So this past January, I finally went on my first trip to Japan.
Okay, it was kind of my first trip.
Technically I have previously been to the country on a layover… but this time my passport says it was the real deal!
To provide context that reflects the nature and purpose of this trip, I went with a delegation of 20 other grad students and faculty as part of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MoFA) Kakehashi Project. This project is a year-round, multi-phase (or “slot”) program that facilitates exchange by both hosting students in Japan, and sending Japanese students abroad. I learned they even have a Nikkei (Japanese American) tour! Interestingly, my group participated during the Economy and Business slot.
After being selected on a lightly competitive basis, we essentially traveled and conducted fieldwork for 8 days in Tokyo and our assigned locale, Hyogo Prefecture – a dream scenario for a researcher and history nerd like myself. I had not been familiar with either location, aside from the stories I have been told by friends who have traveled or lived in these parts of the country. As you can imagine, this Nikkei kid was ready to ikimasu!
Regrettably, during this amazing journey I did not journal regularly – something I would change if I could do it again, nor did I spend enough time exploring Japan’s immaculately stocked drugstores, which I first read about some months ago in this low-down by Alyssa Reeder. But I will say that I managed to research the histories of places I visited (which you will learn about in accompanying travel posts).
In this spirit of wanderlust, I hope you will enjoy reading about my experience of these sites – and perhaps reminisce if you’ve been to these places – beginning with Tokyo.
TOKYO: January 9-10, 2017
After our 10-hour flight from SFO to Narita, we took a short and somewhat reminiscent drive (the night view on the Tokyo expressway from Narita kind of reminded us of the Bay Area?) to the Grand Palace Hotel in Tokyo. I was here for only two nights, but saw quite a bit of the popular night spots, thanks to friends who played tour guide!
Roppongi | On this first night here, I ended up in Roppongi, one of the most celebrated nightlife districts in Tokyo. We ended up hitting two spots near the Roppongi Station – an Italian restaurant for whiskey cocktails, and a famous yakitori spot across the street for dinner.
Joumon, beloved by travelers the world over, is famous for its perfectly grilled chicken skewers and its eclectic shochu selection – perilla, sweet potato, rice, and more – really too good not to post about!
I am a vegetarian, but was able to sample nearly everything that arrived to our table, from the seasoned cabbage with yuzu chutney and the grilled cheese, to the shishito skewers and (my personal favorite) the egg-filled okonomiyaki. I am also a fan of shochu, and between the sweet potato and rice shochu, the latter was a favorite among each of us – I keep telling people how it was truly “smoother than drinking water”! Would definitely return here, and it is noted as a family and foreigner-friendly spot, as well.
Tokyo Subway | Taking the subway in Tokyo was another experience that I had heard a lot about, but wondered how different it really was from the systems of other cities. To draw an analogy (though you are welcome to debate!), I found Tokyo’s subway system to resemble the NYC subway in terms of navigational layout, but it was as clean as – and even quieter than – Seoul’s metro.
Of course by the end of the night, in places where silence is the norm, it is easier to spot those who have had too many drinks. A passenger accidentally smacked her head against the window while sitting down between two guys, before producing a sandwich from her purse and eating it – probably more of an anomaly in the Tokyo subway system.
Kasumagaseki | On our first full day in Tokyo, we were out the lobby early to attend lecture sessions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Located in the administrative Kasumigaseki District, many government ministries and related residences are housed in the area, which borders a river and the imperial family’s palace. Interestingly, we were taken to a German restaurant, Ginza Lion, for lunch.
Akihabara | In the evening, we did “fieldwork” in Akihabara – Tokyo’s global electronics mecca. It was not as overwhelming as I had believed it would be, although a friend assured me that it is because we were visiting during winter and not summer. To be sure, it was an entertaining visit – I got in one taiko machine match inside a booming PC mall, stumbled down the main drag past anime shops and tax-free electronics stores, and had a productive conversation with my friend about the significance of it all afterwards. I’m not sure that I would bring children here, but there are no shortage of distractions if you are looking for a busy spot to hit up with gamer friends. There are also a number of cafes and low-key venues just off of the main strip if you need a break from the mind-blowing noise, lights and sounds.
Golden Gai / Shinjuku | Finally, on our “last first night” in Tokyo, I took a friend’s advice to visit a curious old bar district in Shinjuku. The Golden Gai District, about a 15 minute walk from Shinjuku Station, at first appears to be a series of dim alleyways, flanked by tiny bars that are literally stacked on each other. I later read that this area is actually a small holdout from the destruction of the 1920 earthquakes and WWII, and contains around 200 bars. I was not aware of the etiquette practices and ‘regulars-only’ culture that predominates in the Golden Gai, but we ended up in the right bar and made a few new friends throughout the night, including a hapa guy from LA, students from Australia, and our bartender from Okayama.
We rounded out this adventure with a search for yakitori grilled skewers. After we could not find the spot recommended by our bartender (Hajimeya, near the Godzilla building) and wandered into the seedier red-light area, we returned to the Shinjuku Station exit where the aromas of grilled something first wafted into us. I asked a couple more guys advertising for their restaurants on the street (yakitori-wo arimasu-ka?) to get to a friendly, busy restaurant where we were able to order shishito skewers, yakitori, and sake using my broken Japanese. I have met only warm people in Japan!
TOKYO: January 15-16, 2017
Asakusa | After spending most of the week traveling in Hyogo Prefecture, we returned by shinkansen to Tokyo for the last day and a half of the Kakehashi tour. Afternoon fieldwork on our penultimate day took place at Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple and Nagamise – wildly popular on such a cold winter day!
Although I generally enjoy rolling around and coming across weird, unexpected spots when left to my own devices, I was about 60% focused on the specific task of acquiring furoshiki (printed tea towels/linens) as gifts for my Nikkei family members.
I came away with two beautiful sets, with complementary bag rings, and wandered around the alleys of the Nagamise for the next hour. There are many young couples and foreign tour groups who choose this venue as a photo op, particularly in front of Sensoji Temple, but I could see that it is also popular with locals who enjoy the winter festivities. Along these alleys, there are a number of cafes and delicacy shops (including one that sells butter coffee), clothing kiosks, drugstores, and when you get to the edge of the area, there are a number of rickshaw guys who would love to give you a ride around Asakusa!
Just a note: because a high concentration of tourists visit this area, most shops’ prices will be marked up, and many stores carry the exact same items – so it’s worth taking your time and looking at a wider selection of goods before purchasing. Cash is a necessity for the interesting hole-in-the-wall stops and fried street food vendors, as well. Also, it was here in Asakusa that I visited two Japanese drugstores, which I am reserving for a separate post.
Our last morning in Tokyo was nerve-wracking, as I was one of three representatives from our group that was chosen to present our experience to MoFA and the Kakehashi Project coordinators. The afternoon visit to Tokyo Bay was beautiful, though, and I felt a deep serenity (as well as a tremendous indebtedness to our incredible hosts!) by the time we returned to Narita for our flight back to the US.
It was truly a memorable winter that brought many of my aspirations full circle, filled me with gratitude, and instilled in me some sort of new electricity that I hope to channel into productive power this Spring throughout my final semester of graduate school.
Have you been to any of these places in Tokyo? Where should I visit next time?
xo Jackie Sakura
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