaked and chirped and rustled, and we had only a tiny, blue lantern that cast moving shadows as its light it hit the bushes.

But my friend and I just laughed about how creepy it was, and how were were such big babies, that is until the bushes on the left side rustled, and then the right, and suddenly I remembered something about an endangered jungle cat that was supposed to live in Okinawa…

Heads down, it was all business as we speed-walked until we finally saw the lights that designated the beach’s seating area, and then heard the sound of the waves. And when we stepped onto the sand and looked up, it was worth it.

The sky was dusted with stars, so many I had to wonder where they all came from. Where they really just always there, impossible to see because of the city lights? We stared up in awe, the only sound the soft rush of the waves against the shore. Had we been living under this fairyland this whole time? And on top of that, the moon was red that night. It shone above the ocean like a ruby, leaving a shimmering, crimson ray of light on the water.

Paradise.

I would go back tomorrow if I could. So if you ever have a chance to visit Japan, and Okinawa, I highly recommend Kohama Island.

 

 

 

Why Fuji Q Highland is the best Theme Park in Japan

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It’s all about the roller coasters!

Now me, I’m a thrill seeker. I’ll pick up and move to a foreign country where I don’t know the language just because. I’ll prance around with Tigers in Thailand. I’ll eat foods I can neither identify nor pronounce. I even once told my mom I didn’t like her spaghetti and I could make it better. So when you tell me there’s a magical place that’s home to the tallest and scariest roller coasters in a Japan, a country well known for going that extra mile in whatever they do, well I’m like ‘Disney who?”

I’ve been wanting to visit Fuji Q Highland for the last three years and I finally rounded up a crew in this overworked country that had the free time to go. And…IT WAS EVERYTHING I’VE DREAMED OF AND MORE!

The very first ride we tackled was this feat of engineering.

Takabisha

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Let me introduce you to Takabisha, the coaster with an almost 90 degree drop. And you know what? That plunge wasn’t even the scariest part. It was going up. That slow ascension really gives you time to think about how if anything goes wrong you are totally and completely screwed. As the car goes up you’re lying back, staring at the sky, praying it reaches the top like it’s supposed to and doesn’t suddenly start back down instead.

Takabisha was a beast, but it was only the third scariest coaster in the park.
The Number two spot goes to…

Fujiyama

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No vertical drops on this one but it’s looong, for a roller coaster anyway. It had to be a good two minutes at least. The overall design was scarier too, with a lot of sudden drops.

But this last coaster…Jesus. If you couldn’t tell, I consider myself a kind of roller coaster connoisseur. Almost nothing genuinely scares me. Almost nothing. But this bad boy right here…

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Eejanaika

Eejanaika means something like “It’s all good” in Japanese.

NO IT’S NOT YOU LIARS! You are LYING!!

This one freaked me out. ME! Not only are you going along a track with already crazy drops, loops and twists, the seat spins! So you’re facing up, down, sideways, directions that are still theoretical, directions that haven’t been officially accepted by science yet. You’re flailing around at the mercy of Fuji Q’s engineers, and all you can see are flashes of sky, and track, and your feet up over your head, and life as you’ve lived it so far. It was insane. It was discombobulating. And it ended right before I was about to become that person.  The one who knows they’re a chicken and shouldn’t be riding coasters, but gets on anyway, maybe to impress his hot girlfriend, and halfway through the ride starts shouting “I wanna get off!”

And would I ride it again?

Hell yeah!

The Japanese restaurant where you catch your own fish

It was peaceful sitting there with my fishing pole and soft shamisen music playing in the background, but that bubble of serenity was soon to pop. Fish after fish swam right by my bait, but finally one was foolish enough to nibble. As his mouth closed over the little pink shrimp I yanked on the line. He wriggled and splashed in panic, but too late. Soon he was scooped up into a net where he spent his last living moments.

Sugoi! (Amazing),” cried the people sitting behind me in our big fishing boat as I stood with the fish in the net. I had a moment to admire my catch before the waiter took it away to fry it up.

At Zauo restaurant in Shinjuku, the first hint that this is not the usual dining experience is when you’re seated on a bench in what is essentially a giant fishing boat, surrounded by a moat filled with fish.

As close as you'll get to being out on the open sea in downtown Tokyo

As close as you’ll get to being out on the open sea in downtown Tokyo

For a few hundred yen, the staff will bring you a fishing pole and bait, and you can fish for what you eat. In fact, if you catch a fish you get a discount. However there are no throwbacks: you catch it you eat it.

Even if you manage to pull this bad boy

Even if you manage to pull this bad boy

I’ll admit it: catching my own fish, and watching it struggle and die, was kind of strange…bordering on disturbing. If you’re squeamish or sensitive I wouldn’t recommend it. Still, someone’s gotta kill it, right? And this way the fish is guaranteed fresh.

Fishing-Caught-a-fish

Forget Catch of the Day, it’s the catch of the *second*

So if you’re looking to try something unusual, (possibly a bit disturbing) yet entertaining for dinner try fishing at Zauo. The location I visited was on the ground floor of the Washington hotel in Shinjuku, but there are more locations throughout Japan.