Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Japan: Tokyo Part Two

Odaiba is a large, artificial island located in Tokyo Bay, southeast of Tokyo city. Constructed in 1850, its original purpose was to act as a fort. Daiba literally translates to fort in Japanese. Fast forward more than 100 years later and the island is now a bustling shopping and leisure district, intended to be a futuristic architectural space.

teamLab Borderless
  • Opening hours: 10am-7pm, closes 9pm on weekends
  • Admission: 2400yen, extra for teahouse

If you have a couple of hours to spare, I would definitely recommend visiting teamLabs Borderless, a digital art exhibition created to be borderless world. A magical rendition of light, sound and colour travel into different rooms, interact with your body movements and communicate with one another. It's fascinating. If you're looking to capture a few memorable pictures, I would recommend wearing light coloured clothing as the projections are more prominent that way.

Although there isn't a map, if you're looking to view a specific exhibition, the friendly members of staff are happy to direct you. Some exhibitions require you to queue up and have a time limit due to their popularity, for example, the Instagram-famous Crystal World and Forest of Resonating Lamps.

Make sure that you wear comfortable footwear and movable, breathable clothing as there's a room called the Athletic Forest where you can bounce up and down on a trampoline in the Multi Jumping Universe and race through the Light Forest Three-dimensional Bouldering climbing frames. You will get hot, sweaty and thirsty but don't worry, you can find a vending machine selling recyclable aluminium water bottles with teamLab Borderless written on it. A nice little keepsake that you can re-use.

Before entering the Athletic Forest, you will find the En Tea House. Never has a cup of tea been so immersive. Once the teacup is placed in front of you, flowers will bloom inside of the cup. As you pick up the cup and take a sip, the flowers will scatter in all directions. The more tea there is in the cup, the bigger the flowers. The more you sip, the smaller the flowers will become until they completely disappear along with the last drop of tea. If you don't like tea, you can have a similar experience with a scoop of ice cream. The tea house has an additional fee to visit.

Make sure that you book your tickets in advance as the museum is quite popular and by pre-purchasing a ticket, you're guaranteed a spot and get to skip the long ticket queue. Also, remember to download the teamLab app before visiting for more information on each exhibition.

Diver City Tokyo Plaza
  • Opening hours: 10am-9pm

We got hungry and decided to hit up a shopping mall for a quick bite. There are different ones located in Odaiba e.g., Aqua City, Decks and VenusFort, with each having their own quirks. However, we decided to hit up Diver City so that we could see the 65ft unicorn gundam statue located outside. A 1:1 scale replica, it was huge! Four times a day you can watch him transform from the the unicorn to the illuminated destroyer. These shows take place at 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm so if you're in the area, I recommend stopping by for a quick look.

To fill our tummies, we visited Sojibo, a halal certified restaurant which carries yummy dishes including duck, soba noodles, tempura and curry. Located within the shopping centre, there's also a Daiso (100 yen store) where you can purchase snacks and other relatively cheap souvenirs. 

Oedo-Onsen Monogatari
  • Opening hours: 11am-9am, closed once a month after 11pm for maintenance 
  • Admission: depends on day and time, between 2100yen and 3044yen

If you want to relax after wondering around all day, Oedo-Onsen Monogatarai is the place to go. Reminiscent of the Edo period, you're transported back in time to traditional festival where you can walk around in a colourful yukata, play games to win small prizes and soak your feet and body in the abundant hot spring pools.

Admission includes the entrance fee, yukata and towel hire, lockers and changing room usage and the baths. You get given a wristband which you use to rack up a bill on things like food, drinks and additional services such as spa treatments. I highly recommend carrying some coins for the vending machines and to use the full body massage chairs located in the quiet room. Worth every single yen.

When you first enter the building, you have to put your shoes in the lockers at the entrance. Make sure that you're wearing clean socks! At the till, you're given a wristband which has your locker number on it and get to choose what colour yukata you want. Men's and women's changing rooms are separate and I can't account for the men's facilities but in the women's, there were large mirrors with beauty lights, blow dryers, creams, lotions and other bits and bobs. 

Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it! I was struggling to wear my yukata and asked a nearby Japanese woman for assistance. She realised that my belt was too short and swapped one her kid's belt for mine. I was extremely grateful. Oh, and make sure you remember to keep your underwear on under the yukata. My partner mentioned that he felt a little breezy until I reminded him and he had to pop back into the changing room!

I was too nervous to strip down to my birthday suit however, I still got to appreciate dipping my toes into the foot bath (ashi-yu) which is surrounded by a traditional Japanese garden. There are pebbles embedded into the 50m hot spring river and they really hurt stimulate your feet so tread carefully!   

The entire place has a very wholesome vibe. There are couples, families and groups of friends soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying themselves. I recommend grabbing some some snacks and a cup of (free) green tea/water from the main area and heading into the Nakamura-Za, a room with tatami mats and tables and simply people watch. I spotted a few locals who had a few too many cups of sake and were snoozing away on the mats. 

Fyi, there are free shuttle buses that takes you to and from the onsen located in different areas in Tokyo e.g., Shinjuku, Shinagawa and others. At the end of our adventure, we joined the queue outside of the building and hopped on. It's as simple as that. 


Thursday, 16 April 2020

Japan: Tokyo Part One

Tokyo is a ginormous metropolitan city which is located in the Kansai region of Japan. With a population of over 9 million, the city is divided into 23 special wards. I think of them as boroughs in London, or mini cities, but who knows if that's correct. The wards are then made up of various districts with interesting sights to visit. You could spend months wandering around the streets of Tokyo and still not even scratch the surface as to what the city has to offer. Some things to consider:

  • You definitely need to rely on Google maps to get around to get to where you want to go
  • The train stations will be hectic a little lot of the time. Try to avoid rush hour as much as possible and know which exit to take from the platform
  • There's food and shopping experiences everywhere. Be like me, shop until you drop and eat until you're in pain 
  • When it rains, you will find it difficult to manoeuvre around crowds of umbrellas. Didn't pack one with you? No problem, hit up the local convenience store (konbini). There's only over 10,000 of them
  • You will lose money to claw machines but continue to play them anyway. Try and hit up ones that other patrons have recently played on
  • And last but not least, you will yearn to go back as soon as you step foot back onto your home turf. Sorry but it's inevitable 

I tried to split up my time in Tokyo based on the wards so that I was able to hit up all of the popular spots in that area however, no avail, there just wasn't enough time. Guess that means I'll have to go back to visit the places on my itinerary that I didn't get to this time round.

On the first day in Tokyo, I stayed at the b asakusa hotel which is conveniently situated near all of the hot spots in Asakusa. You're able to experience the atmosphere of 'old Tokyo' in this area.

Nakamise Dori
  • Opening hours: 10am-5pm 

Nakamise is a famous shopping street which you can walk down to get to Sensoji temple. It's approximately 250m and has vendors on both sides of the street selling souvenirs, yummy snacks and sweets. I indulged in fried sweet potato, hello kitty shaped taiyaki and kibi dango from Asakusakibidango Azuma, mini dango on a stick, covered in soybean powder which gave it a delicious nutty flavour. 

Be warned, it can get very crowded so if you need a quick breather, take a step into one of the side streets around nakamise where you will come across more shops selling traditional goods such as wooden combs and chopsticks. When these shops are closed and have their shutters pulled down, you can see all kinds of beautiful street art which include drawings of geisha and samurai. Take your time to explore the area and soak in the atmosphere.

Sensoji Temple
  • Opening hours: 6am-5pm for main hall, October-March opens 6.30am
  • Admission: free

Sensoji is the oldest buddhist temple in Tokyo. Dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of mercy and compassion. Apparently, two brothers caught a golden statue of Kannon when fishing one day. They tried to get rid of it numerous times however, it kept coming back. They decided to keep it and showed it to the chieftain when they returned back to their village. The chieftain was a devout Buddhist and decided to build a temple to house the statue and so, Sensoji was born.

To most common route to get to Sensoji is by walking through Kaminarimon, or the thunder gate. The gate houses a large lantern and two statues guarding the temple, the god of wind and the god of thunder and lightening. On the way to the main hall, you'll come across:

  • A beautiful, 5-story pagoda 
  • An ablution fountain with houses a bronze dragon statue
  • A large incense burner which is thought to treat and purify ailments if you rub the smoke over your body
  • A few shops selling trinkets, goshuin (stamps to signify you have visited a specific shrine/temple) and omikuji

Omikuji are fortunes which can be bought at temples and shrines. They're usually in Japanese however, the one at Sensoji is also translated into English. You have to pay the fee of 100yen, shake a container filled with sticks and slot one out through the small opening. Each stick has a number written in kanji on it so you have to match the number to one of the drawers nearby. Put the stick back into the container once you've retrieved your fortune. Hopefully you'll be luckier than me - I got bad fortune - twice! When this happens, you have to fold the piece of paper and tie it onto the gate or tree nearby so that the bad fortune doesn't follow you home. My partner also received a bad fortune and when tying it up to gate, he almost broke it...

The main hall closes at night time however, I do recommend visiting the grounds which are open all hours during dusk as the area is beautifully illuminated.

Tokyo Skytree Town
  • Opening hours: 9am-11pm, varies depending on activity 

Tokyo Skytree Town consists of:
  • Tokyo Skytree: a 634m tall observation deck which gives a panoramic view of Tokyo. Costs between 2000-4000yen depending on the type of ticket you purchase
  • Tokyo Solamachi: a shopping complex at the base of the tower. You can find the usual department store fashion stores and boutiques, restaurants, basement food halls and character goods including the Pokemon store and Jump store
  • Sumida Aquarium: a modern aquarium with animals such as penguins, seals and jellyfish

I decided to try my hand at the gachapon machines within the Tokyo Skytree Pokemon store and was rewarded with a cute Pikachu figure in a swimming doughnut. I've yet to test whether or not it actually floats in water.

In the basement food hall, we treated ourselves to some cheesy takoyaki, a jumbo-sized prawn tempura and a bunch of grapes for £25. They were the most delectable grapes that I have ever consumed. Plump, sweet and juicy. We found that they tasted better with the skin peeled off. The food hall had other hidden treasures such as square fruit. Why, I hear you ask? Because Japan, that's why. 

Yakiniki Panga
  • Opening hours: 11.30am-2pm, 5pm-8pm, closed Sunday

The best meal I had in Japan. Finding halal food in Tokyo can be tough but to find halal meat wagyu of this quality?  I would return a thousand times to this BBQ restaurant, that's how delicious it is. Juicy, marbled wagyu served with an assortment of pickles, salad and sauces. Simply dip it into the sauce, grill for a few minutes (don't overcook it!) and eat over rice.

I kick myself over the fact that I only ate here once on my trip. You definitely have to make a reservation in advance as it's a small shop with a few seats. As we were being seated, there was already a queue forming outside.


Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Japan: Osaka

Osaka is Japan's second largest metropolitan city and of course, has an energetic and bustling night life, bright LED billboards and more food than you could ever stomach. It's actually known as the nation's kitchen because of it's plentiful delicious offerings. Apparently, there's a local expression, kuidaore, which means 'to eat oneself to ruin.' I feel personally attacked...

  • Opening hours: 24hrs

The heart of Osaka, Dotonbori is a vibrant and colourful area which can be best appreciated at night. A gastronomic wonderland, it's packed full of street food vendors, restaurants and izakayas (bars). Some of my favourite dishes sampled include:
  • Takoyaki: one of Osaka's iconic dishes, Takoyaki are savoury, wheat-dough which are grilled and filled with the creamy dough mixture and a chunk of octopus. Tako = octopus, yaki = grilled. The portion of takoyaki is then garnished, usually with dried bonito flakes, dried green seaweed, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. However, there are plenty of variations available. From cheese toppings to BBQ sauce, you won't get bored. 

  • Baked cheese cake: have you ever seen those videos of jiggly cheesecake? Well, they originate from Japan and I was able to finally get my hands mouth on these freshly baked delicacies from Rikuro Ojisan. Using cream cheese from Denmark, these super soft, moist cheesecakes have a layer of raisins at their base.

  • Melon pan: such a beautiful creation. Seeing characters in anime shows eating it, I always thought it was some sort of melon flavoured bread. Well, it is bread but it has no melon taste. Instead, it has a crispy, sugar-cookie top. The 'melon' comes from the criss-cross design which is thought to resemble the rind of a melon. Creative.

I stayed in Namba which is a 10 minute walk away from the party so when I came back from my day trips to Kyoto and Nara, I was able to enjoy the multitude of tastes that Osaka has to offer before heading off home.

Kuromon Market
  • Opening hours: 8am-6pm, different vendors have different hours

Located nearby to Nippombashi station, this market was first established in 1902 and since then, approximately 150 vendors have set up their shops and stalls to supply the locals of Osaka with fresh fish, seafood, fruits, vegetables, confectionery and more. I did find that the prices were a little inflated which could be due to the influx of tourists over the past several years. Regardless, there were still lots of local folk visiting the market and going about their weekly shop for supplies.

During my quick visit to the market before catching (and missing) my train to Tokyo, I was able to sample some:
  • Grilled, candied pineapple and sweet potato. The pineapple was juicy and delicious however, the sweet potato was sickly sweet
  • Dried fruits. Perfectly moreish, highly recommend buying some as gifts for others, or yourself
  • Grilled lobster with cheese and garlic butter. Tasty but not worth the price we paid for it
  • Orange juice, fresh from the orange 
  • Eel which was re-heated in the microwave. Not a fan

Osaka Aquarium 
  • Opening hours: 10am-8pm
  • Admission: 2450yen

One of the world's largest aquariums, this aquarium is home to over 600 species including spider crabs, penguins, jellyfish and whale sharks. The 8 floors are divided into different exhibitions e.g., Gulf of Panama, Japan forest and Antarctica to name a few zones.

I ended up spending several hours at the aquarium, taking snaps of the fascinating creatures, eating whale shark ice cream (ramune and vanilla flavoured) and absorbing the breathtaking view. I was able to observe feeding/cleaning time multiple times at different enclosures which made me feel that the animals were being well looked after.

Before leaving the aquarium, I popped into gift store and fell in love with a soft, cushiony, super-chubby seal plush. Osaka aquarium has become famous for their larger than life ringed seals. The most popular seal is Yuki-chan who is said to resemble a large, squishy steamed bun however, my heart was set on Arare-chan, the oldest ringed seal at the aquarium who is known for her sweet smile. I ummed and ahhed as to whether I really needed a £50 giant seal plush and decided yes, I definitely did. The cashier was kind enough to get a sealed (lol, get it? sealed) one from the back but damn, this chonk was hard to stuff into my luggage.

Daimaru Umeda Store
  • Opening hours: 10am-8.30pm, closes 9pm Friday and Saturday

Daimaru is a popular chain department store in the Kansai region. This particular department store can be found as Osaka station.Yes, you don't even have to leave the station to fulfil your shopping desires. From fashion boutiques and restaurants to Sanrio and the Pokemon store, you can spend hours here. But you haven't heard the most exciting part yet. Go down the escalators to the basement floors and low and behold, you will find a food paradise.

The food hall at Daimaru is called 'feast paradise' and I can see why. Bento boxes, baked goods, fried foods, delicious sweet treats and more. You can also find some 'luxury' fruit at the food hall. Fruits in Japan are already expensive however, there is a tradition of gifting luxurious fruits to others and that comes with a higher price tag. A melon I found in this department store was going for 16,200yen which is approx. £126!

As you can see, all I pretty much done in Osaka was eat and eat until I thought I was going to burst. My suitcase isn't the only thing that left Japan a couple of pounds heavier!